The new year is a great time to start new habits, so that by the time you reach January 2020, you’ll be able to look back and thank God for the changes you began this month!
For four weeks, we’re going to dive into “new” themes found throughout the Bible. In the Bible, God talks about new things more than 275 times. We’re going to zero in on four very strategic new things God wants to bless you with; four new things that will make for a better year, a better life, and a better you.
We begin with the new thing that is the easiest one to receive—but the hardest to see your need for. It’s the most important one to begin with, yet it is the most difficult to recognize your need for. That new thing God wants everyone to receive from him is…a new heart. The most important thing you can do to enjoy the new year and become a new you, is receive the new heart that God wants to give you.
725 times the Bible speaks about the “heart,” meaning the inner you, the real you. God says you are far more than just a bunch of cells. Who you are is more than merely a series of chemical reactions zipping along neural pathways in your brain. Your heart is the Bible’s code word for you, the inner you.
Our spiritually diseased hearts
The problem is that our hearts have become infected, diseased, by sin. Using a shepherding image, the prophet Isaiah says…
“We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way…” Isaiah 53:6
Paul’s New Testament letter to the Romans emphasizes like Isaiah that we all have spiritual heart disease. Paul writes in Romans 3:23…
“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” Romans 3:23
He goes on in Romans 6:23 to warn that “The wages of sin is death…” Romans 6:23
When you sin, the pay you get is death.
The NT letter to the Hebrews elaborates in Hebrews 9:27 that…
“People are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment…” Hebrews 9:27
All have sinned.
All will die.
All face judgment after death.
If that were where the Bible ends, there would be no hope. But it is not. Everything I just quoted from the Bible is intended to function like a spiritual heart scan, revealing our desperate need for the new heart that Jesus came to give.
But again, while receiving a new heart is the most important blessing to receive from God, it is also the hardest to admit our need for.
Our hard hearts
A couple of days ago I was on the phone with a guy in tears as his wife was in the emergency room, and he was convinced she was dying. When I offered to pray for her while we were on the phone, he said, “I put my trust in people.” He had a broken heart, but he was still hard-hearted toward the things of God. I say that with only mercy toward him. He needs—we all need—the new heart that only Jesus can give.
And once you’ve received the new heart that Jesus gives, it’s crucial to keep cultivating that heart becoming ever-more honest, faithful, and healthy. Far too many people as they age neglect spiritual heart health, and they end up spiritual train wrecks.
David is an example. Ancient Israel’s king David models negatively the kind of foolishness that comes from not cultivating a pure heart, but then by the time God cuts him to the heart through a timely prophetic word, David sits down and pens an awesome, honest, heart-cry prayer, that today we know as Psalm 51. That’s where I want you to turn this morning. Psalm 51.
What led to the writing of this prayer put in poetic form and later set to music to be sung together, a confession together that we all need new hearts? In David’s case what led to it was a series of hard-hearted choices that soiled his reputation from then on.
He took a married woman to his bedroom and got her pregnant.
He later arranged her husband’s murder to look like a battlefield accident.
And he tried to cover the whole mess up as though all was well.
Extreme hard-heartedness, from a man who earlier God had described as “a man after my own heart.” And here’s where we get to how hard it is to see your need for a new heart: any one of us has the potential to go down the road of unbelievable hard-heartedness. We desperately need new hearts.
And receiving a new heart comes from becoming brutally honest about your need. Psalm 51 shows us the way.
A heartfelt prayer for a new heart
Psalm 51 can be divided into four actions; four steps God wants you to take to start the new year with a new heart. The first step David models in his prayer is…
- Anchor yourself to God’s love.
When the weight of your sin dawns on you, it’s all too easy to stuff it down deep, to excuse it because so many others do the same thing or worse, or to avoid God out of guilt. The wiser way, the way to a new heart, is to anchor yourself to God’s love. Even so in verse 1, David prays…
“Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.” Psalm 51:1-2
The wrongs you’ve done don’t have to define who you are. But you don’t get a new heart until you come clean about your need. So that’s where David begins: he owns up to his transgressions, his iniquity, his sin. Let’s talk about those three really important terms.
Transgression is rebellion—when there’s a line you know you shouldn’t cross but you cross it anyway. Little kids do it while staring you in the eye. Adults do it in what we think are more sophisticated ways but it’s still the same thing: willful defiance. For David it was going outside marriage for sex. Then it was lying to try to hide his transgression. Then it was arranging murder to further cover up his willful defiance. So he prays, anchoring himself to the love of God, “blot out my transgressions.”
