In the preface to his translation of the New Testament, Tom Wright says how important it is for each generation to keep working on new translations. I couldn’t agree more! Our language keeps evolving and our knowledge of first century Greek and Aramaic is also increasing. At the same time more manuscripts and portions of manuscripts of New Testament content are being discovered and compared to our existing manuscripts. I think it is both amazing and very reassuring that we continually encourage scholars to examine the veracity of the New Testament. The foundations of our faith are always open to scrutiny; what a good thing!
New translations also give us the opportunity to see the texts in a slightly different light, so I have really enjoyed reading The New Testament for Everyone for the past year or so. I came across a verse in Mark 2 that suggests a profound truth. Jesus had just said to a paralysed man, “Child, your sins are forgiven!” The Pharisees who were watching and listening grumbled to themselves that this was blasphemy. Mark goes on to tell us that Jesus knew “that thoughts like this were in the air”, and said, “Why do your hearts tell you to think like that?” He then went on to ask them if they thought it was easier to forgive the man’s sins or to heal him from his paralysis. So he made his point by telling the man to get up, pick up his stretcher and walk! This did not serve to change their minds; rather it hardened their fear and hatred of Jesus.
My thoughts were arrested by that question, “Why do your hearts tell you to think like that?” Jesus knows the truth that we are simply not objective creatures and we don’t change the way we think easily. No matter how much we think we are willing to recognise what is true and right and no matter how much we think we are willing to adjust our opinions to new information, we are very subjective and usually stubborn about what we think. We don’t readily listen or believe information that runs contrary to our existing opinions.
Do our hearts really tell us what to think? When he says, “your hearts”, what did that mean to them? I think it meant the way in which their lives were already aligned with certain beliefs and values. They were convinced that they were righteous because they had defined God’s laws in demanding detail and then had obeyed them fastidiously, or at least they appeared to do so. But by that approach, they had drained themselves of compassion, humility and love.
But Jesus came with a straightforward and very demanding message, “Repent! (change your mind); God’s Kingdom is arriving!” The change of mind that Jesus was commanding requires a change of heart, and a change of heart demands humility and courage.
My guess is that if you are reading this, at this point you are thinking, “But I am not like that”. That’s what I think too. My life is not aligned around a legalistic approach to pleasing God and, I am pretty pleased about that; maybe even a little self-righteous.
Nevertheless, however, it is aligned; my heart is telling me what to think. Is my heart right about everything? When I put the question like that, then I have to admit that I must be wrong about some of the ways I have aligned my life. Some of my values are at least deficient, if not wrong. Some of them probably need to change. I am just not aware of which ones should change.
Certainly values held by the majority of people change over time. We can find illustrations of that wherever we look. Think about some of our social values. When I was a child, it was assumed that the great majority of women would pursue home-making and motherhood as a career. Women who went out to work were often considered to be selfishly ambitious or irresponsible. Now it is considered old-fashioned and even unacceptable to think that way!
Think of all the heated subjects that seem to divide our Western world today: Brexit, climate change with its causes and cures, same sex marriage, differences and similarities between sexes, trans-sexuality; the list is very long! When these subjects come up in conversation, or are debated in our media, those participating or observing tend to divide along lines that are already well established in all participants. More facts and figures don’t seem to change anyone’s mind. Our “hearts” are already aligned according to a bundle of values and beliefs. It’s true that our hearts tell us what to think. Even scientists and journalists, who have (or used to have) a reputation for the objective pursuit of truth are subjective people whose hearts tell them what to think and write or say.
Jesus confronted the religious leaders with amazing evidence that they should change their hearts, but most of them would not. How do I avoid that hardness of heart, that harsh certainty that my heart is rightly aligned?
I think there are a couple of things that can help us keep soft-hearted. One is to make friends and stay friends with people who think differently than we do. We should also read, watch and listen to people with whom we disagree. Where possible, we should engage them in conversation to learn, not to win.
The way the early Church was organised also gives some insight. Jesus did not leave one person in charge. He left a team of 11, who then added the 12th. They were different personalities and had backgrounds that varied as much as tax collectors and fishermen. However, they had all been shaped by time with Jesus and that is the main thing they had in common. Soon others were added and they came from both men and women and from many different language groups, races and tribes.
Paul used the metaphor of a body to explain how it should work. We all need each other and the differences we bring. We have to make room for others to change and shape our hearts. We have to keep learning and growing in maturity, whilst continuing to be soft and ready to change.
There are many issues that can and do divide Christians today. Party politics, social issues like same-sex marriage, differing economic views and even theological or differences of Biblical interpretation can cause tensions or division. Like the Pharisees, we can become so set in our ways that we won’t consider any change. Our hearts become set and that makes for rigid thinking.
We should also remind ourselves regularly to be open to new information, even if it challenges an opinion we have strongly defended. We can choose to be teachable, to keep learning and growing.
Finally, we should remember to ask the Holy Spirit to soften our hearts and keep aligning and realigning our lives with Jesus. Loren Cunningham used to often quote a philosopher who stated, “Only the dishonest fear the truth!” I want an honest, teachable heart that recognizes truth and embraces it, even when it is painful!