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Podcast: Knowing Your Heart and When (Not) to Follow It (Craig Troxel)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Should You Follow Your Heart?

In this episode, Craig Troxel talks about the difference between a Christian and secular understanding of the heart, the heart’s spiritual functions and how we can think about them in terms of our minds, desires, and will.

With All Your Heart

A. Craig Troxel

This book reveals the complexity of the heart and what that means for how we understand sin and renewal, with principles for how believers can truly love and obey God with all that they are.

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Topics Addressed in This Interview:

00:48 - What Is the Heart?

Matt Tully
Craig, thank you so much for joining me today on The Crossway Podcast.

Craig Troxel
It’s good to be here. Thank you, Matt.

Matt Tully
As I was preparing to talk with you today, I was doing a little bit of thinking about the way that we often think and talk about our hearts. I think both outside of the church in our broader culture, but especially within the church, we do talk about our hearts a lot. We have phrases that we use a lot that refer to our hearts. It’s a common topic for us to be thinking at least a little bit about. But I’ve also noticed that, as I was thinking about myself, if someone were to ask me, Define exactly what you mean by the heart—particularly from a biblical or Christian perspective—what does that mean? I think I might have a hard time defining it precisely. You’ve been both a pastor for years and now you’re a professor teaching seminary students—have you observed that dynamic, that we use this language a lot but we don’t always know what we actually mean by it?

Craig Troxel
Yes. I think that’s an excellent place to begin. I think there are common conceptions in the church that we’ve gained from the culture, and then there’s conceptions we have in the church because the church has not discouraged certain understandings of the heart. One of them is just a Western idea of a division between the heart and the head. You see that even in our literature, and there’s a sense in which you understand exactly what is trying to be said, which is noble and praiseworthy. It’s better to have love of God in your heart than to have knowledge of God in your head. Or, theology should not be just for the head; it should be for the heart. Those are good sentiments. But that, technically, is not a right way of seeing it.

Matt Tully
Is it just the issue that we’re using the wrong words—we’re expressing a true sentiment but we’re using our own words?

Craig Troxel
Exactly.

Matt Tully
Because we’ve got the wrong words that we’re trying to use to communicate something that is true, does that ever lead us to incorrect thinking about things?

Craig Troxel
What’s incipient to that sort of thing is it’s almost this anti-doctrinal, anti-intellectual view of the faith—that knowledge is actually something that’s for brainiacs and that’s divorced from the heart. The real, sweet nectar of the Christian faith is about feeling and emotion, which is one of the things in the church that we kind of perpetuate. We’ve so heavily freight the heart with emotion and feeling—which is right. That’s exactly where the Bible says it is, but the Bible also says the heart is where we think. It’s the cognitive functions of who we are. Somebody has said our most noble functions are attributed to the heart, so that includes our thinking. You do see this tendency in the church—and especially in some segments of the church. I was not raised in the Reformed faith and I saw this is the church I was raised in especially where theology was considered almost unspiritual. So that has all kinds of problems.

Matt Tully
Maybe dangerous.

Craig Troxel
Very dangerous, because think of the person who’s really struggling with doubt. It’s a legitimate intellectual doubt. If we’re going to have this kind of anti-intellectual view of the Christian faith, what are we saying to these people who have these questions that are incredibly spiritual questions? But we’re saying, Yeah, but that’s just about theology. Maybe we’ll get into this in terms of how we define the heart, but you can’t put these different aspects of the heart’s functions into these separate, antithetical rooms where they’re completely divorced from each other. You cannot divorce your desires from your thinking or from your will.

Matt Tully
Do you ever get the sense that that’s what we often do? One side is going to emphasize the heart as our emotions and our affections for God being the most important thing, and then, maybe in response to that, someone more in our camp would say, Well, but theology matters. The mind matters. What you think about God matters, and maybe that’s more important. Do you ever get the sense that there’s this ping-ponging, reactive back and forth on the two sides?

Craig Troxel
Sure. I think it’s absolutely true. The Reformed faith has often been described as being rationalistic, or too heavily intellectual.

Matt Tully
Do you think there’s any truth to that?

Craig Troxel
I think there’s some. I think you have to put it into perspective. Like, who’s saying this? If you just take the whole continuum of the Christian faith, how many people are taking theology seriously at all?

Matt Tully
That’s probably not the biggest problem facing the Christian faith.

