The Human Heart Is Treacherous
“The heart is more treacherous than anything else and is desperate. Who can know it? I, Jehovah, am searching the heart, . . . even to give to each one according to his ways, according to the fruitage of his dealings.”—Jer. 17:9, 10.
1. What does the Bible tell us frankly about the inclination of the heart of man?
OUR own experiences and the experiences of others remind us daily that one is not born with a good heart and a bent of mind toward righteousness. Despite the innocency of a newborn babe, sin and imperfection have already been at work within him since conception. The psalmist David put it this way: “Look! With error I was brought forth with birth pains, and in sin my mother conceived me.” (Ps. 51:5) Even conscientious parents who are endeavoring to bring up their children “in the discipline and mental-regulating of Jehovah” become painfully aware very often that “foolishness is tied up with the heart of a boy,” and have found that it takes “the rod of discipline” in its various applications to “remove it far from him.” (Eph. 6:4; Prov. 22:15) Jehovah mercifully took note of this miserable inheritance that is passed along from parents to children in His accepting the sacrifice of Noah and his family following the global flood: “Never again shall I call down evil upon the ground on man’s account, because the inclination of the heart of man is bad from his youth up.”—Gen. 8:21.
THE HEART CAN BE DECEPTIVE
2. (a) How is it that “the heart is more treacherous than anything else and is desperate”? (b) What realization did the apostle Paul acknowledge, even after making his mind over?
2 Working with the heart is tricky. If we are not careful, we become the victims of self-deception. The Bible warns: “The heart is more treacherous than anything else and is desperate. Who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9) A person who is treacherous is marked by a ready disposition to betray confidence or faith pledged; he is disloyal, untrustworthy, really traitorous. Think of it! We all have, in our imperfect state, a potential traitor enclosed in our bosom! Is it not true that at times we are appalled, yes, ashamed, over things that start to take root in the heart? And when the heart wants something desperately, this can lead to serious trouble. It is vital that we make adjustments quickly, to quiet down those new affections, to eliminate those sudden desires. The apostle Paul confessed that his renewed mind was being warred against by the bad desires arising from the heart as well as burdened by weights imposed by the imperfect flesh: “I really delight in the law of God according to the man I am within, but I behold in my members another law warring against the law of my mind and leading me captive to sin’s law that is in my members.” (Rom. 7:22, 23) He acknowledged that only Jehovah through Christ could rescue us from this miserable state. Left to our own devices, we would surely go astray many times. “Many are the plans in the heart of a man, but the counsel of Jehovah is what will stand.”—Prov. 19:21.
3. While the mind is in a position to influence the heart with reasoned-out conclusions, what can happen if the heart has no inclination to listen?
3 As we have learned earlier, the heart does not always listen to the mind. There are times when the heart overwhelms the mind despite its force of logic. We must remember that the heart reasons, too, although this has to do not so much with logic as it does with what is taking place in the heart as our motives, affections and desires take shape and gather momentum in a certain direction, whether for good or for bad. David prayed, “Let . . . the meditation of my heart become pleasurable before you, O Jehovah.” In contrast, Jesus said, “Out of the heart come wicked reasonings.” (Ps. 19:14; Matt. 15:19) The mind is in a position to influence the heart, to make logical recommendations to it, to appeal to it, perhaps on the basis of past experience, and in some cases strongly urge it to take a certain course because of knowing the dangers involved, but if desire and affection for a certain thing have built up strongly in the heart, the heart can win out.
4. Illustrate the workings of the mind and heart in connection with buying a new suit or dress.
4 To illustrate, suppose the time comes when you must make a decision on buying a new suit or dress. First, the mind is confronted with certain facts. Perhaps older clothes are getting past their usefulness or there is a need for a change for some good reason. The heart comes very much into the picture too, as there is a desire at heart to look presentable. Heart and mind are in agreement that a new dress or suit be obtained. The mind now collects information on prices, quality, styles, and so forth, so that when you go shopping you have a pretty good idea which suit or dress should be purchased. But when you arrive at the store, there in the window is quite an eye-catcher, just waiting for the impulse buyer. It is not really practical for you; it involves much more money; it is rather extreme in styling; but how it tantalizes the heart! “It’s the heart’s delight!”
