A guy I know told me the story of his recent annual physical. He thought he was in pretty decent shape, but while being examined, the doc told him to lose weight, get more exercise and cut out some of his favorite foods. Apparently, his blood pressure was starting to sneak up on him and he didn’t even realize it.
Sometimes a checkup is surprising. We feel okay and we think our lifestyle is supporting our health fairly well, but then the doctor gives us a dose of reality. Some of us may walk into the appointment with confidence, only to have that deflated as we walk out. I thought I was in better shape. I didn’t think I had much weight to lose. Apparently, though we may even physically feel okay, sometimes things under the surface aren’t all that great.
Jesus Doesn’t Sugarcoat the Truth
Like our annual doctor’s visit, sometimes when we open God’s Word, the mirror it shows us of our hearts is just as surprising. God may use a passage to humble us or stop us in our tracks about what’s going on under the surface, deep inside us. As we read through the Gospels, we often see Jesus engaged in this reality check with people. Some of his interactions with Pharisees, his disciples, or even bystanders come across even as harsh. He does not mince words when pointing out wrong attitudes, expectations, or their hardness of heart toward the kingdom of God.
We read one of these examples in Mark 7:14–23 (ESV):
And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
At this point, Jesus is speaking to his disciples about the traditions and practices of the Pharisees and how they were concerned exclusively with outer appearance, not the heart. Jesus, in essence says, “You may look great on the outside, but the inside is nasty.”
As you consider the text above, it should sting a little . . . or a lot! It’s sobering to think that the root of the sins Jesus lists here are easily found in your heart and mine. And, I think if we’re honest, we might even want to push back a little.
Jesus, I know I struggle, but—thievery in my heart? And adultery? I know I’m a sinner and mess up, but I try to tell the truth. I try to serve. I don’t openly deceive and slander others.
Yes, We Are That Bad
But, as soon as we protest, we realize the source of our protest is pride—one of the sins listed by Jesus. As soon as we push back against acknowledging our struggle with heart-level sin, we’re reminded of how unaware we actually are of our natures and how we convince ourselves we’re not that bad (Jeremiah 17:9).
Let’s just take “theft” off the list and ponder it a bit more. Maybe this is one we’re just not convinced we struggle with. I mean, when was the last time any of us stole anything? I doubt many of us are planning a bank robbery anytime soon.
Consider this scenario, however: In our jobs, do we work every hour we’re on the clock? Or do we waste time dabbling on the Internet? Lingering in the break room longer than our break period? Do we steal some of those hours hanging out on social media, scrolling, liking, or posting? Have any of us gotten sucked into a YouTube black hole, wasting more than just a few minutes?
You see, we are thieves. It’s part of our sinful nature, but this is just one of many different ways sin can subtly manifest itself. In countless ways, we make choices that reveal our selfish bent and our mixed motives and our need for a heart check.
We Are Bad but Not Beyond Repair
This train of thought can be guilt-inducing, but that’s not the point. Jesus’s candor in Mark 7 is not for the purpose of shaming his disciples. He is trying to point out how needy they are, how much better he is, and why that’s good news.
Pride comes instinctively to our sinful nature, but it is non-existent in the perfect person of Jesus Christ. He doesn’t haughtily boast of his pure, righteous, sinless character. No—he illustrates the devastatingly sinful nature of our hearts in order to show us how we can be made new.
Yes, you and I steal time that was purchased by Jesus’ life, death, & resurrection. We scroll endlessly through social media platforms, when we should be using that blood-bought time for other things. We lie more than we realize, our thoughts are poisoned, our intentions are often misplaced, our priorities are off. Yes, the roots of all these sins are in your heart and mine, but Jesus nailed that list to the cross. We are that bad—worse even—but we are not beyond the power of the gospel. The good news is that in our place, Jesus lived the perfect life we could not live, and he died the death our sins deserve. Because he was raised to life again, we who trust in his saving work on the cross are given new life and new hearts, with a new nature that is controlled by his Spirit (Romans 8:1–11). We then have the power to live out of this new identity. As God’s children, we are in a process of growth and change (sanctification), where his character begins to grow in us.
Yes, we must be humbled by the reality of our sinful nature, but this is meant to lead us to turn from our sin and run to Jesus, our only hope of righteousness. We should strive in the power of the Spirit to live a life worthy of the gospel. And, let’s constantly remind ourselves that just as he cleanses us and makes us new, he will complete the work he started in us (Philippians 1:6).