A Change of Heart
By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Jeremiah 31: 31-34
I have a confession to make. I am a closet evangelical. Saying I’m a “closet” evangelical isn’t exactly right, because I don’t keep it a secret. I just don’t say it very often because of the troubling meaning that the term “evangelical” has taken in our society today. Today it means a particular social demographic associated with certain political views. They have been forged into a formidable voting block over the course of the last four decades.
But most Americans don’t associate them with faith so much as politics, and it seems they themselves understand themselves more politically than spiritually. For instance, polls indicate that the majority of people who self-identify as Evangelical rarely or never go to church.
But I understand Evangelicalism differently. I became a Christian as the height of the Evangelical movement in the 70s—the “Jesus Movement,” we called it then. I was fourteen years old at a religious camp and I prayed with my friend Marc that I accept Christ; and I became a Christian. For me, and for the movement itself at that time, evangelicalism was about a transformative personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Paul’s dramatic conversion experience on the Damascus Road was the framework. When the risen, glorified Jesus met Paul on the Damascus Road, Paul’s whole life—his self-understanding and his moral framework—completely changed forever.
I don’t think everyone needs to go through a radical transformative conversion experience like Paul’s—I think for most Christians it’s a quieter process that happens over time, over the course of their lives. But it’s a powerful metaphor.
Evangelicalism was and is about what today’s passage from Jeremiah is about: Changing the heart.
These days when we say heart we mean the seat of our passions–of courage or love or kindness. For Biblical Jews, “heart” is that, but also much more. It is the essence of personality—it is who you are. It is the place where moral decisions are made. If it is corrupt, you make bad moral decisions.
For the ancient Jews, the heart was the self. If you pray for a change of heart, what you mean is a change of yourself—a change of your self-orientation, of what drives and defines you. A change of heart is a change of who you are.
And that’s where the change of heart comes in for all of us. Because we are not our best. And we know it.
We struggle with that sense of inadequacy. I have this personal mantra: I’m always at least five years behind where I need to be. I feel like I’ve only just developed the emotional, moral and psychological toolbox I wish I’d had five years ago. I am only just now becoming the parent I should have been five years ago—maybe even ten years ago. I am only just now becoming the husband I wish I was five years ago, or the minister that I needed to be five years ago. Like they say, learning it late is better than never learning it at all. But I hate that I had to discover these things through the mistakes I made, the people I hurt, the balls I dropped, the friends I lost. I wish that I already had the emotional maturity, the strength of character, and the moral fortitude to rise to every occasion and to do right by other people and God at all times.
We hate that feeling. We wish it would go away.
What we often don’t recognize is that it is the doorway to God.
It is this deep spiritual hunger that the prophet Jeremiah sees afflicting his people, God’s people. They are meant to be with God—their nation was founded specifically because of their unique relationship with the Lord God who rescued Israel out of slavery in Egypt. Their identity as a people was uniquely bound to their unique relationship with God.
But they had strayed. They needed a change of heart.
The problem is that first they need to recognize their need. And like all of us, they’ve come up with all sorts of excuses and reasons that they are fine just as they are and don’t need to change. They even argue they are already good with God, so there’s no need for change. It’s a refrain that we are just as familiar with today. Since we’re already good with God, why do we need to change? It’s other people who need to change, not us.
But I relate to theologian Stanley Hauerwas’ simple but profound description of what a Christian is: A Christian, he said, is someone for whom the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus is their story. But key to that is understanding that that profound spiritual experience of death and resurrection is not just one cataclysmic experience—it is an ongoing experience. Our entire lives are an ongoing experience of death and resurrection, of recognizing a new spiritual need or emptiness or blind spot, a new sin that must be dealt with or an old sin finally revealed, a new spiritual practice to replace one that has grown old and stale, a new passage of life that requires you to be a new person; and realizing that you can’t make that inner change by yourself.
And so you turn, again and again, to God.
Like I said, that feeling of inadequacy, that feeling of lostness or failure, that feeling we hate, actually is a doorway to God. It’s God’s spirit talking to our spirit and saying, “It’s time to change. Let me help you.” This moment of spiritual vulnerability is your moment of greatest spiritual strength. It is the moment when you realize that you are incomplete with Christ, and so God must change your heart.
And God will do it. Because you want what God wants for you.
I want to recognize all the ways the conversion story has been misused and manipulated. It has been used wrongly to tell LGBTQ folk to change, that they are resisting God. That is a lie. The change of heart God requires of us is that we find oneness with God, not conformity with social norms.
Again, it has been used against minorities to tell them they need to change and accept their lot. Again, the change of heart God requires of us is that we find oneness with God, not conformity with social norms. In fact, the biblical witness is that God is most sympathetic to and most aligned with those who don’t conform to social norms.
Jesus tells us to look at the log in our own eye rather than the speck in another’s eye. But sometimes there’s no speck in another’s eye at all: all we’re seeing is the log in our own. It’s one of the ways God is calling upon our hearts to change.
The change of heart that God promises through this new covenant in Jeremiah is not just any change. It is a return to our original created purpose, to becoming whom we are meant to be. We have been created to be one with God, and as St. Augustine said, our hearts are restless, Lord, til they find their rest in Thee.
This transformation of the heart is a deep, profound relationship with God that means we can go directly to God when we are confused, lost, in trouble or in doubt; that we can sense God walking with us every day. It means that the Holy Spirit has entered our very DNA and is transforming us miraculously and amazingly into people who are one with God.
As God in Jeremiah says, ‘No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord.’
This transformation means we know God. But this knowing isn’t “knowing” like you know a fact–like once you know it, you never forget it. This “knowing” is the knowing of relationship.
All of us are somebody’s children. I think that’s a fair statement. Most of us have “known” our parents our whole lives, and they’ve “known” us—but at various times we’ve gotten frustrated with them and said, “You don’t know me!” and the relationship needs to change. By the way, parents feel that too, kids—like you don’t “know” us. It’s a part of any relationship, this ongoing process “re-knowing.”
That is what it is like with God. It is a deep, ongoing relationship, this knowing, and to truly “know” God means that we constantly “re-know” God—we change and grow throughout our lives. Our views of God get modified. Our views of how to live Christian lives get modified. Our views of other people, seen through the prism of Christ, get modified.
All this is what it means to “know” God. It is both “being” and “becoming.” It is a continual series of deaths and resurrections, of knowing and re-knowing, and every one of them brings us into relationship with God through Christ in a new way.
One of the marks of the Evangelical movement in the ‘70s was the deep belief common to American spiritual movements, that if only more people would be Christian, then the nation would be a better place. I don’t buy into that idea. History indicates that the nationalization of religion leads to corruption of both the nation and the religion.
But I do believe that if those of us who are Christian would remember that ultimately our faith is about oneness with God, about seeking that profound, always transformative inner relationship, it would change things. For one thing, it would re-orient us from thinking that the only way to see things is how I see them now. We’d approach life with more humility and more openness; with more awareness that God is changing us all the time, that we are constantly “knowing” and “re-knowing,” and so we can always learn from one another. We are always in need of a new way of looking at things, we always need to change; so we shouldn’t fear it, but welcome it, because change is a doorway to God.
It may be too much to ask that of a nation. But it is not too much to ask of Christians. It’s what being a Christian means.