The Deceitfulness of the Heart!

Edward Griffin, 1770-1837


"The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked! Who can know it?" Jeremiah 17:9

Two things are noticeable here:
  the degree of the deceitfulness of the heart,
  and the cause of it.

As to the degree, "the heart is deceitful above all things." We read of a "deceitful tongue," of "deceitful lusts," of "the deceitfulness of riches." "Favor is deceitful"; "the kisses of an enemy are deceitful" but the heart is deceitful above them all!

As it is more deceitful than the tongue, there is more danger that we shall deceive men unintentionally by first deceiving ourselves, than that we shall deceive them from fixed purpose.

The cause of this deceitfulness of the heart, is its desperate wickedness. "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked! Who can know it?" Were men perfectly holy then they would have no difficulty in knowing their hearts. Angels know their hearts. Men who are the most sanctified, possess the most self-knowledge. Sin has converted the mind into a dark house, full of labyrinths, which an unenlightened eye can never trace. Of many a mind it is true, that "a deceived heart has turned him aside, that he cannot deliver his soul, nor say: Is there not a lie in my right hand?"

This is the general reason of the deceitfulness of the heart but it may be useful to go into particulars.

The root of all sin consists in selfishness and selfishness produces this deceitfulness in different ways.

In the first place, it renders the mind extremely biased in its own favor so that when it undertakes to pass judgment on its own exercises, it seldom does it with impartiality.

In the second place, it not only predisposes the mind to judge too favorably of itself but produces many exercises which are mistaken for the Christian graces. It creates a regard for God as a friend and benefactor which is easily mistaken for the love required in His law. It produces movements of gratitude under a sense of His mercy, condescension, and long-suffering.

We may have a selfish approbation of His law and government because they are calculated to produce a happy society, and we hope to share in that happiness ourselves. Regarding Him as a friend, we may reckon that if He has the government of the world then it will fare well with us. And so we may selfishly rejoice in His government, and in the circumstance that our lives and interests are in His hands.

With such a reference to ourselves, we may rejoice in His wisdom to contrive, in His power to execute, and His goodness to dictate the best plan of promoting happiness.

With the same reference to ourselves, we may rejoice that His great end is to produce happiness and so may selfishly approve His character.

We may selfishly desire to be in Heaven from a general notion that happiness is there. We may repent from a fear of punishment. Having connected the idea of misery with sin, and being thus accustomed to look upon sin as an enemy, as such we may hate it and wish to avoid it. Or from finding certain sins injurious to our peace or our character or our worldly interests we may be anxious to shun them.

Having connected with a life of virtue, the idea of present and future profit we may seek to lead a virtuous life.

We may love the people of God because they are our friends, or because their characters and course of life are calculated to promote our interest.

These mistakes are promoted by a selfish operation upon ourselves in the business of self-examination. When a person, solicitous to find something in himself to relieve his fears, sits down to this work, he puts every power in motion to work up his heart to the desired pitch. He plies arguments and motives until his imagination and passions are excited; and in this state he readily obtains what he sought; little thinking that if he had taken half the pains to work himself up to the opposite frame, he would more quickly and more fully have succeeded.

The liability to mistake, thus grounded on selfishness is the proper deceitfulness of the heart. But this liability is promoted by other powers of the mind not in themselves sinful. For instance, imagination, sympathy, and other natural affections, may give rise to feelings which are easily mistaken for holy love and gratitude. The love of natural fitness, is often put down for the genuine love of holy order. The approbation of the understanding and conscience frequently pass current, for the affections of the heart. An enlightened understanding and conscience cannot but approve of the character, law, and government of God and disapprove of sin, and see that it is worthy of punishment.

The damned have a conscience that feels all this and it is the never-dying worm. An enlightened understanding may argue out the necessity and fitness of the atonement and this may be accounted nothing less than saving faith. It may be convinced that the happiness resulting from benevolent fellowship is the most pure and substantial; and this conviction may generate a sort of desire to partake of the happiness of Heaven, which may be easily mistaken for desires after the society of God and His holy people.

