God who Searches the Heart

Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


When people ask, “What do you do?” I reply that I offer spiritual direction to a wide variety of Christians – many in the workplace, some pastors, some in other Christian ministries. “Spiritual direction” is helping people understand what God is doing in their life. It is not trying to tell folk what to do, or urging them to conform to a popular image of the Christian devotion, many therefore open up in ways they have never done with anyone else. As I was reflecting and praying about this recently I sensed it was all about God searching our hearts.

In the Bible the word “heart” designates the very centre of a person’s life, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” (Prov 4:23). The heart is at the root of our thinking, willing and feeling, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” (Heb 4:12-13).

Our society, and in many ways the church, has become fixated with emotions because it has lost touch with the deeper reality of the heart. An old Christian friend says emotions are like the red oil light that shows up on the instrument panel of your car. It is not the light that needs to be fixed, there is something wrong at a deeper level. This deeper level is the subject matter of this address.

God who Searches Himself

The God we worship through Jesus Christ (1 Pet 2:5) is unlike the God of other religions, because he plumbs the depth of his own being. Paul says, “For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.” (1 Cor 2:10-11).

In eternity the Holy Spirit was always searching out the Father’s heart of love for the Son and the Son’s love for the Father, he was always joyed by it and deeply moved because of it. This is the reality of “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor 13:14).

Creation is Searched

If searching the heart is a property of God’s own life, it is essential to why he created. Scripture teaches that God created all things for his own glory (Isa 43:6-7), and since “glory” means the display of one’s own nature, it follows that God created to reveal his deepest inner-being. He could only disclose his own heart to another being of like nature to himself, this was man, made in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26).

Adam and Eve were created upright and free, but to advance to the full limit of their human potential their hearts needed to grow through experience. Adam was innocent in relation to guilt, but the maturing of his heart could only come through testing. This is why God allowed Satan to enter Eden.

Adam had all the resources needed to defeat the devil. Jesus words, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt 12:34), are as true for God as for us. God’s spoken word, ““of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”” (Gen 2:17), communicated his deepest heart that man might not perish. This was a word from the heart of God to the heart of man, and its purpose was to create faith. In speaking, God fully communicated himself – the totality of mind, will and passion was present. Biblically, it is “with the heart one believes” (Rom 10:10), this word of God was aimed at Adam’s deepest being, his heart.

When Satan appears in Eden, he too has a word, ““You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”” (Gen 3:4-5). If the devil’s word is true, immortality is on offer without effort; sin, and its consequence, death, will be abolished because man will be just like God, having only to answer to himself. Man was confronted with two words, Satan’s and God’s, to accept God’s word was to unite his own heart with God’s heart, to reject God’s word was to reject God’s heart.

The psalmist says, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.”(Ps 119:11). If Adam had allowed God’s all powerful and sustaining creative Word (Gen 1:1ff; Heb 1:3), into the depths of his heart he would have grown into full spiritual maturity. He would have become so wise as to never trust in his own understanding and he would have grown beyond temptation (Prov 3:5-8).

Sadly, Adam and Eve failed the test God set for them and their hearts shrunk instead of being stretched. Becoming fools (Rom 1:22) they lost all sensitivity to the divine Spirit (Eph 4:18, Jude 19) and any awareness of God’s deep purposes. The Lord however, by his very nature, still searches man.

All Men are Searched

Contrary to human prejudice the Creator is constantly present to his creatures[1]. Made in his image, created by his Spirit (Ps 104:30) and upheld by his Word (Heb 1:3), the Lord treats us with as much significance and depth as he treats himself! According to Psalm 139 he is searching us from conception, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me! For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.” (Ps 139:1, 13). As the creator of every human life God knows each of us intimately. This is a wonderful and difficult thing.

