In the Action/Reaction teaching series in the Gospel of Mark, I surfaced a series of questions, one of which was the following: “Can we know what is in someone’s heart?” This was in response to people who claim to be Christians and yet have little evidence of following Christ in their life. See Mark 4:1-20 – The Preeminent Parable, Part 3.
In Mark 4:1-20, Jesus is describing why certain people respond positively to His message and others do not. This section has been commonly referred to as The Parable of the Sower. The questions swirling around the Jesus and His disciples varied:
- “Why don’t the religious leaders believe you are the Messiah?”
- “Why do the religious leader want you dead?”
- “Why hasn’t the Kingdom come yet?”
- “Why aren’t more people turning to you?”
In answering these questions, Jesus tells a story about a farmer planting seed and yet encountering various levels of resistance from birds to encroaching weeds and thorns from the seed producing a harvest (Mark 4:1-9). The salient point is that the four types of soils represent four types of hearts or four types of people who have heard His teaching and have seen His actions (e.g. healing miracles) and yet have not chosen to follow Him. In teaching this parable, Jesus is helping His disciples process the reason for people rejecting Him, it was not due to His message or miracles. Jesus focuses the reason for the growing opposition toward Him and His message squarely on the hearts of those listening. In other words, if someone rejects Him (or by extension, them) it is because of the condition of the individual’s heart, just like the ground in the parable is not conducive to the growth of the seed. It is not the fault of the sower (i.e. farmer) or seed, but the condition of the soil (i.e. heart). Therefore, do not expect a good “harvest” to come from bad soil. How were they to know which soil was good and which was bad? By what the soil produced.
Harvest = Good Soil
No harvest = Bad Soil
How Does This Relate To Us Today?
You probably know of a person who has professed to be a “Christian” and yet don’t manifest any “fruit” or (in keeping with the theme of the Parable) doesn’t produce a harvest in his or her life. The challenge we face lays between an individual’s profession (what they say) in comparison to their lifestyle (what they do). Given that a person’s belief is invisible (can’t see a belief), how can we hope to begin to understand who IS or MIGHT NOT be a true follower of Jesus Christ? Which brings us to the question…
But We Can’t Know the Heart of a Person, Can We?
The parable pivots on the condition of a person’s heart and, therefore, the objection of not being able to know the heart of a person is often used to distance loved ones or friends from possibly belonging in the category of one of the bad soils. Particularly if a person has made a profession of faith and yet does not actively follow Jesus anymore. While it is true that I cannot see into a person’s heart or have the ability to read someone’s mind, an individual will freely reveal to me what is in his or her heart when they talk and/or in their actions. A helpful analogy is that of a spring that produces water. Metaphorically, the heart is like an unseen spring that is made visible by the water that flows from it. No one can see a spring, they see what the spring produces which then indicates where the spring is. In other words, the unseen world of water is revealed in the seen world by water flowing from a particular spot. The same can be said for a person’s heart. I know what is in the unseen world of someone’s heart precisely because it is manifested in the visible world through their words and actions.
We see this principle declared by Jesus when He confronts the religious leaders of His day. Jesus “knows” their hearts because He sees their actions.
You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks (Matthew 12:34).
In another situation, Jesus leverages Isaiah to address the hearts of the spiritual leadership in Israel standing in opposition by saying:
“‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 9 in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ ” Matthew 15:8-9
In another place, Jesus explains how external actions flow from inward desires:
Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone” (Matthew 15:17-20).
In each example – “murder, adultery, sexual immorality,” etc. etc., the heart of the individual is revealed by the action(s) cited. While you cannot read someone mind or “know someone’s heart” they can and will reveal what is in their heart through exposing it through their words and actions.
Putting It All Together
The professed belief of an individual must be seen (albeit inconsistent) in the actions of his or her life. To be sure, there are some who would say that the “fruit” of following Jesus might be dormant for a period of time or even for the bulk of a person’s life. I will address the reasons for and a response to this objection when I answer the question: “What About Carnal Christians?” For now, let’s consider this objection in light of the Apostle Paul’s response to the “fruitless” Christian(s) when addressing the church at Corinth – a church struggling with all sorts of sinful actions. Paul is concerned that the church at Corinth might not have sufficiently dealt with the illicit sexual activity that had been causing divisions that he cited in his first letter (see I Cor. 5:1-13). In raising his concerns in the passage below, notice that Paul does not consider nor accept the notion that a person cannot perceive what is in the heart of a person or that maybe the “faith” of an individual is dormant and yet still be legitimate or that there is no way to affirm if a person is a true believer or possibly a false make-believer. As a matter of fact, Paul actually urges an examination on the basis of how a person is living and not simply professing to determine the legitimacy of a person’s status as a Christian.
For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish—that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. 21 I fear that when I come again my God may humble me before you, and I may have to mourn over many of those who sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and sensuality that they have practiced. 13:1 This is the third time I am coming to you. Every charge must be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 2 I warned those who sinned before and all the others, and I warn them now while absent, as I did when present on my second visit, that if I come again I will not spare them— 3 since you seek proof that Christ is speaking in me. He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you. 4 For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God. 5 Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! 6 I hope you will find out that we have not failed the test (I Corinthians 12:20-13:6).
If any individual failed the test – to obey Jesus in attitude and action after being confronted “by the evidence of two or three witnesses” then the conclusion is that the individual has no legitimate claim of being a genuine follower of Jesus Christ (aka., “Christian”) because they “fail the test.” Paul equates the response of a person in their desire to obey Christ as revealing their true heart. There is no quibbling as to not being able to see a person’s motivation or hesitancy due to the possibility of a person’s faith being in a condition of dormancy. Paul simply appeals to the “heart” of a person that can be known through their attitude or action when faced with the truth.
Disobey Christ = No confidence you are a Christian
Therefore, while it is true that we cannot know the complete depth of someone’s heart (thinking or motivation) in a given moment (e.g. a “mind reader”), we can come to know what is in a person’s heart through their attitudes and actions that are being put on display in everyday life. And, specifically, we can gain confidence that the heart of a person is genuine when it responds to the correction of God’s Word found in the Bible. It could be said that the truth of God’s Word actually certifies the legitimacy of our profession of salvation as we daily walk with Christ.
Aren’t you grateful for the good news of His saving grace in your life? Without the truth that Jesus provides, life would be impossible to navigate. If you are searching to find meaning in life, I would love to hear from you and help you along in the journey.