Craig Troxel
It’s not the only problem. I think the problem is that we’re doing a lot of heavy lifting. I guess the same would be true with who is doing a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to bioethics and the Christian faith—it would be the Roman Catholic church. But I would say the Reformed camp is accused of being too heavily intellectual, and I think that’s fair sometimes. Have we neglected other aspects of the heart? I think that’s fair. That’s not our tradition. That’s definitely not the Puritans and that’s not John Calvin. You can’t read John Calvin and come away saying that.

Matt Tully
So let’s unpack that a little bit. You’re saying that maybe modern Reformed Christians can be, at times, rightly accused of neglecting certain facets of the heart, but you’re saying that wouldn’t be true to the broader Reformed tradition in history.

Craig Troxel
True. Not true to Augustine. Not true to the Puritans, for sure. The Puritans, I think, are the ones who really worked with the grid that I describe in the book. That’s where I learned it. I’ve been reworking through the Institutes—the English translation of the 1541 French translation, his favorite—and it’s just incredible how early on the mind and the will come up. Literally, in chapter 1. He understands how important this is. There’s this awesome quote—I don’t have it memorized yet, so I can’t give it to you—

Matt Tully
Does that mean it’s coming? You’re working on it?

Craig Troxel
I’ll memorize it. Give me two hours. The theology that must be evidenced in our life—this is like what Paul says in Titus: truth according to godliness. Real truth expresses itself in godliness. It comes in this fruitfulness that manifests itself across our lives—the whole person. I’m getting a little bit adrift of the main question you’re asking, but my concern is that we not fudge the lines in terms of doing really good theology, but that theology—we should deeply feel it. It should come with tremendous passion. I said this once in a sermon: “Brothers and sisters, I just don’t believe this is true; I need this to be true. With all of my being, I need Christ as my substitute.”

Matt Tully
You need to feel that you need that.

Craig Troxel
I feel that, and it’s because I know my sin. This is not just theology. Theology, in the best sense, is something that—you’re using the word affections, which the Puritans would have used to refer to our desires. It’s this love I have for Christ and this deep gratitude I feel for him for what he’s done for me. And every Christian feels that, but they just need to understand that both spring from their heart.

08:36 - Three Functions of the Heart

Matt Tully
I want to jump into that. We already have been dancing around this idea that the heart is this multifaceted thing that encompasses maybe more than what we would typically realize. In the book you say, “The heart is a trinity of spiritual functions.” I wonder if you can unpack that. What are those three functions that the heart plays in our lives?

Craig Troxel
When you see the word heart in Scripture, your first instinct is that it refers to the unity—the totality—of who we are within. In that sense, it’s synonymous with spirit and soul and conscience in a person.
Matt Tully
So you would say we really shouldn’t be looking for different nuances in those words? When we see Jesus say, “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” he’s kind of just saying the same thing?

Craig Troxel
That’s like saying United Kingdom vs. Great Britain. They overlap. In that passage, he’s simply saying with all you are and all that you have. But heart, like those other words, it refers to the inner self. Those other words lack the nuance that heart has. With heart, sometimes you see in the context it’s clearly emphasizing the cognitive aspect of who we are—intellect. This is especially true in the Old Testament. In fact, where you see the Hebrew word lev and levav—I think it’s something like 528 times, or something like that—most often it’s referring to the cognitive element of who we are.

Matt Tully
So this would be like mind?

Craig Troxel
Yes, the mind of the heart. You see this especially in the book of Proverbs. You see the phrase, “lacks sense.” Literally, it’s “lacks heart.” So there are many times in the book of Proverbs where English translations routinely—you’ll see the word “mind” or “understanding”—it’s literally the word heart, but we wouldn’t—

Matt Tully
Unless you're reading Hebrew, you’re not going to see that.

