Tear your heart, not your clothes

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My favorite pair of jeans are worn out and worn through: Levi's 506, zip-fly, regular-cut, 34–32 blue jeans. Not pre-washed. Man-style.

I bought them years ago, when they were bluer and starchier. Somewhere along the way, the fabric became more and more limp, then thin, then threadbare. And one day it happened.

There was a hole, first on the right knee and then on the left. I didn't buy them torn. I worked them torn. The holes came after a few years of bending and crawling, pulling myself under bushes to drag out dead branches or wrestling with the kids on a carpeted family room.

Clothes wear and clothes tear. Sometimes we like it, as in my 506s. Sometimes we don't, like when your big toe pokes through a pair of socks. But one thing is true about torn clothes: When you tear your clothes, the pain is minimal.

You tear your heart, and that's a different story.

In Joel 2:12–13, the prophet writes:

"Return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love"

When this passage was written 2,800 years ago, the nation of Judah was experiencing great expansion. Unlike today, it was an economic boom. Unemployment was low. Earnings were good.

All this was good, sort of. You know the pattern: With prosperity comes self-security. With self-security comes a sense of invincibility. With invincibility comes pride. With pride comes a fall.

The people in Judah seemed somewhere between pride and fall when God raised up Joel, a man of deep spiritual concern. Joel's job was to be a spokesman for God, telling God's people that they needed to get serious about him again. It was Joel's conviction that the moment was ripe for the community to meet in Jerusalem and to hold a service of repentance in the temple. So he summoned the people to a day of prayer before God.

But some of the people listening didn't know why Joel had to talk to them this way. They were going to the temple and paying their tithes, fasting and publicly praying. They were leaders in the religious community and participating in all the right "church stuff" and religious institutions.

You get what that means for you. He was saying we need to move from the performance of our faith to the depth of our faith. And he uses "torn clothes" to make his point.

The test of true prayer is about what you tear.

Tearing clothes was a sign of repentance in Old Testament days. People who came before God in full repentance would tear their clothes and replace them with rags called sackcloth. But that wasn't good enough.

The people of God were called by Joel to far more than a ritual or mere outward piety. Formal worship was easy. True authenticity—desperate before God—was not.

Do you know why Joel tells God's people to tear their hearts and not their clothes? Because tearing our clothes doesn't hurt.


Feeling repentance
We repent with a torn heart—and it hurts—because it means exposing all the junk in our lives for God to begin dealing with. We expose our egos, our ambitions, our priorities, our lusts, our hatred, our fears—and even that stuff we can't even see in our own lives is made visible as we come honestly before the One who loves us best.

I invite you to tear your heart before the Lord today, lay it down. Give it up. Let it go. Lay bare the pain or sin at its core by tearing your heart and allowing the Holy Spirit to renew and cleanse and heal and comfort you from the inside out.

If you are not earnestly pleading before God as a discipline of your Christian faith, willing to tear your heart and not merely your clothes, I invite you to. For as you do, God's glory will show up in ways that will revive your heart and call you to new challenges and courageous ideas in service to our world.

I invite you to come before him with a torn heart, and meet your God who is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.


Dr. Corey is the eighth president of Biola Unviersity, a Christian school in La Mirada. Dr. Corey, a Fullbright scholar, has extensive experience in the field of higher education.

Published, April 2009