Repeatedly inked on the pages of my journal for the past ten months are the words keep a soft heart.
Truly, it has taken all thirty-six years of my life to develop a one-sentence prayer that expresses one of my deepest and most regular needs.
Keep a soft heart.
I searched for the words to express it in my teens, scrambled to articulate it in my twenties, and now in my mid-thirties I’m finally learning to name the need that stretches its way out of my chest with my first conscious breath every morning. In the lifelong march against bitterness, cynicism, unforgiveness, it is my anthem: keep a soft heart. Against the old, dead version of me who tries to resurrect herself with frightening force and regularity, the petition for a soft heart has become my steady, daily battle cry.
You know what I mean, right? That prickly, closed-up version of your inner being so full of rough angles and hard edges that you refuse to let anyone inside, refuse to obey what you know the Lord is calling you to do, refuse to open yourself up to anything that might make you uncomfortable—you know what I’m talking about, yes? It’s the heart that gives a cold shoulder to all that is meaningful in the Christian life, that shuts down to all that warms the soul, that resists the unifying thread that knits us together with other believers. It’s seasonal or perhaps a coping mechanism, but at its core it’s destructive. While it might seem temporarily safe to wall oneself away from vulnerability within the Church or before God, I’ve learned lately that what aids me best in my relationships with other believers, what helps me more readily submit my desires to the Lord’s plans, what most encourages me to lay aside my rigid, Pharisaic worldview is this: a soft heart.
Why a soft heart? Why not a determined heart or a solid heart?
When it comes to an open, submissive heart (for I think that’s essentially what we’re talking about here), I think of the word malleable. Not in a doormat kind of way, but in a teachable, empathetic, walk-a-mile-in-their-shoes kind of way. I want a heart that is workable, like putty, in the hands of my Savior. When I consider the act of taking up my cross and following Jesus, malleable seems the prerequisite for dying to myself and, more specifically, my pride. I want a heart that doesn’t freeze up or bristle at correction. I want a heart that throbs with openness even when it is costly. I want the pulse of my spiritual life’s blood to beat with a disarming vulnerability. I want to hold staunchly to truth while also clinging tightly to love. I think the key in holding the tension between truth and love is a soft heart.
A soft heart knows its place. A soft heart understands true humility. A soft heart knows who it is before God, knows it is dust, knows it is equally guilty of all the things it wants to keep record of when it comes to the hurts inflicted by others. A soft heart knows if it kept an honest record of wrongs, it could not stand but for the covering of Jesus.
A soft heart is the first thing I notice in a fellow believer who receives correction with a nodding head and a quiet acquiescence. When I see it in someone else, I find myself instantly warmed toward them because it reminds me of Jesus who was obedient to the point of death, who laid aside His desires for His Father’s. A heart yielded to its Savior is a proclamation of God’s enduring work in that person. The fruit of self-control and gentleness make much of Jesus when it comes to both spiritual-familial relationships and plans that veer wildly off the rails. How I long for my first response to suffering, to criticism, to hope deferred to be a soft one! How I long for my first response to be an acknowledgment that Jesus is the captain of this ship, that He commands my destiny.
How do we keep a soft heart?
Regular, persistent prayer cannot be understated. The petition for a soft heart is the prayer that has rewritten itself more times than I can count on the pages of my life. I imagine I’ll be praying it until my last breath. But what’s beautiful about the companionship of prayer and sanctification is that God is pleased to answer the prayers for a soft heart. His desires are for us to be rooted and grounded in His love, to be filled with His fullness, to be like Him. (Eph. 3;17-19). Though you may not see the gradual softening, God is still molding you, rolling those hard angles in His hands, sanding down what’s rough and bristly into something soft, malleable, open. Keep praying for a heart that is open and submissive to Him. It’s my daily prayer for myself.
Scripture speaks to our thorny hearts. Just this week, my study in Ephesians addressed the very topic in its reminder of what life in Christ should look like:
You took off your former way of life, the old self, that is corrupted by deceitful desires; you are being renewed in the spirit of your minds; you put on the new self, the one created according to God’s likeness in righteousness and purity of the truth…All bitterness, anger and wrath, shouting and slander must be removed from you, along with all malice. And be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as God also forgave you in Christ. Therefore, be imitators of God, as dearly loved children. And walk in love, as the Messiah also loved us and gave Himself for us, a sacrificial and fragrant offering to God.
Ephesians 4:22-24, 31-5:2 (HCSB)
In years past I have allowed hurts, closed doors, and the Lord’s deviation from my plans (or, to put it in realistic terms, my lack of submission to His plans) to harden the outer edges of my heart. Learn from my mistakes: this only results in an insular, closed-off, arms-length existence. This is not how we were meant to live as believers. We were meant to live as the many, varied moving parts that only collectively make up the body of Christ. The Word is a both a telescope and a mirror, showing us first the good character of God so we can then see ourselves rightly. When the Word shines the light on the ugliness down deep, we can then see the grace that abounds to us.
John Piper puts it well: “If we are ever to grasp the gospel, we must grasp the ugliness of our sin. If we never admit that we don’t just do bad things — we are bad — the gospel will never land in power. Our sins will always be healed lightly. I need to crawl into the cesspool of my heart and claw my way to the bottom, believing there’s Jesus’s blood down there, not hell. But it’s at the bottom of our sin, not only part way down.”
Look to Christ.
“And walk in love, as the Messiah also loved us and gave Himself for us…” (Ephesians 5:2a)
In Jesus, we find not a trace of bitterness or grudge-holding. Though direct in His delivery of truth, He still exuded empathy and kindness. He is our standard, the one we should strive to imitate. Living in the likeness of God, we must wrestle down what’s old and dead and dying in us by recognizing who we are because of what Jesus has done. Rather than ruminating on derailed plans or perceived injustices, look at the perfect person of Christ instead. This requires us to circle back to step two and read the Scriptures. Fixing our gaze on Jesus is an essential step in our sanctification, in throwing off what’s old and wearing what’s new, in this heart-softening process. Scottish 19th century pastor Robert Murray M’Cheyne said this “for every look at self, take ten looks at Christ.” I can’t really improve on his advice. Let the time spent looking at Christ far outweigh the time spend navel-gazing.
When we believe the gospel and repent of our sins, the Lord gives us a new heart that beats for Him. My prayer to keep that heart soft is not an attempt to add to His work but simply to echo what He has already purposed to do for those of us who believe: “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely. And may your spirit, soul, and body be kept sound and blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, who will also do it.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24, HCSB)