5. What is necessary to keep our hearts unified to do Jehovah’s will?
5 Now what will be done? What decision will be made? Will it be a practical, reasoned-out one, or one according to this new desire of the heart? If you are not very careful, the heart will overwhelm the mind. You will be motivated to follow a course against your better judgment. On the other hand, this may be a case, as sometimes happens, of a momentarily divided heart. If so, the transcending good motives and affections of the heart will win out, resulting in the right decision to purchase the most practical ensemble to fill your clothing needs. But you are further reminded that in order to be assured that right decisions will be made, it is necessary to fortify and train the heart in advance in the counsel of Jehovah. “He that is trusting in his own heart is stupid, but he that is walking in wisdom is the one that will escape.” The more powerful desires that a person has cultivated at heart to put Jehovah’s interests and principles first in his life can overrule fascinating interests and desires that spring up suddenly in the heart.—Prov. 28:26.
6. Why is it necessary to act immediately if wrong desire begins to take root in the heart?
6 Now let us take this reasoning a step farther, into more serious aspects of life. How does the heart react when we are faced with temptation to commit immorality, to steal, to do injury to others? Even more seriously, what goes wrong when a person begins to scheme deliberately to satisfy the desires of the heart? Is your heart strong enough to motivate you away from a wrong course, or will it succumb to entertaining secretly the possibility of indulging in the desires of the flesh? To delay in making a right decision can be disastrous. A powerful force is generated when the heart begins to contemplate, the emotions are stirred and the flesh begins to prepare itself for the wrong. “But each one is tried by being drawn out and enticed by his own desire [which begins in the heart]. Then the desire, when it has become fertile, gives birth to sin; in turn, sin, when it has been accomplished, brings forth death.”—Jas. 1:14, 15.
7. Illustrate how the heart can win out in electing to go contrary to the arguments of the mind.
7 Consider, for example, the case of a married man faced with the temptation to commit adultery with a woman who is not his mate. His mind, from study and from what he has heard and seen, may have information weighing heavily against such a course. By reasoning on the results to others who have taken that course and considering the difficulties and bad aftereffects to which this will logically lead, his mind may produce arguments pointing overwhelmingly in the direction away from such temptation, information that urgently recommends getting out of the danger area. But suppose the person’s heart has no desire to turn away from the temptation? Then his heart will make a decision contrary to what his mind offers and recommends, the heart, in effect, saying to the mind, “No, but this is the way we will go.” The emotional power of his heart causes him to stay in the danger zone contrary to his mind’s counsel and reason.
8. How does the Bible describe the ability of the heart to choose the course one will take?
8 This ability of the heart to select between optional courses and fix its desire on one of them explains why the Bible speaks of the heart of man as ‘making plans’ and as ‘thinking out his way,’ that is, the way over which his mind has first thought and which way appeals to his heart. (Prov. 19:21; 16:9) This is particularly the case in moral and spiritual matters.
9. If the heart has a strong desire to do wrong, what can happen in bringing its influence to bear on the mind?
9 More than this, however, the heart may then move the mind to begin seeking some pretext or excuse for going in the wrong course, employing false reasoning. The person may enter into sinful action, and, at the very time that he is sinning, his heart may prompt his mind to invent justifications. He may presume on God’s loving-kindness, saying, ‘God is very merciful; he will forgive me on account of my fleshly weakness,’ and at the same time continuing his wrong course. He becomes like the wicked person who “has said in his heart: ‘God has forgotten. He has concealed his face. He will certainly never see it.’” (Ps. 10:11; compare Romans 1:21, 24.) It is no wonder, then, that the Scriptures warn us that sinful man’s heart is “more treacherous than anything else and is desperate.”—Jer. 17:9.
10, 11. (a) What did Jesus have to say about a man’s committing adultery in his heart? (b) How is it that a man, in God’s eyes, can go so far as to commit adultery in his heart, even though not touching one not his wife?