Having thus developed those powers and operations of the mind which constitute or promote the deceitfulness of the heart, I will proceed to show how far a man may go in favorable appearances and yet be deluded. And because I wish to present these symptoms in one connected view, I shall glance at some things which have already been said.

First, he may exercise a correct speculative faith in all revealed truths. "The devils also believe and tremble." His understanding and conscience may approve of the character, law, and government of God, of the atonement of Christ, and of all the truths of the Gospel. He may have a sort of regard for God, may rejoice in His wisdom, goodness, and mercy, and may be melted into gratitude for benefits received. He may exercise a general desire to be sanctified and saved.

In the same way, the foolish virgins desired the oil of the wise, and said to the bridegroom, "Lord, lord, open to us." Even Balaam desired to die the death of the righteous. His conscience may disapprove of sin and condemn himself as being worthy of death. With such a conscience the devils are tormented.

His conscience may be so tender as to revolt at most acts deemed sinful. Balaam could say, with seeming conscientiousness, "If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the commandment of the Lord." Indeed in the general tenor of his conduct, he may act conscientiously, either through the power of education or from the sensibility or even error of his conscience. Paul, before his conversion, was an instance of such erroneous conscientiousness. He had "lived in all good conscience before God." "Concerning the righteousness which was in the law" he was "blameless."

The man may abhor the sins of others for various reasons; first, because they are against his personal interests. Thus Absalom abhorred the conduct of Amnon. A similar instance of conduct in Shechem was highly resented by Simeon and Levi, who destroyed the city of Shechem, alleging, with a semblance of zeal for God, that Shechem "had wrought folly in Israel . . . which thing ought not to be done." Yet their father Jacob pronounced on their conduct, "Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and their wrath, for it was cruel."

Secondly, he may abhor the sins of others from compassion. When he sees the widow and fatherless weeping under the hand of merciless oppression then his indignation may be excited.

Thirdly, from that love of natural fitness which leads him to delight in a well arranged garden he may be pleased with the order of a well regulated family. He may hate to see stubbornness in children and servants, and poor management in parents and masters, just as he would hate to see an poorly shaped rock in the midst of a beautiful parterre.

For the same reason he may hate to see those deceptive actions which destroy good neighborhood, and all ingratitude to benefactors. He may wish to see performed the relative duties of superiors and inferiors, magistrates and subjects, husbands and wives, parents and children.

He may be opposed to all known sins in himself, first, from the dictates of natural conscience. To any rational being whose reason is not extremely perverted the consciousness of acting a wicked part is always painful. To avoid this pain, most men avoid many sins, and all would do so were not conscience silenced by error or lulled by the siren voice of pleasure.

Secondly, he may be anxious to avoid certain sins on account of the uneasiness they occasion, aside from the reproaches of conscience such as anger, envy, pride, and drunkenness.

Thirdly, he may resist sin in general out of respect to his character. Having models of amiable conduct before him, and perceiving how highly it is respected by the sincere part of society he is ambitious to imitate it.

Fourthly, he desires to avoid sin out of fear of future punishment.

For some or all of these reasons he may, first, mourn for his sins.

Esau mourned with tears for having profanely sold his birthright.

The rebels in the wilderness "mourned greatly" when they thought of their sin and its consequences.

When the envious Saul was delivered into the hands of David and was spared, his heart smote him, and he "lifted up his voice and wept and he said to David, You are more righteous than I; for you have rewarded me good, whereas I have rewarded you evil."

When Ahab heard the denunciations of God against his sins, "He rent his clothes, and put on sackcloth, and fasted, and went softly."

When Judas "saw that" Jesus "was condemned," he "repented, . . and brought again the thirty pieces of silver, . . saying, I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood. . . And He cast down the . . silver, . . and went and hanged himself."

Secondly, he may freely confess his sins.

When sentence was pronounced on the rebels in the wilderness they publicly confessed with grief. The same they did when the fiery serpents were sent.

Balaam confessed to the angel that he had sinned.

The wicked Shimei freely confessed the sin of cursing David.

Thirdly, he may make resolutions and vows to break off from sin.

Pharaoh repeatedly made resolutions and promises to let Israel go.

