“A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26)
This verse is recognized throughout the German-speaking world as the motto for the year 2017. The context of Ezekiel 36 shows the people of Israel in exile. They were being punished for defiling their land with bloodshed and idols (v. 17). If that wasn’t enough, they defiled God’s holy name “wherever they went among the nations” (v. 20). The people of Israel had fallen about as far as possible in God’s eyes.
Yet the desire of God’s heart was to restore them. To “gather [Israel] from all the nations and bring [Israel] back into [their] own land” (v. 24). He wanted to “resettle their towns,” and rebuild “the ruins” (v. 33), then turn the land into a “garden of Eden” (v. 35). Most of all, God wanted to turn their hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.
To get this new heart, however, the people of Israel had to “remember [their] evil ways and wicked deeds” (v. 31), all the while being “ashamed and disgraced for [their] conduct” (v. 32). In other words, to repent. God’s love and mercy are extended to those who recognize their wickedness and turn away from it.
In his meditation for Jan. 24, 2017, Richard Rohr writes that our own spiritual process, like the interplay between God and the people of Israel, is one of “loss and renewal.” It seems that before we can have a heart of stone turned into a heart of flesh, we need to experience some sort of existential loss. For some it is the loss of a job, the loss of health, the death of a loved one, a divorce or some other estranged relationship. For the people of Israel, it was not only the loss of their homeland, but also the loss of their favored status.
I have identified my own existential crisis as a loss of innocence through experiencing extreme poverty and oppression in Central America; much of which was perpetuated by my own government. I have written more extensively about this in other places (See: Chapter 1 of The Spacious Heart, Chapter 11 of A Living Alternative and Meditations on the Beatitudes.)
There seem to be two main ways that people deal with existential loss. Like the people of Israel, I turned my loss into bitterness and cynicism. My heart, like theirs, was a heart of stone in need of renewal. Christians too often, in trying to cope with their losses, turn to “moral mandates and doctrinal affirmations,” according to Rohr. They become rigid in their beliefs and “project [their] evil elsewhere;” usually onto people who have traits that they deny in themselves. Like the people of Israel and me, their hearts are hearts of stone, in need of renewal.
The other way to deal with loss is to go inward to rediscover the essence of our being, our soul, our God-likeness. Rohr calls this the “contemplative mind.” Through inner work, we can move from “mere belief systems or belonging systems to actual inner experience [of God].” Through contemplation, we discover a God who, according to Walter Brueggemann, is “merciful, gracious, faithful, forgiving, and steadfast in love.”
This God is affirmed over and over again in the Old Testament, especially in the Psalms. This eternal love of God is stamped into our souls, and became flesh in Jesus. As we experience this God through inner work, we can take on God’s traits, like Jesus, and move beyond ritualistic, doctrinaire and mostly rigid religion. We can turn our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. A new heart.