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I don’t have as many opportunities as I’d like to interact with non-believers. But I did have a brief engagement with someone recently that drew my attention to a spiritual truth. It’s a truth that we can’t ever let go of in our own lives, since it holds our history of redemption, but it’s especially important to keep in mind when we interact with those who don’t believe in God. Here it is:
The rest of this article spells out what dark-heart disease is and how it affects us. I also suggest how we need to approach those who don’t carry the light of Christ within them.
What Is Dark-Heart Disease?
What exactly is dark-heart disease? Let me start with a definition from the prophet Jeremiah. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9) Deceitful above all things and desperately sick—that’s how God himself, through Jeremiah, describes the human heart.
Why? Well, children inherit from their parents (Rom. 5:18-19). We don’t get to choose what comes down to us. We’re the progeny of paradise-forsakers, the offspring of word-traders, who exchanged the true syllables of the speaking God for those of a sickly serpent (Gen. 3:1-7 ; Rom. 1:25). Because of that, our inheritance is a distrusting, rebellious, self-seeking heart—a dark heart (Rom. 1:21). And the cure for a dark heart isn’t simply more light. We don’t just need a bit more reason and rationality. We need a new heart (Ezek. 36:26). The dark, stony mass in our soul has to be excised and eliminated. In its place, we need an organ that thuds a holy rhythm. We need a divine surgeon to both remove and implant.
Now, what happens if we elect not to have divine surgery? What implications are there? We were all in that place at one point, so we should have some idea. Those crippled by dark-heart disease are blind, deaf, and dumb in the deepest senses. They can’t see, hear, or speak of the plain truth of God in the world around them (Rom. 1:20). A dark heart doesn’t perceive light. A dark heart is a den for deceit, a place where, at every moment, people are told the lie that God is not here, that he has not made the world, that he doesn’t even exist. People with dark-heart disease assume that we’re walking around in a world governed by chance. Their unbelief is fierce and stubborn. And while it may be bound up with logic and argumentation, make no mistake: It has always been and will forever be a heart issue.
What Does This Mean for Christians?
What does all of this mean for us when we engage with non-believers? Think of it this way: Have you ever approached a non-believer as if he were terminally ill? You see, you can’t help a terminally ill person by reasoning with him. That’s not to say that reason isn’t important. It’s a powerful and beautiful gift of God, reflective of his very nature! But reason is not the cure of unbelief. In fact, all of God’s revelation is meant not to heal our minds but to heal our hearts. I was always struck by a line from one of my favorite theologians:
Our hearts are the destination of God’s revelation.
John Frame, Doctrine of the Word of God, 327
We often think of revelation as illuminating the mind, as acquiring knowledge. But that’s not really the focus of revelation. It’s not the head that’s the ultimate problem; it’s the heart. I’ll say it again: The ultimate problem of unbelief is the human heart, its lack of trust and its obsessive interest with self-fulfillment and self-governance. The ultimate problem, in other words, is dark-heart disease. And the only cure is divine surgery.
Listen, Ask, and Pray
But what can we do as commoners in the hospital of God’s work? We can’t perform divine heart surgery. What can we do for those all around us who have elected not to have the surgery? Three things come to mind: listen, ask, and pray.
- Listen. Non-Christians have a deep-seated desire to be heard. Not argued with, but heard. This is both a testament to the truth of Scripture and an irony of unbelief. Scripture reveals that God made us to be listeners. Adam’s first task as a creature was simply to listen to the words of God. And that’s the call of God’s people throughout the Old and New Testaments, culminating with the eternal Word of God coming in the flesh. Salvation is a matter of hearing that Word. However, it’s ironic that non-Christians would want to be heard since they are not, in fact, listening to the clearest testimony from God himself in general and special revelation! Nevertheless, do them the grace that God has done to you: listen. Let them speak. And don’t just wait there for your turn, like a child second-in-line at the playground slide. Focus more on hearing them than on preparing your response. You can always ask for more time to come up with a thoughtful response.
- Ask. Asking questions is evidence of thoughtful listening. Draw out the person’s train of thought. There will be contradictions and problems with their definitions of who God is, who they are, and what the world is like. But there will also be biblical values that shine through—things that they long for and hope for and dream about. Those things are precious, for they are remnants of their ineffective war with God. You can’t live in God’s world and ignore him without borrowing from him. Those borrowing points may help you show how the God of the Bible offers more than they could imagine in relation to what they seek.
- Pray. You can’t perform divine heart surgery. Don’t pretend as if you can. In all likelihood, as was the case for me this week, the person will shut down and reject your words. They’ll be disinterested. They just won’t care to get into a full apologetic discussion. They won’t want what you have to offer. They’ll dismiss you as a simpleton who just hasn’t been enlightened by modern thought (oh, the irony!). It’s okay. Your work isn’t done. Now you get to pray. You get to ask God to perform the surgery despite the patient’s every refusal. Don’t dismiss the person and walk away to think of “better” things. If God did that with you, where would you be? Pray.
Now, we all still battle the effects of dark-heart disease, for it’s worked out way into the mind as well. It has scarred our perception. We often don’t see the world as God intends us to see it. What does that mean? It means we have to fight to see HIM in the world around us. That, among other reasons, is why I wrote Finding God in the Ordinary. Seeing God in the world around you isn’t something you do naturally. You have to work at it. Let’s get started.