Saul repeatedly resolved and promised no more to persecute David.

Fourthly, he may strive against sin. Thus Pilate strove against the sin of condemning Jesus.

Fifthly, he may go so far as to forsake most of his external sins. The young man who professed to have kept all the commandments from his childhood, had doubtless led an externally moral life.

Sixthly, he may be awakened and brought under strong convictions of sin, and may tremble at God's word, like Felix and Belshazzar. He may have the feelings of that generation at the Red Sea, of whom it is said that "they feared the Lord."

Thus far in regard to sin and this has prepared me to say that he may undergo a great change in his views and feelings.

After Saul was anointed by Samuel, "God gave him another heart, . . and the Spirit of God came upon him, and he prophesied among" the prophets.

Simon Magus was changed from a public sorcerer into a speculative believer, and "continued with Philip, and marveled, beholding the miracles and signs which were done."

After great distress he may receive comfort, under the hope that his sins are forgiven. "He who received the seed into stony places, the same is he who hears the word, and immediately receives it with joy yet has he not root in himself, but endures for a while."

He may make a public profession of religion, and enter into covenant with God. When Israel entered into covenant with God at Sinai, "they flattered him with their mouth, and they lied unto him with their tongues for their heart was not right with him, neither were they steadfast in his covenant."

In after ages Isaiah addressed them: "Hear this, O house of Jacob, which swears by the name of the Lord, and makes mention of the God of Israel but not in truth nor in righteousness."

The parables of the ten virgins, of the tares, and of the net, plainly teach us that many enter the Church who will never enter Heaven.

Having thus made a public profession, he may take much delight in external duties. It was said of Israel by way of reproof: "They seek me daily, and delight to know my ways, as a nation that did righteousness, and forsook not the ordinance of their God. Tthey ask of me the ordinances of justice; they take delight in approaching to God."

He may listen with pleasure to the preaching of the word. It is said of the hearers of John the Baptist, that they "were willing for a season to rejoice in his light." Even Herod heard John gladly.

He may be much affected under sermons, and may have great movings of feelings in prayer. Esau "found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears." Moses said to rebellious Israel: "You returned and wept before the Lord but the Lord would not hearken to your voice, nor give ear unto you."

He may have an affection for the people of God. He may love them for their natural accomplishments; he may love them as his friends; he may love them as being on his side against an opposing world, or because they belong to his sect, and support his views in opposition to other sects, or because he has received, or expects to receive, some benefit from them.

For some of these reasons the sons of Heth were friendly to Abraham, Pharaoh loved Joseph, and Ahab was attached to the good Jehoshaphat.

He may have a flaming zeal for God. Jehu had such a zeal, and with an ostentation common to hypocrites, proclaimed, "Come with me, and see my zeal for the Lord!" The scribes and Pharisees had a great zeal to pay tithes of mint, anise, and cummin, and fasted twice a week, and would "compass sea and land to make one proselyte." The whole nation, while they crucified the Son of God, did it under the cloak of religious zeal. And Paul plainly intimates that a person may give all his "goods to feed the poor," and his "body to be burned" as a martyr, without holy love.

A flaming, overbearing, noisy zeal is a strong mark of a hypocrite. "Whoever boasts himself of a false gift, is like clouds and wind without rain." The figure is easily understood. Those clouds which have the most wind and sound, generally contain the least rain. Peter and Jude apply the same figure to blustering zealots. "These are wells without water, clouds that are carried with a tempest." "Clouds they are without water, carried about of winds."

It is supposed that the vision which Elijah had at Horeb was designed to teach that true religion does not consist in the wind of words, nor in the quakings of a guilty conscience, nor yet in the fire of a blazing zeal but in the still, small voice of humility and love.

We are now prepared to see that such a man may believe that he is a Christian. "There is one who makes himself rich yet has nothing." "There is a generation that are pure in their own eyes and yet is not washed from their filthiness." "If a man thinks himself to be something when he is nothing he deceives himself!" Such was the man who built his house upon the sand. "What is the hope of the hypocrite, though he has gained, when God takes away his soul?" "The hypocrite's hope shall perish."

