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Don't Follow Your Heart!

Follow the Leader

by Dennis Pollock

It is enlightening and a little bit surprising to read the writings of the Old Testament prophets. If we are to take them as true representatives of God (which I surely do), they are a lot tougher than most of us would expect. They certainly spoke with a lot more bluntness and moral indignation than one normally hears from the pulpits of our churches these days. They often reproached Israel severely for their idolatry, immorality, and lack of concern for the poor and weak. Once in a while we find a summary statement in their writings which goes beyond specific sins and gets to the root of the matter. In this devotional study we shall observe one such statement by the prophet Jeremiah, and consider how it might apply to our current generation.

In the seventh chapter of Jeremiah we read these words:

“Yet they did not obey or incline their ear, but followed the counsels and the dictates of their evil hearts, and went backward and not forward.” (Jeremiah 7:24)

Here we find the essence of Israel’s guilt. Israel was guilty of many sins, but ultimately their problem was a matter of who they were following. Jeremiah declares that they were not following the Lord or His ways, but rather they followed the demands and desires of their evil hearts. There is a wealth of theological truth contained in this short statement. Let us consider some of the major insights it reveals.

Evil Hearts

Perhaps the first thing that stands out in this statement is that the people of Israel had evil hearts. This is nothing surprising or novel to those familiar with orthodox Christian theology, but in our generation, where theology and foundational Biblical teaching are often replaced by Christian pep talks and ego-boosters, it would probably come as something of a shock to many. But there is no getting around this. All who take the Bible seriously will come to the same conclusion – men and women are born into this world with defective hearts, in the moral sense. It is unnatural for us to think, behave, and speak righteously. According to the Scriptures we are all born with corrupted, selfish, grasping, ego-centered, God-defying natures which lead us into misery, broken relationships, crime, and conflicts of all kinds.

Jeremiah writes: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Many generations later Jesus would teach: “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders…” (Mark 7:21). Later Paul would write this about those without Jesus Christ: “…having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart…” (Ephesians 4:18).

So when Jeremiah announces that Israel has followed the counsels and dictates of their hearts, this is not at all a good thing. Nor is it a good thing for us, thousands of years later, should we do the same thing. This may seem rather fundamental, but in truth it has profound implications for us today. It screams out a powerful truth that most people seem never to have grasped: we cannot trust our own hearts!

We live in a generation which has naively assumed that nearly everything we may feel, desire, or imagine must surely be legitimate. To follow our hearts is to be “true to ourselves.” It is all a part of “keeping it real,” and “being who we are.” But in truth, if anyone ever determined that he would follow and obey every whim, lust, desire, demand, impulse, and urge that arose in his heart, he would become a moral monster of the highest order. Every day that goes by we feel urges which are clearly inappropriate. We are constantly experiencing strong impulses to say things which would be hurtful, to do things which would be dishonest, and to demand things of which we have absolutely no right. The best of men and women are always having to say no to the demands of their darker selves, or they would soon cease being the best.

Recently a well-known celebrity decided that he was no longer willing to live as a man and would start to dress and act as a woman. It would have been comical if it wasn’t so sad to see how all the American press, along with the singers, actors, and other entertainers joined in a universal chorus of praise. They tripped over one another, pathetically eager to declare how proud they were of this man, and how courageous he was to finally come out and be true to himself. He had obviously wanted this for years, and now at last he had worked up the courage to take the brave and noble step of wearing dresses, pantyhose, and high heels.

But where is it written in universal law that one must always act upon every impulse, every whim, and every demand that stirs within us? Is it noble and “courageous” to lash out at every person with whom we feel anger, to initiate or demand sex with every person for whom we feel desire, to eat everything that tantalizes the eye and stirs the stomach, to lie every time we feel the need? If being true to yourself is the goal of life, then surely every serial rapist, every thief, every fornicator, every adulterer, every murderous dictator, and every obnoxious, disagreeable, grouch in the world must be an incredible success.

The Bible says, “We all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others” (Ephesians 2:3). This is the natural state of men and women. We are inherently selfish creatures, with a rapacious appetite to satisfy the nearly overwhelming desires that arise in our flesh and in our minds. In the first passage we noted, Jeremiah was saying that this quest for self-gratification was Israel’s big problem. Their hearts were setting the rules, making the demands, inspiring the lawless behaviors, and the people of Israel were submissively following right behind. Their wicked hearts set the pace; they made sure they kept up in perfect time. We are no different. The problem is not simply experiencing unlawful, ungodly “desires of the flesh and of the mind.” Every one of us has them. They surface unexpectedly and sometimes surge in us with tremendous force. It becomes sin only when we fulfill those desires, when we yield, either enthusiastically or reluctantly, to the cravings of our darker side.

