The deceitfulness of the human heart


By Mark EllisJer 17 heart deceitful

A 51-year-old woman worked in the tailor shop of a prison in New York, and she appeared in court recently to plead guilty to helping two convicted killers escape from their cells by smuggling hacksaw blades, chisels, a punch, and screwdriver bits into the prison hidden in frozen hamburger meat.

Apparently, she developed a romantic, physical relationship with one or both of the men. She said they made her feel special. She planned to run away with them and even conspired to kill her husband until she got cold feet at the last moment.

How could she do it? How could a mature woman’s heart be drawn into such a foolish, brazen, criminal conspiracy?

Jeremiah the prophet once noted, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”

Leading up to 2008, the governor of South Carolina was talked about as a possible presidential candidate. In 2009 he went missing for a week. He said he was going hiking by himself on the Appalachian trail, but failed to return 15 calls to his cell phone.

He didn’t place a call home on Father’s Day to his wife and four sons. They didn’t know where he was, his staff didn’t know where he was, the Lt. Governor didn’t know where he was. Actually, it turned out he was in Argentina with his mistress and had used state funds for his travel.

How could he do it? How could he betray the trust of so many people?

Jeremiah tells us, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”

heart devilSo when a thousand voices in the culture tell you to follow your heart, beware.

There is a delusionary power to sin, when it grips the human heart, that can make ordinarily sane and reasonable people do completely outrageous things.

When I talk about the heart this morning, I’ll be talking about the totality of your inner being – your soul — who you really are at the core.

In the Book of Jeremiah, the prophet wrote: “The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron; with a point of diamond it is engraved on the tablet of their heart, and on the horns of their altars, while their children remember their altars and their Asherim, beside every green tree and on the high hills, on the mountains in the open country.

“Your wealth and all your treasures I will give for spoil as the price of your high places for sin throughout all your territory. You shall loosen your hand from your heritage that I gave to you, and I will make you serve your enemies in a land that you do not know, for in my anger a fire is kindled that shall burn forever.”

Jeremiah compares the hearts of the Hebrew people to tablets of stone. And their hard hearts were like stone, diamond-etched with sin.

Their sin problem seemed to be permanently engraved on their hearts. The problem was they worshipped foreign gods. Jeremiah noted that even their children were deceived into the worship of foreign gods.

Ironically, God says the consequence was that all their wealth and treasure would eventually be taken away by the maker of these foreign gods. The people themselves became slaves to the creator of these foreign gods, idols made of wood and stone.

So the principle established here is that anything you turn into an idol – other than God – can eventually enslave you.

And that is exactly what happened to Judah. The nation of Babylon came in and stole their treasures, hauled the people away and made them slaves, and forced them to worship their gods.

There is something frightening about a heart that’s been hardened by sinful choices. When we make the wrong choice repeatedly, God eventually lets us go our own way.

He allows us great freedom to pursue the desire of our hearts. And the hearts of the Hebrew people got harder and harder as they turned away from God.

Is sin or hell outdated?

On our family vacation recently, I had a conversation with an older woman, a faithful church-goer who attends a mainline Christian denomination. In our conversation she said she didn’t believe in sin or hell. She considered both of these concepts to be outdated or old-fashioned.

And perhaps there are some of you who share that sentiment, that sin or hell are outmoded ideas.

We have a whole generation today who believes there are no absolute truths, no moral absolutes. To them, the concept of sin may seem ludicrous, offensive, a far too pessimistic view of humanity.

If sin or hell don’t exist, why would anyone need salvation? If all you have to do is try harder, think positively, or take a pill to deal with the issues of life, why would you need a Savior?

But there are only a couple possibilities that explain the problem of evil: people are born basically good and get corrupted by outside influences; or, certain genetic abnormalities may pre-dispose them to a destructive course, or, the traditional Christian teaching that people are born with an inherent bent toward sin that goes all the way back to Adam.

When I was a young parent I observed a shocking level of defiance that is common in two-year-olds. No one taught these precious, innocent-looking little ones to say “NO!” with a rebel’s cry, their faces red with anger.

Or, when asked to share their toy with another child they said “mine!” –refused to share – and displayed a selfish streak that emerged before it could possibly be taught.

When I look at the news and survey the condition of humanity, it doesn’t look like people are basically OK. I see an alarming, depressing level of violence, greed and lust polluting the world.