10 This also helps us to understand how it is that a person can be viewed by God as having committed adultery although he has not even touched the other person involved. A man may at a glance see a beautiful woman not his wife and in his heart say, “She’s quite attractive,” this being done almost before he has had time to think about it. This passing deduction does not have to be wrong or impure, but if a man “keeps on looking” at this woman, desire is bound to develop so as to build up a passion for her in his heart. Jesus counseled: “But I say to you that everyone [married] that keeps on looking at a woman so as to have a passion for her has already committed adultery with her [where?] in his heart.”—Matt. 5:28.
11 Such one has not engaged in the actual physical act, perhaps because circumstances have not lent themselves to it; he does not feel he can ‘get away with it’ without undergoing a lot of disagreeable problems. His mind may have warned him of this. But if the circumstances should change, appear propitious, if he thought there were some possibility of escaping serious aftereffects, then his heart is already willing to commit the act, wants to do it. The full motivation is there—only the opportunity is lacking. In God’s eyes such a one is already guilty. (Compare James 1:13-15.) In the very same way one could become guilty of theft, or even murder. (1 John 3:15) Can we see, then, why it is so important for us to appreciate clearly the Bible’s distinction between mind and heart, and that the heart, and not the mind, is the seat of motive?
12. How did David allow his heart to lead him astray, in contrast with Joseph?
12 It was said of David that he was a man after God’s own heart, but on one occasion he happened to be looking out his window and in the distance bathing herself, perhaps innocently, was Bathsheba. Rather than turning away before erotic thoughts could be stirred in his heart, he kept looking and built up a passion for her. In turn, this led to his shamefully committing adultery and maneuvering matters to have her husband killed so that he could take her as wife. In contrast, Joseph fled when tempted by the sex-mad wife of his master. True, he landed in prison on a false charge and lost his freedom for a while, but he had not lost his good conscience and standing with God.
JEHOVAH KNOWS THE HEART AND ITS NEEDS
13. What do the Scriptures show as to Jehovah’s knowing the heart accurately?
13 Who can know the human heart? Well, we must confess that in our imperfect state we cannot fully, but how thankful we can be that Jehovah does! “For not the way man sees is the way God sees, because mere man sees what appears to the eyes; but as for Jehovah, he sees what the heart is.” “I, Jehovah, am searching the heart . . . even to give to each one according to his ways, according to the fruitage of his dealings.” “You have examined my heart, you have made inspection by night, you have refined me.” (1 Sam. 16:7; Jer. 17:10; Ps. 17:3) Jesus also knows accurately the workings of the heart of man. “The things proceeding out of the mouth come out of the heart, and those things defile a man.” (Matt. 15:18) Now, what are those things?
14. (a) What penetrating analysis did Jesus make of the heart’s capacity? (b) Are we working against impossible odds in attempting to have a good heart?
14 While the human heart is capable of the most noble and exalted motivations, look what foul, repulsive things can also come from the heart, as enumerated by Jesus! “For from inside, out of the heart of men, injurious reasonings issue forth: fornications, thieveries, murders, adulteries, covetings, acts of wickedness, deceit, loose conduct, an envious eye, blasphemy, haughtiness, unreasonableness. [Matthew’s account adds “false testimonies.”] All these wicked things issue forth from within and defile a man.” (Mark 7:20-23) Faced with the capacity for such a formidable array of wicked things originating in the heart, one could easily give up and say it is no use. Most people do. That is one reason why the broad road to destruction is filled with so many millions, whereas the narrow and cramped road to life has so few thereon. But Jesus did not hold out an impossible goal in opening the narrow way leading to everlasting life. He did say: “Exert yourselves vigorously to get in through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will seek to get in but will not be able.”—Luke 13:24.
15. In starting to reshape and mold our desires and affections in order to have proper motivation, of what should we remind ourselves?
