Sermon on Ezekiel 36:26-28; Pastor Edgar Mayer; Living Grace Community Lutheran Church; Nov 2009 (2003).

For more sermons and other writings check out pastor’s homepage: http://www.livinggracetoowoomba.org

 

Heart Vows

 

God says in the Bible – Ezekiel 36:26-28: “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.” “I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” Brothers and sisters in Christ, a heart of stone cannot feel, cannot give or receive love, cannot be touched. Something inside man or woman hardened into a stone.

Do you think that is our condition? Do you and I have one of these: a heart of stone – deficient in emotions and cold? Think about it! Are we tender to love – the love of God and people? Can we embrace how God feels about us? Do we respond when he mentors us? Can we feel love, joy and peace – the fruit of the Holy Spirit?

God seems to think that at one stage all of his people had a heart of stone because he said to all of them: “I will remove from you [– the entire nation/all people –] your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” So in like manner the Bible warns everyone: “See to it, brothers/sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily ... so that no one of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Hebrews 3:12-13). Do we recognize how much these words apply to us? Sinful, unbelieving hearts that turn away from God become hardened by sin’s deceitfulness and slowly turn into stones. Are we without sin? Are we without unbelief?

This goes deep and we may have a look at the beginning. In the beginning God created a perfect world, placed the first humans in a garden and said: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17). God knew what he was doing. He loved the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, and his command protected them. But the first human couple became deceived by sin and set into motion the history of human hearts of stone. Adam and Eve did two things which we are still doing today: 1. They made a sinful judgement. 2. They made a sinful inner vow.

Adam and Eve judged that God was holding back from them. They believed the lie that said: “God made this rule about not eating from that one particular tree because he knew how good it would be for you and how much you would enjoy it. God doesn’t want to share his good times with you” (cf. Genesis 3:5). That judgement was wrong and sinful because God feels nothing but love for us. God cherishes his creations.

What made the judgement worse was the inner vow that followed it. Adam and Eve made this promise to themselves, an inner resolve, a self-given life script: “Since God holds back from us, from now on I take matters in my own hands. I will not trust him.” Thus, they ate from the forbidden tree, became exposed but did not repent. God asked Adam: “Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” But Adam neither reversed his judgement nor revoked his inner vow. Instead he challenged God by accusing him and also his wife. He said: “God, shame on you. You gave me a bad woman and it was she who gave me from the fruit of the tree” (cf. Genesis 3:12). That was a bad response. In a very short time Adam became hardened in his sinful judgement and stuck to his sinful inner vow which began to transform his heart into a heart of stone. Sin solidified: “God holds back from me. He doesn’t love me but disappoints me. Therefore I will look after myself. I will only trust myself and no longer open up to God or anyone else.” There was a slow deadening of feelings towards God and towards Eve. And that proved devastating.

Today we recognize that Adam and Eve’s sinful judgements and their sinful inner vows became part of our human inheritance. The Bible is blunt: “ ...sin entered the world through one person and death through sin ... “ (Romans 5:12); “ ... in Adam we all die ... “ (1 Corinthians 15:22). Now “there is no one righteous among us, not even one” (Romans 3:10). In church language this is called “original sin” which some Christians define in the following way: “ ... since the fall of Adam all people . are born ... in sin. That is, all people are full of evil lust and inclinations from their mothers’ wombs and are unable by nature to have true fear of God and true faith in God.”

Brothers and sisters in Christ, we have inherited Adam and Eve’s judgements and inner vows. We say from our mothers’ wombs: “God cannot be trusted. I can only have faith in myself. It’s dangerous to open up.” And in the same vein from Adam and Eve we have also inherited the ongoing tendency to make further sinful judgements and sinful inner vows. Again and again we become deceived, harden our hearts and make them turn into stones. Let me give you a few examples.

When he was four, Bob’s older brother had stolen the chip dip from the fridge and managed to make it look like Bob had done it. Bob judged his brother for that and never forgave him. In third grade dad remarked at the dinner table that Bob’s brother was a better chess player and Bob could learn if he’d watch him. Hearing the words the brother smiled at Bob gloatingly, and Bob then and there made an inner vow to defeat his brother in every competition.

Later in college Bob had a rich roommate that reminded him of his older brother and that activated his inner vow. He had planned to study photography which he loved. But now he changed his course to business studies because that was what his roommate did. Somehow Bob needed to do the same and then get rich faster than the man who reminded him of his brother.

Bob vowed to be a millionaire, acquired status symbols, overcommitted in his drive to defeat others, drowned in overwork and stress, and in the process destroyed himself, his marriage, his children and his happiness. The inner vow “I will always defeat my brother in every competition” determined his life choices and in the end ruined him.

