You’ve likely heard the description of King David as “a man after God’s own heart.” This is from Acts 13:22, when Paul stood up to preach: “I have found David son of Jesse a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do” (Acts 13:22, NIV; originally found in 1 Samuel 13:14).
But what does “a man after my own heart” mean exactly? I want to challenge in this post a common notion that this phrase means that he was merely pursuing God’s heart but was not aligned with it—the he was “after” God’s heart and only chasing it, never actually getting it. My conclusion in this post clarifies the meaning of this phrase to mean more than that common notion.
Answering this question is important because before we can effectively pursue spiritual disciplines, we must align our hearts with God’s heart, and I think this verse unlocks a key toward that end.
Whether you’re trying to read Scripture in a fresh way, or you’re going into a season of prayer and fasting, or you’re crafting a plan to bring it all together (like Your Spiritual Formation Plan)—before you do any of that, consider how you think about the spiritual disciplines in general.
I’m thinking of spiritual disciplines like prayer, fasting, solitude, silence, rest, chastity, reading Scripture, worship, confession, secrecy, to name only a few.
I’m concerned that if we, as disciples of Jesus, don’t pause before engaging in serious pursuit of God through these disciplines—if we don’t talk about the heart of God and our hearts first—we might start with our action and our achievement, which are not inherently bad things, without fixing our hearts on God’s heart and his achievement in us.
That’s why it’s helpful to understand the meaning of “David … a man after God’s own heart.”
We must not jump too quickly into the motions and miss the motivation of our hearts.
This type of oversight can easily lead to burnout, which often takes us out of the game altogether, even if only for a season.
Spiritual Dry Spells
In my nearly three decades of living in Christ, I’ve had various spiritual dry spells. I hit one such dry spot in my mid-twenties: I had been through years of ministry training, and I felt spiritually burned out. For whatever reason, I wasn’t enjoying Scripture, I had a difficult time praying, and the disciplines felt only like duty with little to no delight.
The Lord used a mentor of mine to guide me back to his heart. I asked him, “What advice do you have for me as I enter my late twenties?”
He said, “Enjoy God in Scripture.”
I thought, That seems rather simple. I was surprised he didn’t tell me to go achieve this or go do that, but to simply enjoy God in Scripture.
I decided to follow his advice. What God did in my heart during the years that followed has deeply formed me as a person. I learned in a fresh way the importance of alignment over achievement and delight instead of mere duty.
Jim Putman’s The Revolutionary Disciple
Walking Humbly with Jesus in Every Area of Life
A comprehensive discipleship strategy for your home, work, and church. You’ll benefit greatly from reading this book with your discipleship group or church staff.
— Robby Gallaty, pastor and author of Replicate
A long overdue call to us as leaders to humble ourselves before the Lord and the people we lead.
— Ed Litton, pastor and president of the Southern Baptist ConventionGet Product
Spiritual Formation Dichotomy: Try Hard or Give Up
Our life with God in Christ is dynamic: it ebbs and flows. It has highs and lows, ups and downs, dry spells and rainy seasons.
So, what can we do to pursue God in the midst of this dynamism?
When we’re faced with the felt challenge of spiritual disciplines, we typically fall off either side of the achievement boat.
When our heads are in the wrong place, we think, If I can just pull up my bootstraps and try harder, then I can get it done. This is called spiritual white-knuckling it.
The problem with this approach is that it works—but only for a short time.
Others look at where we’re at on the spiritual formation journey and contrast that with Jesus’ perfection. We see how great the distance between his character and our formation that we think, I can’t do anything close to that, so I’m not going to try at all!
So we feel caught in between trying hard on our own and not trying at all. This forms a dichotomy in our minds between two polar opposites, and we feel caught in the middle of either resting only on our effort of achieving or not trying at all.
What can we do?
Many people think about the spiritual disciplines with drudgery, yet God wants us to approach them with delight. In order to overcome this, we need heart-level change. We need God to change our hearts, because only heart-level change leads to lasting change.
So how does spiritual formation like this happen, practically speaking?
We need to ground our understanding in Scripture, not just what we think this phrase means out of context. We’ll consider the meaning of phrase “David … a man after God’s own heart” as a character trait, then what this looked like for David at three pivotal moments in his life.
