To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.
How do you know what’s going on inside someone’s chest?
Dr. Rene Laennec treated thousands of patients during the Napoleonic era in France, a time when medicine was just beginning to tackle that question.
Some doctors tapped on their patients’ chests to determine the proportion of fluids there, not unlike the way brewers rapped on barrels to discern how much beer was inside. But how could one assess the health of a beating human heart?
The answer was to listen carefully. Doctors placed their ears directly on their patients’ chests.
Which is why Dr. Laennec felt way out of his comfort zone when he approached the bedside of a buxom young woman in 1816. He felt certain she had a heart condition. But when the unmarried physician imagined placing his ear…well, the times being what they were, he couldn’t actually imagine doing that. How could he assess her heart health at a discreet distance?
A few hours later Laennec was walking past the courtyard of the Louvre in Paris when he noticed a group of children playing with a length of wood. One child would scratch one end of the tube with a pin, while another child, listening at the opposite end, had to interpret the meaning of the scratchings.
That’s it, he thought. For Laennec, modesty turned out to be the mother of invention. Back at the hospital he rolled up a notebook and placed one end on the woman’s chest and the other against his ear.
“I was surprised and gratified at being able to hear the beating of the heart with greater clearness than ever before.” A short time later he fashioned a hollow wooden cylinder that worked even better.
Laennec thought his invention was too absurdly simple to deserve an actual name. But when pressed, he suggested the combination of the Greek words stethos (“chest”) and skopos (“observer”): stethoscope.
Bedside care has never been the same since.
So how can we know what’s happening in a human heart when “heart” represents something entirely different – the condition of one’s inner life? Is there a moral stethoscope for assessing the character, motives, and integrity of another person?
In a word: No.
God alone knows the heart. And God’s people have generally been at their worst whenever they have tried to identify who’s “in” and who’s “out” with regard to spiritual integrity.
Of all the Hebrew prophets, Jeremiah had the most to say about the condition of human hearts. He notes that God places all of us on a level playing field: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and beyond cure. Who can understand it? I, the Lord, search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve” (17:9,10).
If that’s the only word from God that Jeremiah has for us on the subject of the heart, we have good reason to feel despair.
But 14 chapters later, we encounter this timeless word of hope: “’This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,’ declares the Lord. ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, “Know the Lord,” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,’ declares the Lord. ‘For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more’” (Jeremiah 31:33,34).
God knows our hearts. And God knows that all of us have an incurable heart condition that only he can heal.
The “heart transplant” we so desperately need isn’t earned or deserved. It can only be received as a gift.
And it only comes as we abandon ourselves in heartfelt trust to Jesus.
So take heart. The Great Physician knows exactly how our hearts can begin beating with his.
The Heart of the Matter
Comments Off on The Heart of the Matter