When you clean up your house, you need to throw some things away. For many of us, our garage is the most cluttered part of our house. I wonder how many people can actually park their car in their garage? Our hearts are like that too. To have a healthy heart, we need to declutter our hearts. How can we find freedom from “Disordered Affections”?
Affections that Clutter our Hearts
In Colossians 3:12-17 Paul describes the character of the new life that we have in Christ. I wrote about that earlier in How to Cultivate a Healthy Heart. But before he gets to that, Paul tells us in Colossians 3:5-11 what needs to be cleared away in order to have a healthy heart. To by physically healthy we need to eat healthy foods and avoid unhealthy ones. To have a healthy garden we need to both add compost and pull the weeds. Our hearts are the same way. We need to get rid of unhealthy inner affections and nurture healthy ones.
What do we need to get rid of to have a healthy heart? Paul gives us some examples in Col. 3:5-9. Most of the things on this list are inner attitudes and emotional states, what Jonathan Edwards would call “affections.” The rest of the items grow out of our inner affections. What is in our hearts determines our outward actions. Jesus said:
“19For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. 20These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” (Mat. 15:19-20, ESV)
At the end of Colossians 2, Paul wrote about the futility of trying to change our outward behavior without changing our hearts. Regarding outward rules such as regulations about what we eat and drink, he says:
“These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (Col. 2:23, ESV)
Since sinful behavior originates in our hearts, we need to pay careful attention to our inner affections.
The Problem of Disordered Affections
Godly religious affections will lead us closer to God. Ungodly affections will lead us away from him. We all feel this pull in two different directions (Gal. 5:17). Nurturing the right sort of inner affections is an essential part of spiritual growth. In the 16th century Ignatius of Loyola addressed this issue in a well-known book titled Spiritual Exercises. The full title is:
“Spiritual exercises to overcome oneself and to order one’s life without reaching a decision through some disordered affection” (Ignatius of Loyola)
Another translation has “inordinate attachments” instead of “disordered affection.” Ignatius used this term to describe the deep-seated desires for other things that pull us away from God. When our desire for God is overpowered by our desire for other things, our affections are out of order. Ignatius sees freedom from disordered affections as essential to following Jesus. His Spiritual Exercises are designed to help us gain that freedom.
We find a similar concept in the writings of Augustine in the 4th century. He believed that the essence of sin is what he called “disordered love.”
“To have a well-ordered heart is to love: the right thing, in the right degree, in the right way, and with the right kind of love.” (Augustine)
At one end of the spectrum are the things that we should not love at all. At the other end, God should be our greatest love. As C. S. Lewis has said, the problem is not that our desires for other things are too strong but that our desire for God is too weak (C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”).
We Need a New Heart
Our hearts are not infallible. The Bible gives plenty of evidence that our hearts can lead us astray (Mat. 15:19-20). The common advice in our culture to “look within” and “follow your heart” will not always lead us in the right direction. Our hearts will lead us toward what we have already formed our heart to be. If our hearts have been incorrectly formed, they will lead us in the wrong direction.
That’s why we need a new heart. God promised that in the New Covenant established by Christ he would give us new hearts (Ezek. 36:25-27). In Colossians 3:9-10, Paul instructs us to “put off” the old self and “put on” the new self which is in the process of being renewed to increasingly reflect the image of God. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, we are set free to become the people that God created us to be.
Most of the things that we are told to “put off” in vs. 5-9 have a destructive influence on our relationships with other people. The new humanity that God has created in Christ overcomes all racial, ethnic, social, and economic barriers (Col. 3:11). The foundation of that unity is our new hearts. This transformation starts with our relationship with God, but it results in a transformation of our relationships with others.
What is our Part?
God has given us a new heart, but we are all too often painfully aware of the many ways in which we do not yet reflect God’s image. The fact that there are several commands in this passage indicate that there is something we need to do to grow in Christlikeness.
The language that Paul uses here of “take off” and “put on” is used elsewhere of changing clothes. We take off dirty clothes and put on clean ones. There are some inner affections that need to go and others that need to take their place. Paul uses strong language here. He says that we need to “put to death” those ungodly affections that lead us away from God (Col. 3:5).
The good news is that we can do something to grow into the new hearts that God has given us in Christ. We have a choice about the thoughts and feelings that we allow to dwell in our hearts. Dallas Willard observed:
“What we feel and think is (or can and should be) to a very large degree a matter of choice in competent adult persons, who will be very careful about what they allow their mind to dwell upon or what they allow themselves to feel.” (Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart, p. 34)
The same spiritual disciplines that help us to nurture godly religious affections can help us to diminish ungodly ones. This is a message of tremendous hope. We can be set free from slavery to the ungodly affections and passions that pull us away from God and grow in our love for and delight in God. This should be the heart’s desire of every child of God.
If you would like to listen to a message that I recently shared on this topic you can find it on our church website.