This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him.
—1 John 3:19-22
That is how I felt when I received the note in class one day “to meet with the Assistant Principal.” As I made my way to the office, my heart was beating out of my chest. I assumed everything I had ever done at high school was about to be laid out before me. As I made my way into the office and sat down, my heart was restless and anxious, prepared for the worst. I couldn’t even remember doing anything to get myself in trouble, but that did little to calm my increasingly antsy nervous system.
“Hey R.D., I want to talk with you about the senior banquet coming up in a few weeks and some ideas I had to help make it come together,” said the Assistant Principal.
“Yes, that is exactly what I want to talk about as well,” I sputtered out. This was going to be a much better meeting that I imagined. My heart could rest easy again.
The sense of condemnation and restlessness before my meeting with the Assistant Principal is often how I feel in the presence of God and I believe how many Christians feel as well. If God dropped you a note right now and said it is time to come into my office, how would your heart feel? What would your emotions be? If the invitation from the great throne room came to you, would you feel condemned? How our hearts are set in the presence of God can tell you a lot about how deeply (or not) you are experiencing the gospel within your heart.
John is writing to Christians in his first letter to encourage them to have confidence and assurance in the presence of God. He writes that remind us “how to set our hearts at rest in his presence.” John is telling us that we do not naturally set our hearts to rest in God’s presence, but we must work at it; we must learn how to “set” our hearts at rest.
Why do we struggle to be at rest in the presence of a God? Because our hearts condemn us. John writes that our hearts will condemn us when we truly come into the presence of God (1 Jn. 3:20). When we truly come into the presence of absolute perfection and excellence, our hearts will tell us how far short we fall of that perfection and excellence. When Isaiah catches a vision of God in the temple he doesn’t run up to him to get a hug, he nearly falls apart, crying out “Woe is me! I am ruined!” (Is. 6:5). This is how you know you have come into the presence of God. When the light of God’s glory truly shines on you, your immediate reaction will be a desire to turn the lights off.
I remember when I had terrible acne in high school. I would wake up every morning and walk into my bathroom to turn on the lights. When all the lights turned on, all the impurities of my face were evident. There was no hiding and it was embarrassing. So for a while I simply turned on a single light to dim the lights, in a vain attempt to pretend that if I couldn’t see all the pimples then they might not actually be there.
But in the presence of God, the lights are fully on and we see ourselves for who we truly are, pimples and all. And our hearts rightly condemn us. The accusations fly from our hearts as we begin to seek God and pray to God, “You call yourself a Christian after the week you had?” Our hearts begin to bring up our sins, our brokenness, our guilt before God to accuse us and weary us as we honestly try and seek him.
We all experience this condemnation to differing degrees at different stages in our lives and we all counsel with people who experience condemning hearts as well. The reason John writes then is to provide a gospel remedy for our condemning hearts so that our hearts can rest in our Father’s presence.
A Gospel Remedy
“God is greater than our hearts...”
First, John reassures our hearts before God. God is greater than your heart, he is greater than your momentary feelings of guilt and shame. John reminds us that what God says about you is greater and truer than what you say about you. It can be easy to elevate our feelings, our emotions, our very hearts over the truth of who God says we are, but John tells us we cannot do that and be at rest. We need a greater word, a deeper anchor for our hearts in order to find rest.
Religion and irreligion are both recipes for restlessness. Religion promises rest for your heart by working, doing, thinking, and acting rightly. Religion comes to our hearts saying, “You can get over your guilt by working really hard at being a moral and righteous person so that the guilt of being immoral and unrighteous leaves.” But this is madness. How many good deeds and good thoughts does it take to truly put our hearts at rest? We can never know and, therefore, we remain, ultimately, restless in our path out of condemnation through the remedy of religion.
