Last Sunday we began a three-part series on the gospel and its alternatives in the gospel of man. We first looked at the gospel of law-keeping. The good news is that if we do our part well enough, God will do his part in accepting us. The gospel considered this morning is that of the heart. We do not have to do anything to obtain God’s favor. He already accepts us because he sees the basic good in our hearts. If we need to do anything, it is to learn to trust our hearts.
According to this gospel of man, it is the heart that teaches what is right and wrong. It is the heart that is able to feel its way into the deeper truths, so that one knows the absolutes of life, as well as what is personally right. For the heart is able to detect what neither reason nor conscience can do — and that is what truly is of you and connects you to “the other.”
It is the heart that sends one out to find his own way. It is the heart that, in the moment of crisis, makes clear what needs to be done when reason is dead-locked and conscience is stymied. And so it is the heart that leads the timid girl to risk her life to save others, even when reason said it could not be done. It is the heart that leads the soldier to break the rules in order to save his company from defeat, even when his conscience says to obey orders.
It is the heart that leads us through the frightening scenarios that throw our ethical and moral schemes into confusion, so that we can make the right decision for us at the time. Is a particular relationship right or wrong? The heart knows. Is it okay to lie this time? The heart knows. Will there ever be a time in which the right thing to do is to do what seems to be wrong? The heart will know. The heart separates the mean-spirited chaff from the wholesome grain.
Follow the heart. There are many conflicting voices telling us what is right and wrong. There are many tempting voices luring us in opposing directions. Who knows the truth? Who knows what is right for any one person? Who knows but the heart of the individual? And this makes sense because, as this gospel teaches, inwardly people are good. It makes sense because everyone is unique. And it makes sense because there is a plethora of views, perspectives, philosophies, and religions. It makes sense because there are happy, fulfilled people living widely differing lives. How are they able to do this unless the answer is that they are following their hearts?
Our character, Micah, in the Judges 17 story illustrates the mindset of the good heart gospel. He steals silver from his mother, then, confesses and returns it because he does have a good heart. His mother, who is also good-hearted, blesses her son and even dedicates the silver for his use to make a metal image, an idol. Micah is so excited. He makes a shrine for the idol, adds other household gods, makes an ephod (clothing for a priest) and even ordains one of his sons to serve as priest. He has his own little church. And it gets better. A Levite, who was traveling through, agrees to be hired as priest. A Levite is a member of the tribe set apart expressly to serve as priests and caretakers of the ark and tabernacle. It would be like finding an ordained minister to serve your personal religious needs. Micah was doing what the writer explained: “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (v. 6).
When we hear that phrase, we take it to mean something like, “everyone did what was evil because they could get away with it.” As the book of Judges reveals, that was oftentimes the case. But in this particular story, we have a man who sincerely thought he was doing what was right. As far as he is concerned, he is honoring the God of Israel with his shrine, as well as the lesser gods of the land and household. And surely God must be honored, seeing that he would send a Levite to serve as priest. Now Micah knows that God will prosper him. Unfortunately, the story will not end well for him, but for the moment he couldn’t be happier and more justified. This good-hearted man is enjoying the fruit of his good intentions.
The Gospel of the Good Heart: You Are Going to be All Right
Let’s fast-forward to the present day and enter into the Church of the Gospel of Man and listen to a sermon presenting this version of the gospel. The good news is that “you are going to be all right.” You may be poor in any number of ways. Life may be hard; you may have gotten into deep trouble; bad things may have happened to you; whatever the case, you are going to be all right.
How can you know this? First, you have it within yourself to do what is necessary. It may be to atone for some wrong committed. Perhaps you need to overcome obstacles with perseverance and hard work. What matters is to believe in yourself, to know that you have within you what it takes. The struggles, the suffering, the pressures that come your way are only serving as a crucible to purify the pure gold you are made of.
You also have God. And God will always give you another chance. Not only will he give you another chance, he will help you. You must help yourself, of course, but God will give you a hand because he is good-hearted and wants what is best for everyone. God is not angry with you. God knows that deep down you too are good-hearted, if only you had opportunity to prove it.