Iniquity in Hebrew is literally being “bent out of shape.” A new heart comes from admitting that like a car that’s been in a wreck, I now pull to one side or the other. I find it hard to stay straight and true.
- I get bent out of shape when I feel disrespected.
- I get bent out of shape when I don’t get my way.
- I get bent out of shape when I don’t have what I want right now, when I have to wait.
That’s iniquity, being bent out of shape. So David prays, “wash away all my iniquity.”
Then there’s sin. Verse 2 David prays, “cleanse me from my sin.” The Hebrew word here translated sin means “to miss the target.” If you go to a gun range and unload a full clip but pull the target up to find holes in it, you’ve missed the mark.
Our hearts, God says, are off target. We fall short.
So here’s a heartfelt prayer to start the new year anchoring yourself to God’s love.
“Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.”
Once you have anchored yourself to God’s unfailing love, his great compassion, take the next step:
1. Admit where you’ve messed up.
If you want God to bless you this year with a fresh start and a tender heart, admit your transgressions, your iniquities, your sins.
For a moment, forget about anyone else’s willful defiance, anyone else being bent out of shape, anyone else missing the target by a mile. Take a hard look at your own failings.
There’s the story of the guy who cheated on his IRS forms and taxes. He felt overwhelming guilt as a result. So several months later he mails an anonymous note to the IRS that says, “I cheated on my forms. I put false numbers down. I’ve been feeling guilty, and I can’t sleep at night. I’m sending a check for 1,500 dollars. If I still can’t sleep, I’ll send you the rest.”
Not! God is looking for full, open honesty. Not “mistakes were made,” but “this is what I did, and it was wrong.” Anchored to God’s love, you can find the courage to come clean. And so David prays, verse 3…
“For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge.
Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
you taught me wisdom in that secret place.” Psalm 51:3-6
You might say, “Wait a minute, David sinned against Bathsheba! He sinned against her husband! He sinned as king entrusted with protecting his nation instead of abusing its citizens.” And you would be correct.
The reason David prays, “Against you, you only, have I sinned,” is because for the first time in a long time, he’s finally looking up and remembering that everything he thinks, says, and does has been personally witnessed by God himself. At last, that breaks his heart. God has seen it all. What he did behind closed doors and under cover of darkness was all out in the open before God.
I remember the first time I had a David moment like this. Through the influence of a couple of friends I started going to church and reading about Jesus from the Bible, along with a great little paperback titled Basic Christianity by John Stott. The more I saw, the purity of Jesus started to stand out in starker and starker contrast to me. I began to see my hard-heartedness called out in the New Testament:
- My transgressions
- My iniquities
- My sins
The weight of my sin hit me hard like it did for David, until I got on my knees and prayed kind of like David does here. I admitted that I had sinned against God. I had done things I shouldn’t have, and I had left undone good things I should have done. I finally saw that I was spiritually sick—hard-hearted from my transgressions, iniquities, and sins.
And then I felt, for the first time in a long time, the love of God, the deep, deep love of Jesus. I’ve never regretted that day and that decision.
This is the hardest thing to see your need for, because it means admitting that you’ve fallen short of what God expects. It means no more excuses. No more cover-up. What God calls sin, you call sin in your own experience. Admit where you’ve messed up.
How do you get a new heart?
Anchor yourself to God’s love.
Admit where you’ve messed up—your willful defiance, your getting bent out of shape, and your missing the mark.
Now we come to the heart of today’s theme:
2. Ask God for a new heart.
David realizes that if God forgives him but doesn’t change something deep inside him, he’ll be right back to the same garbage as before. So he asks God for a new heart. Verses 7-12 David prays…
“Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.
Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.” Psalm 51:7-12
Hyssop is a sponge-like plant that Jews used when ritually cleansing things. They would dip a bunch of hyssop in water and sprinkle the water on it. The idea is that David realizes he needs God to cleanse him of sin and guilt. It’s not something he can do, only God can cleanse us within.
Psychiatrist Karl Menninger once said, “If I could convince my patients that they were truly forgiven, 75 percent of them would never see me again.” There’s someone who’s not a Christian who witnesses the horrible pressure that comes with not feeling forgiven. David describes it as feeling like his bones were being crushed.
God wants to replace your guilt with joy. He wants to put a new heart in you, to put a spring in your step that comes from knowing he has forgiven you. And there’s more: he wants to give you a new heart, so that you’re motivated, empowered to follow him, to walk in new ways.
In the OT book of Ezekiel 36:26-27, the Lord predicts what he would do in the future, for everyone who asks Jesus into their life. He says…
“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” Ezekiel 36:26-27
George Wright demonstrates what God intends when he gives a person the new heart. George’s story starts kind of like David’s, with hard-hearted choices. One night, George and a buddy walked into Walter Patterson’s gas station and demanded money. When Patterson objected they beat him until he gave up all the cash he had: seventy dollars.
Then George’s buddy shot Walter Patterson at point-blank range. After the robbery and shooting, George ate a couple of cheeseburgers and played shuffleboard—zero remorse. Completely hard-hearted.
He was arrested and sentenced to 15 to 30 years in prison. But he broke out and stayed under the radar for years, on the move to Algeria, Germany, France, Guinea-Bissau, and finally Portugal. He changed his name to Jorge.
And somewhere along the way, Jorge received the new heart that Jesus offers. He married, had children, joined a church, and got baptized.
He turned from crime and worked with his hands to provide for his family. He scrubbed off graffiti in Lisbon and helped to renovate an outreach center for HIV-positive children. He served dinners for the homeless. He planted public flower gardens. He raised two healthy and happy kids. He grew into a senior citizen. And in forty years of hiding, he didn’t do anything to add to his crimes—not even a speeding ticket or parking violation.
But a few years ago, the law finally caught up with George Wright. Portuguese police found him, acting on an Interpol warrant issued by the United States. They found George Wright, but the man they arrested was José Luis Jorge dos Santos.
Here’s where George’s story takes a turn: Portugal ultimately denied the United States’ attempt to have Jorge extradited. Here’s why: during the extradition hearings, the central issue became not whether they’d arrested the right man, but whether they had arrested the same man who had done such evil in the past. The question Portuguese authorities wrestled with and ultimately answered legally with a resounding yes was: Can a person actually change? God says yes!
Adapted from Make Nappa, God in Slow Motion (Thomas Nelson, 2013), pp. 35-37
If you recognize the ways and times you’ve willfully defied God, let yourself get all bent out of shape, and missed the mark of loving God and loving people well, here’s God’s prescription: ask him for a new heart, one that’s alive to God and motivated to follow his good ways. This is why Jesus came.
John 1:11-12 says…
“He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…” John 1:11-12
The way to receive the new heart is to receive the one who gives it—Jesus. Jesus came to fulfill the prophecy the Lord gave through Ezekiel generations earlier. When you receive Jesus, you receive the new heart that only Jesus can give.
There’s one thing more, and this is great. To everyone who anchors yourself to God’s love, admits where you’ve messed up, and asks God for a new heart, David models the new start that ought to immediately follow:
3. Allow God to turn your history into hope.
Verse 13 David prays…
“Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
so that sinners will turn back to you.” Psalm 51:13
His prayer is essentially, “After you forgive me, Lord, after you cleanse me of guilt and give me a new heart that’s motivated to follow you, now here’s my prayer: use me to teach others your ways. “
Turn my past transgressions, iniquities and sins into opportunities for others to be saved. Turn my history into hope for others. Let your new heart work in me spill out in blessing to others. Bless me and make me a blessing. This is the greatest sign and the truest evidence that you have received a new heart. You begin caring about others, wanting others to receive Jesus and be blessed, too.
Think of Peter. Three times he denies knowing Jesus. Three times Jesus restores him, commissioning him, “Feed my sheep.” Peter’s failure followed by forgiveness became his message, that “If God can forgive me, he can certainly forgive you!” God turned Peter’s history into hope, hope for others. Peter was blessed to be a blessing.
God wants to take the very things that brought you to him—transgressions, iniquity and sin—and use those experiences to help others find a new heart themselves, from the Jesus who is at work in you.
As we’re already walking into the new year, then, here’s the first and greatest step toward a new you: receive the new heart that God has for you. David models the way, and Jesus is the way to receiving a new heart.
I invite you to pray with me. Our Father in heaven, thank you that your mercies are new every morning. We come to the new year readily admitting we need help with our hearts, the inner us. Left to our own devices, we head to some dark places.
We anchor ourselves to your unfailing love, your great compassion. Have mercy on us. We praise you that with you, there is mercy.
We admit where we have messed up. It is against you that we have sinned. At times we have willfully defied you. We have gotten all bent out of shape. We have missed the mark as far as loving you and loving one another.
So we ask you for new hearts. Only you can give it, and we need it. Create in us a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within us.
And finally, Lord, we ask you to turn our history into hope. Bless us and makes us a blessing. Empower us to teach transgressors your ways, so that sinners will turn back to you.
In it all, we pray, may you receive our heartfelt praise and thanks. Amen!