Craig Troxel
You’re not going to see that. And the translators are caught in a tough spot because we wouldn’t naturally see that, and that’s part of the problem. So there’s the mind of the heart. The second would be the desires of the heart, or what the Puritans call the affections. This speaks to what I long for and what I want. And it includes all these synonyms like hungering for righteousness and thirsting for God (Ps. 63). These are the things that we love ultimately. It’s not just I desire; I really desire it. If I get what I want or I don’t, it leads to emotion. This is why the heart is always associated with emotion in the Old Testament, and in the New Testament, and that’s why people are right to gravitate towards that understanding. The third category would be the will—the volitional aspect of who we are, my decision making, my making choices. With the mind, it’s what you know. Your desires are what you love. Your will is what you choose. It’s my saying either yes or no. Here’s another category where people think they can opt out, but there’s no such thing. People think, I’m not going to make a decision. Well, you just made a decision. You decided that you’re not going to get in the game, but you’re actually in the game. You’re just standing still. So it’s my will stepping in to say depend upon either the strength, or the weakness, of that determination—yes or no. Those three represent the categories of the heart. That’s in conformity to not just Puritan theology, but modern scholarship. If you look at modern biblical scholarship, they’ll say the heart has these three-fold functions. This is not a new idea, it’s just that especially because of Greek philosophy we’ve seen a rift between the mind and the rest of the heart.

Matt Tully
I’m sure listeners will immediately start to sense that it’s hard to think of mind, desires, and will apart from each other. They are clearly interrelated and interconnected and can’t be extracted from each other. I do want to walk through them one at a time. Let’s start with the mind. One striking quote from your book is this: "If your heart principally does one thing, it thinks." Are we reading that right to say that you’re prioritizing the thinking—the cognitive side—of the heart above the others? If so, why is that?

Craig Troxel
I would say no, that’s not what I mean. It’s meant to be a little bit provocative because it’s so counter-instinctive. It’s not what people think, but it is true. One of the rejoinders I’ve heard a couple of times in speaking is, What about the brain?

Matt Tully
Yeah, how does that fit in?

Craig Troxel
Exactly. I’ve thought about this a little bit, believe it or not. I would say brain is hardware; heart is software. We’re not talking about your capacity to think. When it comes to how the brain works, I’m sure we don’t understand nearly as much as we think we understand about how that works.

Matt Tully
Clearly, the brain is involved in our thinking.

Craig Troxel
It’s clearly involved, and it’s your abilities—synapses, connections, whatever. I’m completely out of my league. But the Bible is not just interested in hardware, and this is true of being made in God’s image. Yeah, it’s there, you’re made in God’s image; but let’s get down to the software. What’s happening now? What kind of virus has impacted you? And of course, that’s sin. So the Bible is very, very concerned to show us that you trust your thinking a thousand times more than you should. The famous verse from Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things . . . who can understand it?” The next verse says, I, the Lord, understand. I see the heart. You and I don’t.

Matt Tully
No, we don’t understand our minds.

Craig Troxel
I am completely, on a regular basis, impressed by how capable I am of deceiving myself. I’m not right, as much as I think I am. I’m not seeing it clearly. But I think that capacity of the heart is so essential to see how it’s tethered to other things. It’s our ability to think, but the Scripture’s concern is about the trajectory of your thinking.

Matt Tully
I know you’re not trying to write on brain science and those kinds of things, but have you thought a little bit about how these concepts of the heart—whether it’s the thinking side or certainly leading to the desires and the choosing by the will—how does that fit with what we do know about brain science right now where we can see that physical trauma to the brain can actually affect our ability to know things, to think clearly, to make memories? It can affect people’s emotional states and their ability to control their emotions. Have you thought anything about that and how that fits in with even the metaphor that you use of hardware vs. software?

Craig Troxel
Only to this extent: that it’s connected. Eastern philosophy is really big on the mind and overcoming things with the mind. I think that’s not something we should shy away from. I think in terms of common grace it’s showing us something that I think the Bible would affirm.

Matt Tully
So the idea of overcoming physical things with the mind—

Craig Troxel
Yeah, and being able to overcome feelings of pain—the mind is incredibly powerful. Why would we be afraid of that? That’s exactly what the Bible says.

Matt Tully
They’re picking up correctly on a connection between mind and body that sometimes we split apart.

Craig Troxel
How do people get ulcers? Explain that. Well, stress. Where does stress begin? Well, it has to do a lot with your thinking. These things are tethered together, and I think that’s what the Bible is saying. Romans 1 brings this out so artistically. When a person is given over to their lusts—their desires and what they want—it just unfolds the futility of their thinking. Their ignorance, the darkness of their thought life and how every attempt that they have to look at the truth is distorted and incredibly errant. Part of the reason for that is it goes the other way around—there’s an agenda behind that thinking. There’s a reason why you don’t want to lose this argument. There’s a reason why you’re so angry at that person’s statement. It’s because I need this argument to go this certain direction, because I’m invested in it. It’s like when you tell a child—as I did once when one of my children was acting so angry—I said, What did you do? And they burst into tears. I knew they were not happy with themselves, and that’s why they were taking it out on everybody around them. It’s that connection—not being able to live with this thought of what I’ve done and how it affects others.