What matters is that you do the best with what you possess. That is really all that God asks of anyone. Get along the best you can. And whether things turn around now or you struggle for a long time, in the end you are going to be all right.
What is the path to being all right? This again is good news, for the answer is that it is any path that your heart leads you to take. You may adhere to a specific religion. Follow it sincerely and as best as you are able. Most religions are helpful in channeling you along a healthy spiritual path. Perhaps you prefer to select what your heart considers good from different religions; perhaps you are in tune not so much with religion as with spiritual and moral insights that seem right. It does not really matter because you are respected by God as a unique individual. His divine spark is in you, but it is your uniqueness that gives the divine spark its singular expression in you.
So another aspect of the good news is that it is good to be you. Whatever your distinctives may be, those distinctives are natural and good. And if there are to be any changes in you, those changes are merely the honing and perfecting of your natural born individuality. If you should need to be re-born, it is re-birth back to your natural state. It is possible that you have allowed outside influences to mold you into what you are not.
What do you think of this gospel? Before you are harsh with it, consider its merits.
There is an emphasis on good. One might think that there is no right and wrong in the gospel of man, but that is not true. The term “law” may not be found in the vocabulary of the gospel of man, but there is, nevertheless, a law that guides its adherents just as much as law plays a role in the Christian gospel. It can best be summed up as a commandment — “Do not be mean-spirited.” The adherents of this gospel know that mean-spirited behavior is wrong.
One might think that love would be the predominant theme. Love certainly is an exalted virtue, but the gospel of man does not present its adherents with impossible commands. Sacrificial, unconditional love may be applauded but it cannot be attained by everyone all the time for everyone else.
The gospel of man neither exhorts its adherents to attain to such heights, nor even suggests that it would be good to try. Why? Because those who try often end up becoming busy-bodies more than true lovers. It is a fine line between lovingly getting involved for the good of one’s neighbor and being bothersome. Jesus’ Golden Rule fits in well here: Do unto others as you would have them do to you. Most of us would like being accepted as we already are. We do not impose ourselves on others; and we would like for others not to impose themselves on us.
This gospel, furthermore, affirms faith. In the movie, Second Hand Lions, the character Hub explains faith to a young boy.
“Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most. That people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; and I want you to remember this, that love… true love never dies. You remember that, boy. You remember that. Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. You see, a man should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in.”
It is this ennobling character of faith that makes it a transforming agent. Consider Hub. What does he believe in? Kindness, joy, love, honor, courage, and virtue; that people are basically good. What does that kind of faith produce in him? The same character traits. Hub is himself honorable and courageous. He believes true love never dies because his love for one woman never died. He believes that people are basically good, because within his own gruff exterior he is a good man. You become what you believe.
Faith ennobles the believer. It also ennobles the person who is the object of faith. The anti-hero of the movies becomes a hero precisely because someone shows faith in him or her. It is faith that others show in us which leads us to overcome our flaws, to make the second try, to go on when we would have given up.
There is faith in God or “the other” that gives a sense of meaning to this life. Some of you of my generation may remember “Desiderata,” a prose poem set to musical background that became a pop hit in the early 1970s. It expresses well the sentiment of faith.
“You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.”
This is the essential faith of the gospel of man. Whoever, whatever God may be, there is someone, something behind or entwined in the universe giving it meaning however meaningless the events may seem.
The most important type of faith in the gospel of man is faith in ourselves. It is this faith that leads to peace, as it also leads one to becoming the most he or she can be. However wonderful it is to have others place their faith in you, nothing truly is accomplished without faith in yourself. To believe in yourself, to have faith in the good that is within you, the specialness that is uniquely yours — that is what lifts you to a higher plane of existence and performance.
So in this gospel is a moral sense for what is right and good. There is the exercise of faith. There is even redemption. When you have failed, there is no greater feeling than to do something which redeems for that failure. To drop the fly ball that allows the go-ahead run, then hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth to win the game is a sweet feeling of redemption. To let others down and then to make up for it by achieving something positive — that is the sort of redemption we like more than being redeemed by someone else. For to need the redemption accomplished by someone else is to admit we did not have it within ourselves to succeed. But to attain one’s own redemption — that is sweet indeed.
