What is the ultimate good of our hearts?

I was thinking this morning of what happens when what we say we believe clashes with what we feel we need. Put another way, does my claimed belief (my theology) survive the onslaughts of daily reality? What happens when what I say I believe would potentially bring difficulty to my way of life, to the comforts we all take for granted?

The Bible frequently speaks of our ultimate good, the best thing that we can ever have or know, as being God himself. As the pastor and author, John Piper puts it "God is the gospel." He is the ultimate, complete and final end of all gospel blessings.[1] So we read that we are justified and, as a result, “we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2 ESV), we are reconciled to God and therefore, “we rejoice in God…” (Romans 5:11 ESV). And the gospel is described as “the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:6).[2] And the Bible says that God is worth giving up all other things to obtain (Matthew 6:19-20; Philippians 3:7-8).

And, of course, if the Bible says so, then we evangelical Christians, who believe that the Bible is God’s inspired word to us, say, “Amen” and declare that this is what we believe.

But what happens when a direct command of the God we profess to be our ultimate good conflicts with the maintenance of the means of our material comforts? What if choosing God as my ultimate good means risking the friendships I have, the relationship with a partner that I crave, the career that I have spent so long pursuing? What will I opt for? And will not my choice reveal a number of things?

First it will show if I really believe that to live is Christ and to die is gain (Philippians 1:21). How so? Because if I choose to take the action that safeguards my material comforts etc., then I am really not believing that seeing and savouring Christ in eternity is gain compared to those comforts. I am really believing the opposite - to live is gain and to die is dreadful loss. It will, secondly, show how much I really believe that God is my ultimate good. Why? Because if I choose to disobey God in order to keep the material comfort, other relationship, career that I so desire then that comfort, relationship, career is more important than God is and is really what I think is my ultimate good. It is my true heart's desire. Third, it will show how much I really believe the apostle Paul when he says that his momentary afflictions (which in his case included beatings, imprisonment, being stoned almost to death, rejection by the people amongst whom he had been progressing in favour and so on) are as nothing compared to the weight of glory that awaits him when he will see Christ face to face. If I choose the material comfort, other relationship, career then what I actually believe in my heart is that future glory is of only minor significance compared to present comfort. And if we choose the career, the other relationship or the material comforts we will be saying we do not really believe Jesus when he says that it will be of no ultimate profit to us if we gain the whole world and yet lose our souls.

All of which shows just how important it is that we don’t just settle for a head knowledge of the things of God. If it does not capture our heart as well, then when the conflict comes, as it will, we will follow what our heart has been won by. And that is why it is so important to study the theology of the Bible, to see why God is so beautiful, so amazing, so fulfilling that nothing else can ever come close. We cannot neglect the things that Scripture seeks to teach us about our relationship to Christ Jesus just because we find them difficult. How is it that Paul says we are able to rejoice in God and in the hope of glory? It is because of what Jesus has accomplished for us in union with himself. By being joined to Christ we have been given the life of Jesus and that ought to alter everything. All our benefits, including glory to come, come to us through our being united to the risen Son of God. And if we are truly united to him there ought to be a corresponding process in which our innermost desires are being re-shaped.

And the hope of the glory of God is that we will see and savour, and delight in the majesty, holiness, dignity, splendour, righteousness, goodness, faithfulness etc. of the God who is one God in three persons. It means that we will find in that God a never ending source of joy that will never cease to satisfy us. And that three-in-one God, so ridiculed by atheists, is completely happy within himself and yet desires to draw us in to the inner relationship of love that the Father has for the Son and the Son for the Father and the Holy Spirit for the Father and the Son. This will be a dance of delight that will knock the spots off all other, time bound, relationships. This all-sufficient, never changing, totally faithful God is the source of a security that, unlike even the best planned material comforts of this world, can never spoil, or fail. And because we were made to marvel, wonder and be amazed at God, (and we see a glimpse of this when we marvel and wonder at the beauty of the things he has created), we will be fulfilled in him in a way that that temporary, often in the present day all too fragile, career could never hope to match.

Unless we understand this, grasp it, preach it to our own hearts, and seek the grace of the Holy Spirit to write these deep and mysterious truths on those hearts, we may find that God’s truth only lies skin deep within us and when the trial comes we will waver and perhaps even abandon the hope of glory ahead. Heart change begins with mind change. That is why Paul tells the Romans that the unconverted have their minds set on the things of this world and its values whereas the Spirit led Christian has his or her mind set on the things of the Spirit (Romans 8:5). And it is why he tells them, in Romans 12:2, not to be conformed to the patern of this world (that is don't set your hearts on the thinngs it does, career, status, etc.) "but be transformed" (changed within) "by the renewing of your mind." Wait a minute, Paul, have you not just said that it is what is in our hearts that matters? Yes, and that is also the Apostle Paul's position. But that which is believed in by the heart is first believed in by the head. If we leave it in the head and don't seek to have it change us then it becomes detached knowledge. But when it sinks into our hearts it does not cease to be knowledge. But it is now knowledge that moves our desires and so shapes what we do with our will.

The antidote to a lack of deep heart belief is not to avoid the difficult teaching of the Scriptures but to seek it out, search it diligently and pray to the Lord, whose word it is, to change our hearts through it.

[1] John Piper, God is the Gospel: Meditations on God’s Love as the Gift of Himself (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2011).

[2] These texts are ones that Piper refers to often.


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