Matt Tully
Is there a certain priority, logically, to mind? Does how we think then determine how we feel and then how we choose?

Craig Troxel
There are a couple of authors—and there is one author in particular who is one of my mentors and whom I just greatly love—that in preaching they would say you want to begin with the mind. And then, let it trickle down all the way to the desires. I appreciate that concern.

Matt Tully
There’s a certain intuitive feel to that.

Craig Troxel
There is. The way I would rather put it is this: Whatever you do in your preaching, don’t bypass the mind. John Owen says, Where does Satan start in his temptation? Usually with the desires. This is kind of the way he appeals to Eve: Isn’t that fruit just wonderful? But he’s appealing to her desires. Before he’s really attacking the theology and what God says, I think it’s all wrapped up together. In the Reformed camp I know we want to say, or we feel like it’s more Reformed to say you start with the mind. Let’s get that figured out first. I think it’s an all-around approach. I think it’s different passages that you’re preaching or looking at—that’s not the order they’re going after. It might even start with the will and say, Why are you being so stubborn? Why are your heels dug into the ground? Is this really worth it? What does this say about where your heart is? You have no choice to start with the mind. I’m talking to you; I’m appealing to your reason. “Let us reason together, says the Lord”—the one time in the Bible he says that. He puts his arm around him and says, Okay, we’re going to try and look at this the same way. I need you to look at yourself the way that I look at you—which is an incredible thought. So, let’s say you’re preaching a sermon and you’re like, Okay, come on. We’re going to look at this together. I’m appealing to the mind. It may not be the object I’m looking at necessarily as just the mind. So I don’t feel like I’m in a hard position about where the starting point is necessarily.

19:46 - Desire and the Heart

Matt Tully
Let’s talk about our desires. As I was reading through the book I came across another section that really stopped me in my tracks and I actually want to read a little bit of it. By way of context, you’re reflecting on a time in high school when your football team lost the game. You were sitting there in the locker room afterwards and you were disappointed, but you weren’t super crushed by it and you were fine. You looked over and you saw a fellow player weeping at the loss. I’ll let you describe it. Describe how you felt in that moment and what that led you to discover.

Craig Troxel
It was when we lost to DePaul 7-0; it was in college. It was the tight end—Brian was his name. I felt ashamed.

Matt Tully
Ashamed that you weren’t as sad as he was?

Craig Troxel
My first instinct in looking at him was, Wow. This is football. You’re not supposed to be crying. I felt ashamed and asked, Why am I not feeling this loss? It hit me that I had not invested myself to the extent he had. I had held back. I had played a pretty hard game and had plenty of lumps to prove it, but it struck me. And in later reflection and looking back, I saw how it’s so important to invest ourselves in our desires. A lot of people say that’s where sports goes to far, but I would say no, this is where sports—and other things, too like art and music—where you throw yourself into it, it doesn’t go exactly the way you wanted it to go, there are important lessons for life here. I would rather teach my children to throw themselves completely, absolutely, and passionately into something. Maybe the results don’t go the way you want them to, but I don’t want to live my life with regret and not give my best.

Matt Tully
Someone could hear you say that and it maybe sounds like you’re advocating for an overly emotional kind of existence where everything is throwing you up and throwing you down. How does control over our own emotions and feelings fit into that kind of thinking?

Craig Troxel
There are emotions that we feel as we react, and this startles people how many commands are in Scripture that say, You need to rejoice always. Wait a second. How am I supposed to do that? I thought joy was a spontaneous thing? No, there’s a limit to these things. But what I’m talking about there, in part, is to throw yourself towards those things that are most noble in life. So, I’m married. It’s very clear in Scripture who is to receive the very best of my energy and the best of my thoughts and the very best of my love. There’s only one thing in life that surpasses that, and it’s Christ. I would like to think that to love him with all my heart is with everything I feel. Just take for example, repentance. What is repentance? It’s not just mumbling a few words through a remote method every morning: I’m sorry I’ve sinned against you. Forgive me for my pride and my selfishness. Repentance in Scripture is being grief-stricken. There’s almost this level—and we can say this in the right way—of self-hatred. I hate myself when I do this, and I’m angry at myself. Why did I commit that sophomoric mistake again for the 10,000th time? It’s that total unhappiness of, I’ve displeased him who I love most.

