What It Takes to Change a Heart
Fifty years ago, we successfully replaced a human heart—but the surgery couldn’t fix another heart problem that is thousands of years old.
Have you ever been faced with a problem where you could see the solution but couldn’t do anything to make it happen?
That’s sort of where the prophet Jeremiah was. He spent more than 40 years warning his countrymen about God’s impending judgment on Judah, urging them to repent and change their ways before it was too late. Jeremiah was deeply, emotionally invested in this work—but after all those decades of preaching and pleading, nothing changed. Jeremiah had to watch helplessly as Babylon invaded his homeland and took his people captive.
The problem was simple.
For 40 years God inspired Jeremiah to highlight the problem and confront Judah with it. He cried out in frustration: “O Jerusalem, wash your heart from wickedness, that you may be saved. How long shall your evil thoughts lodge within you?” (Jeremiah 4:14).
Again and again, Jeremiah’s message circled back to the same refrain: “This is your wickedness, because it is bitter, because it reaches to your heart” (verse 18, emphasis added throughout). He told them, “You were hypocrites in your hearts when you sent me to the LORD your God” (42:20). They “followed the counsels and the dictates of their evil hearts, and went backward and not forward” (7:24).
Through Jeremiah, God zeroed in on the root of the problem: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (17:9).
Judah’s collective heart was wicked and filled with self-deception. If that wasn’t going to change, Judah wasn’t going to change.
That’s true for us too.
Fifty years ago, on Dec. 3, 1967, Christiaan Barnard, a doctor in South Africa, performed the first successful human heart transplant. The transplant worked, but the patient died 18 days later from double pneumonia. Unfortunately, the drugs that prevented his body from rejecting his new heart also made him susceptible to disease and infections.
But the transplant itself was a landmark moment—irrefutable proof that such a procedure was possible. As the years have passed, the world of medicine has developed better and better ways to perform the operation. As of 2012, 87 percent of heart transplant patients survived their first year, while six out of 10 lived at least a decade with their new heart.
That’s incredible. Fifty years ago a human heart transplant was entirely theoretical. Today it’s been done countless times. This isn’t science fiction anymore—we know how to replace the human heart.
It’s certainly true in the most literal sense. Skilled surgeons the world over can take a donor heart and swap it out with the failing heart of a patient. But a new physical heart doesn’t solve the problem Jeremiah was talking about thousands of years ago.
In ancient Hebrew culture (much like today), the heart was seen as the seat of emotion—but also of reason and thought. Today we understand that the heart’s real job is circulating blood throughout our body, but we still use phrases like “speaking from the heart” or “cut to the heart.” We know instinctively that Jeremiah wasn’t diagnosing Judah with a coronary disorder—he was telling them that something was wrong with them spiritually, at the very core of who they were. That’s what desperately needed to change.
A different kind of heart
Through the psalmist Asaph, God explains, “My people would not heed My voice, and Israel would have none of Me. So I gave them over to their own stubborn heart, to walk in their own counsels” (Psalm 81:11-12).
Jeremiah’s ministry wasn’t entirely devoid of hope, though. While a great deal of his recorded prophecies were focused on Judah’s captivity, some of them looked past that captivity and into a future where there was still hope for Judah—and, not inconsequentially, the entire world.
Fifty years ago the first human heart transplant marked an incredible milestone for the medical world—but the greatest heart transplant is still ahead of us. Through Jeremiah, God promises:
“Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. … I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (Jeremiah 31:31, 33-34).
Through the prophet Zechariah, we’re told, “In those days ten men from every language of the nations shall grasp the sleeve of a Jewish man, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you’” (Zechariah 8:23). This is the picture of a different Judah—and a different world.
A future transplant
Fifty years ago the first human heart transplant marked an incredible milestone for the medical world—but the greatest heart transplant is still ahead of us. Through Ezekiel, God explains, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them” (Ezekiel 36:26-27).
All these prophecies picture a time when people around the world will know God. They’ll know His laws, and what’s more, they’ll have the heart to keep them in a way Judah never did. As they keep those laws, they’ll come to a deeper understanding of how important those laws are to a happy, meaningful life.
Jeremiah spent more than four decades trying to help his country see those truths. It never worked—but even in the aftermath of Judah’s devastation, Jeremiah knew that the story wasn’t over: “For the Lord will not cast off forever. Though He causes grief, yet He will show compassion according to the multitude of His mercies. For He does not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:31-33).
The world these prophets saw and longed for is coming. Billions of stony hearts around the world will be replaced with hearts that can hear, understand and value the Word of God.
If you want to be part of that change, then it’s not too early. God has already begun working with the hearts of a small group of people—His Church—and helping them to make His Word part of who they are.
To learn more about Jeremiah and his message for us, read our article on “Jeremiah the Prophet.”