More examples: A student was chastised for his academic achievements and therefore vowed: “I will no longer seek excellence.” From then on he somehow became unable to excel either in business or hobbies, sports or personal relationships. A young teenager could not give up sucking her thumb and in her case it was uncovered that she had made an inner vow not to grow up. A second or third child may vow never again to wear hand-me-downs and then, as an adult, buy new things compulsively he or she doesn’t even need (John & Mark Sandford: A Comprehensive Guide To Deliverance And Inner Healing, Grand Rapids 1992, 69).

We all make inner vows. Most are small ones. Other inner vows, however, are more serious and yet not uncommon. A counselor writes: “Girls ... look to their fathers for their sense of self-worth. Every girl knows in her heart she is a gift of God to ravish her daddy’s heart. If she cannot do that – if he won’t notice her, for example – she is undone. She may become a beauty queen, but if her father failed to affirm her, she will struggle to feel beautiful inside. But if he told her she was pretty, she will have a great chance to feel confident, even if in reality she is not that good looking.

Some girls who preen before their daddies, as they should, to ‘pracise their wares’ where it ought to be safe, are ignored or, worse yet, taken advantage of sexually. Neglected girls may vow something like this: ‘I’ll never risk myself like that with a man again. It hurts too much when he doesn’t notice.’ In adulthood such women hang back, afraid to be aggressive in love play or unwilling to let their beauty shine. Molested girls often make stronger vows: ‘I’ll never let a man take advantage of me again,’ or ‘I’ll never again be vulnerable to a man.’

Usually these vows translate into promiscuity before marriage and frigidity in marriage, since neither affords a real meeting of the other in openness and trust” (John & Mark Sandford: A Comprehensive Guide To Deliverance And Inner Healing, Grand Rapids 1992, 71).

The same counselor also writes about a common inner vow men seem to make who were raised by controlling mothers. He says: “A lot of boys soon learn something many married men live with: Women have elephantine memories. You cannot remember what you said five minutes ago, but your wife can remember what you said two hours ago, five months ago and ten years before that! Fighting with women is unfair, because you always fight on their ground. They can remember what everyone has said, and you cannot even remember what you said.

Boys soon grow to be faster and stronger than their mothers. So how does a small domineering woman control her son? With her tongue. She learns how to put him under guilt and make him jump. Some boys soon realize: ‘Every word you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.’ So they decide it is necessary to hide from Mama: ‘Don’t never tell the woman nothin’ about nothin’!’

When at last they have broken free from Mama’s control so that they can now be friends, such men remain unaware they carry a strong vow that will be debilitating to their marriage. At dating age, they find a girl they can talk with about anything. ‘This must be my spouse!’ So they marry. For a while everything is great. They still talk and share their hearts openly. He proclaims his wife as his best friend, which she is.

Then she becomes a mother. And before long his inner vow kicks into action and he stops sharing. She still greets him at the door. ‘Hi, honey, how did your day go?’ ‘Fine. It went just fine.’ ‘I know it went fine, but tell me some details. What happened today?’ She can feel tension and hurt in his heart. Something is bothering him.

‘Oh, it was like any other day. It was O.K.’ ‘Tell me what went on. I know something’s bothering you. You never tell me anything anymore.’ ‘Yes, I do. I’ll tell you anything you want to know.’ ‘Well, then, tell me how your day went.’ ‘It was a good day. About like any other day.’

He cannot see that his heart has no intention of sharing his secrets with her. He has regressed to reacting as he did to his mother. The inner vow now rules him” (Slightly modified from John & Mark Sandford: A Comprehensive Guide To Deliverance And Inner Healing, Grand Rapids 1992, 69-70).

Brothers and sisters in Christ, you may not recognize yourself in any of those examples. You may assess situations differently and indeed similar situations may be caused by different circumstances, and in general you may doubt the damaging power of inner vows. Nevertheless, trust the Word of God. The Bible confirms the hold which sin has over our lives. Ever since Adam and Eve we all make the same judgements and the same inner vows: “God and other people are hurtful. And therefore I will close down, harden my heart and do x, y or z.” In the case of molested girls this is extreme and the same judgment and inner vow may be phrased this way. We’ve heard them before: “All men are detestable and therefore I will never open up and share myself with a man.” Or the son of a controlling mother may say: “All mothers play guilt trips on you and therefore I will not speak my feelings and become vulnerable to any woman.”

I remind us of what God promised. He said in Ezekiel 36:26-28: “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.” There are times when judgements and inner vows have hardened all our hearts into stone and we need God to remove what has become cold and dead. We need healing because we have not always heeded the warning: “See to it, brothers/sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily ... so that no one of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Hebrews 3:12-13).