Permission Denied

boss and secretaryThe battle is won or lost when desire first appears in our hearts and minds. Although we don’t always recognize it, there is a process that we all experience at this point. Every emerging desire is quickly evaluated, using certain standards and protocols. Imagine a boss going over some work with his pretty, young secretary in his office. As she looks at him with her beautiful, large, brown eyes, he experiences a sudden desire to kiss her. But even as the desire arrives, it is quickly put aside. His thinking may run something like this: “I don’t dare do this. First, I’m married. Second, she would probably slap me. Third, I could be sued for sexual harassment. And fourth, this is surely not the right place, even if all the other things could be dismissed.” And so, rather than kissing her, he goes on with his instructions, and nothing happens.

Refusing to give vent to unlawful, unreasonable, or foolish desires is something that every responsible man or woman experiences constantly. We might think it marvelous if we could totally trust every longing, every urge, every whim, and every passion that runs across our minds, hearts, and flesh. If we could freely and blamelessly indulge ourselves in every single desire we ever feel there would be no need for self-control, and life would be so… easy! But it is not that way. Over the course of a lifetime every one of us will experience countless desires and urges which are ungodly, unlawful, and inappropriate, and we will have to say no to ourselves – again and again. This is why the apostle Paul wrote: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age” (Titus 2:11, 12).


Traditionally, one of the strongest evaluative tools men and women have used in determining whether to satisfy a particular desire or deny it has been the culture in which they live. From our birth onwards we grow up in cultures which have much to say about what is right and what is wrong, what is appropriate and what is totally unacceptable. The rules, principles, habits, and laws of our particular culture become a powerful force within us, causing us to engage in or refrain from various behaviors instinctively, with barely a thought. Of course we do think, but our thinking has been colored for years and decades by the people and environment in which we have spent our lives.

The problem with culture as a determiner of our behavior is that one’s cultural values may be completely wrong. There are hyper-orthodox Muslim cultures in which many feel it is altogether proper to stone a woman to death for going out in public unescorted by a male, or for marrying someone of a different religion. There have been nations in which prostitutes were used as a part of idolatrous worship. Just because those among whom you have lived speak with authority and tell you something over and over again, this does not necessarily make it true.

Secondly, cultures have a way of changing. Never is this demonstrated any more vividly than in America over the last few generations. In my parents’ generation, homosexuality was considered shameful, something few would dare have anything to do with. And those few who did engage in it were careful to keep their activities secret and their shame well hidden. They knew that they were engaging in something which American culture disapproved, and which nearly everybody despised, including political authorities, most celebrities, the media, the church, the teachers, the average working man, as well as the average professional. America had nearly universally lined up on the other side of this issue and declared: “It is wrong, it is evil, it is unnatural.”

And yet today, homosexuality is celebrated in nearly every quarter, except for the evangelical church. And even among the evangelicals, few pastors address the issue. What in the world happened? The answer is simple: our culture has changed its mind. Over the course of a few decades, the essential doctrines of evangelical Christianity became more and more despised by the media and the celebrities. Americans have stopped asking, “What does the Bible say,” and started paying far more attention to the opinions of their favorite actors, singers, and media stars.

Imagine some male, public figure living in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1952 who fantasizes that it might be fun to change his gender, start wearing bras and dresses, and calling himself “Debbie.” Although it might cross his mind, he would never dare act upon it, knowing that he would be ridiculed and scorned, and that it simply wasn’t something that any reasonable man would ever do. Moreover, he would most likely be hit with another thought: that such a thing was wrong – it was unnatural and immoral, against the laws of man and of God. Yet today men and women will often change their gender (as best they can), change their name, divorce their spouses, and live in a way their Creator never intended, while the world cheers them on as brave and courageous for being true to themselves.

If Jeremiah were alive today he would put it differently, and declare that they have “followed the counsels and the dictates of their evil hearts.” Although culture changes, God never does. And His word stays eternally the same. The good news is that His love for His sinning, errant, foolish, stumbling creation has not changed either. Regardless of how far one descends into the filthy morass of our corrupted culture, God’s love is deeper still. Through the cross and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ, He is able to reach down to where we are, lift us up, clean us off, and made us sterling examples of His grace, mercy, love, and power.

No, we must not follow our hearts. They are fickle, gullible, susceptible to every whim of public opinion and latest fad, and are entirely untrustworthy. Rather we must determine to follow Jesus Christ, who alone is able to lead us in paths of righteousness and peace, and bestow upon us the priceless gift of eternal life.


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