When I examine my heart, it is a big tangle of good and bad longings. Its an incongruous mix of honourable hopes and shameful desires, of Godly compassion and selfish resentment. My heart is the ultimate contradiction – I long for God and yet run from him. I hate my sin yet I love it. I am all tangled up.
I find this conflict in everything I do. I have a hunger for God’s word as I sit in church and ask God to change me, but it’s tangled up with thoughts about how I look and whether people will admire me. I sing with gusto and long to worship God as he deserves, but this is tangled up with a sense of superiority in the passion I show as I worship. I long to hear God speak to me as I read his word, and simultaneously hope my husband has seen me open my bible. I am desperate and determined to be closer to God when I come to pray, but the very first topic of prayer leads me into a daydream.
Are any of my words, desires and actions ever free from the tangle of sin? When another person is praised for success, must I always battle with thoughts of envy and resentment? And when I enjoy sweet, close communion with Christ through his grace and love, must a ludicrous sense of pride always be lurking? It seems this frustrating tangle of Godly and sinful desires is inescapable, and left to myself I am driven mad by the unachievable goal of conquering my sin, or I just give up and give in to my self-absorbed desires. I can’t win.
But He can. Jesus was the only person who ever lived without this inner conflict. He loved purely, spoke truthfully, taught sincerely and behaved righteously. He wasn’t tangled up. He was only good. He lived with a pure, untangled heart and then credited that perfect righteousness to his messed up people. Despite our ongoing struggle with sin, we have been set free, and we’re already completely righteous in God’s eyes. In fact, if you know Jesus, then that struggle in your heart is a battle between the old and the new self. It is evidence of new life, of the Holy Spirit working in your heart to give you good and Godly desires that fight your old sinful ones. I don’t need to despair over my tangled up heart. It shows me the depth of my sin, yes, but also the much greater power of the Holy Spirit to change me. The apostle Paul lived with this inner conflict too.
‘So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? But thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ (Romans 7:21 – 25)
What a comfort that Paul, the great teacher and evangelist, had a heart that was tangled up like mine. He, too, felt a war going on inside him and found it deeply exasperating. But in his desperation, he lifts his eyes to Jesus, the Great Deliverer. He sees the hopelessness of his situation, and it causes him to give thanks to God for his salvation. If we look only to ourselves, we will always feel stuck and discouraged. But if, in those moments that we see the ugliness of sin in hearts, we look to Jesus, and give thanks that he has delivered us from ‘this body of death’, then, like Paul, we can ultimately be joyful, not discouraged. Christ came to give ‘the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.’ (Isaiah 61:3.)
And it is out of this joy and thankfulness that we can begin to glorify God more, despite evil being right there with us. Not through our own strength and efforts, but by the power of the Holy Spirit. For ‘if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.’ (Romans 8:11) The Holy Spirit is infinitely more powerful than our sinful nature. He raises the dead! And day by day, He is working to gradually untangle our hearts, to win the battles against our old self. One day, the war will be won, our hearts untangled once and for all. No more inner conflict, only good and Godly thoughts and desires. (Can you imagine?!) Until then, don’t despair over your tangled up heart. Grieve over your sin, yes – and repent – but then give thanks and ask the Spirit to help you fight.
Even as I write, my overwhelming desire is anyone reading this might be encouraged and pointed to Christ, that you might rejoice and give thanks to God as you wrestle with your own tangled up heart. But I know that ‘sin is crouching at the door’, as familiar pride creeps in and I hope to be admired for what I’ve written. Nevertheless, as I look to Jesus, the author and finisher of my faith, I pray that God will redeem what is good in this and use it for his glory.