I get my heart looked at on a regular basis. A couple times each year, an appointment is made for me to go see my cardiologist. Sometimes it is a simple check-up; I sit in the doctor’s office while he pokes at me and asks me how I’m feeling. Then there are the more invasive visits. These involve being hooked up to a variety of different machines and gadgets while doctors and nurses take a deeper look.
This year was one of those more invasive years. In addition to my regular check-up, the ECG, the Echo-Cardiogram, and the cardiac MRI , yesterday I also took part in a medical research study. I was hooked up to 2 machines and 17 electrodes and then asked to walk briskly up and down a hallway for a 6 minute interval. I was monitored before and after, and had (yet another) Echo-Cardiogram once everything was finished.
See, when I was born, I was born with a rare congenital heart condition called ‘Transposition of the Great Blood Vessels.’ This basically means that the main arteries of my heart are transposed, or reversed. There is a lot to this story. Yet the short version is that at 6 months of age I had open heart surgery to correct this issue. Today my heart is in good health, it just works a little differently than most.
Thus, on a regular basis, I get my heart looked at.
As I stretched out in that examining room, waiting for my heart rate to get back to normal, an intriguing question entered my mind. “Do we cultivate the same sense of rigorous examination of our spiritual hearts, as we do for our physical ones?” After all, it seems like on a regular basis I hear someone speak about how they have defined their own spirituality. People say things like “I don’t have to go to church to worship”, or “I’m spiritual not religious”, or “my beliefs are open minded”. More and more, the culture declares that matters of spirituality is privatized. This is really nothing new. After all, it is but a continuation of the thought that it was not polite to speak of religion in good company. Yet the modern day take on this is much more individualistic. Spirituality is increasingly an individual matter, not out of a concern for public orderliness, but out of the belief that one’s spirituality is completely self defined. This isn’t just about church attendance, although it is clearly reflected within it. Popular spirituality is one in which the individual defines all the rules. Spirituality, and the health of our spiritual hearts, is whatever we define it to be.
Yet wouldn’t this be akin to saying that I don’t need to go to my cardiologist on a regular basis? Why have an outside person make authoritarian statements about my heart, when I am much more equipped to do it myself. After all, it is my heart. Surely I know its workings more intimately than anyone else? What is more, why spend all that time at a specific location at a specific time (i.e., the doctor’s office) when I can just go online and figure it out for myself?
I decided to give this a shot. After my last appointment I logged on to www.symptoms.webmd.com. This is one of the many medical self-diagnosis sites that you can find on the internet. As accurately as possible, I inputted all the symptoms that I noticed after my 6 minute hallway pilgrimage.
“Chest Symptoms. Shortness of Breath. Rapid heart rate after physical activity. Ache in lower extremities.”
I pressed ‘Enter’ and awaited the results, which turned out to be a list of 29 different possible diagnoses. It seems that for me, having shortness of breath and a rapid heart rate after physical activity could mean anything from “Panic Attack” to “Lyme Disease”; “Cocaine Abuse” or “Nightmares”. The web site seemed to think a Panic attack was the most likely. In fact among the list of possible diagnoses, it was only after the more likely problems of “Iron Deficiency” and “Excessive Caffeine” that heart-related issues were ever mentioned.
It seems that an online symptom database is not really a reliable indicator of the strength or health of my heart. Sure, it would be easier for me to take matters into my own hands, but there seems to be an apparent danger in doing this. Thus, it is important for me to place myself before one who can assess the state of my heart and declare what needs to take place in order to protect it.
You can probably see where I am going with this. That which is a medical issue for me is a spiritual issue for all of us. Jesus spends a lot of time speaking about heart conditions: “Blessed are the pure in heart.”; “For where your treasure is there your heart will be also.”; “This people’s heart has grown dull . . . “; “The things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and make people unclean.For out of the heart comes evil thoughts, adultery, immorality, theft, false testimony and slander.”; “Love the Lord your God with all your heart . . .” ( and this is only the gospel of Matthew!) Beyond the mere labels and associations of spirituality that we may use to signify ourselves, Jesus is more concerned with whether or not our lives beat in reverence and worship. Is Jesus the still point of our lives? Is he the one who defines not only what we believe, but also how we believe?
Our hearts are the telling factors in our spiritual lives. For if we pray with just our lips, worship with voices alone, and study the scriptures in a way that utilizes the eyes but not the heart, can we actually say that we are spiritually healthy? If we perform all the external actions, but leave the internal connection to our Lord uncultivated then are we not just spiritually deluding ourselves?
It is easy for me to do just this, to make myself believe that I have the strongest heart out there – that is, until the Doctor makes me run up and down a hallway for 6 minutes. This not only pushes me beyond my own comforts, but it pushes me to realize that which is true about myself. The fact is, grasping too tightly on to our own perceived spiritual diagnoses does nothing but lead us to places of self-deception. We need God to define the parameters of our health and life; We need to hear those concerned yet loving challenges to jettison the likes of anger, bitterness, immorality, cursing and all the things that push us toward negative beats and rhythms; We need to humbly receive the divine instructions calling us to cultivate the attitudes and attributes found in the very heart of God. Yet if we never place ourselves before the one who judges not by external things, but looks deeply at the heart, how can we possibly hear those challenges and invitations?
Sure this may be uncomfortable at times, and there will be times where we won’t like what that Divine Cardiologist has to say to us. But our comfort isn’t what it is about. Ultimately we are called to trust that his words are health and life to us, and then place our hearts in his hands.
Have you ever experienced God calling you to ‘change your heart?’ How, when, and why?