Jesus Lives in My Heart

“I don’t like the word spiritual, especially as it’s defined in American society, where it’s essentially another form of narcissism.”Chris HedgesMoral Combat: Chris Hedges On War, Faith, And Fundamentalism

I recently had the misfortune of sitting through a sermon where the speaker uttered the phrase “Jesus, who lives in my heart,” or some variant of that line, probably fifteen or twenty times. And went on to talk about what he could do “with Christ, who gives every bit of himself to me.” Leaving aside the bad theology of the latter phrase, I’m more perturbed by the repeated use of the phrase “Christ living in my heart” in his message with its focus on a private faith, and what that means in how we make decisions and convince ourselves of the rightness of our actions, at the expense of “working out our salvation in fear and trembling,” in community. Granted, there are four or five verses that could possibly be used as the basis of such an idea, such as Paul writing about “Christ in me, the hope of glory,” or “Not I, but Christ, who lives in me…” But those references all have something to do with the fundamental change that Paul (and other writers) say happens when we “put on Christ,” and you would be hard pressed to use them as proof-texts for saying that Jesus living in your heart means that you can ___ (fill in the blank).

I owe a debt to David Dark, both in his book The Gospel According to America and to conversations over coffee, for giving me the language to express my thoughts as it relates to this subject. So instead of trying to re-articulate the problems I see with the catch phrases used by the aforementioned speaker, I’ll let you read David’s words from chapter two of his book, Song of Ourselves: Narcissism and Its Discontents in a Bipolar Nation. This paragraph starts by referencing a claim by then-Texas Governor Bush that it would be hard to explain how Jesus “changed my heart” if people didn’t already know exactly what he was talking about. David writes:

[H]e’s right. It’s what millions of Americans are referring to when they say that they know or that they’ve “got” Jesus as their savior. I don’t mean to imply disingenuousness on the part of anyone when I suggest that this way of talking isn’t necessarily faithful to the traditional Christian confession. Harold Bloom has suggested that “knowing” Jesus, believing yourself to have a one-on-one relationship with him (unmediated by tradition; “in the garden alone”; impossible to explain to anyone who doesn’t know him like you do), is a recently developed form of gnosticism that is probably the real, most-often-practiced, American religion. Minus the obligation to aspire toward continuity with a historic, visible, practicing community (based on some recognizable fashion on what Jesus of Nazareth said and did), we’re left alone with what we believe in our hearts our personalized Jesus is telling us. The nonpolitical, fully spiritualized Jesus is on the rise in America.
As a cautionary measure against our tendency to tell ourselves the Jesus in our heart of hearts is telling us to do whatever we’ve already decided to do or that the Bible somehow buttresses whatever we feel is right, the Christian prayer of confession affords us the opportunity to recognize ourselves as fallible discerners of whatever it is the Spirit is saying to the churches. Trying to be faithful to that word, perceived with fear and trembling, is what the church does. But to the Christian mind, the individual human heart, far from having a direct line to God, is, to borrow the language of Jeremiah, both deceitful above all else and desperately wicked… Is our talk of our knowledge of Christ divorced from an apprenticeship to his way of doing things? When we say we know him (or that someone else doesn’t) are we making reference to the historical Jesus or are we simply talking about some well-meaning, inarticulate heart longing? This is why communal accountability, discernment, and confession of sin will, traditionally, save us from the tyranny of a “personal, private faith” and the clear and present dangers of Sheilaism*.”

* (my footnote) “Sheilaism” refers to nurse Sheila Larson and her quote, well known among sociologists of religion, that says, “I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith is Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.”

On a closing note, as I was thinking about the sermon, I remembered a story poet Scott Cairns told at last year’s Festival of Faith and Writing. Here’s what I wrote after that session.

Near the end of their conversation, Scott recounted what ended up being my favorite story from the whole festival. After “embracing finally the fullness of the faith,” he has taken several trips to Greece to talk with monks who have become his spiritual guides. On one trip, he was outside one of the monasteries of Mount Athos, having been engrossed in conversation with Father Iákovos for several hours, when a tourist, a Baptist minister, approached them and interrupted. He demanded of Father Iákovos, “Do you have Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?” Father Iákovos looked up, paused for a moment, then replied, “No, I like to share him with others.”

5 thoughts on “Jesus Lives in My Heart”

  1. This is a lot to mull over but it reminded me bit of my Apologetics course in college when our professor pulled a (possibly Hindu?) quote and substituted the name of their god with Jesus…and it sounded exactly like what an American Christian would say about their relationship with Jesus. (he of course didn’t tell us until after we all agreed it sounded good 😉 I don’t remember a lot from Apologetics (sadly) but that made a big impact on me. In any case, that book The Gospel According to America is still waiting for me to read it.

  2. Hmmm, there is lots to ponder on blogs today! withoutwax.tv preached a sermon over there. Lots to think about especially as we begin at a new ‘church’ and are praying for true community interaction. Private faith, huh??? Interesting!

  3. Thanks for this very thought-provoking post. I agree with Amy, it’s a lot to mull over, and covers a lot of different aspects of how we express our relationship with Christ. Like you, I’m thoroughly familiar with the standard evangelical narrative for describing this, and it’s certainly troubling on many levels. But I also wonder if this can sometimes be an accurate way to describe certain aspects of our relationship or walk, if the context is appropriate.

    I read this on Ron Block’s recent post at the Rabbit Room: “We have mistakenly thought we have to live the Christian life – by our effort and programs and techniques. We’ve grumbled and complained, and been unbelieving about this powerful, conquering Holy Spirit that lives in us. This Overcomer, Christ Himself, lives inside each of us, and if we just begin to let Him do His work by trusting in Him it will change everything.”

    So I think there is some truth to the imagery we use to describe this great mystery; it’s largely a matter of context and paradigm on whether it is being done with full theological accuracy.

  4. Thanks for the feedback. I have a follow up post coming that will address some of these things, but for now, I’ll just say this: I’m not primarily as concerned with “full theological accuracy,” C-hammer, as I am with how the theology we espouse affects our actions and our thoughts. And there is some difference in my mind between following the leading of the Holy Spirit, confirmed by community and scripture, and following what you decide is the voice of Jesus in your heart, something no one else can understand. Also, Ron uses “Holy Spirit” and “Christ Himself” interchangeably, a usage I would disagree with. I hope to try to illumine the difference, as I understand it, in future posts in this series.

    Thanks again for reading.

  5. Interesting article and well written, but maybe I can help with simplicity. With Christ living in your heart, look at it this way. When a respected loved one passes, from that day on, he or she still lives and dwells in your thoughts, and this is how Christ lives in those who invite Him. As far as him directing your steps, it is up to each to seek before He leads. In other words, you can just state, He lives in my thoughts, but to go further with His giving knowledge, you’ll have to do some asking, seeking and finding. After acceptance of Christ, you’ll not have instant wisdom with a voice instructing all. You’ll have to learn, receive and follow much like a child attending school. The parent will say my child is in school and we’ll all agree, but the question is, will the child learn and study to find his or her way or will the child’s studies be in play. Both scenarios have the child in school but only one delivers knowledge.
    The other idea about the Holy Spirit and Christ being one has been a long debate by many but maybe this will help. Take a match book and we’ll call God the match book. We’ll call Christ the matches and we’ll call the Holy Spirit the smoke. When one match is lit and then used to light the entire book, all three become the same in one.
    I enjoyed your article and it put me into a thinking mode. Have a nice day.

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