Matt Tully
I often hear Christians, when someone even expresses that level of grief at their own sin or using language of hatred—I hate myself for doing that—it feels like often the response that Christians want to give is, But Jesus has forgiven you. You’re washed clean. Is that the right impulse?

Craig Troxel
No, I don’t think it is. I think it’s like treating life like it’s a Hallmark card or a thirty minute sitcom. We’re going to introduce a serious issue, have a a few laughs along the way in twenty-five minutes, add in a few commercials, and at the end we’re going to clean the whole thing up and everybody can go home and we’ll do it again next week. That is not life, and I don’t think that’s the way life is meant to be lived. I think life is a roller coaster. It’s ups and downs and it is incredibly disappointing. Read the book of Ecclesiastes if you want a real look at how we understand life is. I think it’s filled with tremendous passion and ups and downs, and I think that can be done in a way that is incredibly healthy. It’s when those things get out of control and when they begin to mess me up and I lose my moorings—that’s different.

Matt Tully
I think sometimes people can associate strong, intense feelings—especially the negative feelings in life like sadness, despair, and despondency—as examples of a lack of faith or a questioning of God, who he is and who he is to us, of salvation maybe. Do you think that’s overblown and it’s not as big of a concern as sometimes we make it out to be?

Craig Troxel
Say that again—

Matt Tully
In feeling those negative emotions, we often view those with a lot of suspicion.

Craig Troxel
Oh, I see what you’re saying. Very good. The book of Psalms—the emotional smorgasbord It’s all there. I used to preach the Psalms every summer to make sure that people never lost touch with that part of the spiritual life. I would say, This is not pop music. Pop music just simply cannot carry this kind of freight. This is the blues. It’s more gutty, visceral, gritty, sometimes really dark—but blues can handle that. It’s a genre and idiom of music that can handle it. The Christian life needs to be a more full spectrum so that it can handle those sorts of things. This is perfectly healthy. For example, your spouse just died, or this just happened—life crushed you in this way—throw that up to God, and do it in the way that the Psalter does with that kind of language that shows that you’re taking this relationship seriously.

Matt Tully
You used that word a couple of times now—healthy—that this is a healthy way to feel about the world. Why do you use that word in particular?

Craig Troxel
Because I think the Psalter, and we look at the lives of saints, the way they cast themselves down before the Lord—their tears, their long valleys of great emotional darkness—show the bandwidth (I’m not sure what the right metaphor is here) that there’s more tolerance and allowance. There should be more margin for moments of profound emotion. It’s our brothers and sisters who get into trouble—and who maybe are in trouble—who are a) constituted differently. They experience melancholy or depression differently, and we need to be very sympathetic to them. That’s a whole other level, and that’s not really exactly what I’m talking about.

Matt Tully
Are you talking about people who would struggle with that on an ongoing, constant basis?

Craig Troxel
Yes. Exactly. And that’s where we get back to body/soul. For some of our brothers and sisters, that’s where there might be some physical needs. It’s a very complex thing. I’m not equipped to speak to that, but I think we have to recognize that.

Matt Tully
That’s not necessarily what you’re talking about in this particular—

Craig Troxel
That’s right. Thank you for saying that. So I think that spiritually, we need to hang in there and have a little bit more patience with people and say, This is a season, but I’m going to walk with you through this season.

Matt Tully
What’s behind that impulse that I think we’ve all seen among Christianity where sometimes the most seemingly spiritually mature and those who know the Bible so well can often have a sense of a stoic, standing back. We would sing songs that kind of get at this: No matter what happens to me, I’m going to trust in God. I’m going to be okay. I’m going to stand firm. What do you think is behind that stoic approach to Christianity that is sometimes pretty common?

Craig Troxel
At one level it could just be that maturity of somebody who is simply not comfortable expressing themselves outwardly and what they’re feeling inwardly. We need to make room for that, too, in the church. There are some people where you think, This person is not an emotional Christian. Well, you may have no idea what’s going on.

Matt Tully
They might not manifest it like you do.

Craig Troxel
Exactly. Just because their arms aren’t raised up and because they’re not crying—

Matt Tully
Are you just saying that because you’re from an OPC church and raising hands isn’t your thing?