The Bible teaches that the root, the source, the fountain of sin is within our own hearts. So in a sense it is genetic, passing through the blood from generation to generation since the time of Adam.

People think about the Bible as a book of rules and if you break one of the rules, that constitutes a sin. But there is more to it than that.

When our boys were small, if I told them not to jump on the couch and two minutes later they were jumping on the couch, would I be upset because they jumped on the couch?

The condition of the couch is really not as important as the fact that they disobeyed me as their dad, and that caused at least a temporary breach in our relationship. At that moment of defiance, their heart turned against dad – and that pained me.

Sin creates a separation that cries out for restoration.

Turning good things into ultimate things?

Pastor Tim Keller says sin can also be turning good things into ultimate things. It is making something else the primary source of your happiness, rather than God.

That could be your career, your kids, your spouse, the love of money, sports, anything that becomes more significant to you than God.

Christians believe the condition of the human heart is really the greatest problem facing humanity and this is laid out very clearly in Scripture. Going all the way back to the time of Noah, it says that God saw the wickedness of man was great throughout the earth and that their imaginations were twisted by evil all the time.

In the Book of Kings, it says there is no one who does not sin. Isaiah compared the condition of humanity to sheep that have gone astray, where each has turned to go their own way.

In Mark 7, Jesus said, “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him…For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

Jesus says you can not blame outside influences when you sin. Today we want to blame all kinds of outside influences when we sin. But we have within ourselves all the tools necessary to make a colossal mess out of our lives.

In James chapter one, he describes the way the heart is seduced. “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own lust. Then lust when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”

There is an unholy union between your own lust and the object of your desires, and the child that is produced is sin. Flawed appetites within my own deceitful heart can lead to fatal temptations.

And I can go breezily down the road thinking, ‘How could it be wrong when it feels so right? It feels so natural. There is a side of evil that is enticing and alluring in the short run, but it leads to heartache in the long run.

In Proverbs it says the lips of the adulteress drip with honey, but in the end she is bitter as gall.

It’s hard to find anyone in the Bible who didn’t fall at one time or another. After the flood, Noah planted a vineyard and sometime later his family found him drunk, and passed out naked. David committed adultery with Bathsheba and then arranged to have her husband killed. Peter denied the Lord three times.

The Bible is so honest about the failings of even the greatest. I have a friend who has worked with some of the greatest Christian leaders, men who have had a remarkable impact in so many lives. And my friend observes, “The greater the leader, the greater the flaws.”

The root of their faults and failings is right there within their own hearts. And I have to admit the greatest enemy I face every day is looking at me in the mirror.

Fly fishing at the lake

On our recent family vacation we spent a couple days at Lake Tahoe and I got to check one item off my bucket list – learning how to fly fish. Now whether you fish with a fake fly or an artificial lure, you sometimes wonder if the fish could be so dumb as to go after this funny looking little thing with a hook sticking out of it.

But there was something within that trout that said, “I want that,” and he went after it. That fish was enticed, drawn away…just like people get enticed by their fleshly appetites.

It’s interesting that the nickname for a prostitute is a hooker. She dresses in an enticing, alluring way and she “hooks” a man.

In Jeremiah 17:9 the prophet says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can heart deceitful bibleunderstand it?”

There is a deceptive and delusionary condition that takes root as sin becomes habitual. This delusionary state of mind can be startling in terms of what can be justified. Prison worker Joyce Mitchell faces many years in prison because she was drawn in, enticed by the deceitfulness of her own heart.

The governor of South Carolina was enticed, drawn away, ultimately lost everything he held dear.

After David committed his sin, he was cruising along in blissful ignorance, when Nathan the prophet came to him privately and told him a parable.

David was so blinded and so delusional he couldn’t see the parable was really about him until the prophet declared, “You are the man!”

Our own hearts can trick us, produce an ignorance about our own precarious condition with God, allow us to think everything’s OK when it’s not OK.

I’m amazed at how many Christian couples – both young and old – have deceived themselves into thinking it’s OK to sleep together or live together without being married. God still cares about sexual purity!

When I’ve been confronted with something I’ve done, often my first reaction is to blame-shift . Blame shifting is actually the second-oldest sin recorded in the Bible. When Adam was confronted about his sin he tried to blame Eve. When Eve was confronted about her sin, she tried to blame the serpent.

