Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology

Troubled Hearts

by Dr. Brian Allison

One fundamental characteristic of human experience is that of a troubled heart. Is your heart troubled--a heart that is disturbed? Maybe this past week you were betrayed by a colleague or a friend. Maybe recently you had a fight with a loved one. Maybe your health is deteriorating and the prognosis is bleak. Recently, I spoke to a young married man who had undergone corrective surgery which turned out to be unsuccessful. He must have surgery again. He is unemployed and has various family difficulties. It was clear that he had a troubled heart. How is your heart right now? Well, Jesus has some comforting words specifically designed for troubled hearts. He encouraged His disciples, "Let not your heart be troubled; [you] believe in God, believe also in Me" (Jn. 14:1).

Separation produces troubled hearts

Jesus made this statement to His disciples as He was delivering His final discourse to them, prior to His crucifixion. Here we have words of instruction, as well as encouragement. Now, there are a number of possible reasons why the disciples had troubled hearts at this time. They may have had troubled hearts because Jesus had previously predicted His betrayal by one of them--"When Jesus had said this, He became troubled in spirit, and testified, and said, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, that one of you will betray Me.' The disciples began looking at one another, at a loss to know of which one He was speaking" (Jn. 13:21f.). Or, maybe the disciples were troubled because of Jesus' announcement of His imminent departure from the world--"When therefore he [Judas] had gone out, Jesus said, '...Little children, I am with you a little while longer. You shall seek Me; and as I said to the Jews, I now say to you also, "Where I am going, you cannot come"'" (Jn. 13:31,33). Or, a third reason for the disciples' troubled hearts may have been Jesus' prediction of Peter's denial of Him, which may have implicated all the disciples--"Simon Peter said to [Jesus], 'Lord, where are you going?' Jesus answered, 'Where I go, you cannot follow Me now; but you shall follow later.' Peter said to Him, 'Lord, why can I not follow You right now? I will lay down my life for You.' Jesus answered, 'Will you lay down your life for Me? Truly, truly, I say to you, a cock shall not crow, until you deny Me three times'" (Jn. 13:36-38).

Now, it seems, especially in light of what follows the statement referring to troubled hearts, that the probable reason for the disciples troubled hearts is Jesus' announcement of His departure from this world; and so Jesus further disclosed, in response to the reaction to His announcement, "In my Father's house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also" (Jn. 14:2,3). Jesus states here the goal of His departure--He must go and prepare dwelling places for His disciples; as well as the purpose of His departure--He would come and take them to Himself and transport them to heaven in order that they would be with Him forever.

So, Jesus uttered comforting words to His troubled disciples, which, no doubt, the disciples needed to hear on such an occasion. To use contemporary language, the disciples experienced separation anxiety, having heard these stinging words of Jesus' departure. That's a painful experience--the pain of separation. In 1979, about 2 years after we were married, my wife and I decided that I should pursue further education in the States, and that (for practical reasons) I would have to go alone. So, I went to the States, and she went overseas to Scotland to be with her family. That was a difficult experience. We both experienced the anxiety of separation. One night I bolted up out of my sleep, having had a nightmare, and dashed down the hall to make a long distance call. Further, during our separation, my wife kept secret that she was desperately ill while overseas. Her doctor in Scotland insisted that she not return to Scotland without her husband--the anxiety of separation.

So, the disciples experienced separation anxiety. Jesus was their leader. They had accompanied Him for over 3 years. They had committed themselves to this man. They had sacrificed all in order to follow Him. As one commentator has stated, "They had burned their boats and had blown up their bridges to follow Him." Jesus was now leaving them behind. How would you feel? When a beloved and well-respected leader leaves his people, there is the pain of separation.

Jesus experienced a troubled heart

So, feeling the weight of anticipated separation, the disciples were troubled; and Jesus, filled with compassion, and sensitive to their needs, spoke tender words to them--"Let not your heart be troubled." This term 'trouble' simply means to be upset, to be disturbed; or, if I can put it this way, it means to be churned up inside. It is the absence of calm and steadiness. You can have a troubled heart and yet not be worried or fretful. A family member may be very ill. Because of your attachment to him or her, you may feel very upset and bothered, wanting him or her to recover. Love demands such an emotional response. Yet, believing in the sovereignty of God, and entrusting that loved one to Him, worry or fret need not be your experience. You, in faith, should know that God will accomplish His will and do what is best.

A troubled heart is that state of mind to which peace answers. For instance, John 14:27 reads that Jesus assured His disciples, "Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives, do I give to you. [As a result] Let not your heart be troubled [the same term], nor let it be fearful." Now, interestingly, in the Gospel of John, this term is found 6 times, with 3 of the references describing Jesus' experience. For instance, we read, "When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her, also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit, and was troubled" (Jn. 11:33); again, Jesus said, "Now My soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, 'Father, save Me from this hour'? But for this purpose I came to this hour" (Jn. 12:27); and again, "When Jesus had said this, he became troubled in spirit, and testified, and said, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, that one of you will betray Me'" (Jn. 13:21). Underscoring the integrity of Jesus' humanness, John recorded that Jesus Himself was troubled. He was churned up, inwardly disturbed. The Son of God, the Lord of glory, the King of kings had a troubled heart. If I could put it another way: Jesus lacked total inner calm and peace. You say: impossible! My friend, let your reason bow to the written infallible Word of God. Don't let any theology mute and cancel out the recorded truth of the Bible: Jesus had a troubled heart. I find this truth peculiarly comforting and consoling.

Accordingly, a critical point is this: a troubled heart does not necessarily mean that you are sinning or that you have a sinful disposition. There are those who teach that if you experience anxiety or feel fear then you are sinning. Remember, Jesus agonized in the Garden of Gethsemane. He was in anguish of soul. He was overcome with anxiety. Jesus has felt the depth of emotional pain. He can thus understand and sympathize with us in our pain, when we too have troubled hearts. That is comforting. And so, with compassion, Jesus exhorted his disciples, "Let not your heart be troubled."

