When I was nine or ten years of age, I hit my sister. (I’m sure she deserved it).
My parents were not happy. They sat me on the sofa. They told me that my behavior was unacceptable. They asked me if I wanted to be the kind of person who retaliated with violence.
And then they orchestrated unpleasant consequences.
I don’t remember the actual consequences of that day, but whatever they were, they worked. I never again retaliated with violence.
But look at the motivations for my morality. My parents appealed to my identity (I didn’t want to be THAT kind of person), and they appealed to my comfort (I didn’t want to experience THOSE kinds of consequences).
In other words, my parents taught me morality by appealing to my self-centeredness.
The problem with the world is people lie, cheat, and steal. But we lie, cheat and steal precisely because we are self-centered. Our moral teaching replaces one selfishness (lying, cheating, and stealing) with another selfishness (identity and comfort).
We’re curing heart disease with cancer; and it’s going to metastasize. Someday our well nourished selfishness will not be offset by selfish-identity or comfort; then we’ll lie, cheat or steal. After all, we’ve been taught to act in selfishness.
Scripture promises that someday the law will be “written on our hearts.” God doesn’t merely mean we’ll memorize the law. He means we’ll have changed hearts. Someday we’ll avoid violence because we love others not just because of the consequences.
Let me show you how God did this very heart transplant in an Old Testament prophet.
The curious case of Jonah’s heart
Jonah’s story is famous because of the whole “whale” thing. Instead of the whale, let’s look at Jonah’s heart. In his story there is a “see-saw” activity between God’s Voice and his Orchestration. Eventually we see a change in the desires of Jonah’s heart.
His story begins with a Voice, “Jonah, go the Nineveh and preach” (Jonah 1:2 paraphrased). Jonah disobeys and flees. So God Orchestrates a consequence, the whale.
God’s Voice comes a second time. This time Jonah goes to Nineveh. But his heart is not yet changed. He preaches the world’s least loving sermon, “You’re all going to burn and I’m going to roast marshmallows” (Jonah 3:4, okay, that was paraphrased a bit too).
God acts through Jonah’s sermon despite Jonah’s graceless heart (he doesn’t even offer the option of repentance). Despite Jonah’s oversight, the Ninevites repent of their evil and violence (Jonah 3:5-8).
God relents of his judgment, and Jonah is mad (no judgment of those nasty people). God then Orchestrates a plant to grow and it comforts Jonah from the heat. Then God Orchestrates for the comfort to disappear. And Jonah is even madder.
Finally God’s Voice speaks one last time, “You have compassion for a mere plant, but you did nothing to make it grow, and it came and went in a day … Shouldn’t I [God] have compassion on … 120,000 people who do not even know their right hand from their left? (Jonah 4:10-11).
This time Jonah’s heart is melted. The law is finally written on his heart.
How do we know that?
How can we know Jonah’s heart is changed? Because the book of Jonah was written.
In his book, Jonah describes his own weakness and sinfulness. Jonah confesses his disobedience; he describes his own bigotry and hatred of the Ninevites; he shows his desire for punishment not mercy; he expresses his anger at God for showing mercy; and he confesses his own selfish pettiness at the loss of the plant.
Only a changed heart can do that. The story of Jonah is the story of a man confessing his self-righteousness. Prior to God’s Voice and Orchestrations, Jonah could easily have prayed, “Lord thank you that I’m not like those evil Ninevites” (Luke 18:11). Afterward Jonah would have prayed, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13).
Jonah’s story is the story of a moral but self-righteous man needing God’s mercy.
God is after our hearts
The final words in the book of Jonah are, “Shouldn’t I [God] have compassion on … 120,000 people who do not even know their right hand from their left?” Clearly God is pursuing Jonah’s heart. God isn’t satisfied with Jonah’s external (even selfish) obedience. God wants Jonah’s heart to be changed.
The unwritten final question in the book of Jonah is, “What will we do with our hearts?” Will we be the selfish, self-righteous Pharisee who prays, “Thank you Lord that I’m not like these other sinners?”
Or will we be like the man with a tender heart who prays, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner?”