15 How we take in knowledge and submit to discipline determines to a large degree what affections or desires, whether good or bad, develop in our hearts, and with what intensity they spring from the heart. We cannot feed the heart and mind with a steady diet of filth and expect to have good desires and motives. Moreover, the mind needs good reasons to recommend to the heart as to why something should be done or not be done. It takes educating and disciplining of the heart. (Prov. 23:12) Then finally the heart is won over, if there is any tendency to be reluctant, as it gets a taste of the good results that come from doing the right thing. It is not just a matter of getting up in the morning and saying, “Today I’m going to be more loving,” or some similar expression, as if working such psychology on self will provide the answer. First, we must cultivate good qualities as a way of life in daily application so that good habits and traits can be formed, and then be honest with ourselves in getting to know the root causes of the bad qualities and tendencies embedded in the heart. Then we can apply Bible principles in eliminating or controlling them. “When wisdom enters into your heart and knowledge itself becomes pleasant to your very soul, thinking ability itself will keep guard over you, discernment itself will safeguard you, to deliver you from the bad way.”—Prov. 2:10-12.
16, 17. (a) Describe the heart situation of a person who has spent much of his life in immoral surroundings. (b) What conflicts develop as he learns the truth of God’s Word?
16 To illustrate this reorienting of the heart, consider what takes place in the heart when a person hears the truth of God’s Word with delight after spending a good portion of his life associating with immoral persons and frequenting places that are in business for providing sensual pleasure. The person has shown a great deficiency in good motivating capacities, since “anyone committing adultery with a woman is in want of heart.” (Prov. 6:32; 9:1-5, 13-18) Reading cheap novels, looking at pornographic magazines and listening to and telling dirty jokes may have enhanced this craving for sexual stimulation. Now he learns that, instead of growing old and dying, he can look forward to living forever under perfect conditions. This appeals to him at heart. But he also learns that only those who conform to Jehovah’s righteous requirements will live there. What will he do?
17 The strong immoral cravings of the heart and flesh, built up over the years, are not dispelled overnight. How conscious he becomes of this! A terrible conflict of mind and heart begins. (Ps. 38:7-10) The mind sees the logic of serving Jehovah: The wrath of God can be escaped; freedom from sickness, suffering and death can be had, leading to everlasting life; good conduct really is in the best interest of one’s body, physically, mentally, and emotionally; and wholesome, upbuilding association among God’s people is available to replace the former friends who encouraged and contributed to his delinquency. But the heart wants things now, all the things that have given it secret delight in the past! True, there is a desire to worship God there, although rather weak now. Deep down, there is a desire to do what is right, but this is not too strong now. The mind reminds the heart of the evil consequences, such as possibly contracting a venereal disease or fathering an illegitimate child or being party to an abortion, which points cannot be gainsaid by the heart, but still those desires are there.
18. How is the heart finally won over, so that it finds its highest delight in doing Jehovah’s will?
18 This is a crucial point in his life. Many, progressing to this point, go no farther. Life in the new system sounds very good, but the attractions to the old system are too strong in the heart. But the one who keeps mustering up courage in his heart to progress, yes, forcing himself to do the right thing, to get the law of God into his heart soon finds it easier to do the right thing. More than this, the heart gets a taste by actual experience of what pleases God, and the more the heart does this, it has to conclude, you can get pleasure in this too. It, along with the mind, sees the benefits. These former desires begin to be replaced in the heart by the right things. Two things cannot occupy the same place at the same time. In effect, there has been a ‘circumcising of the heart.’ (Rom. 2:29; Col. 2:11) Now he stays away from the former acquaintances and bad influences because he wants to at heart, not because he has to force himself. The heart has come to find its highest delight and purest pleasure in the doing of God’s will and associating with his people. The former things become revolting to him. He has built up a love, a deep affection, for God’s law in his heart. “The law of his God is in his heart; his steps will not wobble.”—Ps. 37:31.
