The Heart of the Problem is the Problem of the Heart

Jesus blasted the scribes and Pharisees for their rank hypocrisy: “You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matt. 23:24). They punctiliously tithed mint, dill, and cumin, but “neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23).

And they unwittingly demonstrated the truth of this charge when, after having condemned Jesus for blasphemy and having led him to Pilate to be crucified, they “did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover” (John 18:28). What pious and devout men, so conscientious to avoid uncleanness! Yet John doesn’t need to state the obvious: they were at that very same time defiling themselves with the blood of the innocent Son of God.

Last week I came across this article with an horrific example of how those who claim to be Christians can also strain out gnats while swallowing camels. It’s about a 13-year Washington girl who died in 2011 after suffering brutal (and truly sadistic) abuse at the hands of her adoptive parents. She was from Ethiopia and adopted in 2008 by a family that, according to the article, led a “lifestyle of devout, fundamentalist Christianity.” They homeschooled their children and lived in relative isolation, socializing with just one or two families besides their relatives (the article mentions their church but says very little about it). They prohibited most TV and access to the internet, the mother wore only skirts or dresses (no pants), and the father preached sermons to his family in the backyard.

Any story involving the abuse of children is heart-wrenching and morally revolting. But what makes this story all the more grievous is the religiosity of the parents. They claimed to be Christians yet at the same time abused a young girl until she died. Here was a home where television, the internet, and immodest dress were carefully avoided, yet unspeakable evil had free reign. Straining at gnats and swallowing a camel.

Though what took place with this family is an aberration (the article says, fairly, “It should go without saying that most devoutly religious adoptive parents, or conservative Christians parents generally, are not abusive”), it’s a tragic and very extreme example of a tendency we Christians must guard against. And that is, seeing sin and evil as something fundamentally extrinsic to ourselves, and not something that comes from within our hearts.

Jesus said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness, All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:22). Sin is not just something “out there”, but it’s also “in here”, in the heart. As one minister put it: The heart of the problem is the problem of the heart.

I found this story of the abused girl hard to read, not only because it described a sickening evil, but because the parents had adopted (but made a grotesque caricature of) concerns common to Bible-believing Christians like myself. We do need to shelter our children, to some degree, from worldly influences prevalent in the surrounding culture. We also do need to provide Christian training for our children (homeschooling is one valid way to do that). Children do need to learn obey their parents. And godly modesty is important.

But how easily we begin to think we have properly dealt with sin if we have shielded ourselves from outside evil influences, or if we have embraced strict standards of dress and conduct. We deceive ourselves that way, and in the process we become increasingly blind to the sin that comes from within us. And before long we are straining out gnats and swallowing camels. An isolated, sheltered home is no safe haven from evil if those in it are not, by the grace of God, putting to death the sin in their own hearts. Where sin is unchecked, any home, no matter how sheltered or outwardly “Christian”, can become a house of horrors.

I believe the author of the article tried to be fair in not simply pinning the blame for the girl’s death on her parents’ Christianity. However, the slant of the article certainly suggests that aspects of conservative Christianity itself are partly to blame. And of course, for many secular readers, the easy take-away point from the story is simply: see how evil religion is (just read the reader comments for proof of this!).

What’s ironic about that response, however, is that it commits the same fundamental error I’ve described above. It locates evil not in the human heart, but in something external to it, in this case religion. More broadly, a worldview that denies the fall blames everything but man for evil: it’s the result of bad government, or poverty, or society, or a lack of education, and so on. So both those who commit such great evil, and those who condemn their religion for it, fail to reckon with the truth: the heart of the problem is the problem of the heart.

The solution to the problem is the cross of Jesus Christ. He died to purify us from within, to give us a new heart. Let’s not turn the Christian faith into a religion obsessed with avoiding evil in the world, or with upholding standards of external appearance or conduct. Rather, focus on this: humbling yourself before Christ and tending first and foremost to your own heart.

Pastor Scott