Preparing for Christmas: Doing heart work

December 9th, 2020

Recently it occurred to me that Dr. Phil might be channeling John the Baptist. Or, at least, I think that Dr. Phil has given us a valuable filter for hearing how the Baptist helps us prepare for Christmas. For the coming of Christ again in our hearts. Here’s what I mean.

I have in mind the phrase that many associate with Dr. Phil: “How’s that working for you?” I’m not a regular viewer, but I’ve seen enough clips to gather that guests on his show describe a problem in their relationships or some emotional issue that they’re struggling with.

He’ll ask them to share what they’re doing to make things better. Usually, his guest will admit to a habitual pattern of behavior that gets no result or makes things worse. That’s when he asks it: “So, how’s that working for you?”

Well, obviously, it’s not working. And they keep doing the same thing over and over. Some in the audience probably think to themselves, “That’s the definition of insanity.”

Yeah, well, it is. And the truth of the matter is we’re all more or less crazy by this definition. It is very difficult to admit to ourselves when our customary way of doing things doesn’t work. Especially when our habits are destructive to self and others.

One of the hardest things we’ll ever do is stop and take an honest look at ourselves. That’s what Dr. Phil is encouraging with his question. And it’s what John the Baptist means when he calls us to repent.

You see, we can begin a new life only when we face the fact that how we’ve been going about things up to now just isn’t working. Repentance is the first step in a new beginning.

This may not be how you’ve been thinking about repentance, especially when it comes to the message of John the Baptist. He’s inviting his listeners to prepare for the coming of Christ. And at points he might sound like one of the fiercer ancient prophets of Israel.

He uses phrases like “brood of vipers.” And it’s understandable if you come away thinking that he is basically saying, “Straighten up before he gets here. Or else.” Honestly, in some moments, he might have been thinking in those terms himself.

Nevertheless, he tells his listeners that he has come to bring a baptism of repentance in preparation for Christ’s baptism of the Spirit. And in my reading that is crucial. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me set aside what I take to be a common but superficial notion of repentance.

When some of us hear the word “repentance” we think only of listing our sins, expressing remorse, and committing to a different pattern of behavior. This is not wrong, but it is incomplete. It does not go deep enough.

Repentance is the admission that we need heart work. What we do, and what we leave undone, points back to the heart that gave rise to these actions. Sin emerges from selfishness, from a heart that pursues its own desires at the expense of others. A loving heart, by contrast, sets its sights on the well-being of others even as it recognizes its own worth.

Christ comes to transform our hearts. As the prophet Ezekiel put it, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26)

When we repent, we welcome into our hearts the transforming power of Christ’s love. Paradoxically, that’s when we discover that he has been there all along. And that is how we prepare for Christmas.

This essay originally appeared at Looking for God in Messy Places. Reprinted with permission.

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