Psalm 15 Who may dwell in the Lord's sanctuary?
Lord, who may dwell in your
There is a passage in the Bible that didn't say much to me when I was a teenager, but has grown on me over time. It is found in the Gospel of Matthew:
Let your communication be "Yes, Yes, No, No"; for anything more than this comes from evil. (Matthew 5:37)
Makes for a rather short conversation, doesn't it?
Looking back on my reaction to that passage as a teenager, I now think there is a very specific reason that it didn't speak to me--and even annoyed me. I loved to argue! I loved to argue about whether things were true or false, right or wrong, good or bad. And I especially liked to argue that what I believed was right. Most people didn't have a lot of patience for such arguments, but when I found someone else who liked to argue . . . well, let's just say that there were a lot more words exchanged than "Yes, Yes, No, No."
That was the problem. Letting my communication be "Yes, Yes, No, No" didn't allow for arguments! It allowed for the "Yes," and the "No," but not for the "Maybe so." And the idea that the "Maybe so" was from evil just didn't sit right with me.
However, as I moved through my teenage years and into my twenties, arguing lost its appeal. I realized more and more that it only erected barriers between me and the people around me. And I realized that it was very unbalanced toward the "head" side of things, and away from the "heart" side of things. The arguments were all up in my head.
That brings us to our subject for this morning: "Speaking from the Heart." Jesus focuses on this topic in our reading from Matthew:
Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. A good person brings good things out of the good stored up within him, and an evil person brings evil things out of the evil stored up within him. (Matthew 12:34, 35)
The Lord tells us that the things we say come from our heart. If our heart is good, the things we say are good; if our heart is evil, the things we say are evil.
What about lying and hypocrisy? Don't evil people say good things sometimes? And don't good people sometimes make mistakes and say bad things? Jesus was certainly aware of this. Some of his most powerful speeches railed against the hypocrisy of those who put on airs of being highly religious, but were inwardly selfish and bent on evil.
Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices--mint, dill, and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. (Matthew 23:23-28)
The Lord was well aware that there are hypocrites in the world--people who say one thing and believe another; whose hearts are evil, but who try to appear good outwardly.
The teachings of our church have something surprising to say about this. Yes, the good things done by a person who is evil at heart are often helpful to other people. But as far as the evil person is concerned, even if something he or she says appears good and true outwardly, it is really evil and false because it is being used for selfish purposes.
An example might help. We have all been through the checkout line at grocery stores, hardware stores, and so on. Checkout clerks are trained to smile at the customers, be polite to them, to say "hello," and "have a nice day." Some clerks really mean it. They are happy to serve you, and really do hope you will have a nice day. Other's don't really mean it, but they know it is part of their job, so they put on a friendly face anyway. And some don't make much of an effort to put on a friendly face . . .
However, let's consider those who do give us the impression that they are happy to serve us. We experience it as a pleasant interaction, and it does contribute to our having a nice day. (Unless we have made other plans.) Now look at it from the checkout person's perspective. If that person actually does enjoy serving people, the friendly face will not only be a requirement of the job; it will be a real expression of what is going on inside of him or her. When that person says "have a nice day," it is heartfelt; so for him or her it is "the truth."
What if a checkout person doesn't really care whether you have a nice day or a lousy day? What if the checkout person only cares about the paycheck, and considers the job a lot of boring drudgery? When that checkout person says "have a nice day," it may have the same effect on us as we go through the line, but for him or her, it amounts to a lie. If that person said what was really in his or her heart, it might go something like this: "Here's your lousy groceries. Now get lost!" For that person, "have a nice day" simply isn't true--it isn't a genuine expression of what is inside.
This is not to say that it would be preferable for checkout people to speak from their hearts even if it means being rude to the customers. Social pressure to act in kind and decent ways does have its uses!
The problem is that if we don't at some point have a change of heart so that we can be nice to people because we really care about them, we are destroying ourselves from within no matter how nice we may appear outwardly. Sooner or later, we will no longer be able to keep up the pretense of being a good person. Perhaps in most circumstances we will be able to put on a civil exterior, but when some serious interpersonal challenge or conflict comes up, we will tend to revert back to what is really in our heart, and lash out against those with whom we are in conflict. Sometimes this happens in a sensational way, as we sometimes hear about in the news when some person who has always seemed perfectly stable and ordinary all of a sudden commits a terrible crime. Other times it is less spectacular; we simply lose our temper and start yelling at someone, or even take a swing at them.
If something like this happens, it doesn't necessarily mean we are a bad person. But it does mean that we have some work to do on ourselves. Even if that sudden outburst doesn't express our whole self, it does express a part of ourselves that is in there, and that is selfish--or to use a stronger phrase, that is evil. Part of the way we have been speaking and acting toward the people around us has been false, because we have been pretending that we care for them when we don't always.
One solution to this problem would be to stop pretending that we care for people. I don't recommend this solution! If we simply throw off all our social decency and act grumpy and mean when we feel grumpy and mean, we have allowed the evil that is in our heart to take over our whole self.
There is a much better solution. That solution is to change what is in our heart. This takes a lot more effort in the short run than simply giving in to our self-centered urges. But in the long run it leads to much more happiness, both within ourselves and in our relationships with other people.
Whichever course we take, we end out speaking from the heart. But when we speak from a selfish and evil heart, our words and actions lead to pain, anger, and broken relationships. On the other hand, if we speak from a good heart, even though we will still have to bear pain and anger from time to time, our words and actions will lead through the pain and anger to stronger and more loving relationships with each other.
How do we change what is in our heart? We'd better not get into that right now, or we'll be here all day! Perhaps we can delve into it at another time. Meanwhile, I think most of us have some idea of where to start on ourselves--and where we need to keep on working. After all, we've been living with ourselves for quite a while now.
As we do work on ourselves, we build up a conscience, which tells us when we are about to say or do something that is wrong, and what we should say or do instead. Our conscience may at times seem to be an annoyance, but it is really our heart speaking. And it is not only our heart--it is God speaking through our heart. When we listen to what God is telling us in our hearts, and speak and act accordingly, then we are truly speaking from the heart.
Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary?
Those who walk blamelessly,
Those who do these things will never be shaken.