Listen to Your Heart: Finding the Way to Goodness and Grace
Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for a tree is known by its fruit. Brood of vipers! How can you speak good things when you are evil? For the mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart. A good man produces good things from his storeroom of good, and an evil man produces evil things from his storeroom of evil. I tell you that on the day of judgment people will have to account for every careless word they speak. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matthew 12:33–37)
When Jesus told the Pharisees to make the tree bad and its fruit bad, he was pushing them to listen to themselves. After all, they had just declared that he was working miracles by the power of the devil. He wanted them to consider the importance of their own words and what those words said, not just about him, but about them.
Either Jesus’s works were good, and they were from God, which meant the Pharisees had taken sides against God, or else Jesus’s works were bad … but if they could honestly stand there and declare that it was evil to heal a blind man, or to drive out a demon, then it was evident there was something deeply wrong with the way they viewed the world.
Had they honestly listened to themselves, in other words, they would have been compelled to consider the rot at their own core.
Rather than keep trying to polish up bad fruit, they would have had to give up the game and make their own trees bad.
They would have had to tell the truth. And that truth would have opened up the way for repentance.
For the Pharisees to “make their own trees bad” would not have been as awful as it sounds. If we do it, it won’t be so awful for us either. Because when we get real about what’s rotten inside us, we open the door for God’s grace to meet us where we really are.
And then, only then, we can make the tree good. Or, to switch over to Jesus’s second metaphor, we can start storing very different things in the storeroom of our hearts.
Listening to Our Hearts
I find it interesting that Jesus said we would be judged by every idle, careless word we speak. I used to understand this as a warning: Be careful about what you say.
Of course, that’s a good caution. But I’m now more inclined to believe Jesus ties judgment to careless words because our careless words reveal more about what’s really going on within us than the carefully crafted, calculated words we may present to the world.
When we speak off the cuff, we inadvertently throw open the doors of our inner storehouse and let others see what’s actually in there. And that is the basis of fair judgment — not the images we make, but the truth of our hearts.
I’ve personally experienced this a few times lately. I’ve heard myself saying really stupid things, inconsiderate and hurtful things. And as much as I want to disavow them, and say that’s not really me, it was really me. I said that, and it came out of something that’s really in my heart.
Was some of what I said true? Maybe. Partially justified? Sure. Perhaps. Could anyone fault me for thinking what I thought? Maybe not.
But my words sure did out me, in a lot of ways. As someone who’s far too critical. As someone who’s much too quick to judge. As someone who is capable of misinterpreting and misportraying others in ways that can be tremendously painful. As someone who’s lacking love.
If I want to know the condition of my heart, then, all I really need to do is listen to myself. I need to step back and allow myself to hear my thoughts and my words, especially the idle ones. If I listen, I’ll hear the stuff I’d rather hide — the bitterness, anger, unforgiveness, spite, arrogance, superiority.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also say that I’ll hear other things I’m glad of. When I listen to my heart, I hear love and joy and peace and patience and a lot of other things that are growing there because of the Spirit of God in my life, and I’m grateful to acknowledge them. I also hear the things that make me me, the unique aspects of my dreams and my personality and my life experiences that are likewise gifts from God.
When God looks at me, he sees and hears both. He will never relate to me apart from the whole picture of who I am. We need to learn to do the same when we look at ourselves. We need to learn to acknowledge what is good in us and what is bad; what is a gift of God and what is not.
This is how we alter the content of our storehouses: when we find old, festering, ugly things, we hurl them out as fast as we can.
(That includes the things that try to sneak in, the rats and snakes and spiders that are not actually us at all but come in through demonic whispering and try to take up residence. Yes, that stuff is also in our hearts, all of us. We don’t have to let it stay there.)
When we find what is broken, we cry out for healing and for help.
And when we find what is golden and good, we embrace it with gratitude and joy.
But I’ve digressed a little. The point is we can listen to ourselves, our own thoughts and sometimes our own words, and hear a lot of what’s really in our hearts. The good and the bad. It requires us to be very honest, fairly humble, and willing to look at stuff that makes us wince and stuff that makes us cry, for all the reasons things sometimes do.
But that’s what Jesus calls us to do. He asks us all to face ourselves with honesty and then get busy about doing inner work. That’s repentance.
And it’s the way to access grace.
It’s Not About Being Broken
In our social media culture, I feel bound to say a word about this: getting honest and real and humble about our struggles is not ultimately about being broken, even if sometimes it feels good to openly acknowledge that we are.
You may know what I mean: in our fight to be authentic, we sometimes lean all the way into our brokenness as the best picture of what is really real for us. In a culture where we feel pressure to pose and perform every time we pick up our phones, confessing to our mess can bring feelings of relief and freedom.
And this is a good starting point; it’s the starting point. But while we must confess our mess and embrace our own souls with compassion, shining a light on the mess is not the goal.
The goal is transformation. The goal is to make the tree, at long last, what it was always supposed to be. The goal is to make the tree good — from the roots up.
Followers of Jesus aren’t supposed to polish up the fruit. We’re supposed to root our lives down in new soil, drinking up the water of life that God offers to give us, guarding and nurturing this precious gift of being human in God’s world.
Jesus is not looking for us to play or perform. He doesn’t ask us to become false; that is antithetical to everything he is. But he is looking for us to become truly good, from the inside out. To fill our storehouses with what is good and golden; to fill our hearts with what is gift.
That’s why he said “You must be born again.” It’s why he called us to repentance.
Repentance, new birth, restoration, transformation — these things are actually possible for us. We can be made new. We can become authentically good.
Jesus asks us to be real. And then he can make us true.
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This is Part 216 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.
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