Spiritual Growth Objective

Cultivate a Christ-like heart and character that shapes our emotions and directs our will in ways marked by the fruit of the spirit. 

Introduction to the Heart

Spiritual formation aims not only at the education of the mind but also the shaping of the heart. Why is the heart so important?

The heart is the center of human beings. The Bible uses the term “heart” to refer to the very core of a person. It is the source of our inner thoughts (Genesis 6:5), intentions (Genesis 8:21; cf. Hebrews 4:12), desires (Psalm 37:4), and the whole range of emotions including fear and courage (Psalm 27:14), anger (Psalm 55:21) and calm (Psalm 112:7), sorrow (Psalm 13:2) and joy (Psalm 13:5). We love God from the heart (Deuteronomy 6:5), and wisdom resides in the heart (Psalm 51:6; 90:12; Proverbs 2:10; 14:33). Thus, the heart reflects the person like a mirror (Proverbs 27:19), and God commands us to guard our hearts carefully for “from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23).

A corrupt heart is the source of human sinfulness. Human acts of sin are not merely isolated events; rather, they are expressions of a deeper sinful condition of the heart. The heart is “deceitful above all things and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9), and thus it is in our hearts that we devise wrongdoing (Psalm 58:2). When the spring becomes poisoned, the whole river that proceeds from that corrupt source is poisoned as well. Jesus describes the heart in this way when he identifies a corrupt heart as the source of human sins: “[W]hat comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person” (Matthew 15:18-20).

Spiritual transformation requires the renewal of the heart. We only truly honor God and fulfill his law and his purposes for us when we love God from the heart (Matthew 22:36-37). Since the diagnosis of our spiritual condition reveals a bad heart, the necessary prescription is a change of heart. God’s saving work in us consists of nothing less than a new heart made alive and responsive to God with love for God and a desire to obey God (Ezek. 11:19-20; 36:26-27; cf. John 3:5). Thus, David acknowledges that he needs God to change his heart in order to follow in God’s ways (Psalm 119:32), and God promised that he would write his law on the heart of his people (Jeremiah 31:33; Hebrews 8:10; 10:16). Paul likewise teaches that true salvation entails Christ dwelling in our hearts by faith (Ephesians 3:17) so that our hearts are inwardly enlightened (Ephesians 1:18) and transformed by the Spirit (Romans 2:29; cf. Deuteronomy 30:6). The result is that we can draw near to God with a cleansed heart, full of the assurance of faith (Hebrews 10:22) and love God and other people with a pure and sincere heart (Matthew 5:8; 1 Peter 1:22; 1 Timothy 1:5).

Resources for Study

Bible study guides Hazel Offner, Fruit of the Spirit (IVP, 1999) This nine-lesson covers biblical meaning and methods of cultivating nine virtues that Holy Spirit produces in people united to Christ: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. John Stott, The Beatitudes: Developing Spiritual Character (IVP, 2020) This eight-lesson study examines eight character qualities of people who belong to God’s kingdom: meekness and mercy, poorness in spirit and purity of heart, mourning and hunger, peacemaking and faithfulness under persecution. Videos Peter and Geri Scazzero, "Emotionally Healthy Spirituality" This is an eight-session video study with a workbook and a book of short guides for morning and evening prayer based on the book’s themes. This study teaches us how to understand the intimate connection between knowing God and knowing ourselves, how God’s grace in Christ helps us understand and face our emotions, and how to develop practices that God uses as means of grace to transform and sustain an emotionally-healthy life. Central Presbyterian Church owns a copy of the DVD, and members may borrow them for their group studies (contact Pastor Mike Farley). This study can be used in conjunction with the book by the same title listed below. Books Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, updated ed. (Zondervan, 2017) Pastor Scazzero teaches how to understand the intimate connection between knowing God and knowing ourselves, how God’s grace in Christ helps us understand and face our emotions, and how to develop practices that God uses as means of grace to transform and sustain an emotionally-healthy life. This book can be used in conjunction with the video study listed above. Christopher J. H. Wright, Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit: Growing in Christlikeness (IVP, 2017). A study of the virtues that flow from a heart united to Christ and transformed by the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Wright explores the full biblical depth of meaning of each of these nine virtues, and he illustrates what they look like in people who cultivate them with numerous stories and examples. Jerry Bridges, The Practice of Godliness (NavPress, 2016) Bridges explores the nine fruit of the Spirit and also the virtues of humility, contentment, thankfulness, and holiness. Additional chapters address how to train ourselves in becoming like God by cultivating worship and devotion to God and practices that shape our character. The book includes a discussion guide with biblical verses for study and questions for discussion and application. Philip Kenneson, Life on the Vine: Cultivate the Fruit of the Spirit in Christian Community (IVP, 1999) Each chapter contrasts a specific virtue with a feature of the vices and unhealthy practices characteristic of the modern age. Kenneson shows how a life without the fruit of the Spirit becomes a life dominated by the tyranny of market-style exchanges, manufactured desires, fragmentation, productivity, self-help, self-sufficiency, impermanence, aggression, and addiction.

Action Steps

1. Check your understanding.

  • According to the Bible, what is the “heart,” and why is it so central to being a human being and to spiritual growth?
  • What are the Christ-like character qualities and virtues that the Holy Spirit forms in people united to Christ?
2. Study one or more resources about the heart, character, and emotional health produced by the work of the Holy Spirit in followers of Christ.
  • Can you identify some key biblical texts that offer teaching about these qualities, virtues, and practices?
  • What some practical ways to assess and to cultivate the Christ-like maturity one’s heart and character?
3. Make a specific plan to work on one or more of these character qualities.
  • Make a commitment to do some self-examination and ask God to show you areas of weakness needing growth. Keep these matters of the heart and character in mind and bring them before God as you pray from the Scriptures in your practice of the daily office and your ongoing conversations with God as you live a praying life throughout your day.
  • Make a plan to incorporate some specific practices into your life that will help you cultivate a particular virtue and mature in Christ-like ways. Make sure that your ideas are concrete enough that you will can see and evaluate your progress. Discuss these with your growth group or some trusted Christian friend to seek their support, wisdom, and encouragement.