The divine searching of the human heart is especially acute when we are suffering. Job remarks in the midst of his anguish, “What is man, that you make so much of him, and that you set your heart on him, 18 visit him every morning and test him every moment? 19 How long will you not look away from me, nor leave me alone till I swallow my spit? 20 If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of mankind?” (Job 7:17-20). When he does not immediately remove our pain we think God is distant and uninterested in us, this childish view is the exact opposite of the truth. It is in the midst of struggles with suffering that the Lord is most near.

When we are alone in our beds reflecting on the deep issues of existence the Holy Spirit is delving into our lives. The psalmist says, “I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night” (Ps 63:6) Opera singer Marina Prior, star of Phantom of the Opera, used to lay on her bed late a night thinking, “I am happily married, I have a great family, I have a stellar career, but something is missing.” Although she did not know it at the time, such deep probing of the heart was incited by the Spirit of God, and led her to Jesus.

Israel is Searched

When Adam failed the search God launched the covenant with Israel to continue it. This was the purpose of the wilderness experience, “And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not.” (Deut 8:2). Like Adam, the wilderness generation never learned to trust God’s word[2].

The Prophets and Kings are Searched

The greatest leaders of Israel were searched and found wanting. Moses’ purity of heart was the tested beyond endurance. Breaking out in anger against God’s command by the people’s rebellion, and was excluded from the Promised Land (Num 20:10-13)[3]. Elijah saw the miraculous power of God in sending drought and fire from heaven, but when his own life was threatened he fled and in depression begged to die (1 Ki 19:1-5).

David seemed full of virtue when he prayed, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! 24 And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! ” (Ps 139:23-24). The Lord took him at his word, tested him with Bathsheba, and exposed adultery and murder in his heart. Even though he earnestly repented (Ps 51), the rest of David’s life was constant turmoil.

Solomon, supposedly the wisest man in the earth[4], prayed with deep insight, ““LORD….render to each whose heart you know, according to all his ways (for you, you only, know the hearts of all the children of mankind), 40 that they may fear you all the days that they live in the land that you gave to our fathers.” (1 Ki 8:37-40). But, “when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God…” (1 Ki 11:4) so that “the Lord raised up an adversary against Solomon” (1 Ki 11:14).

All these great figures were searched by God as to whether they would live for the sake of his kingdom, regardless of the cost. They were found wanting. God’s ultimate purpose, though hid from them, was that their lives might conform to the shape of the life of their coming Messiah[5].

Jesus and the Searching God

In Jesus, the ultimate searching of God and man unites in one person. John 1:18may be translated, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is in the Father’s heart, he has made him known.” Through the Word becoming flesh (John 1:14) God’s deepest heart has been put on open display. God’s heart is fully exposed in the humanity of Christ. Everyone can now see if God is as faithful, forgiving and loving as he claims. The full revelation about God’s deepest being comes through the testing of the humanity of Jesus.

Adam was tempted in a garden, but Jesus must meet Satan in the harsh conditions of the wilderness. Hungry and alone he must relive not only Adam’s test but also Israel’s desert ordeal. This time however God has found a man “after his own heart” who will do all that he is commanded (1 Sam 13:14; Acts 13:22). Jesus resists Satan’s temptations because he whole-heartedly believes,““‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”” (Matt 4:4). Jesus refuses to sin because he has stored God’s word in his heart (Ps 119:11).

The real test of the disposition of God’s heart revealed in the flesh of Christ is found in his passion. When Jesus agonises in the garden of Gethsemane, ““Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”” (Mark 14:36), we sense we are entering into a dialogue within the innermost being of God himself. As he sweats tears of blood (Luke 22:44) we can see that the deepest centre of Christ is being stretched to breaking point, but it is not yet clear exactly why. This will only be revealed at the cross itself.

