How to Be Heart Smart
How does God want us to handle our desires that grow into demands? A simple alliterated outline provides a plan: recognize, repent, refocus, and replace.
1. Recognize the Ascending Desire
The first step is to recognize which specific desire tends to ascend to your throne, become a demand, and control you—and to catch it when it starts this ascent. Our goal is to become increasingly “heart smart”—to seize the first occasion of a rising desire and to call it what it is. The three tests mentioned above may help you: (1) Does it consume my thoughts? (2) Do I sin to get it? (3) Do I sin when I don’t get it?
You may also find it helpful to complete the following sample statements. Any of these can help you unearth your conflict-causing demands; together they can capture various nuances:
- “You must give me ____ or I’ll be angry at you or cold toward you or . . .”
- “If only ____ would change, I would be satisfied or content.”
- “If I don’t get ____, then I become depressed, angry, or anxious.”
- “What I think I need or I desperately want is ____.”
2. Repent of Letting the Desire Rule
Repentance is the frequent call from the Lord to those who struggle with sins in the heart. Here we must be keenly specific: For what do we repent? For our desires? No, the desires are not the problem. In fact, having desires is good—they remind us to pray, to submit ourselves to God, to seek godly directions, and so forth. We must not try to deaden, neuter, or deny our legitimate desires. Instead, we must repent not of the desire but of the “rulingness” of the desire, that is, the way it has begun to ascend the throne and become a demand. The desire itself is not the evil in view; it is the propensity for it to climb and take over that we must resist.
The desire itself is not the evil in view; it is the propensity for it to climb and take over that we must resist.
Whenever we consider repentance, we must keep one vital truth uppermost in our thinking. God always calls for repentance in response to grace already given. Joel 2 powerfully illustrates this truth.
“Even now,” declares the Lord,
“return to me with all your heart,
with fasting and weeping and mourning.”
Rend your heart
and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
and he relents from sending calamity. (vv. 12–13)
Here, in a context preceding God’s judgment, the prophet offers hope. While he calls for deep repentance—a thoroughly ripped heart that returns to God—verse 13 includes a key word we must not miss: “for.” To clarify this truth, I like to ask counselees which came first: the call to repentance (with God then becoming gracious to those who repent) or God being gracious (with repentance to be done in light of that)? Based on the word “for,” the answer is the latter. God does not become gracious only after we repent. He already “is gracious and compassionate,” and this becomes the ground that encourages us to come to him—whether in initial conversion or repeatedly in ongoing fellowship with Christ.
3. Refocus on God and His Grace, Provisions, and Promises
Third, we should refocus our hearts by resubmitting our desires under the throne of Jesus’s lordship and fastening our eyes on God’s presence and promises in our life. This includes a recommitment to please, adore, trust, and obey him. In a short, condensed insertion, James 4:6 puts it this way:
But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:
“God opposes the proud
but gives grace to the humble.”
4. Replace Sinful Responses with Christlike Graces
The final step is continual and ongoing. God calls us in progressive ways to replace the previously ascending but now resubmitted desires with fresh, ongoing replacements: relational graces (we’ll consider Eph. 4:1–3 and Col. 3:12–14 in chap. 7), good works (Eph. 2:10; Titus 3:14), and Spirit-generated fruit (Gal. 5:22–23; Col. 1:9–12). While the specifics must be tailored to each individual, they often include learning contentment, self-control, prayer, biblical peacemaking, forgiveness, godly listening, godly speaking, and the ninefold fruit of the Holy Spirit.
May God grant us all by his Spirit the kind of heart repentance that his Word commands.