The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick;
who can understand it?
In this morning’s reading from Jeremiah, we have this difficult statement about the human heart. The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? … What does this mean? I think that it means that, first, we don’t understand ourselves. Sometimes we say things that surprise us, or we have every good intention to do something but we avoid doing it, or we find ourselves resisting doing what we know would be good for us, and sometimes we do what is wrong even knowing it.
Second, there is brokenness in us that sometimes shows itself in an inability to help ourselves – the Collect this morning begins with, Almighty God, who sees that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves…. A clear example of this is if we fall into an addiction or if we have a besetting sin that we keep falling for.
These two things about our heart or our soul – that we don’t understand ourselves and that we can’t help ourselves – are things that Scripture and modern psychology agree on.
We have probably all heard some ideas from that scientific study of the soul – 19th and 20th century psychology. We take for granted ideas about the conscious self and the greater unconscious self. We hear about the repressions, hurts, fears that are hidden in the unconscious, which though hidden nonetheless affect us. The work of a psychotherapist with this model is to help the person to uncover what is hidden within. There is a hope for a kind of resolution and integration of these hidden motives with our conscious self once we know them.
Some psychologists have described the soul as having the equivalent of multiple “personalities” – and that we act from these various “personalities” depending on the situation, influenced by our past experiences. Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist, in his book The Happiness Hypothesis, suggests that our soul is like an elephant with a rider. The rider, our conscious self, has some limited control but the elephant will often do what it likes despite the rider, it has a mind of its own, or minds of its own. The elephant is like the huge unconscious part of ourselves that we don’t know. More of us is unknown to ourselves than is known.
This elephant behind the scenes is revealed in situations that sometimes surprise us, actions which sometimes we later regret, and sometimes reveal also that we are capable of more than we thought. I remember without thinking about it consciously, hearing some part of me praying the Lord’s Prayer within when I was in a real spiritual battle – and so I could engage that more fully consciously. Or we may have experienced acting out our frustration in passive aggressive ways – e.g. we think we have forgiven some hurt, but then we still act out our anger towards that person with mean comments meant to undermine. Or we may hear one part of ourselves critiquing our actions. We know that it is difficult to think clearly sometimes and other times we are very concentrated and our thinking flows easily. When it doesn’t, perhaps it’s because there are all these conflicting dialogues or “personalities” going on in parallel within us – it may be why for some of us we can think more clearly in the morning after the quieting down of the mind at night and before all the disturbances of the day.
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?
Lent is a time for us to try to understand better our own soul. It is a time to ask for the grace of God to help us to see ourselves more clearly for who we really are – to get to know the elephant. And to ask for grace for the rider to have better control of it. We want to amend our lives to conform more closely in our totality to Jesus Christ, to the man who is the perfect image and likeness of God.
In the Gospel this morning, a woman comes desperately seeking help for her daughter who is “severely oppressed by a demon”. Here are the two aspects of the Jeremiah passage brought together as an example – in her being out of control, she has forgotten who she is, and that her mother has to seek help shows she cannot help herself. A demon could be an evil spiritual power that has taken possession of her or it could be one of those “personalities”, an evil passion, that is asserting itself to the destruction of her person. The result is the same – the daughter is out of control. Given our baptism into Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit, it is extremely unlikely we can be possessed by an evil spirit, but it is very easy for us to have a passion out of control that could be called a demon. The need for help from outside ourselves to be saved is the same in either case.
The Epistle this morning gives an example of just one passion that can be out of control – sexual desire. Paul calls on Christians to avoid fornication, that is, sexual relations outside of marriage.
We know that the passion of sexual desire is strong, and that it is made up of a variety of basic human needs hidden behind it. Some of those needs are… the desire for connectedness with another because of a fear of loneliness, the desire to be loved and to be desirable to another person – part of our sense of self-worth, the desire for physical pleasure, the desire for children. And there are in the human heart also destructive passions too – desire for power over another, pride, envy, lust – using another for one’s own pleasure. All of these are part of this complex desire in a fallen human being. Each one of them is like a personality seeking to assert itself.
We can be confused, thinking we are satisfying that overall desire when we satisfy only a part of the underlying need, or satisfying a destructive passion. But the intention of that complex desire will only be satisfied properly if all of the true underlying needs are met and the destructive passions are exposed and repented of.
God’s Word suggests that all of these underlying true needs and the purifying of the destructive passions can only happen within marriage or in a celibate life. Christian marriage is the place within which all of these needs and hopes can be best met for the health of the couple and any children that are the fruit of that union. Or the Christian celibate life works for some who are called, not through the repression of desire but through the transformation of that desire and the meeting of those underlying desires in other ways. In either case, the destructive passions must be unveiled and transformed.
But we could look at any desire that the human heart has, and see how it is made up of many parts. For example… our ambition in a career is a combination of underlying motivations – desire for a sense of dignity and self-worth, the fear of not having enough, the desire to use our gifts and be fruitful, the desire for a sense of purpose and meaning in life, the desire to provide for others, and also the destructive passions – pride, vain-glory, greed are often a part of ambition. The good of ambition can become twisted and destructive if pride or vainglory or greed asserts itself and is fed unrestrained. It is as if one of these underlying needs or destructive passions, described in modern psychology as “personalities”, takes over.
Paul speaks about this experience eloquently in Romans: The good that I want to do I cannot do, but the very thing I hate, that is what I do, who will save me from this body of death! [Romans 7] It is describing a kind of soul with conflicting purposes and out of control in a destructive way. The elephant is out of control, the rider seems to have lost control. Paul says a few verses later, Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. He placed his trust in Jesus and found grace to overcome the destructive desires and experienced the restoring of peace in his heart.
The woman in today’s Gospel – comes in deep humility to Jesus, and finds help for her daughter. She prays for mercy for herself – because her life is tied up deeply with the life of her daughter, her daughter’s suffering has become hers. She comes to the Author of life in faith, in trust… and mercy and grace flows from Him and to her daughter. It was a willingness to admit what is destructive, to admit that one is incapable on one’s own to be healed, and to return to our Creator as the source of help. And with that openness and humility of heart, a humility and faith which Jesus commends for all time, Jesus promises to respond. He shows mercy, he brings healing. He restores unity of purpose in the soul and for good.
If we are struggling with a passion out of control or if a child or friend or parent is out of control, we can come to Jesus with faith this morning in humility of heart and ask for help. Jesus can work in us or through us. And all of us can come now for Holy Communion in faith to Jesus – to be touched and made whole in the Sacrament of His Body and Blood. Here our destructive actions can be forgiven and the destructive passions transformed, here the various “personalities” in our heart can find their unity in Love beyond ourselves, even in Jesus Christ.