Isn’t it true? Despite this loving advice none of us is free from a hardened heart. We vary only in the condition’s seriousness. Who among us has not promised after a disappointing romance or friendship: “I will not get hurt again”? We get disappointed, then judge others, harden our hearts and vow not to love again. That’s a most common condition which all too easily solidifies into something more serious.

The examples from before may have been a little unbelievable and scary even because who would have thought that sinful judgements and inner vows could unfold such power and be so destructive?

I give you another example: A woman that was harassed by her brother could not bear a male child. She had a few girls but several times miscarried when she was pregnant with a boy. In counseling she came to remember that, living with her vicious brother, at about nine or ten years of age she walked beside a river, picking up stones, hurling them into the water, crying out: “I’ll never carry a boy child. I’ll never carry a boy child.” And so she never did. Her womb seemed to obey this command until that vow was broken (John & Paula Sandford: The Transformation Of The Inner Man, Tulsa 1982, 191-192).

Why do sinful judgements and inner vows have such destructive power? For starters they are mostly hidden. We don’t remember having made these judgements and vows. As adults we don’t always remember the determinations of childhood. Why should the girl have remembered her frustrated walk beside a river, the feelings she had when she hurled stones into the water and said: “I’ll never carry a boy child”? That was one among many past experiences. Life moves on, doesn’t it? Well – sometimes there is a lasting hicup.

Sinful judgements and inner vows also remain hidden because from today’s vantage point we don’t always understand what should have provoked us to make these judgements and vows which then derail our entire life. Bob had a gloating older brother who made his parents believe that it was Bob who stole the chip dip from the fridge. As adults we may say: “Big deal! Sibling rivalry happens.” And – I’m sure – later in life even Bob said the same. He may have become best friends with his brother and totally forgot what happened when he was four and in third grade. But for his wounded heart it was a big deal and as a young child he vowed to defeat his brother in every competition – a vow whose consequences the adult was going to reap.

The hiddenness of our judgements and inner vows gives them subversive power. But that alone does not explain their unrelenting force to override any other good intentions. I don’t know why unresolved emotions, sinful judgements and inner vows work as they do but they are recognized phenomena. Scholars warn to be careful with self-talk. A student may be careful not say to himself: “I have got to study hard all the time.” Because over time this may lodge in the subconscious as an inner vow and make the person feel pressured always to study hard – no matter what the circumstances are. It’s safer to say: “I have got to study hard until the exams. Then I can relax.” Somehow our inner instructions need an off-switch. We need to tell our inner selves things like: “You are no longer a small defenseless child. You have grown up now.” Or: “You can relax now. You are not at work any more.” Emotions and instructions need to be switched off and resolved.

Likewise scholars warn about saying things like: “My wife is a pain in the neck.” Or: “I can’t stand this person any more.” Or: “If that happened I would die.” As we script these sayings on our hearts they have a habit of coming true. The pain in the neck becomes real. We can’t stand it any more and therefore develop knee problems. And maybe we even die as we said we would. These things don’t need to happen but we increase the likelihood by making inner vows.

 

[Cf. Matthew 16:18-19: “ … I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven.” 2 Peter 3:5: “ … by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed … ” Hebrews 1:3: “ … sustaining all things by his powerful word …” Hebrews 4:12: “ . the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword … ” Ephesians 6:17: “ … the sword of the Spirit . is the word of God.” 1 Peter 1:23-25: “ . you have been born … through the living and enduring word of God … ” James 1:18: “God chose to give us birth through the word of truth … ” Colossians 1:6; Ephesians 5:26; 1 Thessalonians 1:5-6; 1 Thessalonians 1:13; 4:5.]

 

Most importantly though I think that sinful judgements and inner vows are so powerful because we have more faith in them than in God. Our minds may believe that we can trust God and that his love will always keep us safe and that we will be okay letting go of our judgements and inner vows. That’s what our minds may believe but our hearts are not convinced.

Deep down do we believe in the healing that comes from God? Deep down do we dare to open up to God, hand everything over to him and become vulnerable in his presence? Deep down do we think that prayer achieves anything? Deep down do we think that we are safe with God? Brothers and sisters in Christ, what do our hearts believe? We may have gone to church for decades and still have unbelieving hearts – unbelieving hearts which refuse to heal because they shut out God.

The Bible says that in his hometown of Nazareth Jesus could not perform any miracles or healings because of their unbelief (Mark 6:5-6). In like manner we read in Matthew 17:19-21: “Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked: ‘Why could’t we drive out the demon from the boy?’ He replied: ‘Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard see, you can say to this mountain: Move from here to there and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.’ ...Unbelief shuts out healing because it shuts out Jesus and that’s what sinful judgements and inner vows do. We somehow don’t allow God access. But you and I, we want to open up the channels of healing again because we want to hear what Jesus said to many people in the Bible: “Your faith has healed you” (Mark 9:22,29; 15:28).

