“Take heart.” Imagine hearing those two words, as the disciples often did, from the mouth of God himself in the flesh.
And yet how flat these words can fall when we say them to our own hearts. If only we could up and redirect our hearts. None of us wants to be down. Far too often, though, our hearts seem to lie beyond our reach, outside our control.
However discouraged you may feel, your flagging heart never lies beyond the reach of Christ. No matter how troubled, how unsettled, how fickle, how disoriented, how despondent, Jesus can handle your ailing heart. “There are many sorts of broken hearts,” says Charles Spurgeon, “and Christ is good at healing them all.”
Jesus knows the human heart. He made it, and then he took one himself when he became man. He knows, as both God and man, how to furnish courage to a fearful heart. He knows how to parcel joy to a sad heart. He is adept, and proven, at giving strength, in perfect portion, to a weak heart; peace to an anxious heart; forgiveness to a guilty heart; and wholeness to a broken heart.
And how does he choose, over and over again, to do so? He speaks. What would he have us do when our hearts are wilting? Rehear his words.
He Knows Your Heart
He made our human hearts and souls to respond to the touch of his words, with the aid of his Spirit. When our strength is low, and our faith is failing, he means for us to receive the grace of his words. We are prone in our pain to underestimate the power of his words — to set his words aside for other comforts, whether entertainment, or food, or drink, or work, or mere human relationships.
When Jesus speaks to us, one of the most common and distinctive words we hear is “Take heart.” He doesn’t say, “Follow your hearts,” but take them — take them from the pit, from the subtle and seemingly inescapable delusion they are under, and remind them of who he is, what he has done, and what he will do. He rolls back the stone and speaks into the tomb of our souls. He creates what he commands, as he says with sovereign sway, “Take heart.”
In particular, the Gospels give us five concrete instances of Jesus saying, “Take heart.” Each comes with a precious, powerful, timeless reason that shows us how the words of Jesus work to bolster weary souls.
1. He who says, ‘Take heart,’ says, ‘I AM.’
Matthew 14 and Mark 6 report one of the most stunning events in the ministry of Christ — a peculiar miracle reserved for his disciples. It was not a healing with an accompanying word, but simply a striking revelation of who he is.
He had sent his men along on a boat to the other side of the sea, while he stayed behind to pray. On the water, the disciples were met with fierce winds and were unable to make headway. Then, in the middle of the night, Jesus “came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, ‘It is a ghost!’ and they cried out in fear” (Matthew 14:25–26).
Their hearts are deeply shaken. They are terrified. They cry out in fear. But Jesus speaks a word to them: “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid” (Matthew 14:27; Mark 6:50). Literally, his words are “Take heart, I am” — which has a double meaning: “It is I, Jesus, whom you know,” and, “I am the Great I Am.” As when Moses asked for God’s name, and he said, “I Am Who I Am” (Exodus 3:14), so Jesus now declares to his disciples, “I Am.”
When Jesus tells us to take heart, he does so as God himself. I am God, and there is no other, he says. I am your Creator. I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I am God himself, made human, dwelling among you — and I am for you. Do not be afraid. You are under my watch and care, and no storm, however great, can match my power and protection. Take heart; I am.
2. You have the attention of God himself.
Not only is he God himself in full humanity, but if you claim Jesus as Lord, you can know he has taken notice of you, and he is calling to you.
Mark 10 tells us of a blind beggar who was sitting along the roadside, having hoped Jesus would pass that way. When he heard Jesus finally had come near, he began to cry out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mark 10:47). The crowd saw it as an annoyance. “Many rebuked him, telling him to be silent” (Mark 10:48). But Jesus took notice. He was not annoyed. Instead of pushing the crowd away, he drew them in and directed them to extend his invitation to the man: “Call him.” And so they turn to the blind man, and say, “Take heart. Get up; he is calling you” (Mark 10:49).