“’Jesus cried with a loud voice…, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Mark 15:34). This traumatic cry takes us into the inner life of the Son of God, and it reveals something so shocking that if it were not true we could not embrace it. All his life Jesus lived in the goodness of the Father’s presence, he knew when the Father was testing him and he knew its purpose was that he might grow in wisdom and favour with God (Luke 2:40). Now, on the cross, bearing the full penalty of our sin (2 Cor 5:21) he is cut off from God’s immediate presence and lacks all awareness that the Father is plumbing the depths of his heart. Since the Spirit is withdrawn from his consciousness, Jesus is left without a sense of being searched by God, it seems that God is totally unsearchable, inaccessible, a God who has closed his heart altogether against his Son. Without any felt love flowing from the Father, Jesus must live by sheer naked faith. Yet in all of this, he still owns God as his God, he still calls out to God and being heard for his “reverent submission” (Heb 5:7) will be raised from the dead. This is the pattern for the ordeal to which God exposes us all.

Disciples are Searched by the Cross

From the time of Jesus birth it was prophesied that he would expose the inner life of men. “34 And Simeon …said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed 35 (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”” (Luke 2:34- 35)

Jesus’ life and teaching provoked powerful responses in people. When he preached for the first time in his local synagogue at Nazareth the townsfolk tried to kill him (Luke 4:28-30). A general pattern emerged in his ministry – the common people heard Jesus gladly, but the elite hated him. The former had nothing to lose, the latter sought praise from men (John 5:44). The way of the cross brings not praise but ridicule, this is why the cross is the great stumbling block (1 Cor 1:23) to true heart faith.

On the eve of the crucifixion Jesus warned his closest disciple, “31 “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, 32 but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” 33 Peter said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” 34 Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me.”” (Luke 22:31-34). When Peter did deny his Lord for the third time, “the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.” 62 And he went out and wept bitterly.” (Luke 22:61-62). The penetrating gaze of Jesus pierced Peter’s heart, stripping away all his bravado leaving him “naked and exposed to the eyes” of God (Heb 4:13), like Adam and Eve in the Garden all he felt was shame.

We all need stripping experiences like this. At the end of 2009 a denominational leader was overburdened by pastoral responsibilities and the terminal disease of a mother-in-law. Running a retreat for clergy he began with a self confident assertion to his fellow pastors that everything was OK, but soon broke down in a flood of tears and grief. The real condition and security of his heart was being exposed by the grace of God. Like Peter, he was able to confess, repent, and be restored to his brothers.

A few weeks ago I received a phone call from a man with a young family whom I hadn’t seen for a couple of years. When we met he explained that he had been through an emotional meltdown, been shafted by his employer, changed companies, done extremely well in a difficult market for 12 months, then when sales seemed to stop he had started to lose his grip again. He expressed he had no idea what God was trying to tell him. A scripture came into my mind, ““My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”?” (Isa 40:27). I suggested that he believed that God disregarded him as a person, had other children he treated as favourites and, lacking the authority that comes from the Father’s presence, he had allowed others to take advantage of him. He agreed that this insight fitted how he lived and so we prayed about it.

About 5 days later he rang me up sounding much more positive. Whilst he had never openly entertained in his conscious mind the idea that God disregarded him, he gradually had became aware that such heart thoughts, and bitterness over them, were very real inside of him. He was able to meaningfully repent for believing that God could treat any of his children in this way and new life was able to flow in the Spirit. God had searched and exposed something in his heart by allowing him to come into a time of distress. God’s Spirit is constantly at work to strip things away that hinder us from knowing him; this is also true at a corporate level.

Jesus speaks directly to the church in Thyatira about their toleration of the false prophetess Jezebel, “Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, 23 and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works.” (Rev 2:22-23).

In 1 Corinthians, Paul explains the final purpose of all prophetic proclamation, “if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.” (14:24-25). God searches and strips out our hearts, not because he is a legalist, but because he wants us to enjoy the deepest possible fellowship with him. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matt 5:8) Another way of putting this is to say that we are searched by God so that we might know him as he knows us[6]. This is a beautiful thing, because it has to do with who we are in Christ.