Craig Troxel
No, I’m saying that based upon my experience and knowing some Christians where there is a thunderstorm taking place in that person’s heart, and just learning not to be superficial. There are Christians that have learned, in very skillful ways, how to put on a happy face but they are really suffering. And the Bible talks about that. I’m just saying that we need to have more depth and not be fooled by appearances. I think that it’s wonderful that we have worship that allows that kind of emotion too, where it’s not all just incredibly emotional highs, but the music reflects that there are these other seasons too. Or some of our Christian friends who walk through those doors, they don’t really even want to be there, or their heart is numb. They need to know it’s okay. Let’s speak the truth to each other; let’s sing the truth. God may have something different for you today, and he may not. But let’s go into these depths, these undercurrents and let’s just see what God has for us all in terms of his truth. I love 1 John 3:20: “for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart.” He’s so much bigger.

29:56 - The Heart and Our Affections

Matt Tully
A term you have thrown out already that is often associated with the Puritans is that idea of affections. What do you think that word in particular helps us with as we talk about the desires our emotions have?

Craig Troxel
The reason I like that, and it’s a little antiquated, but it means this is where I’ve placed my love, and it’s obvious. Think of a married couple who are affectionate—when you see a couple in their 60s and 70s holding hands—

Matt Tully
There’s something about that that just all of us see that and we think, I want that someday.

Craig Troxel
Think of what it’s rooted in and how deep it goes. I like the idea that desires are never content to be just these mild things. They always want to go deeper, and they reach to the very heart of who you are. In one sense, I would have no problem saying the Puritans really understood the affections were the heart of the heart. As a preacher, in my opinion (and I wish I had felt this way from the beginning of the ministry—I was incredibly naive), if I’m not targeting that as a preacher, then what am I doing? That gets back to your earlier question. Are we sometimes rightly accused, in the Reformed faith, of being too intellectual? I would say yes. If we walk out of a sermon and say, That was just really great theology, I would feel like I had completely bombed as a preacher. I want you to be moved!

Matt Tully
Is it possible to be too focused on the affections, on the desires and how we think about them?

Craig Troxel
In a couple of ways. Scripture says that the desires need to be kept in bounds. John Freeman says it’s not just what is out of bounds but what is out of balance, so it’s possible for something to take too much of my energy. One of my measures is what am I reading? There’s brain candy, right? It’s like, Oh, I’ll just read one more of these. I’m so sick of East of Eden. I’m reading it and I’m just trying to plow my way through it. This is almost as bad a Moby Dick by Melville. I used this as a sermon illustration once. I said, You’re going down with me. I hated this book, but I’m going to get one sermon illustration out of it. But if I start reading too much in a literary genre that is just feeding this nothingness and it’s not really weighty and pushing me, then I have to say, Okay, wait a second. This is out of balance. But we can do it in that sense, and the other sense is, of course, what’s called idolatry, where I’ve lifted it up to a place where now I’m starting to give some of my devotion to this thing that belongs to God. I love football. There was a time when my life kind of rose and fell with it, but it was never at the place near Christ. But that’s not true for a lot of people. Their whole life and identity is sucked up into that sport, or to that job, or whatever. I’ve always felt bad for people who say, Well, your job isn’t your identity. It’s like, that’s not all bad, right? I don’t want anybody working for me who doesn’t have any passion. We know what they mean to say, but that’s like the worst thing to say to somebody who just got fired. That’s not how it feels! Somebody just reached into my chest and pulled out my heart!

Matt Tully
And it’s okay that it feels that way.

Craig Troxel
Yeah, I think so. Otherwise, you’re probably not doing your job well. But at the end of the day, of course, it can become so consuming. Not just by becoming a workaholic, but with the affirmation and praise you want—it’s at work when it should be at home.

33:55 - The Heart and Self-Control

Matt Tully
One of the other things I’ve noticed and observed about our desires—what we’re drawn towards as people—is when it comes to, let’s say our will in particular (what we choose to do), we have pretty clear categories of we can choose wrongly. Therefore, we’re responsible and culpable for that choosing. We can be held to blame for that. However, when it comes to our affections, oftentimes we maybe have a harder time thinking about blame and responsibility for those, because those feel less like something that we think about and then choose; they feel often unbidden. They just kind of arise within us. Sometimes it feels like out of nowhere—I don’t have control over it and it just happens to me rather than something I do. Would you say that’s right? Are we right to think of the affections as something that we still are, in some ways, responsible for and can be sin in?