Take heart. He sees you. He hears you. He is not inattentive to your pleas. Even though your eyes cannot see him, his are fixed on you. In the midst of the bustling crowd, you have his attention, and you have his invitation. He is calling to you, and moving toward you, to heal, to bless, to extend his grace and compassion and mercy to you. Take heart; he is calling you.
3. Your sins are forgiven.
Twice in Matthew 9, Jesus says, “Take heart” — first to a paralyzed man he affectionately calls “my son” (Matthew 9:2), then to an old woman he calls “daughter” (Matthew 9:22).
The paralytic couldn’t get himself to Jesus, but his friends brought him. “And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven’” (Matthew 9:2). To be forgiven, by God himself, is one of the greatest gifts imaginable. How prone are we to take forgiveness lightly, as if God owed it to us — as if his pardon were somehow our right? And how much discontent in our lives might be dispelled if we took more seriously, deep down in our souls, the spectacular grace of his forgiveness?
We are sinners all — by birth and by choice. And in our sin, the omnipotent wrath of God stood justly against us. It is an indescribably terrible doom. And yet God, in sheer, magnificent mercy, did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us, that we might be forgiven our infinitely heinous capital offenses against the most valuable person in the universe.
“Your sins are forgiven” is only trite to those who gravely underestimate their own sin and tragically misunderstand the glory of forgiveness. The more we know ourselves forgiven — and forgiven so much — the more difficult it will be for roots of discontent to grow in the soil of our souls. Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.
4. You need not rely on yourself anymore.
Later in Matthew 9, he says take heart to a daughter. As a local ruler rushes Jesus off to raise his 12-year-old daughter, Jesus makes time, in the frantic chaos, to turn to a woman who had suffered a discharge of blood for twelve years. “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly, Matthew reports, “the woman was made well” (Matthew 9:22).
Faith — of all things! Not your goodness. Not your doing. Not your virtue. Not your deserving. Faith — the peculiarly receiving virtue, as Andrew Fuller called it — is a reason to take heart. Jesus’s word, “Take heart,” is not based on our skill set and proven record. Jesus doesn’t bid us to look inward and take heart. Rather, he says to look outward — such is the nature of faith — to see in him, outside ourselves, the ground of courage and reason for truth.
Jesus’s call to faith is not a summons to muster up our own strength, but to lean on his. The call to faith is not a challenge to dig down deep inside, but an invitation to rest in the depths of power outside of us in him. Take heart, my daughter; your faith has made you well.
5. Your God has already overcome.
Finally, John 16:33 may be the best known, and most sweeping, of Jesus’s “take heart” statements. In the upper room, the night before he died, he says to his disciples at the end of his farewell discourse,
I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.
Many of us have been caught off guard, almost all of a sudden, as we’ve come of age and realized the extent and depths of the fallenness of our world. Tribulation is not the misfortune of some, but a promise to all. It’s just a matter of time. “In the world you will have tribulation” — at least intermittently, if not constantly. Jesus does not want his people to be surprised by the enormous, gut-wrenching pain of this present age.
But, he says — what a glorious contrast. What good news follows the great contrasts in the mouth of God. “You were dead, but . . .” “You were separated, but . . .” And here: “You will have tribulation. But take heart.” Downcast soul, don’t miss this. Weary heart, pay attention to the promise that follows. Rightly heard and understood, this will give you courage. This will be a truth to rehearse again and again. This will be a reality to regularly remind yourself, especially when your heart is weak and your courage is faltering. Take this truth to mind, take it afresh into your soul, and take heart: He has overcome the world.
His promise doesn’t mean the punch of the present won’t land on us horribly. It doesn’t mean the pain will not be real, and awful, and suffocating. It doesn’t mean we won’t feel battered by wave after relentless wave of hardship and frustration and loss. But it does mean the present shadow will pass. Night is already far gone. The day is at hand (Romans 13:12). He has overcome the world — and his triumph will eventually be worked into every nook and cranny of our lives.
In him, not only is the clock ticking on our tribulation, but also right now, in the midst of it, he is pounding it for our everlasting good. The one who has overcome is at work in our affliction, “preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17). So, take heart; your God has overcome the world.