Take a deep dive into the spiritual disciplines by taking my “Spiritual Formation” video course. This is an easy-to-access, no-gate, and no-charge course as a gift.
A Man After God’s Own Heart
What does it mean when God says in Acts 13:11: “I have found David son of Jesse a man after my own heart”?
The phrase is a little bit awkward in English. We don’t really talk about being “after someone’s heart,” unless we’re talking about a guy chasing after a girl’s heart because he doesn’t currently have it!
This phrase does not mean that David was chasing God’s heart but didn’t have it or know it.
In fact, I believe it’s the opposite—that he did in fact have the very heart of God.
Here’s why I think so …
The very next part of the sentence defines this phrase: “he will do everything I want him to do.” The immediate context defines this phrase, so altogether it says:
I have found David son of Jesse a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do. — Acts 13:22, NIV
It’s not that David was a good-hearted guy with good motives, yet there was no proof in the pudding; it wasn’t that God liked David’s heart without consideration of his actions. No! The meaning is that his heart and his actions were aligned with God’s very heart!
Their hearts were aligned.
The meaning of the phrase “a man after God’s own heart” might be more easily understood by saying, “a man aligned with my heart” or even “a man who lives according to my heart.”
Eugene Peterson paraphrases this: “He’s a man whose heart beats to my heart” (Acts 13:22, The Message).
The takeaway here from David’s life is that he was aligned with God’s heart.
This encourages us to think of spiritual formation primarily in terms of aligning our hearts with God’s heart, rather than merely achieving things for God.
David Wasn’t Perfect, Though!
What’s striking about this statement—that David’s heart was aligned with God’s heart—is that David was human just like us.
Now, we know David wasn’t flawless—neither at his anointing by Samuel nor later in his life—and that’s why the lines of the “alignment” image on this post are wobbly.
While our hearts cannot be flawlessly aligned with God’s heart, they can generally be aligned with God’s heart.
David’s heart was so oriented toward God that we can say he was aligned with it. He didn’t hit the bullseye every time (and badly missed some times), but the general orientation of his life was not only toward but aligned with God’s heart.
In light of this, our goal in spiritual formation is to align our hearts with God’s heart.
But how can we do this?
Changing Our Mindset
We often think about spiritual disciplines in terms of what we can do, what we can achieve, and our work in the process, when it’s actually God who is working in our hearts to form us—and here’s the key—as we cooperate with him.
We must allow our minds to be changed from thinking about what we achieve on our own effort versus what God can do in us. The difference is that we participate in his work in us as we align ourselves with him.
This mindset shift carries with it the potential to change your life.
Alignment is the primary goal of spiritual formation disciplines, not achievement.
Spiritual disciplines are about union with God, not using God.
That’s why Paul says, in Philippians 2:12–13, “Continue to work our your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”
Our work is not opposed to God’s work in our lives. Instead, God works in us as we work with him.
How Spiritual Formation Works
How does this dynamic of God working in us actually happen? God uses the spiritual disciplines to cultivate our hearts.
Alignment is a process.
The disciplines are God’s mechanisms for alignment. In other words, the goal is heart-level change, but God often uses our very actions to form our hearts. He also uses our hearts to form our actions.
Our hearts matter most, but our actions matter, too. Our actions not only reflect our hearts but also shape our hearts.
Spiritual Disciplines as Means of Grace
Spiritual disciplines are sometimes called “means of grace,” which is to say that God pours out his grace through specific avenues.
Here are two analogies for better understanding “means of grace” (about which I’ve written in more detail here):
1. Oases in the desert.
Imagine with me that you are stranded in a desert looking for water to fill your cup. You search for days, until you find an oasis. You run up to this oasis, parched to the point of imminent death, and you find a spring watering the oasis.
So, you fill your cup with water at the oasis, and you are refreshed.
As a result, you come back to the oasis for water because it’s a source of life in an otherwise dry and weary land.
As you continue your journey through the desert, you find other oases in the desert that also have springs of water from which to satiate your thirst. Now you know predictably where to find water, so you come back to these water sources time and time again.
That’s the means of grace in our lives. They are the activities through which God pours out his spiritual satiation into our lives.
Prayer, confession, service, and many more, are oases in the desert through which God satisfies our souls.