Movies about old gunslingers and warriors carry this theme. They are burdened by heavy consciences. The movie plots then allow them to redeem themselves by saving innocents, perhaps even dying as they do so. Even Darth Vadar is able to redeem himself in the end as love for his son awakens the good that had been buried in him.
The personal redemption of the gospel of man speaks to the heart of man more than the Christian gospel. For this gospel’s redemption lends dignity to the individual. He is not always on the receiving end; he is not placed in the position of being unable to do anything for himself. He is not left with the sense of being a failure. According to the Christian gospel, the individual must admit, “I have nothing good in me to atone for my sins.” According to the gospel of man, the individual must admit, “I really do have good within me to atone for my mistakes.”
And so in summary, the good news of the man-made gospel of the heart has a place for goodness, faith, and redemption.
Responding from the Heart
I want us to consider these claims about the heart by using our hearts. Psalm 16:7 says, “I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me.” It is not night time yet, but I think our hearts can still do some inner instructing.
I must confess that much of the gospel of the heart appeals to me. I like this focus on there being good in us. If we are honest, however much we may point to the moral spiraling of our country, we can think of neighbors and co-workers and fellow students who are decent people. Does anyone really like being around someone who delights in pointing out whatever is wrong in others, or even worse, to be around a person who is morbid about his own failings.
But then, what do our hearts often tell us at night in bed, or whenever we take the time to be alone with our thoughts? We recall that unnecessary critical word we said or that word that really was gossip. If we are men, we might think of how we degraded a woman in our minds. In the day, we were so pleased with ourselves only to realize at night in bed that our action was done out of pride, even outright arrogance. There was that good we failed to do and “those things which we ought not to have done.” As much as motivational speakers preach against it, we can’t help but admit that there are “ifs” to regret. If only we had done what was right; if only we had not acted in such a way. When we listen to our hearts — our hearts, not the hearts of others — we don’t feel that underneath the bad we might do we are really good, but that underneath the show of good, we have much bad in us.
Isn’t it good to know that there is someone who sees all of the bad, who nevertheless loves us? And not because he sees we are basically good, but because, well, because he chooses to love us. How does that make our hearts feel? Doesn’t it make us feel the desire all the more to do good, to be good? Doesn’t it increase in us the desire to be like our heavenly Father, like our Lord?
What about faith? I think I get what Hub is talking about, but what if I could have faith in something that is both worth believing in and true? What if I could have faith in someone whom I really could trust to be not merely basically good but wholly good; who is just and merciful, holy and loving; all-powerful and compassionate? What if I could have faith in someone who gives me what I need to be faithful, who gives me strength to carry on, even to be victorious?
As much as I might like to have faith in myself, my heart tells me it is better to put that faith in one who has proven himself to be all those things above. My heart feels more loved in the love of the God who first loved me by sending his Son to die for me, than it does in my self-love. My heart feels more secure in the God who is Creator, Ruler of Creation, and my Redeemer.
And redemption? I do want to redeem the troubles I have caused, but my heart takes comfort and then strength and then hope in the redemption already won for me in Jesus Christ. It is in his redemption that my heart takes heart. My heart warms to the knowledge that Jesus has sent his Holy Spirit into my heart to turn it from stone to flesh, from sin-stained to sin-cleansed. My heart feels that it can go on because he who began a good work in it will carry that work on to completion.
And so I feel dignity in my heart because I have received the merciful love of the Lord of the universe. My heart feels special knowing that I am not a child of the universe, but a child of the Creator of the universe.
Gospel of the heart? I invite the heart of everyone to receive such a gospel to which you don’t have to prove your heart is worthy enough to be accepted by God. You don’t have to prove to yourself that you are good enough or that you have enough faith in yourself or that you can redeem yourself. Receive this good news from God — for God so loved you that he gave his only begotten Son, that if you have faith in him he will redeem you; he will make your heart good.
Turn to the One who is the lover of your soul.