“Oh Lord, change my heart!”
These words that are so often found upon the lips of saints in their private prayers reflect a desire for godliness that seems unreachable unless something inside the saint is changed. Many who have struggled with sin of one sort or another have often come to their wits end and raised their arms up in defeat and looked to God alone for help in the fight.
Day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year, this prayer goes up.
So godly does this prayer sound and so commonly is it found that one can give little consideration to the disturbing problem of what can only look like God’s repeated and consistent refusal to help saints battle their sins and utter rejection of their request to change their hearts. When faced with this, Christians often double down in their belief that God will eventually answer this prayer and say things like, “It just isn’t God’s timing for my heart to be changed yet.” But what if God’s refusal to answer this prayer is meant to teach us that the prayer itself is founded upon beliefs that run contrary to what the Bible explicitly teaches? That would then give us two reasons to stop praying this prayer: (1) The Bible refutes it; (2) God won’t answer it. And if those two aren’t enough, there is the issue that such a prayer attempts to take the responsibility for sanctification off of oneself and place it upon God, leaving oneself to feel like all that can be done has been done once the prayer has been uttered – after all, changes of heart are miracles and we aren’t responsible for causing those.
Briefly, I want to emphasize that while this prayer is wholly inappropriate for a Christian to pray, it is entirely right for an unbeliever to pray. Most of the Israelites did not believe with saving faith that changed their lifestyles because God had not given them “a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear (Deuteronomy 29:4). But in the New Covenant, God gives all of the members of the covenant a new heart to replace their unfeeling old heart (Ezekiel 36:26). Jesus’ repeated refrain, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” is not a mere a coincidence of similar phrasing, but rather Jesus openly seeking to gather only those who have been given the new heart into his covenant community. So, a person who has not been given the new heart is in the right to ask God for a change of heart. However, it is quite mistaken for someone who has been given the new heart to spend their days praying for a change of heart – the work has already been done and this sort of prayer is like asking God for thumbs while texting with your thumbs.
Now, I imagine that most Christians who pray the words of “O Lord, change my heart” would at this point object that what they have in mind is not the change of heart that brings about salvation, but rather a change of internal desires that brings about a different lifestyle (such as one where the saint sins less frequently and does not desire to sin so often). But really, there is no difference between these two requests, as both salvation and change of desires and lifestyle come from the new heart. Which brings us to the real solution to the Christian’s desire of lifestyle change and why they find internal corruption despite having the new heart.
The Apostle Paul experienced a struggle between two natures within him (Romans 6-8), which in Ezekiel 36 language is the difference between the heart of stone and the heart of flesh. One might envisage the new heart immediately and completely replacing the old heart, but that is an assumption rather than what the prophet promised. Ezekiel only spoke of the end result, where the old heart (the old nature of the flesh) is removed and the new heart (the new nature that is focused on the things of the Spirit) replaces the old. But the process by which this swap takes place is not immediate, but rather our lives on earth are experienced as us having two natures at war with each other. In the end, when Christ returns or when we depart to be with him through death, then the old nature is fully removed.
The internal corruption of the old nature will not depart and God will not remove it until Christ returns or you die, so it is entirely pointless to ask God to give you a change of heart to your old nature. The new heart, if you’ve really received one, is already present and it is meaningless to ask God to give you more of it – you have all of it already. Rather, your focus ought to be on bringing your new heart to the fore and leaving the old heart in the background. This is done through, “walking according to the Spirit” (Rom 8:4; Gal 5:16) and “setting your mind on the things of God” (Mark 8:33; Col 3:2). We must both contemplate what God has said, considering how it applies to our lives in particular, and then bring those truths into the reality of our lives by acting on them, which pleases rather than grieves the Spirit. This strengthens the new heart’s influence over our soul and weakens the influence of the old heart.
The glory of God is revealed in this, that while still having a nature within you that desires the things of this world, you prefer the things of God and strive for them. How easy it would be if you had no desire for evil! But how would you display the superiority of God and his ways if you weren’t choosing between two things that you desire and saying one is better? No one is complimented when you prefer their cooking over dirt and rocks or when you prefer their cooking over a meal that makes you nauseous. So, for the time being, you walk with both natures and have the opportunity to glorify God by seeking to strengthen the one that says God is supreme.
Also, the glory of God is revealed in that the Spirit accomplishes his work in the world through imperfect creatures. Again, God would not be glorified as greatly if he were working through perfect people – it is far more impressive to have the skill to be able to win a competition when all of your equipment is faulty and prone to working against you than it is when you win the competition with all of your equipment working perfectly and aiding you as it should. And so by your dual natures you bring glory to God as he works through you despite your inclination to evil, and by your striving for godliness (not merely encouraging your sin nature so God can be glorified through working through a sinner) you show the world that God is worth more than the transitory sins that promise life but only bring death.
“Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.” (2 Timothy 2:20–21)
Stop asking God to change your heart – it is your job to cleanse yourself from what is dishonorable. You don’t need a change of heart, you need to focus on fronting the new heart and leaving the old nature weak and with little influence. The responsibility is upon you. You aren’t in the Old Covenant and you aren’t in need of God to create in you a new heart – you only need to act on the new heart he has already created in you.