In his book Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands, Paul David Tripp argues that true change in the Christian life must start with the heart. This is fairly uncontroversial, but I think few people really understand the implications of this truth. Jesus said in Luke 6.43-45:
No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thorn bushes, or grapes from briers. 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.
Why do we do what we do? Why do we say what we say? As clear as this biblical teaching is, that all we say and do flows from our heart which worships idols rather than our creator, very little of the way we fight sin individually and as a community targets the heart. Instead, as Tripp says, we fruit staple.
In Jesus’ metaphor, fruit equals behavior and the tree represents the heart. Too often, we try to manipulate others into behavior without addressing the heart issue. Too often, we convince ourselves that our behavior is due to our environment rather than our own brokeness. Here are some examples of missing the point:
- I got angry with ___ because I haven’t had a lot of sleep lately/am stressed/get annoyed by him.
- You just need to go to a Christian college and get new friends so that you won’t go out and party with girls and alcohol.
- If I could just get a consistent quiet time, I wouldn’t struggle with worry.
- You should be listening to Christian music so that you won’t be tempted to say bad things.
- You just need to get plugged into community. (this advice is en vogue)
These are just a few examples. We could say a hundred different things here. Do you recognize your thinking in any of those? Have you ever said something like that to yourself of others? This sort of advice is not totally bad, but it falls terribly short. There might be certain times in some people’s lives where, in addition to dealing with the heart, some of this advice would be appropriate. But, on its own, this fails to recognize the root of the problem.
Now, the truth is, this sort of advice certainly does produce some sort of behavioral change, but usually it is only for a time. Furthermore, the change it produces masks the root issue which will always manifest itself somewhere else. This is why Tripp calls this approach fruit stapling. It gives the appearance that we are bearing fruit, but in reality, the fruit doesn’t flow from our hearts and eventually, we get tired of all the work that goes into stapling all that fruit on the tree and so we just give in and go back to bearing the old fruit again. Interestingly enough, the term ‘backslide’ that gets thrown around in church describes this giving up and returning to old ways. Those who ‘backslide’ do so because they probably never had their hearts changed or have never been taught how to target the heart.
By now, you should be asking, how then do we change our hearts? Here again, we must be careful. Many Christians who understand that our hearts need to be changed fail to understand how that happens, and so they simply call us to have clean hearts. They say: love God more, don’t love idols, desire Jesus, make him your only treasure, or recommit your life to him. It is good and right to call people to love God, but again, it is insufficient on its own. On its own, this only condemns us even more, for who can control what they love? We cannot just magically make ourselves love the food we hate to eat, nor can we suddenly find something we think ugly to be beautiful. We cannot change our hearts.
Praise God that he can. He changes our hearts with the good news of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Not only when we become believers but throughout our lives, God changes our hearts, drawing us irresistibly to love him. Sanctification is the process beginning with the new birth where God gives us a new heart and continues to conform us to Christ.
Does this mean that we just sit around waiting for God to work in us? No, we must preach the gospel to ourselves every day. We must examine the fruit of our lives and determine what we are worshipping that leads to this behavior. Sin is not just the bad things we do but the condition of our hearts leading to worship of idols. We must repent of these idols, recognizing that we deserve God’s wrath. And if we see that we need God’s mercy, and if we turn to Christ in hope and in faith, then we will love God because of what he has done for us.
The whole Christian life, from beginning to end, centers on Christ’s death and resurrection. Only as we examine and adore Christ will our hearts be drawn away from idols so that we begin to bear the fruit of love that stems from a heart being purified.
Finally, a warning to parents: be sure that your parenting is targeting, not behavior, but the heart. Your son or daughter is not doing what they are doing because of the bad influences in their life. Jesus had some bad influences is his life (remember when the devil tempted him in the wilderness?). Your children are doing what they are doing because they do not love Christ as they should. So, stop blaming the things around them and stop trying to control their environment so that they won’t ever be tempted to sin, otherwise you would have to separate them from their own hearts. Instead, seek to discern what they are living for and patiently teach them the gospel (you must do this yourself or they will see right through you). Are they seeking acceptance? Show them that God has accepted us through Christ’s blood. Are they seeking constant fun and entertainment? Show them that these delights will fade and that true joy comes through giving ourselves for the good of others as Christ has done for us when he gave his life up on the cross.
Once you have targeted the heart and preached the gospel, then employ wise behaviors that will help you fight temptation and grow in your understanding of the beauty of God. But, do not jump to behavior before you deal with the true avenue of change: the heart. Otherwise, you are just fruit stapling.