2. Channels of water pouring down.
The second analogy I like to use is the Sci-Fi version of the oasis analogy.
Imagine you’re under a glass ceiling, the ceiling holding back a massive reservoir of water expanding in every direction. The water represents God’s endless grace.
There exist in this ceiling holes through which water pours down, like cylinders of water.
All you have to do is extend your cup into the channel of water to fill up your cup.
God’s grace in our lives is like these channels of water. These channels are the means through which God pours out his grace into our lives.
The means of grace are fixed. They will never change.
God has determined through the eternal Logos, which is Christ, that his grace pours out through certain means. He can do whatever he wants whenever he wants, but he’s proven through the millennia that certain means work like this when others don’t.
We can align ourselves, therefore, with God’s heart and receive his transformative work in our hearts through these means of grace.
In summary, “means of grace” means that in a mysterious way God uses our actions through the disciplines as the very means through which he pours out his grace into our lives.
That’s enough Sci-Fi! Let’s look at the life of David and bring this back down to earth.
Spiritual Alignment in David’s Life
I believe David serves as the archetypal King in all the Old Testament Scripture passages because he set the stage for Jesus’ perfect and flawless union with the Father.
I’ve chosen three snapshot moments in David’s life that reveal how his heart and his actions were aligned with God’s heart:
- Warrior David, when he was a young warrior.
- King David, when he was established as a king.
- Sage David, when he was more like a sage near the end of his life.
1. Warrior David (1 Samuel 17:37)
We don’t know much about David in his earliest years, except that he was a shepherd and spent a lot of time alone. But David used this time as an opportunity to be formed by and aligned with God.
We know this because of what he says to Saul just before he faces Goliath in the Valley of Elah: “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine” (1 Samuel 17:37, NIV).
David’s life reveals how alignment with God comes before achievement for God.
Somehow David, at such a young age, was so aligned with God that he was able to say that God, working through his very hand, was the one who killed the bear and lion, and that God would kill this giant.
David had learn to align with God through solitude and silence, so how much more can we do that in Christ by the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit?
2. King David (2 Samuel 5:19)
In this second snapshot, David has turned thirty years old and is officially anointed as King of Israel. The Philistines come “in full force to search for David” and spread out in the Valley of Rephaim. David responds like this in 2 Samuel 5:19:
So David inquired of the LORD, “Shall I go and attack the Philistines? Will you hand them over to me?” The LORD answered him, “Go, for I will surely hand the Philistines over to you.”
Observation: David’s in the middle of a stressful situation, and he take the time to pray about it. Don’t you think he could have been worried? Felt rushed? Like he had to go do something. Instead, he took time to listen to God through prayer before he acted.
Alignment before achievement.
David defeated the Philistines at Baal Perazim.
Yet, the Philistines attack again!
Once more the Philistines came up and spread out in the Valley of Rephaim; so David inquired of the LORD, and he answered, “Do not go straight up, but circle around behind them and attack them in front of the balsam trees. As soon as you hear the sound of marching in the tops of the balsam trees, move quickly, because that will mean the LORD has gone out in front of you to strike the Philistine army.” So David did as the LORD commanded him, and he struck down the Philistines all the way from Gibeon to Gezer. — 2 Samuel 5:22–25, NIV
This presents a few interesting lessons on prayer for us:
David didn’t assume the Lord would do the same thing in the same way twice. He could have easily thought to himself, The Philistines? I got this. I killed Goliath; I just defeated them in battle as Israel’s new King; and now they’re coming back at us again?
David was humble and prayed, instead of presuming on God.
David went to listen intently, not simply to listen for a yes or no answer. While God had given him a yes answer the last time he asked about fighting the Philistines, David made space again to connect with God, to align his heart with God’s heart.
He allowed God space to be God in his life.
That is, David knew this about prayer:
Prayer is about union with God, not about using God to get something.
God got very specific with David and did something new! The instructions about the balsam trees … now that is specific! But David could have missed it if he had not taken time to align with God.
When we make space for God to speak, he will say whatever he wants, and we will do well to listen intently like David did.
So as you approach disciplines like prayer or perhaps a corporate season of prayer and fasting, think not about them in terms of getting God to do something for you, but about connecting with him, hearing his heart, and listening to him through prayer.
