Published December 7th, 2016 by Dirk Waren
We’ve all heard ministers—or Christians in general—take Jeremiah 17:9 and go off on a tangent about how the human heart is inherently “desperately wicked.” And so we must never “follow the heart.” Is this true? It depends on the person and the condition of his or her particular heart. Let me explain by considering several Old and New Testament passages on the human heart, rather than just one. This is in line with the hermeneutical law that “Scripture interprets Scripture.” This interpretational guideline insures balance and keeps us from falling into error by going to one loony extreme or another.
“Above All Else, Guard Your Heart”
Proverbs 4:23 says “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” Why is it so vital to protect your heart? Because whatever you allow rooted in your heart will determine what you will become; in other words, who you ARE. Proverbs 27:19 puts it like this: “As water reflects a face, so a man’s heart reflects the man.” Also consider what Jesus said:
“The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.”
You could also say: “For out of the overflow of the heart the person ACTS.” This is essentially what Jesus taught in Mark 7:20-23 where he pointed out that any carnal trait you can name stems from what we allow rooted in our hearts. Of course, all sin originates from one’s sinful nature, but you won’t habitually act on fleshly impulses until they get rooted in your heart.
How do various sins get lodged in the heart? Through:
- What you allow your eyes to see
- What you allow your ears to hear
- And the atmosphere you allow, which includes the company you keep (the people you typically “hang” around)
How does any sin grow in a person’s heart? By feeding a fleshly desire through thought, imagination and word. The more you feed it the more it grows; and when the desire grows big enough you’ll act on it (James 1:14-15). The more you act on it the deeper the sin gets rooted and the greater the bondage.
‘But the Bible says “the Heart is Desperately Wicked”’
Ministers and Christians who preach that the heart itself is “desperately wicked” base it on a passage from Jeremiah. Here’s the verse from both the New International Version and the King James Version:
The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?
Jeremiah 17:9 (NIV)
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?
Jeremiah 17:9 (KJV)
What this verse says is absolutely true, but it’s referring specifically to the hardened hearts of the people of Judah of that era to whom Isaiah was prophesying. So to take this verse and apply it to all people throughout history is an example of taking a verse out of context, which violates the hermeneutical rule of “Context is King.”
Let’s first consider some other passages on the human heart and then we’ll come back to Jeremiah 17 and verify the context.
Christ said “The Good Man brings Good Things out of the Good Stored up in his Heart”
Jesus Christ himself disagreed with the idea that the heart is intrinsically wicked in Luke 6:45 above. He plainly said that a good person brings good things out of the good stored up in their heart. This disproves point plank that the heart is always desperately wicked and never able to store or produce anything good.
People who teach this simply aren’t being balanced with the Scriptures. They’re either (1.) failing to consider other integral passages on the topic or (2.) parroting what someone else said without investigating if it’s actually true or (3.) a combination of both. Whatever the case, it’s error.
The Heart is Like SOIL
Actually, the human heart is neutral and akin to soil in the Bible (Luke 8:15). Just as soil grows whatever a planter decides to sow in it, so the human heart will produce whatever a person chooses to plant in it, whether spiritual or fleshly. This explains Jesus’ declaration that a good man brings good things out of the good stored in his heart and the evil man brings bad things out of the evil in his heart. If this is so, how do we explain Jeremiah 17:9? Simple. As noted above, this verse refers specifically to the stubborn hearts of the people of Judah of that time and place, not to every human heart throughout history. This is supported by Jeremiah 16:12, 17:1 and 18:12, all of which verify the context of 17:9 and, again, “Context is King.”
Besides, verse 10 says that the LORD examines the heart; this would make no sense if the heart is inherently wicked. After all, why search the heart if it’s ALWAYS and AUTOMATICALLY “desperately wicked”? No, God searches the heart of every human soul to see what’s planted there because whatever WE ALLOW in our hearts becomes who we are. Hence, although the heart certainly has the capacity to be desperately wicked, it could just as well be exceedingly good or somewhere in between. It’s contingent upon what each person allows sown in his/her heart.
Let’s consider a couple examples. Say a married man becomes infatuated with an alluring woman at work and starts to feed the initial desire with his thought life. Eventually this will grow in his heart into a monstrous desire to commit adultery. In this case, should he “follow his heart”? Absolutely not, because the thing he allowed to grow in his heart—the desire to commit adultery with this woman—is “desperately wicked.”
Now say there’s a single Christian man who spots a beautiful single woman and, as he gets to know her and seeks the LORD, he increasingly becomes convinced that she’s the one he should marry and start a beautiful family. Should he “follow his heart”? Absolutely, because there’s nothing wrong with this desire that he’s allowed to grow in his heart. It’s a good desire and not “desperately wicked.”
Now let’s consider a couple real-life examples. Remember the Charleston church massacre on June 15, 2015, when some young thug shot ten innocent people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, killing 9? The evidence shows that the murderer was a racist, wanting to start a race war. He foolishly allowed his heart to be filled with hate to the point of wanting to murder innocent black people. I think we can all agree that “following his heart” was a bad decision (to say the least) because he allowed it to become “desperately wicked” with hate.
By contrast, I remember reading about this wealthy guy who said he wanted to make sure everyone in his city had a nice dinner for Thanksgiving. He cared about the poor and homeless in his midst and couldn’t genuinely enjoy the holiday while so many went without, not when he had the resources to make a difference. So he implemented his plan and thousands who would not have otherwise had a quality Thanksgiving meal were able to do so. This benevolent project sprang from his concern for the poor in his community; it sprang from love in his heart. Was it a good thing that he “followed his heart” and made sure the underprivileged had a quality dinner for the holiday? The answer is obvious.
The human heart is not always “desperately wicked,” as was the case with the Judeans of 6th century BC Israel (Jeremiah 17:9). Whether one’s heart is wicked or good — or somewhere in between — depends on what the individual allows to be planted & grow there over time. This explains why it’s so important that we guard our hearts as the wellspring of life “above all else” (Proverbs 4:23).
For more on this topic see the video Your Thoughts Run Your Life.
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