How then do you soften a heart of stone? How easy is it to receive healing? I’m afraid that hearts of stone resist a quick fix. There are benefits in holding on to our judgements and inner vows. The chief benefit is to retain control. We like the vow that says: “I will never be dependent on any other person again. I will control the levels of intimacy and be in charge of my life.” But God says: “Wrong.” God says: “I’m in charge and I am a God of love. You need love.”

There are pastors, nurses and other people in helping professions that spend all their energy in serving others. But they themselves cannot receive because they also have a heart of stone. There are comedians who always perform and make others happy but they themselves cannot receive the same from others. Graham Kennedy, for years the king of comedy in Australia, became a recluse later in life. His biographer wrote: “Comedy was his coping mechanism ... ‘He never really got over the rejection of his upbringing,’ was a common remark among his friends. What exactly constituted that rejection was never clear but he became a man ... who engineered his loneliness” (The Weekend Australian, 26-27 April 2003). People like Graham Kennedy know what is good for others but cannot receive themselves because: they are in control when they serve but seem to lose control when they receive.

Our desire for control is hard to break down and then there are other obstacles to healing. When we make the judgement that others reject us, we may actually come to agree with them and believe that they are right in rejecting. Our self-esteem plummets and then we try to make up for our “unworthiness” with a double-effort to be perfect. Hearts of stone do not melt easily because we don’t like to give up control, may also battle with anger, low self-esteem, performance orientation and even fear – the fear to leave the so-so safety of one’s old misery behind and dare something new.

Hearts of stone resist change. When I was a teenager, I sought out the deacon of our church and shared with him some of my more intimate thoughts. He was a great guy. I liked him a lot and wanted his advice. However, almost immediately after I had opened up to him, I began to resent him. That took me by surprise. What was happening? All he did was support me and love me. Why was I suddenly angry with him? Years later I began to understand. My heart of stone resented that I shared so much with him. My heart of stone didn’t want to become vulnerable and give up control.

We may be aware of this: Our hearts of stone make us resent, reject and drive away those that love us the most. The most dangerous people are those that love us so much that the heart of stone begins to melt. Can we risk being loved again?

However, there is one person we will never manage to drive away, that is: Jesus Christ. Jesus loved us beyond measure and kept loving us no matter how much we resented him and how much we raged against his unsettling love. The Bible says about him: “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; whe he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, ... he himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed ... “ (1 Peter 2:22-25). Whenever Jesus is pushed away, he does not push back. Even when he is pushed as far back as the cross of his death, he keeps loving us and loving us he melts our hearts of stone. God says: “By his wounds you have been healed.”

God confronted our sinful judgements and inner vows and proved to us that he would never hold back from us. He let us do our worst. He let us kill his son Jesus Christ so that he could prove to us that his love is stronger than death.

Hear once again the words from Ezekiel 36. God says: “ ... I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you ... ” As we have faith in Jesus Christ we do have new life in God and God makes his promise true. He does remove our heart of stone and gives us a heart of flesh. The Holy Spirit of God moves us and makes us responsive to his love and will. It will happen for all of us. You and I, have faith.

Then, when this promise slowly sinks in, we do something concrete in Jesus’ name so that the heart of stone melts even more: We repent of our judgements and we revoke our inner vows. Jesus promised and that is written in Matthew 18:18-20: “ ... whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven ... if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done to you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” In Jesus’ name we bind our judgements and loose inner vows so that our hearts become soft and tender again with the forgiveness and love of God.

This is not just theory but really happens. Christian counselors speak from experience when they say: “Inner vows are broken through prayer by pronouncing forgiveness for the action that caused the formation of the inner vow by the authority of Jesus Christ. Ask the Lord to forgive you for the inner vow that you formed. Be specific, not general, about the area of the vow. If you are not sure, first ask God to reveal it to you.

Have your pastor, group leader or a mature believer lay hands on you and forgive you and break the vow in the authority of the name of Jesus. They should bind the inner vows and loose you from its power. They should pray healing for the body, mind and emotions ... Continue in fellowship with a group of believers who will love and encourage you and help you replace the habit patterns that developed as a result of the inner vow.”

Brothers and sister in Christ, we dare to repent and break our inner vows because the love of God is certain and sure. He will never forsake us. Wouldn’t it be great to become completely whole? The love of God make us tender and soft, ready to receive and give love ourselves. We pray together: “Yes Lord, remove our hearts of stone and heal us.Amen.