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“We need to make sure you’re not having a heart attack.” No one wants to hear those words, but that is what I found myself hearing after going to my doctor with chest pains. Thankfully, I did not have a heart attack, but the experience made me grateful there are tests one can perform to be sure.
Yet, this experience made me think of the need Christians have for another kind of heart test. The Bible talks about our hearts as our spiritual center or the core of who we are and how we relate to our Creator. Jeremiah 17:9 instructs that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick,” thus showing that we are born with a need for a new heart. Thus, as Acts 15:8–9 shows, through faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our sick hearts can be washed clean.
In 1 Samuel 15–16, we are given descriptions of these two hearts, lived out in the examples of King Saul and David. Saul, with a sick heart, is led to disobey God’s commands, focus on himself, and to show greater concern for what others thought about him, all while looking impressive to the world. By contrast, David is shown as one with an upright heart who sought God’s will, pursued a relationship with God, treasured the Word of God, and relied not on himself but on God.
Further, we know that even those of us with redeemed, cleansed, and new hearts can still sin and manifest the fruit of sick hearts from time to time. Perhaps we are persuaded not by God’s Word but by the counsel of the world to “follow our hearts” when facing a trial or temptation. This counsel always fails, for a sick heart gives only bad advice. The truth is that our hearts will express affection for that which it worships and adores and, as much as we think we know ourselves, our hearts can confound and confuse us, for we cannot separate ourselves from our hearts.
Given that, I have found that I need a spiritual heart test. This check of the health of my heart allows me to see whether I am walking in the Spirit, following a heart redeemed by Christ, or if I am walking in the flesh, following the patterns of my old, sick, deceitful heart. In fact, sometimes I have been so confused about the state of my own heart that I have needed to take more than one test, so I have developed three.
The first heart test is the Speech Test. This is a simple question to diagnose what the focus of your heart is. Jesus explains in Matthew 12:34 that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” The Speech Test asks: What is your mouth saying? Under normal circumstances? Under pressure or in emergencies, what comes out of your mouth at the most intense moment? The truth of this test is that our long-term speech patterns do not lie. Therefore, the Speech Tests asks us, What do you spend most of your time talking about?
The second test is the Alone Test. Psalm 149:5 says, “Let the godly exult in glory; let them sing for glory on their beds.” Reflecting on this verse, John Piper said, “It says something if you sing in your bed.” That is, when you are all alone, and no one else is watching or listening, what do you do? Where is your heart?
The Alone Test asks: Can you think, right now, of the last or most recent time you talked to God by yourself? In graduate school, I started cultivating and practicing both morning and evening devotions not to achieve spiritual extra credit but because I found that I needed to bookend my day making sure I talked to God about what I was learning and thinking and not rely on my own thoughts. The Alone Test helps show who we are and where our heart is in relation to God.
The third test is the Puritan Test. Diagnosing your heart is not merely passive but should be something that pushes us to active investigation. That said, active work should be done with care lest we fall into the trap of unhealthy introspection. The Puritans are great for adding in this task for they give surgical questions to ask and answer, and then help us move on—for introspection without crucifixion leads to paralysis.
As one example of the Puritan Test, Thomas Watson’s meditation on Romans 8:28, A Divine Cordial, contains the chapter “The Tests of Love for God.” Here, Watson lists signs of love for God and encourages his readers to see if those signs live in their hearts. Some of those include:
- A heart that meditates on God. Watson asks, “Have our thoughts got wings?”
- A heart that hates sin. Watson states, “A man cannot love health and love poison too; so one cannot love God and sin too.”
- A heart that longs for His return. Watson says that those who “love Christ are joyful to think of his coming in the clouds. . . . When our union with Christ is perfect in glory, then our joy will be full.”
These three heart tests allow us to assess our hearts and redirect them to remember that the main character in our lives is God, not us, and that He wants us to know where our hearts are in relationship to Him. Lest these tests discourage us, God gives us hope in Psalm 73 that though our hearts may fail us, “God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (v. 26).
Do you think you might be having a spiritual heart attack? Don’t follow your heart—test it and find that God is eager to help and cleanse us, for He “is greater than our heart” (1 John 3:20).