More than once Moses warned the new generation poised to enter the Promised Land: “Do not say in your heart …” (Deuteronomy 9:4a).
God is concerned over the self-talk of His people. It is what we “say in [our] heart” that is of consequence.
It is worth pointing out the obvious—God knows we talk to ourselves! These inner conversations are of constant occurrence. In fact, they can’t be turned off, only redirected. And that only by the grace of God. We see this warning repeatedly throughout the Old Testament. There are a number of ways to go wrong in talking to yourself.
1) The danger of self-congratulation. “Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you.” (Deuteronomy 9:4; cf. 8:17)
The Israelites faced a danger from the seductions of the peoples of the land. Of this God constantly warned them (see, for example, the disaster at Peor, Numb. 25:1-9). But the ideas of others, as dangerous as they were, were not the only or even primary danger facing the Israelites. It was the conversations going on within their own hearts that made them especially vulnerable.
It is when we begin talking to ourselves about ourselves and our circumstances that we are in the most danger of going astray.
We all have this kind of self-talk going on within our hearts all the time. We see and experience and try to understand—but are prone to interpret and talk to ourselves in self-affirming ways (“because of my righteousness”). This stream of thought forms a jet stream that powerfully circles planet self, threatening to pull everything else into its flow.
What we fail to see is that God sometimes blesses one (in this case, Israel) because he is disciplining another (here, the Canaanites). We must talk and walk humbly. The reasons “why” our lives are as they are is much bigger than our performance before God.
2) We may err in our inner conversations by self-exaltation. We may not elevate others or our accomplishments over God, but we may elevate our very selves: “Now therefore hear this, you lover of pleasures, who sit securely, who say in your heart, ‘I am, and there is no one besides me; I shall not sit as a widow or know the loss of children’ (Isaiah 47:8). “I am” – that name has already been taken (Exodus 3:14); its Owner says He’s not sharing (Isaiah 42:8).
Self-exaltation was literally the problem of the Edomites. They dwelt in the physically lofty heights of a God-given land. They thought their elevated position made them untouchable. Thus they were warned: “The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rock, in your lofty dwelling, who say in your heart, ‘Who will bring me down to the ground?’” (Obadiah 1:3).
God did with the Edomites what he does with all who exalt themselves within their own hearts: “he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts” (Luke 1:51).
3) We go astray when we engage in self-dependence. The self-talk can also lead us stray in the opposite direction: “If you say in your heart, ‘These nations are greater than I. How can I dispossess them?’” (Deuteronomy 7:17). Instead of elevating ourselves and denigrating others, we may overly exalt them in our eyes—making them even bigger than God. And with God out of the picture all we have left to depend upon is ourselves. That leads to fear, paralysis and despair.
4) We err when we talk ourselves into self-justification. The people of Jeremiah’s day denied their hardships arose from their responsibility: “And if you say in your heart, ‘Why have these things come upon me?’ it is for the greatness of your iniquity that your skirts are lifted up and you suffer violence” (Jeremiah 13:22). Ultimately, denial of responsibility is a denial of hope.
But not all self-talk is bad-talk. The Bible depicts the power of telling yourself the truth.
Take, for example, David as he prays Psalm 62. He begins his prayer so positively and confidently: “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation” (v.1).
But, as so often is the case, things get difficult. Our confidence wanes. Our faith wavers. Our prayers change. By the middle of the psalm David is still praying. In fact he is still on the same theme with which he opened, but he has transitioned from talking to God, to coaching himself: “For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him” (v.5).
This telling-yourself-the-truth kind of self-talk is the application of faith to a wavering, struggling heart. We talk to ourselves this way because deep down we believe Jesus was right: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31b-32a).
We talk to ourselves as a hold out for Jesus’ rescue, Jesus’ deliverance, Jesus’ promised freedom.
When we keep this up God’s blessings of freedom become increasingly real in our lives. Perhaps we even come to the place, as Isaiah predicted the people of Israel would, where we have to start talking to ourselves about the compounding, stockpiling grace He is pouring into our lives: “The children of your bereavement will yet say in your ears: ‘The place is too narrow for me; make room for me to dwell in.’ Then you will say in your heart: ‘Who has borne me these? I was bereaved and barren, exiled and put away, but who has brought up these? Behold, I was left alone; from where have these come?’” (Isaiah 49:20).
Don’t stop talking to yourself. Just start telling yourself the truth. And then keep it up. Those with ears to hear might hear the sound of heaven’s applause. Those with eyes to see might detect life, freedom and grace standing just off in the distance, rising with a smile on their faces as the conversation begins.