Craig Troxel
Yes, very much. I’m very much responsible for what makes me angry. There are times when we feel the emotions in a flash, and there’s a sense in which we might feel like we’re not responsible, but that’s indicative of something. The way I think of emotions is like there’s a lot I can do to nurture my garden to make sure it’s going to be productive: pulling the weeds, cultivating the plants, watering, watching out for rodents, things like that. There are a lot of things I can do, but at the end of the day I can’t make those plants grow. I can’t make the sun shine, I can’t make it rain, etc. But there is a lot I can do to nurture life in that garden, and there’s a lot we can do to nurture good, healthy emotional life. So I think that’s one of the scriptural ways in which—like Paul says to the Galatian church: Where’s your joy? I think that’s a legitimate question. You do have some control over the things that you’re going to rejoice in. Where is your whole thought life? What are you meditating upon? There are choices that we make, too, in thinking of the will. There’s a lot more there that we’re capable of doing. I think it’s an are where we want to excuse ourselves—the heart is deceitful—and say, I was just angry. Well, why were you angry?

Matt Tully
And it’s not enough just to say, I was angry, but I had self-control. I didn’t say what I wanted to say. But you would say that doesn’t mean that you maybe weren’t in sin?

Craig Troxel
That’s not a pass. We use the language of “triggered” for instance. This is a good example. I think there’s some legitimacy to this, but there comes a point, too, where you can say, You have some control sometimes over what triggers you, right? That’s not a popular thing to say, but I must not understate the significance of self-control.

Matt Tully
That extends beyond just the choosing it. You would say it extends both to thinking and to what we desire?

Craig Troxel
I think so. What am I creating? What kind of environment am I creating in my life where I have a choice as to what I’m allowing before my eyes. What am I allowing to come into my ears? And is it the very things that I know are going to provoke me in certain ways? Maybe I was looking for an argument. Maybe I was looking for an excuse to sulk and pout. Well, that’s very much within my purview of what I’m supposed to be doing and what I’m accountable for.

Matt Tully
That garden metaphor is helpful because it’s suggesting that a lot of that work happens before we get into the situation that provokes some kind of emotional response.

Craig Troxel
I remember being in a situation where I was working on a fencing crew in western Nebraska. A guy dropped a wire stretch—I won’t get into the details of all of us—

Matt Tully
A fencing crew? You were putting up fences?

Craig Troxel
Barbwire, yeah. He dropped the wire stretcher on my head, and it was pretty heavy and it hurt. He stood back and he looked at me like I was going to punch him or something like that. I said, What? And he said, You didn’t cuss. It blew him away that nothing angry came out of my mouth. We just have no idea the impact of working on self-control in one’s life. I was twenty-one years old at the time, and it was that incident that made inroads so that my foreman, on the last day of that job, came up to me with tears in his eyes. He made sure nobody was watching. He knew I was studying for the ministry, and he always called me “Rev.” He was the only one who meant it with respect, and he said, I will never forget you. There’s something different about you. There are a lot of times we’re angry because we’re feeding that anger.

38:48 - Guarding the Heart

Matt Tully
When talking about the heart, sometimes we do tend to use language like, I just want to protect my heart or, I want to guard my heart. I think for some Christians that kind of language can sound trite or naive, or maybe it’s a cowardly excuse to disengage from the world and be sheltered. What do you think about that? Should that be a real category for us as Christians, the idea of guarding our hearts?

Craig Troxel
Proverbs 4:23 says it should be. It’s an interesting word that’s used there because it has a two-fold meaning of looking without and looking within. If we think in terms of an army and you’re in battle, you’re always looking at your fronts and looking out for the enemy and where they’re attacking and what they’re doing. What strategy may they be using? But on the other hand, if somebody has said, You know there also might be traitors in your midst. So you’re looking within, and you’re always concerned about the morale of the troops: Are they well-fed? Are they healthy? What about the wounded? Are they trained well? So, it’s both these things, and so it’s not a naive move at all. It’s actually guarding yourself against naivete to say, I need to protect this. Proverbs 4:23 says that the reason you do this is that the issues of life flow from this one point. Here’s where it all begins. This is the headwaters. This is the governing center of who we are; the helm of the ship—however you want to say it—the driver’s seat. Pick whatever metaphor that you like. So, it means I need to really be careful about this. When I lived in Fairbanks, Alaska, the water was terrible. There is so much sulfur in the bowl of Fairbanks, Alaska. They can’t get all of it out. Actually, some people’s hair color changed. A lot of people would go out to Fox Springs. I would get my water there, until somebody discovered laces of arsenic poison in there. But it was great because the lines got so much shorter.

