Maybe it’s just the new year, maybe it was the three-day weekend, but I feel like a lot of us are trying to finally get our houses in order. For Christmas, my brother Mike gave me the book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo (thanks bro!), which apparently has become such a sensation that the word “kondo” has become a verb. We took the first step to kondo-ing our house this past weekend and ended up with five or six enormous garbage bags of clothes, plus a few furniture odds ends, to donate. We drove away feeling lighter, freer, and high as a kite. It was that much of a rush.
While this book is, as it promises, changing my life, so are a couple of other books on my shelf. One is Grace-Based Parenting by Dr. Tim Kimmel, and one is a book on ministry given to me by a friend.
Both of these books ask some pointed, even hard questions about your most important ministry tool: the heart. And as I’m reading these books I’m sitting there thinking, Dang. I have some heart work to do.
One of the great temptations of ministry is to pretend to have it all together. What started out as a true desire to serve God and serve others can morph into a desire to perform. Yes, we want to please God, but we want to please people too. We start to perform for other’s praise and approval; we start to do things for the sake of looking good.
We work on having a polished veneer, but on the inside, things are dusty, cracked, in need of repair.
This past year I have had the incredible privilege of joining a Bible Study on Wednesday mornings. We read the book of Matthew and DIG IN, having these beautiful, profound, challenging conversations. Lately a lot of our focus has been around the condition of our hearts. Especially in Jesus’s hard words to Pharisees: the so-called religious experts who did all the right things but whose hearts were far from God.
This may come as a shock to some, but at Bible studies I just love to wax poetic, and in these past studies it’s been about the ways that God calls our hearts to purity and integrity.
As a bonus, I love it when the ladies there rave about my kids’ adorableness and good behavior.
Because obviously we are always this poetic, adorable, and well-behaved.
Until. Until you run into your Bible Study leader at BJs on a busy Tuesday afternoon. Your hair is a hot mess and your kids may or may not have dried snot on their cheeks. Your cart is full of non-poetic items like frozen chicken nuggets and toilet paper. Most incriminatingly, you may or may not have been legitimately hissing at your children while standing in the checkout line and/or physically manipulating the five-year old away from the scanner because it was faster than asking him nicely.
Let’s be real, nobody looks elegant while standing in checkout line with several small children, except for maybe Brad and Angelina, and they would never shop at BJs. (They probably don’t even need toilet paper.) I don’t even think my Bible study leader saw the mess that was us. And had she seen us, she probably would have been incredibly kind and even funny about it. The problem was me: on one level, the impatience I had with my children; and on another level, my desire to keep things looking polished on Wednesday mornings when I was privately unraveling on Tuesday afternoons.
Because here’s the truth. We joke about Brad and Angelina, but in reality, everybody craps. Spiritually and otherwise. And there’s no shame in someone seeing you buying the toilet paper.
But we tend not to let it all hang out at places like Bible studies (which, for the record, is a fabulous place to let it all hang out). We save the true ugliness for behind the closed door, for the people closest to us. And it’s in that moment when you haven’t had your first cup of coffee yet, the kids are fighting and there’s already oatmeal on the floor that the true condition of the heart will be revealed.
And who we are when nobody’s looking is who will eventually sneak out from perfectly groomed images. It will determine – empower or inhibit – our effectiveness in serving the world around us.
My life lately has taken a decided turn for the public. And for those going public for the sake of the Gospel, we learn quickly what’s okay and not okay to put out there. Inspirational Scripture, definitely. Inspirational stories about God’s work in our lives and our amazing feats of obedience to him, yes. Funny, self-revealing stories about our quirks and “messes” (I spend too much time working out!! My kid has homemade Greek yogurt on his hand-knitted beanie!!): OK. But embarrassing, possibly exposing stories about the real-time “messes” of our hearts: our pride, our envy, our rage, our distrust of God? These give us pause.
It’s too scary, too vulnerable, to let people in. So we fix up the outside while covering up the ugliness that’s within.
Or sometimes, we have become so good at polishing the outside that we’ve even been able to deceive ourselves.
We all need a deep cleaning sometimes. Sometimes we are so dirty even our eyes are clouded to our own mess.
As I’ve been pondering those three books, a song came into my heart. It was this old song I used to listen to in my parents’ minivan circa 1991. And the lyrics came from Psalm 51:
“Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow….
Create in me a pure heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
Or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
And grant me a willing spirit to sustain me.”
And then it all came together. The invitation from God was clear:
Get your house in order.
Put it in my hands.
Come clean. Come to me.
I imagined my heart as a house. I felt God saying, Stop obsessing over the surface of things: shiny counters, dusted mantles. That’s well and good, but there are some things in your storage areas that need attention, things that guests do not see. Go down there and rummage through the old junk you’ve let sit for ages: the impatience, the anger, the pride, the covetousness, the deceit. Get rid of it. Because it’s keeping you from coming clean before God.
And because try as you might to keep things looking perfect, one day someone is going to come over and open a pantry door and have an old cookbook fall on their head. Because here’s another truth: you can’t deepen friendships if you don’t let them in, really let them in. And when you get to know people, really get to know people, one day your stuff is going to come out and smack them in the face. How about instead of waiting for that day, we invite our friends into our nasty basement and ask them to help us clear out the crap? Sometimes it takes someone else’s eyes to tell us when we are just holding on to our junk. And how light we can feel when we finally hand it over to God and let him deal with it. Because in his faithfulness, he does.
Jesus reminds us that it’s “out of the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks.” We can try to keep things under control, but sooner or later, the condition of our heart will be revealed. That’s why I’m so thankful for grace: that we can take our hearts to Jesus. That we can trust him with it. We can ask him for the clear eyes to see them ourselves. And I’m thankful that when we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us and purify us from all unrighteousness.
And when our heart is right, that’s when the truly good stuff can come spilling out.