Gospel habituation. Habituation is where you tune something out after a while, like you might not notice the loud ticking of a clock in your home but a visitor hears it loud and clear. We can do that with the gospel. It can become familiar, ordinary, and unamazing. God has given us ways to keep that from happening, like hearing Christ preached and celebrating the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, but our diseased heart doesn’t take it in.
I was on the tennis court ready to receive serve when I felt dizzy. The next thing I hear is the staticky radio voices of emergency personnel as I am being wheeled on a gurney to the waiting ambulance. That set me on an unplanned crash course on heart disease that included knowing symptoms of heart failure.
Contrary to my thinking, heart failure does not necessarily mean heart stoppage and instant death. It just means the heart is failing to do its job. Evidently, it can show up in different people in different ways. For me, the telltale sign was shortness of breath.
Spiritual heart failure is a serious matter as well. It can never result in death for the true Christian, whose heart of stone has been removed and replaced with a heart of flesh by the Holy Spirit. That new heart is receptive to the things of God and voice of Christ, and will beat into eternity.
That spiritual heart, however, can be afflicted by heart failure. It doesn’t do its job of loving God with all its being or loving neighbors. It tends to be listless, unenergetic, and increasingly disinterested in the things of God.
What are the signs of spiritual heart failure? We can note at least six symptoms.
- Attendance in weekly worship becomes optional and irregular. This is pretty serious. God designed us to be worshipers. He sought us to be worshipers. And He turned our hearts from idols to worship Him as the true and living God. You can be sure that neglect of corporate worship is a sign of a heart that is not given over to God in everyday life.
- A spotty prayer life. Like shortness of breath and struggle for oxygen, irregular prayer does not breathe in the oxygen of God’s grace in continual awareness of Him and dependence upon Him. This condition often takes in shallow breaths of periodic prayer that fail to fill the lungs or hyperventilate in panic prayer in times of great distress.
- Gospel habituation. Habituation is where you tune something out after a while, like you might not notice the loud ticking of a clock in your home but a visitor hears it loud and clear. We can do that with the gospel. It can become familiar, ordinary, and unamazing. God has given us ways to keep that from happening, like hearing Christ preached and celebrating the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, but our diseased heart doesn’t take it in.
- Poor appetite and inadequate diet. God has given us a rich banquet in His Word, all the nourishment we need for our growth in grace. But we rarely partake. We don’t feast on it. We content ourselves with snacking on a nugget every now and then. But even then we don’t savor it. We don’t chew on it through attention and meditation, drawing out its flavor and absorbing its nutrients of truth.
- Inactivity. A healthy heart has blood flow in and blood flow out. Heart failure affects this circulatory system. It becomes enlarged for lack of exercise. It doesn’t spread nutrients throughout its own body or the body of Christ. It does not look to serve but to be served, unlike the One whose heart was in perfect health. With no sense of sacrifice or suffering, it becomes weakened and ineffective.
- Spiritual Listlessness. Indifference to the things of God and tolerance of what dishonors Him are signs of arterial sclerosis, hardness of heart. One contributing factor to this condition is isolation from fellow believers. Without them in our lives to stimulate us to love and godliness, our hearts can be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. Separated from the body of which we are a part, our fire grows dim and our enthusiasm wanes.
How do we address spiritual heart failure? Prescription for each symptom is found in the Word of Life. But it begins by approaching the Great Physician, asking Him to “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139:23–24).
Stan Gale is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is the author of several books, including A Vine-Ripened Life: Spiritual Fruitfulness through Abiding in Christ.” This article is used with permission.