Reaching the Heart

Spiritual teaching aims at reaching the heart. It takes not only effort but miraculous power to do so. The heart, biblically speaking, is the seat of emotions. Strong feelings are well protected by King Self and his bodyguards.

These bodyguards come in many forms. One of the strongest is called Debate. He will often come out swinging his sword when he thinks King Self is in danger. Debate likes verbal fencing. It gives him a chance to play games with sacred words while proving his mental prowess.

If the discussion leader asks, for example, “How would you describe the spiritual condition of Jonah’s heart when he ‘burned to himself’”? Debate may see the leader as about to attack King Self’s tendency toward his own pity parties. Therefore Debate will change the subject to the safer topic of right and wrong ways to do community outreach, for example.

One of the more pious bodyguards is Holy Sayings. She is often more effective at keeping the discussion from dealing with heart issues because she gives the impression that spiritual things are being discussed. In response to the question above, Holy Sayings may utter a pious statement such as “Our communities are like Nineveh, and we should not be afraid to reach out here.” This may well be true but avoids self-examination of the heart.

How does the class facilitator direct the study in such a way as to reach the heart? How does he or she avoid distractions that move away from real issues? Two classic teaching experiences of Jesus—the woman at the well and His encounter with Nicodemus—offer insights into how Jesus reached the heart.

The woman at the well. The first point learned from this experience is to realize that receptivity is essential. “This woman was in an appreciative state of mind. She was ready to receive the noblest revelation; for she was interested in the Scriptures, and the Holy Spirit had been preparing her mind to receive more light” (The Desire of Ages, p. 190).

The spirit-filled teacher will know how to speak a “word in season to him who is weary” (Isa. 50:4).

Love, sympathy, and understanding are essential in working with the heart. “Jesus had convinced her [the woman at the well] that He read the secrets of her life; yet she felt that He was her friend, pitying and loving her” (ibid., p. 189).

Class members, by nature, draw back from spiritual heart surgery. This was true of the woman at the well. Jesus offered to quench the thirst of her heart. But when He made reference to her husband, emotional issues made the subject too sensitive for her. She changed the subject to a safer, more intellectual argument about the proper location for worship.

Jesus did not abruptly jump upon tender feelings by demanding that she immediately address the heart issues. He patiently permitted her to lead the conversation, but watched for another opportunity to bring the truth home to the heart.

When the woman switched to a theological controversy about location for worship, He said, “Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:21, 22, NKJV).

Jesus moved back to heart issues and proclaimed Himself the Messiah. “He desired to lift the thoughts of His hearer above matters of form and ceremony, and questions of controversy” (The Desire of Ages, p. 189).

Nicodemus. He was accustomed to theological debate and started his discussion with an approbation and personal question. But Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3, KJV).

Nicodemus went back to debate form, a frequent pitfall of class discussion, “Surprised out of his self-possession, he answered Christ in words full of irony, ‘How can a man be born when he is old?’ ” (The Desire of Ages, p. 171).

Jesus, however, did not answer argument with argument. He went back to spiritual application, patiently illustrating the work of the Holy Spirit. Nicodemus felt humiliated. “Yet Christ spoke with such solemn dignity, and both look and tone expressed such earnest love, that Nicodemus was not offended as he realized his humiliating condition” (ibid., p. 173).

Nonverbal language is more powerful than words, because by reading nonverbal language, members can detect whether or not the teacher is speaking from a heart full of love. When Nicodemus asked a question from the standpoint of heartfelt need, “How can these things be?” Jesus told him the good news of salvation and explained the miraculous process of receiving a new heart.

So you, class facilitator, must prepare to lift up a crucified Savior as the solution to the cry of the heart. Do this in such a way as to present a welcome relief. You will master this skill when your heart is made warm and your words are made eloquent by the power of the Holy Spirit.

© 2014 General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists