December 2023
Spiritual formation
How Do Hearts Grow?

Heart growth is a matter of giving. The more we love, the more we give.

How do you know your heart is maturing, that you're developing, that you're more than just your yesterday-self? Simple question. And maybe there's a simple answer. In the midst of reaching for biblical definitions of the heart as the seat of human emotion and the hearth of longing, we make the question of maturity overly complex. Maybe our hearts mature as they focus more on giving and less on getting. That may sound reductionist, but give me a chance. 
Maybe our hearts mature as they focus more on giving and less on getting.

John Calvin often used the Latin expression incurvatus in se when referring to the human heart. We're "curved in on ourselves." Selfish, in other words. Sin crept into our marrow and made our spines too malleable. Now our backs are bent so severely that it takes tremendous effort to look up and even notice others, let alone serve them. God's redeeming grace is then the process of our being unfurled, like a fern tendril, straightening in the Spirit so that we can stand up and look, so that we can see. And so that we can serve.

This takes the work of God, this straightening. Malcolm Guite put it into poetry. God moves first, and then we move.

I cannot think unless I have been thought,
Nor can I speak unless I have been spoken;
I cannot teach except as I am taught,
Or break the bread except as I am broken.

God does the work of thinking us and then speaking us into being (I get into this more in The Speaking Trinity & His Worded World). He teaches us to utter words of grace, given us by his Spirit (cf. Luke 12:12), and all of this starts with our being broken, our being humbled to accept the joyous, life-renewing gift of Jesus Christ. God works in us. He stands us up straight, uncurving our souls. And once we can look out on the fields of humanity with open eyes, we can do what we were called to do in the first place: love.

The Heart and Love

The most emphasized call on the heart is to love. There are many passages we could look at, but the most direct might be Matthew 22:36-40.

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Everything depends on love. That's the heart's highest and deepest call. Love God with all that's in you. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love your mailman. Love your boss. Love that kid who wakes up early just to ride his dirt bike and jolt you out of sleep. Love.

Why the emphasis? Because love isn't just something we do; it's something that defines us. We're made in the image of God, and God is identified by love. It's not just a character trait for him; it's who God is. "Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love" (1 John 4:8). As creatures made in his image, love is an integral part of who we are. But that brings us to the question, What is love?

Love as Self-Giving

A few verses later in John's first epistle, he writes, "In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (1 John 4:10). Love is God sacrificing himself. Love is the Father giving the Son in the fullness of the Spirit. Love is self-giving. For us, that giving came in the Son, whose blood brought us beauty. In the words of George Herbert from his poem "The Agony,"

Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood, but I, as wine.

Love as self-giving may sound strange, in light of popular notions of sentiment, but it's a beautiful truth. Love is the open hand, not the closed fist. Love is the offering, not the demand for service. Love is the giving, not the taking. As I put it in The Book of Giving,

Love is the greatest act of giving. It holds nothing back. All other gifts seem to let the giver retain something. Love requires open-armed abandon, complete vulnerability. For us, that’s terrifying at times, but not so with God. Within that timeless triune community of love, there is unbroken and unhindered acceptance. This is only possible because God has one will. The Father, Son, and Spirit all want the same thing. They want each other, with love fiercer than fire, greater than any lover’s gaze. I have not even the words to reach that place. But I know it’s there, because God has told us it’s there. It’s who he is (1 John 4:8). 

God is love, and God gives. We love in his image, and so we are made to give.


Now, back to where we started. How do you know your heart is growing? Well, is your tendency to give rather than receive? Do you look first to serve and only second to seek?

Let me end with an example. As I was walking into the kitchen the other afternoon, I had a moment of clarity. I had been doing little acts of service for someone throughout the day, all with the hope of getting something in return. I wasn't really loving this other person. I was acting out of calculated gain. My "selfless" actions were arranged to bring me something. And when that happens, you can tell, because when you don't get what you're after, you feel irritated or bitter. That feeling is a reflection of a shrunken heart, a heart that needs to grow. When you can say with a clear conscience from your own experience, "It is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35), to say it and really mean it, then you know your heart is growing.

Hearts wax with giving, and they wane in selfishness. 

Heart-growth is a matter of giving. It's a posture of the soul, to offer with both hands and not expect or demand anything in return. If you want to know if your heart is growing, if you're not just waking up each morning and being the same old yesterday-self, then consider how you're giving your time, energy, and resources to others. Hearts wax with giving, and they wane in selfishness. Thank God he gives us grace so that we can give it again. 

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