The man may not only believe in his good estate, but may be very confident of it. The Jews had this confidence in a high degree. When Jesus gave a hint about blindness, "some of the Pharisees," astonished at the suggestion, "said unto him Are we blind also?" The same astonishment will come to many in the Christian Church. "Many will say to me in that day Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name, and in your name have cast out devils, and in your name done many wonderful works?"

To be very confident of one's good estate, especially at first, often betrays ignorance of the deceitfulness of the heart. True humility begets modesty and self-distrust. There is doubtless such a thing as "the full assurance of hope" and we ought to give "diligence" to acquire and carry it with us "unto the end."

It is generally the result of long experience of the power of our religion to overcome sin and the world. But that strong confidence which, like Jonah's gourd, grows up "in a night," is apt to perish "in a night." It is too often connected with a self-righteous spirit which says, "Stand by yourself come not near to me for I am holier than you." "I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing."

Such a man, under the strong apprehension of the love of God to him, may be deeply affected, and his mouth may run over with his praises. So it was with Israel at the Red Sea: "They sang his praise but they soon forgot his works." The man may have texts of Scripture suggested to his mind, which seem to bring a promise of salvation. Doubtless that same tempter who suggested a scripture promise to our Savior on the pinnacle of the temple has still power to insinuate such promises for the purpose of delusion.

Such a man may be a zealous preacher of the Gospel, and may attain to great success in his labors. Judas preached the Gospel; and for anything that appears, had the same success as the other disciples, particularly in casting out devils and performing other miracles. For we have already heard of "many" who will say at the last, "Have we not prophesied in your name, and in your name have cast out devils, and in your name done many wonderful works?"

Paul knew of some who preached "Christ out of envy and strife out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to his bonds." But they did good; for Paul adds, "But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice."

Finally, the man may not only have one of these marks but he may possess them all. If each of these marks may exist where there is no religion, I presume no good reason can be shown why all may not. How strongly fortified must he be against the knowledge of himself who, at the same time that he is in the darkness of unsanctified nature has his confidence supported by all these deceitful marks of religion. It might be expected that light would almost as soon break into the chambers of the dead, as into a mind thus defended on all sides by sevenfold darkness.

No wonder that Jesus said to the chief priests, "Truly I say unto you, that the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you."

After thus showing that persons possessed of all these marks of religion may fall short at last, we are almost ready to cry out with the astonished disciples, "Who then can be saved?" And indeed when we consider, in addition to all that has been said, the artifices of Satan, who can so easily transform himself "into an angel of light," and reflect on the inattention of most men to what passes in their own minds it is not so great a wonder that many are deceived as that any escape the snare! Let us all be distrustful of ourselves. "He who trusts to his own heart is a fool!" "Examine yourselves whether you are in the faith prove your own selves."

We learn that much of that which in real Christians is considered true religion is nothing more than the operations of nature. Every form of deception which has been mentioned, belongs to them in a less degree. Take away all this, and Christians will have but little left. We ought to know how to judge ourselves, lest we overrate our religion. We cannot estimate enough the importance of caution. Consider the infinite interests at stake. O let us never conclude that sufficient caution is applied.

After all, there is such a thing as true religion and such a thing as assurance that we possess it. There is something more in the world than a deceitful and a deceiving heart. There is a principle of holiness and sincerity introduced from Heaven. I say this by way of comfort to the children of God, who may be cast down at this exhibition of their dangers. Let them cast themselves upon the Savior of the world, and relieve every anxiety on that only pillow of hope. It is His purpose to save millions to save you. He will introduce the heavenly Spirit into the hearts of His chosen people. His power will prevail over the corruptions of nature and the stratagems of Satan. Go with confidence to Him. Cast your souls upon Him. Believe in His infinite sincerity and compassion. Love Him with so much ardor and tenderness, that you cannot doubt your love. Believe in Him; confide in Him; cast your whole souls upon His boundless love and mercy, and upon His unchanging truth and faithfulness. And you may go on with the full assurance of hope, and joyfully view the opening heavens, and keep your eyes fixed on that ravishing light until you are enrapt up to His eternal embrace! Amen.