The heart of the human problem

When Serena Williams bowed out of the Australian Open last month, it took fans and rivals by surprise. Up 5-1 in the deciding set, and on Match Point, motoring toward equalling Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam title wins, she propped awkwardly in a rally. Appearing to roll an ankle, she lost every game thereafter, propelling opponent Pliskova into a semi-final.

The veteran of 335 Grand Slam match wins, nearing the end of her glittering and dramatic career – and, like many sports stars, now a cult-figure – Williams has polarised the tennis world. Sports fans love her or loath her.

After dropping out, fans on both sides of the Williams divide demonstrated huge emotion.

Sport plays an immensely sentimental role in the world, and in Australia it has often been referred to as a religion. Personally, there have been many times in my life when sporting victories and losses have swayed my mood! Imagine 2018 as a West Coast Eagles supporter and an Australian Test cricket fan. A true dichotomy of fortunes!

When things go against us, our mood can tend to place heavy demands on others

Reflecting on what affects our emotions reveals what is all too common in each of us.

Our partialities sway our moods. And we all have our favourite things. If it’s not sport, it’s other things. When things go against us, our mood can tend to place heavy demands on others, and these come often from good desires in our hearts that we treat as needs. Our desires can turn into what God calls ‘idols’.  Paul for example puts it this way:

“Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming.”  (Colossians 3:5-6)

Idols, therefore, are things in our hearts (the “things” that we desire, in whatever form) that have taken the place of God.  The things we think we need, in order to be happy.

Canon J. John once preached, “The heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart.” Indeed, the Bible teaches that, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)

Solomon proved this true. When visited by a vision of God in a dream where he was told, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you,” Solomon was wise and requested a “discerning heart… to distinguish between right and wrong.” (1 Kings 3:5, 9) God granted his request. But, like so many accounts of human leadership in the Bible, the story didn’t end well. His heart ultimately lusted after the women of the nations, and in hundreds of acts of sinful intermarriage, Solomon’s heart was turned away by his wives and concubines from the wisdom and worship of God. (1 Kings 11)

No matter how well we start out, temptations of the heart are ever present, and the threat of falling into sin is unceasing.

We’re all subject to the heart-shaped conditions of being deceived by the world, our egos, and Satan.

Our hearts are also tempted when we seek identity from performing well (achievement), from our possessions (assets), and in pleasing people (craving acknowledgement, accolades and admiration). And there is no better way of describing this process than the progression of an idol.

The progression of an idol starts with a desire, which in many cases is good, but when it’s not met, this desire becomes a demand. When our demands aren’t met, our attitude becomes one of judgement. And a judging attitude ends in the behaviour of punishment. We make people pay. The more we’re aware of this progression-of-an-idol pattern in our humanity, the better. It literally occurs all the time in all of us. There’s no need to feel alone or guilty. Indeed, becoming aware of the idols of our hearts helps us live humble lives where confession and repentance become central to our living out Jesus’ abundant life (1 John 1:9).

There is hope in halting the progression of an idol, because the Bible also teaches about the progression of a godly response. It’s a great encouragement that God’s way is the gospel way; that it works!

We can own our desires and be honest that we crave them. Instead of escaping the pain of our situation we can learn to embrace our feelings, however unpalatable they seem at the time. This process is referred to as godly grieving – asking good questions of ourselves and arriving at acceptance.

Godly grieving is not just letting go.

Godly grieving is not just letting go. It’s being open to the possibility that trials, disappointment and hardship may be used by God to bless and transform us – to grow us in Christlikeness.

To understand more about idols of the heart, the progression of an idol and how to respond in a godly way, come to Heart of Peacemaking training in 2019 in your State or Territory.   You can download a copy of the full training brochure here, or access our website for further details.

Scripture quotations from the New International Version (2011).

This article is by Steve Wickham. Steve has been married to Sarah for 11 years. They have one son, and Steve has three adult daughters. Steve has a passion for peacemaking and is a PeaceWise trainer. He has worked as a registered safety practitioner in chemical manufacture, downstream petroleum, and ports initially, then subsequently as a pastor, counsellor and school chaplain.

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