Christian Living, Part 3: The Heart in Action
The Human Will
The Bible reveals that in addition to the mind and emotions, the human soul also possesses a will—an ability to choose (Job 7:15), an ability to refuse (Job 6:7), and an ability to decide (1 Chronicles 22:19 and the whole of Numbers 30). All of these activities are the function of the will. In fact, in the Hebrew language the words for soul and will are often used interchangeably (Psalm 27:12; 41:2; Ezekiel 16:27). The Bible does not appear to spell out whether the will is a true organ of the soul or is merely a function of the soul; however, the Bible is clear about the nature of the human will. To put it succinctly the human will tends to direct a person toward pleasure and away from pain; perhaps even more succinctly, the human will is a simple machine that ultimately always follows that which is most pleasurable.
As we have seen the Law of Sin operates in the flesh (Romans 7:23). The Law of God operates in the mind (Romans 7:25). Doing what is right, therefore, is nothing more than using the human will to choose the Law of God instead of the Law of Sin; it is just that simple. In fact, exercising the will to do what is right is so simple that literally no one can do it. The Christian who can confidently declare, “I can fully control my will,” is the Christian who has not reflected long on his or her own nature. In fact, for most believers and unbelievers alike, the more accurate statement would be, “my will fully controls me.” In other words, as the will follows those fleshly passions which are so very pleasurable, the mind appears to be carried along like a log in a rushing river. Paul wrote passionately about the struggle between the mind and the will to withstand the passions of the flesh in Romans 7:14-20,
“For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.”
For short periods of time, the mind and will might prevail against the pleasures of the flesh—maybe for a day or two. Perhaps, the strong-willed person can endure a week while refraining from a sinful indulgence. But eventually, the will fails. But why does the will fail? Paul tells us that the will fails because it is fighting against a higher law. We can illustrate this phenomenon in the following way: suppose that a man is asked to stand with his arms straight out to his sides and was ordered to leave them out indefinitely. Likely, the man will be able to hold his arms out for five or ten or even twenty minutes. Eventually, however, his arms will succumb to a higher law—the law of gravity. The man cannot continue. Is the man in control of his arms? The answer is, yes. But the man cannot withstand the law of gravity. Likewise, the person who sins (Christian or otherwise) cannot withstand the Law of Sin and is a slave to sin (John 8:34).
Ultimately, the human will follows the pleasures of the flesh, for the pleasures of the flesh are greater than the pleasures gleaned from intellectual agreement with the Law of God (Romans 7:14-20). What is the Christian to do? The Law of God is a strong law, but the Law of Sin and Death is stronger because the Law of God gives power to the Law of Sin (Romans 7:7-12). If we hope to overcome the Law of Sin and Death we need to overcome it with a yet stronger law. Only one law is more powerful than the Law of Sin and Death—the Law of Life (Romans 8:2). No greater pleasure exists than the Life and Love of God flowing in the mind and emotions of the believer (Psalm 16:11). So great is the pleasure of the presence of the Spirit of Christ Jesus, the Almighty God and Everlasting Father (Isaiah 9:6) in the mind and emotions of the believer that the will, simple machine that it is, simply turns and aligns itself with the will of God. Aligning the human will to the will of God while in the presence of God is simple—where the love of God reigns in the believer (Galatians 5:16). The question, therefore, becomes heartbreakingly simple, “do I love God enough to spend time with Him? Is Jesus Christ the love of my life, or am I captivated by another?”
Mistaking Ignorance for Apathy
Unfortunately, many pastors and teachers who ask these two simple but terrifying questions above to their congregations stop and go directly to the altar call, and the believer is left doubting his or her love for God. Failing to expound upon these questions, however, is often an admission that the full biblical teaching on Christian sanctification is not well-understood. In addition to the two questions above, we would add a third, “do I know how to enter into a deeper relationship with God?” For many believers the answer is, no. For many believers an understanding of the role of the conscience is a significant and missing piece because to understand the role of the mind, emotion, will, and conscience is to understand the heart, for the heart is precisely that: the function of the mind, emotions, will, and conscience working together.