Irreligion promises that you don’t need a god to remove the guilt you feel, you only need you. You are the one who is able to remove the guilt by embracing who you are and by pursuing things which make you happy. But this is another recipe for restlessness. Here you simply replace a religious god with a secular one—in romance, approval, or wealth. But a new relationship, a new car, or a new job eventually lose its luster, and the reality of who you are, suppressed for a while, returns with a saddening vengeance.
We need something beyond religion and irreligion to deal with the crushing reality that whatever the standard is, we don’t measure up and whatever it is we think will put us at rest only makes us more restless. We need a greater word about us to hold onto.
This greater word is the word of God—the truth that we are created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27), saved by God’s grace (Eph. 2:8), adopted into God’s family (1 Jn. 3:1), and able to approach God’s throne with full confidence because of Jesus (Heb. 4:16). These are the gospel promises that we must make greater than our hearts and truer than our feelings. The remedy to the religion of work is to rest in the work of Christ for you. The remedy to the irreligion of the pursuit of pleasure is to rest in the beauty of the ultimate pleasure—Jesus Christ.
When we behold the greatness of God’s promises for us through Jesus we are able to begin setting our hearts at rest, knowing that our feelings betray us, but God is greater than our feelings of guilt, shame, and condemnation. That precious promise is not the only one that John reminds us of, he moves on to remind us of another.
“...and He knows everything.”
Second, God knows everything about us, absolutely everything. God is not surprised by anything that we have ever done. He has never looked out from the throne to say, “How did this happen? Why did you do that? I would never have saved you if I had know you would act like that?” No, he knows all about us and yet he still loves us.
We are often like Aladdin, continually fearing that when we are exposed for who we truly are, the people we love the most will desert us. You remember Aladdin right? Are you singing “A Whole New World” right now? I know you are—I digress. In the movie, Aladdin falls in love with Princess Jasmine, but doesn’t tell her the truth about his identity, that he is just a common peasant and not a prince. He enlists the help of the Genie in order to become something more than he is, but eventually the weight of hiding who he truly is wearies his soul. We see the exhaustion of hiding his identity come out in a conversation with the Genie towards the end of the film.
Aladdin: They wanna make me Sultan. No, they want to make Prince Ali Sultan. Without you, I’m just Aladdin.
Genie: Al, you won.
Aladdin: Because of you. The only reason anyone thinks I’m worth anything is because of you. What if they find out I’m not really a prince? What if Jasmine finds out? I’d lose her. Genie, I can’t keep this up on my own.
We can’t keep up hiding on our own as well. The liberating news of the gospel is that we don’t have to hide who we truly are because God knows everything. We have already been found out! There we stand before the God of the universe exposed! But now we have “confidence before him” (1 Jn. 3:21) because though he knows everything, he still loves us. How can we be sure of this? Because of the truth of 1 John 3:16, “This is how we know what love is, Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.”
Jesus Christ laid down his life for us, to bear the condemnation from God that we deserve so that we would not bear it. This is why Paul writes that “therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). So now our hearts are put to rest toward God and God’s heart is put to rest towards us forever, and in the presence of God we can be vulnerable and honest, laying our whole lives bare before him and trusting that he will do what is good for us. We know that the Holy Spirit is here not to condemn us, but to convict us and remind us of the grace of Jesus and not the guilt of our sin.
The Liberating Rest
When we enter the presence of God through prayer or when we think of who God is in all his glory and beauty our hearts may condemn us and tell us that we are unworthy of his love or that we have no right to ask things of this God because of how we have been behaving, we must remember the gospel remedy in what Christ has done for us. We must remember the liberating truth that “God is greater than our hearts and he knows everything.”
We are not under guilt. We are under grace and so when the note from God comes to us, to enter into his presence and the voices in our heart rise up to condemn us we can confidently say with Paul “Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (Rom. 8:33-35a).
The answer of the Holy Spirit in Scripture is no one. And we can rest in that.
R.D. McClenagan is a teaching pastor at Door Creek Church in Madison, WI where he lives with his wife Emily and their increasingly adorable twin baby daughters Maisie and Camille. Follow him on Twitter: @rdmcclenagan.