It is so easy for us to see the flaw in someone else, but not the fatal flaw in ourselves. You may be sitting here this morning, thinking if only my spouse would pay attention to this message.

When somebody else messes up, I can see it at once. The sin in their lives appears in its true, clear vivid colors. And I have to beat down my own critical or judgmental spirit.

But if I’m the one who messed up, my own self-love can alter my perceptions. This causes me to minimize the situation — I can come up with some pretty good rationalizations.

So the deceitfulness of my heart not only blame-shifts, but produces all kinds of creative justifications. I might even attempt to turn the blame back on the accuser and try to find flaws or faults in them.

In Jeremiah 17:5 he contrasts the person who trusts in God with the person who trusts in man: “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord. He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come. He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.

The man who trusts in his own heart, in his own strength, ultimately falls short. He is like a dry bush in the desert, barely surviving.

The deceitfulness of the heart ultimately chokes out life – it can take us into a death spiral – emotionally, spiritually, even physically. In fact, the Scripture teaches that the wages of sin (what we earn, the consequence) is death.

Remember the passage in James, which said that lust gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is fully grown, brings forth death. Well, what does that mean, fully grown? That means when it’s fully entrenched in our hearts, habitual. Don’t let that happen to you!

Sin – in it’s infancy – may seem somewhat innocent. I feel OK and I don’t seem to be suffering any consequences. And you may think to yourself, ‘Maybe I’ve beaten God in this game, maybe he didn’t really say not to go down that road.

As Pastor Adrian Rogers says, “First sin fascinates; then it assassinates. First it thrills; then it kills… And the grandchild of sin is death.”

You will not beat the game. If you play the devil’s game, he will take you further than you want to go and exact a price that is steeper than you want to pay. Playing his game, you can lose everything you hold dear.

Sin is like a virus lodged in our hearts. It has infected us. The Israelites’ hearts were like stone tablets, etched with sin. Is your heart hardened today, diseased, turned away from God?

heart drawingWhat is the answer for the fatal disease that lies within our own hearts?

God has created a plan, a path, so that even the biggest sinners can get to heaven. God loves you even if you have sinned greatly. There is no sin so great he cannot or will not forgive it.

He cared so much about the problem of evil in human hearts he sent his one and only son to suffer and die, to pay the price for every sin you’ve committed, past, present and future.

Jeremiah tells us the heart has an incurable disease. Verse 10 tells us God searches your heart; He knows your heart inside and out and He still loves you. He knows you’ve been a rebel; He knows how far you’ve strayed.

As we get a little further along in Jeremiah we get a picture of hope. God offers a new promise: He says he will remove your heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh.

God offers you a new heart…a new life in relationship with Him.

Dr. Law and Dr. Grace

The story has been told about a certain man who went to see a doctor named Law, Dr. Law. And he said, “Dr. Law, I’m having trouble with my eyes, my hands, and my feet. My eyes are looking at things I shouldn’t be looking at, my hands are doing things they shouldn’t be doing, and my feet are going places I shouldn’t be going.”

Dr. Law ran some tests and said, “You don’t really have a problem with your eyes, your hands, and your feet. The problem is with your heart. Your heart is so badly diseased you’re going to need a transplant.”

“Well, can you do the surgery?” the man asked

Dr. Law said, “No. I’m not a surgeon. I only diagnose.”

“Well who can help me?” the man asked.

“Dr. Grace. He’s right across the hall.”

“Do I need to make an appointment?”

“No, he’ll see you immediately.”

“What will it cost?”

“Nothing, it won’t cost anything.”

So Dr. Law sent the man across the hall. He knocked on the door and when the door opened he saw the kindest looking man he’d ever seen.

And Dr. Grace performed the surgery on that man, removed the diseased heart and put a new heart within him.

And after the operation a surprising thing happened. There was a remarkable change in the man’s eyes, hands, and feet, because he had been given a new heart.

That’s what Jesus wants to do for you. He wants to remove your hard heart, replace it with a soft heart and fill you with a love, a joy, and a peace you’ve never known before.

A process of going through a heart transplant in our modern medical system can cost roughly $200,000. The wait time can be weeks, months, or years, depending on your blood type and other factors.

But the Great Physician, Jesus, offers a new heart freely to you today and you don’t have to wait. Will you let him change your heart?


The previous teaching was adapted from a sermon delivered August 2, 2015 at Church by the Sea in Laguna Beach, California

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