How does God describe the process of human transformation, so that we are becoming the kind of people he wants us to be? We find out in Ezekiel 36, verses 24-32. Go ahead and read those verses and see if you can discern the steps of how God changes the human heart?
Do you see the process of transformation? There are multiple steps of transformation, and they are flooded with a two-word phrase that is repeated over and over and over. Did you see it?
“I will, I will, I will.” God will do it. This is a promise from God’s mouth about what he will do. What will he do? The work of transforming a rebellious, disobedient people, into the people of God. Let’s take a look at all the steps God will use.
First, in verse 24, God gathers his scattered people who have been exiled, like Ezekiel, in foreign nations. This speaks to restoration, which is especially meaningful to people who have been ripped away from their homes and carted off.
Second, God cleanses the people. In verse 25, we read the imagery of a ritual cleansing bath. We know that sprinkling a little bit of water on a person doesn’t cleanse them. For that you need a deep scrubbing. My dog hates baths. When I open the cabinet where we keep his shampoo, he knows what is coming next, and walks to the far side of the house. I don’t know why he hates it, but perhaps it has something to do with the fact that cleaning him requires a scrubbing, not just a simple sprinkling. To get his dog stink out of that thick fur is no simple task. God, however, is using the imagery of a ritual bath that does not intend to do what a scrubbing will do. What God depicts is a ritual, very much like the cleansing rituals from the Mosaic Law. The image is powerful, God doing the work of removing the significant amount of impurity from the people. Their sin, their rebellions, and specifically that of idolatry. While this is symbolic imagery, and not a literal bath (God is also not talking about the Christian practice of baptism), what this imagery teaches us is that God wants us to be clean, and he wants to help us. Notice that this cleaning is outward. Our outward actions matter. We are to be people who outwardly obey God. But outward actions flow from an inward place, don’t they? And that is what God gets to in the third step of transformation.
Step three: in verse 26, God goes to that inward place, the heart and the spirit. God is using the image of our blood-pumping organ to refer to our innermost being. Our heart, as it pumps blood, is the physical source of life. God envisions here a spiritual transplant surgery that seeks to replace the spiritual source of our lives. In our day and age, we are used to the medical miracle of heart transplants. It astounds me that such a thing is possible. You take out a bad heart, and you replace it with the good heart of someone who recently died, but whose heart is still strong. Then there is artificial heart surgery. I find that mind-blowing too, that we could make a heart, which is a fancy pump, and it can work in place of a heart of flesh. Perhaps still more amazing, recently surgeons at the University of Maryland performed the first ever successful transplant of a pig’s heart into a human being. The pig had to be genetically modified, but the transplant worked. Of course, long-term effects remain to be seen. But in Ezekiel 36, God is talking about a very different heart transplant surgery.
He says that their hearts are stone. Cold. Hard. Dead. The people are still physically alive, so we know that God is speaking symbolically here. He is talking about their love. They are lacking in love toward God and others, which was obvious by how poorly they behaved in turning away from him, committing injustices against humanity. That’s what it means to have hearts of stone. While your blood-pumper might be working just fine, you can have a heart of stone. Maybe you’ve felt it. We call it being cold-hearted. Dead inside. You see it in how some people treat other people. It can happen in Christians too.
My spiritual director advised me to read the book Inside Out by Larry Crabb, and it is excellent. Crabb suggests that the stone-cold heart is best understood as committing the sin of being demanding. Demanding of God. Demanding of other people. The difficult thing, Crabb says, is that we so rarely see ourselves as demanding. And yet, the sin of being demanding is extremely widespread. I urge you to read Crabb’s book to learn more about the sin of being demanding. More than likely, it’s in your heart.
I have to admit that I struggle a bit with what God is saying in Ezekiel’s prophecy. Remember all the “I will” statements? God says that he will do all the steps of transformation. There is no indication in this passage of human choice. What, then, about free will? Is God saying that he is going to remove the heart of stone against their will? I don’t think so. Consider what we know of God, and we must see this prophecy in line with everything else we know to be true. God honors human free will, even when those humans make horrible choices, like the choice to keep living with a heart of stone. So what is God saying with all of these “I will” statements? I believe it is best to view God as on the ready, standing next to his spiritual operating room with all his surgical tools, waiting for the person to say, “Ok, open me up, do the surgery. I’m done living the demanding life, Lord. I trust in you.”
After God says that he will give us a new heart of flesh, he also says he will give us a new spirit. What does he mean by “spirit”? Check back in to the next post, as we’ll find out?