Matt Tully
So you kept going.

Craig Troxel
I kept going! I thought I would get immunity to arsenic so that if some future parishioner wants to poison me, it won’t work! To guard that spring was really important to make sure it was pure. I’m glad somebody went and got it tested. I think that Scripture is saying the same here. I need to really take care of my heart. On the other hand, to know that there are outside influences. I forget who said this: The enemy—Satan—has an immediate confederate in my own heart. There are things my heart attaches to. This is why you have all these warnings from Christ about worldliness, and different forms of worldliness.

Matt Tully
And he’s often pointing right at your heart. It starts inside.

Craig Troxel
Where’s your treasure? He’s saying, Don’t put your treasure in the world. What are we likely to do? Put our treasure in the world. So, I need to guard my heart and certain propensities that I have that may be unique to myself. Here are the things that I’m not always so hard in, in terms of, Every man struggles with this. Well, I know men that struggle with this over here too. The question is what do I want and where are my weaknesses.

Matt Tully
That would require, then, a fair amount of introspection and self-analysis. That’s something that doesn’t seem to be talked about a lot these days.

Craig Troxel
I think Scripture talks about examining yourself, so self-examination is very important. I think introspection can be endless and there’s no real understanding of where the guardrails are. Self-examination has a guide and a goal. The guide is Scripture. Christ, by the Holy Spirit, speaking to me through Scripture, and it has a goal: to mortify my sin. To put to death my sin and to see righteousness and the fruit of the Spirit fanned into flame. All of this to the benefit of others and to the glory of God. That’s a very different project and agenda than just introspection. Self-examination helps, in those scriptural terms, to ward off my descending into myself endlessly, or going into the quantum realm, or whatever it is. Like in Ant-Man—it’s like, this is getting crazy. But that’s what some Christians do. But nobody is holding their hand. That’s where Scripture is supposed to be your guide, not just to show you what is wrong, but to show you the grace of God in Christ. “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Ps. 139:23–) It’s not just show me what’s wrong, but put me on the right road. How can I correct this? What’s supposed to take its place? Where do I look to Christ in this to know that his forgiveness and love, his Spirit and his power are sufficient for me in this? Laying hold of that ministry of Christ in me.

Matt Tully
Speak to the person listening right now who, in listening to you talk about this idea of guarding our hearts and even knowing ourselves better so that we can proactively and intentionally protect our hearts, give us a practical picture of what that might look like for me on a daily basis. Do you have any advice to offer someone like that?

Craig Troxel
Maybe a couple of things. I think it’s an excellent question. I would want to ask them more questions as a pastor, or as a brother, sister, or friend: What is this person really asking me? I would say open Scripture, but open it with prayer, asking God, You need to show me my heart. Help me to understand the ways in which I am falling short, maybe the ways in which I am perverting or twisting what is a really good command, the ways in which I am rebelling against what you have here, or the ways in which I’m too easily caving to the temptation. Show me those things so that I can see them. I would say, two, pay attention to your thought life. Or, if there’s a particular area of sin and temptation in your life—every church father talks about this and the Puritans are so good—work that chain backwards. Where did it begin? I guarantee you, you’ve seen that before. It could be that Satan is simply trying a different lure, but we’ve been at this fishing hole before. Or you’ve seen that lure before. Or he’s coming at you at this time of day before. Depending on who you are, if you’re a young man, that first hour of the day. Maybe you get in the gym right away. There are certain times, seasons, ways, certain publications, certain websites where you need to be just a little bit more self-aware and say, Wait a second. This looks kind of familiar. It should look familiar, because this is where it went wrong last time.

Matt Tully
And it’s not necessarily that all those things, situations, or activities are inherently wrong or problematic, but you’re kind of saying that’s part of protecting our heart, is actually being aware of the whole path that we might take into sin.

Craig Troxel
Just being wise about that. But God is faithful. As we pray these things—that Psalm 139:23 prayer—are you sure you’re ready to pray that prayer? That takes a lot of courage, because he will show you. Sometimes it’s very painful, and you need to be prepared for that. But if you love Christ and you want to follow him—leave, abandon wherever I’ve been. Follow him, no matter what he says. He says, "Follow me. Here’s your cross; deny yourself. Go and sell all that you have and follow me*.


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