QUESTIONS GOD ASKS US - Sermon Study Guide #1 - Who Can Understand the Heart?

READ – Jeremiah 17:1-10

For Lent, we are doing a series on questions.  Trinity OC is seeking to be a place where peoples’ questions are encouraged, respected, and valued. Many of us have had the experience of being in faith communities where our questions were not welcome. Christianity encourages asking questions and seeking the answers in a community of faith. But what about God’s questions? Throughout the Bible, God asks very direct and probing questions to people. It’s important for us to listen to those questions. So over the next six weeks we will be listening to six of the most poignant questions God asks:

1.       “Who can understand the heart?” (Jeremiah 17)

2.      “Where are you?” (Genesis 3)

3.      “Where are you going?” (Genesis 16)

4.      “Why are you so angry?” (Jonah 4)

5.      “Why are you here?” (1 Kings 19)

6.      “What’s your name?” (Genesis 32)


Jeremiah was a prophet to the nation of Judah before and during the exile (586 BCE). He is commonly referred to as the “weeping prophet” both because he wrote a book called Lamentations, but also because he more than any other prophet showed the pathos and heart of God for people. “Heart” is actually the theme of Jeremiah 17. Through repetition of the word “heart” (v. 1, 5, 9) Jeremiah is connecting this whole passage. In the Bible, the “heart” is the seat of the emotions and will—it’s where your thoughts, commitments, and desires all work together to make you who you are and to move you to do what you do. The heart is the central core of a person. If the heart is at a person’s core, it’s easy to see why God throughout the Bible is more concerned with that inner reality than mere behavior or external actions. Likewise, if you really want to know where you are, to grow, to learn, or to change, you need to start with a deep “heart” exam—because staying on the surface won’t lead to true self-knowledge or lasting change.


Jeremiah 17:1-8 give us two different pictures of our heart’s inner condition. (1) the heart is our inner tablet, (2) the heart is a tree. Jeremiah says curiously that “the sin of Judah is inscribed with an iron stylus with a diamond point.” Notice he says “sin” and not “sin(s).” That’s significant. God is more concerned with the relational direction of our heart, whether it is turned away or resisting God, not merely behaviors or rule-breaking. Essentially, Jeremiah’s imagery of the tablet and the tree is God’s way of asking: (1) what is written on the tablet of my heart—what messages, values, beliefs am I listening to and acting from? (2) what roots and resources is my life tapping into—who or what am I trusting for well-being and life?


If the diagnosis of our hearts is that they are inscribed with the wrong beliefs and values and rooted in the wrong place, what’s the cure? Jeremiah rules out two of the most common cures for our hearts: (1) salvation by self-understanding, “follow your heart”, and (2) salvation by religious self-effort, “master you heart.” Curing our heart through following our heart won’t work because we can’t know if our heart is trustworthy—we’re often a walking mix of contradictions. Further, following our heart rarely leads to serving other people. What kind of world would we live in if everyone followed their heart and neglected to love and care for others? However, curing our heart through mastering it won’t work either. Jeremiah is making the claim that deceit is the heart’s best practice—especially when it comes to religious hypocrisy. Trying to cure yourself through self-mastery actually makes the heart hardened because you convince yourself that you are OK, when you aren’t.

So what’s the biblical antidote? Jeremiah says that the hardened heart must be broken and the turned away heart must be turned back. Later in the book, Jeremiah gives us a clue to how God actually does both of those things for us (Jeremiah 30-33). In Jeremiah 31, God tells His people that He will both write His law on their hearts and that they will relationally, covenantally know Him. This is given to us in the Gospel. The Law could never inscribe itself on hard human hearts—what we needed was a force greater than the force of law, the force of unbreaking, covenant love. Jesus is the fullness of God’s unbreaking love for us. Even though he never turned away from God, God turned away from Jesus on the cross. Even though the root of Jesus’ life always looked to God for refreshing, on the cross he was parched and cried, “I am thirsty.” Even though Jesus’ heart was always inscribed with God’s law of love, his body was broken on a death tree as our substitute.


Followers of Jesus have already been given a new heart, but at the same time our hearts are not wholly and fully new. Our hearts can still become hardened and deceitful. The season of Lent is an invitation to do some heart care. Engage in that heart-care knowing that the care is the same as the cure (the gospel). We can engage in deep heart work when we (1) Self-examine through allowing God to examine us in the light of His Word (see Psalm 139), and (2) Confessing sin and repenting/turning to Jesus.


1.       What about the sermon most impacted you or left you with questions?

2.      What thoughts, feelings or experiences do you have with Lent? Are they positive, negative, neutral? What questions do you have about the practice of Lent? Is there someone you can go to for guidance?

3.      Why do you think the Scriptures make such a big deal about the condition of our hearts? Does that fit with some people’s modern expectations that the Bible is all about rules and behavior?

4.      Jeremiah compared our hearts to tablets and trees. Using that picture, what values, beliefs, ideas do you find inscribed on your own heart? If you’re a parent, consider asking your kids: what am I passing down to you, how will you remember me?

5.      We are all trying to cure ourselves by following our heart (irreligion) or mastering our heart (religion). How does the gospel free you to truly know yourself—and what difference does that make in your everyday life?

6.      How might this week look different if you lived out of the reality that Jesus was broken and endured the parching heat of the cross, so that your heart could be inscribed with God’s love and your life rooted God’s nourishing care? What might change? Share with your group and close in prayer.