John 14:1a may better be translated 'stop being troubled' or 'cease from being troubled'. Thus, what is presupposed is that the disciples were in a troubled state, that is, emotional disturbance had set in. Now, Jesus is not simply requesting that they cease from being troubled, but He lovingly exhorted them to cease from being troubled. He thus placed some measure of responsibility on them to address and correct their troubled state. Jesus encouraged them to harness and handle their emotions, and that is what He calls us to do also. Thus, Jesus implies that we can have some measure of control over our emotions, and not allow them to run amuck. I know that some of you may not believe that. You may say, "But it's my emotions. I just can't get a handle on them. I can't help but act this way." My friend, that is not completely true. You can decide your behaviour. It is a 'cop out' to complain, "Well, I blow my stack; I can't help it. You know that's just the way I am; it's my temperament." Granted, temperament is a factor in determining behaviour, but we need not be slaves to our temperaments and emotions. The grace of God can even overcome the weaknesses of our temperaments, though it may not be easy. It is possible to get a hold of ourselves, and not be out of control or frantic. Do you have a troubled heart? Are you churned up inside, lacking a sense of calm and steadiness? Did you have a confrontational meeting with the boss? Did you receive a bad medical report? Did someone betray you? Was your mate unfaithful to you? Jesus calls you to peace.

Belief in Christ quells a troubled heart

So, Jesus encouraged the disciples to harness their emotions, to get hold of themselves. He thus proceeded to give direction on how they might do that. He did not simply leave them with the exhortation, but He gave them some instruction on how they could conquer their troubled hearts. He implored, "You believe in God, believe also in Me" (14:1b). Jesus instructed that belief in God should provide the grounds or basis for believing also in Him. He said, in effect, "Because it is a fact that you believe in God, then because I am His Son, I want you also to believe in Me." The disciples believed in God, but the pressing current matter was whether they really believed in Christ. One of the themes in the Gospel of John is the necessity of belief in Jesus; and here Jesus endeavoured to encourage and strengthen the faith of His disciples. With this exhortation, Jesus implied His oneness with the Father. We have here implied Christ's divinity. To believe in Christ is to believe in God. Our belief in God necessitates belief in His Son.

So, Jesus calls His people to believe in Him. Throughout this Gospel, He endeavoured to provoke faith in Himself. For example, we read, "Jesus answered and said to them, 'This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent'" (Jn. 6:29). Now, interestingly, prior to Jesus' utterance of John 14:1, the disciples had already expressed faith in Him. In John 6:69 we read, "Simon Peter answered Him, 'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. And we have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God'." And yet Jesus later exhorted them to believe in Him because the exigency of the situation mandated an affirmation of faith. Here is an important principle: in distressful times and during perplexing situations, your faith may wane. I am not saying that your faith will inevitably wane. There are those who have prepared themselves for that dark hour that comes upon all of us. But for some, in that distressful or perplexing hour, your faith may wane; and you will need to hear the exhortation to believe in Christ as the source of hope and the means of deliverance. Is your faith waning? Does your faith need to be strengthened so that you can lay hold of the promises and know His peace?

Belief must acquiesce in the words of Christ

Belief is the answer to a troubled heart. There is no deep psychotherapy here. Quite often the troubled heart reveals an unbelieving heart. Your troubled heart may be the result of doubting the goodness and faithfulness of God in the hour of trial. Faith is the answer to our anxiety and fear. As one Bible commentator writes, "The call to put away fear, is the call to put faith in God." And Jesus here invites faith in Himself because belief in His person is the basis for belief in His words. In so far as you believe in Jesus, you will believe in His words. To put faith in the person of Christ should lead you to rest in the words of Christ; and if you do not believe in Him, then you will not rest in His words; and His words are that which communicate comfort, peace, and joy in the hour of need.

Accordingly, notice the connection between Christ's words and His peace. He assured, "These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world" (Jn. 16:33). It will be Christ's words that will give you peace and calm during your hour of darkness. Through His words you will learn to rest and trust in Him. And so, having invited His disciples to believe in Him, Christ shared comforting words. He assured, "In my Father's house [i.e., in heaven] are many dwelling places [i.e., there is room enough for all who will come]; for I go to prepare a place for you" (Jn. 14:2). Christ further promised to return personally and take them to Himself and take them to heaven. Again, with the imminent departure of Christ, these are the words which the disciples needed to hear.

Now my Christian friend, these may not be the particular words of comfort which you need to hear right now in order to help your troubled heart, but if you are going to receive peace and comfort, then you too will need to hear some comforting words. Hence, you should meditate on His words with full faith. A troubled heart becomes a trusting heart through Christ's comforting words, which results in a peaceful heart.

Recently, I had a troubled heart, as I came aside and examined my own heart in the light of God's presence and Word; and I discovered that I was not where I want to be spiritually. God, in His goodness and mercy, was pleased to reveal more of the iniquity and evil that lurk within; and my heart was troubled. While I was meditating, the Lord directed me to 1 Samuel 10:9--"God changed his [Saul's] heart." If God can change one heart, then He can change another. With this verse, my troubled heart was comforted. He desires to comfort your troubled heart too. He is abundantly able to meet your need. Won't you trust and rest in Him?

Reformed Pastor Brian Allison attended the University of Western Ontario, and matriculated with a B.A. in Psychology and Philosophy, a M.Div. from Toronto Baptist Seminary (as valedictorian), and with a M.A. (Theology) from Wycliffe College, University of Toronto. He finished off his formal education by securing a D.Min. (Counseling) from Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA.

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