The Conscience and the Heart
The conscience is the organ of the human spirit that communicates to the soul in each situation a sense of what is right, just, and profitable and what is not (1 Corinthians 5:3; Psalm 34:18). Many Christians are familiar with the phrase, “right thinking leads to right feeling.” Many are inclined to agree that this statement is accurate, and perhaps to a certain degree that statement is correct. But the Bible reveals that the function of the heart is yet more complex. To put it plainly, the mind in agreement with the conscience produces positive feelings. The mind in disagreement with the conscience produces negative feelings.
Why then do we observe in ourselves and others that right thinking often leads to bad feelings and wrong thinking often leads to good feelings? For example, when an unbeliever comes to the end of himself of herself, he or she thinks, “God, I cannot do this on my own.” But then a feeling of anger and rebellion wells up in the unbeliever, and he or she casts the thought aside. The thought was correct but the feeling was incorrect. Additionally, a person might wrongly think that having premarital sex with his or her girlfriend or boyfriend is the perfect way to express his or her passion. And in carrying out this wrong-headed idea the person (for a time) feels happiness, fulfillment, and satisfaction. In this case wrong thinking produces good feelings. Why does this occur? The answer, in large part, is that his or her conscience—that organ of the spirit which interfaces with the soul and communicates the sense of what is right and wrong has become hard—is corrupt and reprobate. The unbeliever’s conscience no longer recognizes or senses what is right or wrong, and the soul malfunctions—either reinforcing erroneous thinking through positive feelings or producing negative feelings from proper thinking. Right thinking and right feeling, therefore, in large part depend upon the condition of the conscience.
Every second of every minute of every day the mind receives sensory information from the fallen world. A mind that dwells on the things of the flesh patterns itself thereafter and thinks, plans, and imagines according to the flesh (Ephesians 2:1-3). The mind learns to think like the flesh (Romans 12:1-2). Fleshly thinking naturally and effortlessly agrees with a hard and calloused conscience, and authentic but poisonous feelings soon follow, further reinforcing the sinful lifestyle (Ephesians 4:18). The human will points toward the source of the worldly passions and the body seeks more and more fleshly pleasure, sending more wicked and Godless information flooding into the system and hardening the walls of the conscience further. Around and around the gearworks of the heart whirl and grind, and the heart becomes deceitful above all things and desperately wicked; who can understand it (Jeremiah 17:9)?
The unsaved person cannot please God because he or she lacks the faith (Hebrews 11:6) needed to receive a conscience sprinkled and softened by the Holy Spirit—a conscience aligned with the flow of the Holy Spirit (Hebrews 9:14, 10:22; Ezekiel 36:26). In other words, the person needs to come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ so that His indwelling Holy Spirit can begin working in earnest on the conscience. As the conscience is softened, a clear line of communication is opened between the Holy Spirit and the mind of the believer. As the believer sets his or her mind on the Bible, prayer, fellowship, and ministry (the things of the Spirit), his or her mind is renewed (Romans 12:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18; 2 Timothy 3:16; Hebrews 10:25; Ecclesiastes 4:9-12; 1 Thessalonians 5:11; 1 Peter 4:10). The believer begins to pattern his or her thinking on the things of God, thinking which is now in agreement with a soft conscience. The Holy Spirit, the all-powerful Law of Life begins trickling, then flowing, then flooding into the soul. Proper and Godly feelings result from a mind in agreement with a soft conscience toward God, and the believer is filled the Holy Spirit and great peace and joy—the Joy of the Lord (Romans 8:6). The human will—that frustratingly simple machine which used to find such great pleasure in the flesh—turns to align itself with the greatest pleasure imaginable (Nehemiah 8:10), the Lord Jesus Christ, and the behavior of the Christian changes—little by little and day by day (2 Corinthians 3:18)—and becomes a bright and shining light in the darkness (Matthew 5:14-16). This is the proper function of the human heart.
Every session which follows serves to explain in simple and understandable terms the life of faith, a faith that is more than merely believing; it is a faith of believing, hearing, and doing (James 2).