OTHER MOTIVES OF THE HEART
19. What influence does the heart have on the tongue?
19 Morally, we may have our hearts under control, but what about the motivations of the heart otherwise? How are we using the tongue, for instance? Jesus set forth the principle: “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Matt. 12:34, 35; Prov. 15:28) The good heart motivates one to speak good things. However, if anyone “does not bridle his tongue, but goes on deceiving his own heart, this man’s form of worship is futile.” Gossip is bad medicine for the heart. If we are not careful, it just gets great delight in savoring “juicy” items about others and spreading them around. But the spreading of rumors and half-truths is unloving.—Jas. 1:26.
20. (a) Why is it necessary to keep loving “one another intensely from the heart”? (b) Why is it significant that forgiveness must come from the heart and not just from the mind?
20 More seriously, “if you have bitter jealousy and contentiousness in your hearts, . . . there disorder and every vile thing are.” (Jas. 3:14-16) “You must not hate your brother in your heart.” Rather, we are instructed to “love one another intensely from the heart.” (Lev. 19:17; 1 Pet. 1:22) If your brother has sinned against you, it should be straightened out “between you and him alone” before you build up a hateful attitude toward him. Of the unforgiving ones Jesus said: “In like manner my heavenly Father will also deal with you if you do not forgive each one his brother from your hearts.” (Matt. 18:15, 35) One of the seven things that Jehovah hates, as listed at Proverbs 6:16-19, is “a heart fabricating hurtful schemes.”—Ps. 140:2.
21. What common tendencies of the heart can be manifest if extreme care is not exercised?
21 In our relationship with Jehovah and his organization, there is no room for hypocrisy, greed, haughtiness or stubbornness. (1 Tim. 1:5; Ps. 101:5; 131:1) Both the ‘doublehearted’ and the “halfhearted” are condemned by God’s Word. (Ps. 12:2; 119:113) The tendency of the heart is to put up a pretense, to justify, to lie out of a situation. If this tactic does not work, then there is a resorting to flattery or possibly to threatening by abusive speech or reviling. (Rom. 16:18) The heart needs to be trained in truthfulness and obedience so that we will be honest not only with Jehovah but also with ourselves and our brothers. If we have sinned, and our hearts ‘begin to beat’ us we should quickly go to Jehovah in prayer and bare our hearts before him, seeking forgiveness and a cleansing of heart. (2 Sam. 24:10; Jas. 4:8-10) If a serious sin has been committed, we need to reveal this to the responsible ones in the congregation and seek their help. The heart should not despise reproof nor be “unfeeling just like fat.” Jehovah “is healing the brokenhearted ones, and is binding up their painful spots.” (Ps. 119:70; 147:3; Prov. 5:12-14) If we appreciate Jehovah’s mercy and this provision to cover over sins by the ransom sacrifice, we can confidently approach Jehovah without being further condemned at heart, as we henceforth walk circumspectly before him.—Heb. 10:22; 1 John 3:18-24.
22. Why is diligence to guard the heart at all times important?
22 Our hearts need to be guarded with all diligence, as we look to Jehovah to help us to ‘lead our hearts on in the way.’ Because the heart is deceitful and can revert to former bad ways before we know it, we must every day be mindful of the exhortation from God’s Word: “Trust in Jehovah with all your heart and do not lean upon your own understanding.” Doing this, we have the assurance that “the peace of God that excels all thought will guard your hearts and your mental powers by means of Christ Jesus.”—Prov. 23:19; 3:5; Phil. 4:6, 7.
23. Why, “more than all else,” should the heart be safeguarded?
23 Can you see more clearly now why it is that “more than all else that is to be guarded,” we should safeguard the heart? The “sources of life” come out of it, and this not only because the heart, as a muscular pump, causes life-giving blood to course throughout the body to all the cells to keep them alive and healthy. More importantly, the heart can, if we develop it properly, originate the motives, desires and affections which, with Jehovah’s help and undeserved kindness, will ensure for us everlasting life in perfect health in his new system of things. The great heart Physician, Jehovah, has correctly diagnosed the heart condition of all mankind and only he has the right prescription for our defective hearts: “My son, my law do not forget, and my commandments may your heart observe, because length of days and years of life and peace will be added to you.”—Prov. 3:1, 2.