In my last semester of seminary I took a required course called CPE. CPE is an acronym for “clinical pastoral education.” This is where a seminarian becomes a floor chaplain in a hospital. I was assigned to a cardiac ward and was there to minister to the unique needs of heart patients. I quickly caught on that if something goes haywire with your heart every other physiological function in your body is diminished. One of the most common, and most dangerous, of the heart diseases is called arteriosclerosis. Arteriosclerosis is the thickening, hardening, and loss of elasticity of the walls of arteries. It restricts the blood flow to one’s heart, other organs, and tissues caused by the buildup of fatty plaques in the artery walls. Smoking, poor diet, lack of exercise, and genetic factors are contributing causes of arteriosclerosis.
Roughly 2, 8000, 000 people die every year in America of which 800,000 do so from heart disease (1/3). Heart disease, by far, is the #1 killer of both men and women in our country. Thus, there are over 500,000 surgeries performed annually to combat this silent killer (uncles, JD). During my time in CPE, and 30 years of ministry, my heart broke as I watched dozens of people I cared for endure major surgeries and suffer through painful therapies. Unfortunately, a few of my “flock” had hearts so badly damaged and weakened that they never made it off the table. Dealing so often with the heart-breaking ramifications of heart disease made me realize one of life’s most valuable lessons:
*Keep Your Heart Healthy Or You Won’t Be*
Pastors are a lot of things, but mostly we are spiritual cardiologists. As such, we are always concerned with the condition of our people’s spiritual heart. What is a diagnostic tool, and MRI if you will, to determine whether or not you have spiritual arteriosclerosis? As we continue our “Guard Your Heart” series today let’s turn to Hebrews 3:12-13, to find out
12 See to it that none of you has an evil, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.
13 But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.
The Nature of Unbelief!
The pastor to the Hebrew congregation is trying to figure out why the first generation of Israelites, the very people God miraculously rescued from the Egyptians, through 10 Plagues and Red Sea Crossing, never made it into the Promised Land. Instead, they eventually died in the desert after circling around MT Sinai for forty years. The cause of death, according to his autopsy report: spiritual arteriosclerosis brought on by onset unbelief. Unbelief is a silent spiritual killer because it does not trust God’s person and promises for everything we need in this world and the world to come. It is the foundational sin, the most lethal sin, and the worst sin since all other sin springs from it. The pastor strenuously warns his people about the dangers of unbelief because it has the power to turn their hearts away from the “Living God.” How does it do that?
The Greek word for hardening is skleroma which translates into our English word sclerosis. It means to be emotionally and spiritually hardened against someone. Hardness of heart clogs our spiritual arteries to the point that we chronically refuse to listen to and trust God. I’m sure we all, at one time or another, have suffered from bouts of hard heartedness! This is when we completely shut down dialogue, thoughts, and feelings towards another person. We don’t want to talk to them, be around them, or even think of them. It’s not even that we are upset but just emotionally indifferent towards them. Unbelief, like nothing else, hardens our hearts towards God, the worst of all spiritual conditions!
Hard Hearts Examples
Spiritual arteriosclerosis happened to Pharaoh. When he heard God’s demands to free the Israelites through Moses, Pharaoh hardened his heart, i.e., meaning he wouldn’t listen to or obey God (Exodus 8:19). In the 1st century, the Pharisees were out-and-about condoning no-fault divorces and using Mosaic Law to justify it. Jesus told them this was a concession from God because of the “Hardness of your hearts” (Matthew 19:8). When Paul was teaching in the synagogue about the salvation that comes only from Jesus Christ we are told, “Some were hardened and refused to believe” (Acts 19:9).Three times in our immediate context the pastor warns his people, “Do not harden your hearts as the Israelites did” (3:8,15,4:7).
The Insult of Unbelief
Unbelief generates within us a spiritual arteriosclerosis which hardens our hearts towards God and turns us away from him. Unbelief always turns us away from God because it insults his character. To qualify, we are not talking about momentary doubts but chronic unbelief. The worst thing we can say, the worst rumor we can spread, and the worst insult we can hurl, is to say someone is not trustworthy. They may be talented, smart, and even loving, but these things are of no value if, at the end of the day, we can’t trust them.
How many of us just love it when our character is questioned, criticized, or attacked? Nothing gets our “meters in the red” faster although we know, at the bottom of our hearts, that we are flawed and on our very best day are not totally trustworthy. Now consider how God feels when we question his character through unbelief. Obviously, God is awesome in love, holiness, goodness and amazing in the rest of his attributes and his omni-qualities. We wouldn’t be here right now if we didn’t believe it was so. However, unbelief says that God is not totally reliable, dependable, and trustworthy. It may not be nice to fool Mother Nature but it is far worse to not trust God. Because of the Israelites’ chronic unbelief, God would not permit them to enter in the Promised Land. God disciplines it far more harshly than any other sin.
The best way to guard our hearts against spiritual arteriosclerosis caused by onset unbelief is to fill our hearts with faith (prescription for spiritual Lipitor???). How do we get more faith? Romans 10:9 tells us that we get if from hearing the Word of God. Faith says that “God is both willing and able to do whatever he has promised” (Romans 4:21). Faith trusts God and glorifies his trustworthiness. Faith is the best prescription for spiritual arteriosclerosis.
Some of us may need to transplant a few arteries of unbelief and replace them with arteries of faith (stints). While others may need a total heart transplant. The good news of Ezekiel 36:26 is that God is exceptionally good at heart surgery:
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
Let’s pray that God would do his surgery on us now!