It seems keeping the heart one of flesh, instead of being one of stone, is the continual work of a lifetime. Softening, rather than hardening, requires a strength and intentionality that doesn’t come naturally to me. In the wake of my defensiveness and desire for self-preservation, I repeatedly need to engage in the work of letting my heart be real. The simple act of believing in the goodness of others (and living in that truth) is one that requires me to be soft-hearted over and over again.
As I’ve gone into the prison, I have grown in seeing the goodness in people who have made many mistakes. Many of the men I interact with are easy to find goodness in because they are seeking the Lord, too. Their zeal for the Lord or their desire to love Him or find Him invites me to see how God is moving in their hearts. Others are a little more difficult since they make me feel uncomfortable or continually lie to me. But as a whole, I am able to look at men who have raped, murdered, and committed all sorts of crimes and proclaim their inherent goodness.
For whatever reason, we often look up what crimes the men are in for and how long of a sentence they received. At times, it helps to understand their position: are they in for life or a few years or simply back after breaking parole? We decided to look up one man I’ve talked with several times and see his crime. It was surprising because the kindness and gentleness I’ve experienced from him ran contrary to the crime he was sentenced to serve. Yet, despite the surprise, it didn’t really change how I felt toward him. The goodness and kindness I’ve experienced are real and he is far more than the crimes of his past.
In college, I spent hours praying outside an abortion clinic in Pittsburgh. At first, I was there strictly for the babies. Then, I grew in understanding and love for the parents, grandparents, and friends who walked through those abortion clinic doors. While not condoning their actions, I was able to see more clearly the factors that would lead them to believe abortion was their best solution. But it was the day that I felt compassion and love for the doctor that I felt my heart grow wider and become more real, more like a heart of flesh.
As I watched the doctor walk up the sidewalk, I felt a sudden impulse to go to him. I walked by his side to the clinic doors. The conversation was brief and unremarkable. What was impressive, however, was the movement of my own heart. Instead of hatred, I was aching with the realization that the proponents of life had probably hurled the most cruel words at him. I could sense his heart of stone and I recognized that the people who profess ardent love for babies had likely contributed to the hardness of his heart. Without saying much, I simply wanted my presence at his side to be one of unwavering love. I wanted to be present and merciful because the Lord’s heart ached with love for this man, this doctor, this beloved son of the Father. And in feeling a fraction of that ache, my heart became more human.
Yet, yesterday, I realized something profoundly sad. Despite this growth of my heart and the grace to see goodness in prisoners and abortionists, I also found a striking lack of appreciation for the goodness in some of my students. It doesn’t seem extraordinary to love them because the circumstances are very ordinary. So, yesterday, I taught one class about the inherent goodness in creation as seen in Genesis and then a few hours passed before I realized I might need to tell my students about their own goodness. Probably particularly in the moments when they aren’t acting good.
If I could love an abortion doctor as he walked to work, could I not also love a student even as they are disrespectful, disruptive, and intentionally difficult? The answer, of course, is that I should.
Loving my students in the ordinary moments can be difficult. It isn’t a single surge or one act of the will that it requires. Rather, it is a daily reaffirmation of my love for them. A repeated acknowledgement that they are good even when it seems like what they are showing me is far less than their best or sometimes even intentionally their worst. Loving the students seems so ordinary and yet it also seems to require extraordinary grace. Each day that I don’t enter into genuine love for them, I know my heart is becoming more like a heart of stone, justifying my short-temperedness with their lack of respect. If I develop this type of love, I am certain it will prove infinitely useful for future family life as well as in relationships with friends, family, and co-workers.
I desire a heart of flesh, a love that isn’t based on actions or on how much I like the other person. I want to love unconditionally. I want to see the worst in people and still be able to genuinely affirm their goodness. That definitely isn’t where my heart is now. Yet every time I’ve been able to experience a piece of the heart of God burning within me, I have grown and changed and felt more alive. It is a fight to keep this heart soft, tender, and real, but it is worth it. Every time I’m convinced that it is easier to just be cynical, sarcastic, and safe, I am moved by how the tenderness of the heart of God is difficult but far more fulfilling.
Grant us hearts of flesh, Lord. Break our hearts of stone and give us new hearts.
Where in your life do you need a renewed heart of flesh? Toward whom do you have a heart of stone? Which ordinary moments do you need God to flood with His extraordinary grace?