This means spending quantity of time in prayer. I’m convinced that the greatest challenge for us and threat to our intimacy with God, at least in modern American life, is that we struggle to make time for connecting with God.
So, let me just encourage you with this …
Every ounce of effort you spend in prayer is worth your investment of time with the Lord.
Every other relationship in your life requires time, so why would your relationship with God be different?
Plus, there’s no shortcut to communion with God. Communion with God involves intentional time listening to God.
Spiritual disciplines are primarily about alignment, which often happens through prayer.
This is a reminder that if you want to take a deep dive into the spiritual disciplines, you can take a video course I teach on Spiritual Formation here. Registration is offered at no charge.
3. Sage David (1 Kings 2:3–4)
The third glimpse that I offer here into David’s heart, which was aligned with God’s heart, comes at the end of his life.
Just before David died, he called his son Solomon into the room to offer sage wisdom before he passed away and passed the crown to his son (1 Kings 2:3–4):
Observe what the LORD your God requires: Walk in his ways, and keep his decrees and commands, his laws and requirements, as written in the Law of Moses, so that you may prosper in all you do and wherever you go, and that the LORD may keep his promise to me: “If your descendants watch how they live, and if they walk faithfully before me with all their heart and soul, you will never fail to have a man on the throne of Israel.”
A friend of mine has joked about the stages of retirement as:
- The go-go years,
- The slow-go years, and
- The no-go years of retirement.
David was in the no-go years of his life, and he had learned to see his role not just as a warrior and king, but also as someone who could help others along their journey, as well.
We know at this point that David had experienced great successes, and he had also made some major mistakes in his life. But he didn’t let any of that keep him from helping the next generation.
He says to Solomon, “Follow God, be faithful, obey.” He encouraged a key leader for the next generation to be faithful.
So to those who are older in the faith: Consider how you might align your heart with God’s heart for the next generation.
Think about those who are younger, who need guidance, and take your next step toward not only encouraging them to obey God but showing them how to align with God through spiritual disciplines.
Teach them how to align with God’s heart through the means of grace. Walk along side them and show them how to pray, how to fast, and how to cultivate a thriving relationship with God.
Young people need guidance.
You don’t have to be perfect and you don’t have to know everything. Just take the next right step toward helping others.
God Can Achieve Great Things In and Through Us
Now that we’ve looked at the life of David and seen how he connected with God as warrior, leader, and sage—and allowed God to form his heart at these stages—we can see that his heart and his actions were not separate.
David allowed God to work in him as David worked with God.
That’s the mystery that feels like magic.
He focused on alignment with God’s heart, and God used that posture of his heart to achieve great things in David’s life—and in the world. David truly was a man “after God’s own heart.” This is something God offers us, as well, in Christ.
When we align our hearts with God through the disciplines, God achieves great things in and through us.
God can take our meager efforts and makes them explode with effectiveness.
Here’s a helpful tip for recognizing God’s grace in your life: Look at what you invest into something and measure that investment against the output. When the input and the output don’t match up because the output is far greater than the input, you can know God’s at work. That’s God’s grace in your life!
When we prioritize alignment with God’s heart, God is the one who changes our hearts and helps us grow.
What is God calling you to do right now to pursue union with him?
- Have you viewed the disciplines with drudgery and not with delight? Ask God to help you delight in him.
- Have you believed the lie that you play no part in your journey, that you can just stand by as a passive player? Ask God to change your heart.
- Have you been neglecting spending time with God? Decide to move toward him today, and ask him to make his heart your heart.
What is God asking you to do to align with him?
I mentioned earlier that David was the precursor to Jesus. Jesus came and fulfilled everything good in the life of David, but he did it perfectly.
Christians have communion and union with God through Jesus Christ, the one who was anointed as the ultimate King of Israel. Jesus did what David did, but he did it flawlessly.
Christ was “one with the Father,” and he invites us into that union with the Father. He prayed for us, “that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me” (John 17:22–23). Part of the fulfillment of Jesus’ unity prayer is our personal union with God.
It’s out of that rich life with God that all other avenues, relationships, and actions take root and experience fruit.
Our alignment with God is possible only because of Christ’s sacrifice.
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