Remember our key text, “For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.” (1 Cor 2:10). There is nothing deeper in the eternal counsels of God than “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph 3:8), “which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Col 1:27). Amazed at his own gracious work in Christ, the Father will leave no stone unturned, no idol in our hearts unmoved, to reveal his Son in us (Gal 1:16). It is the total passion of God to open our hearts to the things that God has done for us in Jesus (Acts 2:36-37; 16:14).

This is where the work of the Spirit is central. “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Rom 8:26-27). The Spirit searches out the heart of God made flesh in the glorified humanity of Christ in order to unite our own hearts with God as our Father; the result is “inexpressible joy” (1 Pet 1:8; cf. 2 Cor 9:5).

In this great process nothing is too small to escape the divine attention. A couple of weeks ago I was inconvenienced by what was, to my natural mind, foolish errors made by several people. I began to think of these folk as “idiots”. After a while the deeper reality became clear, God was using other people to test the attitude of my heart. Seeing his good purpose in all this enabled me to repent of such negative thinking and to be thankful for the circumstances.

The Final Search

Men and women shield their hearts very carefully, not only in relation to others, but from God and his Word. Let me tell a story which I believe explains why.

When I used to lecture on the topic of the Last Judgement, I would always ask my students, “Do you think that the sins of Christians will be exposed for all to see at the judgement?” They always seemed worried by this question and someone would hastily answer, “No!” However Jesus said, “to his disciples … “2 Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. 3 Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.” (Luke 12:2-3). Paul taught, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” (2 Cor 5:10). All of our sins will in fact we publicly displayed at the Last Judgement, but displayed as forgiven sins! The great fear which causes us to close our hearts against the searching of the Word of God is the fear of judgement (1 John 4:17-18).

Knowing that Christian consciences could be just as distorted as those of the lost, the aged apostle John said, “19 By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; 20 for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything.” (1 John 3:19-20). John had the spiritual maturity of a true father, such things are sadly lacking in our day.

Searching out God

We are lacking men and women who daily search out the deep things of God in response to God daily searching us out. I recall chatting with a pastor of a large congregation, who said in passing, “100 churches have been planted from this church, you can come here at all sorts of hours and find men and women “laying hold of God””. He was referring to a scripture from Isaiah, “There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.” (Isa 64:7)

The vision of the cross reveals that when the face of God was hidden from the Son this was not because the heart of God was closed against humanity but totally open in forgiving love for us. We know that in Christ every experience of distance from the divine presence is an invitation to search him out and “lay hold” of him as our Father. The full and final revelation that Jesus brought to the world is that God is an all communicating Father.


The sufferings of this life are not meaningless; in Christ they are meaning-full. All our “fighting without and fear within” (2Cor 7:5) is contained within the wise and eternal purposes of God to grow our hearts into Christ likeness. The failure to know this, and I mean to know it by divine revelation, is a direct cause of why the rates of psychological breakdown, psychiatric disturbance, relational fracture, drug use, materialism and many other problems are often as common in the church as outside it. It is time to recover “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).

At the end of his long treatment on God’s sovereignty over Israel and the nations in Romans 9-11, Paul says, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom 11:33), and he ends the section with a doxology, an outburst of praise, “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (11:36) Amazed by the unsearchable riches of the wisdom of a God who searches all things, even his own heart, the apostle can do nothing but praise. So it should be with us.


[1] E.g. “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” (Rom 1:20).

[2] See Hebrews 3:12-19.

[3] He called the assembly “rebels”, struck the rock in violation of God’s command to speak to it, so proving himself to be no different from the irritable crowd.

[4] “Thus King Solomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. 24 And the whole earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind.” (1 Ki 10:23-24)

[5] Peter teaches this principle, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, 11 inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories.” (1 Pet 1:10-11).

[6] See Exodus 33:12, 17; Jeremiah 1:5; Nahum 1:7; John 10:14, 27; 1 Cor 8:3; 13:12; Gal 4:9; 2 Tim 2:19.

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