How Do You Get a Spiritually Clean Heart?

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How Do You Get a Spiritually Clean Heart?

Let’s look at the elements of this phrase, “create in me a clean heart.” What do the words mean? What is David asking God to do? The Hebrew word bara, which is “create” in English refers to both creating something from scratch out of nothing, and also reforming something already existing.

There’s a lot of talk today about trusting your heart. The wording is often “follow your heart.” The concept seems innocuous and even comforting. But there’s a danger. If our heart is supposed to guide us, why did David write in Psalm 51:10 “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (ESV)? His words indicate a human heart—not the physical but the spiritual—isn’t always pure. As a result, it’s dangerous to only depend upon our inner being which can steer us the wrong way.

In fact, Proverbs 16:2 urges us to know, “All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirit.”The NIV words it: All a person’s ways seem pure to them, but motives are weighed by the Lord.” Unfortunately, when current culture gives us the message to follow our heart, the evaluation of our motives isn’t included. Most often it turns into a kind of philosophy that if you feel like it, you should do it. If it seems good to you, it must be. Sometimes there’s also the attitude, “You don’t need to involve anyone else in your decision making. You are basically good so your heart leads is right.”

But God says what motivates us counts also, not just our feelings. Our motives energize us to take certain actions, choose certain behaviors and agree with certain beliefs. All of those might not be correct according to the Bible. God isn’t always leading even though our short-term perspective thinks something good can come from our feelings, even beliefs.

Jeremiah 17:9-10 states these ideas in the strongest terms. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds” (ESV).

What Does Create in Me a Clean Heart Mean?

Let’s look at the elements of this phrase, “create in me a clean heart.” What do the words mean? What is David asking God to do?

The Hebrew word bara, which is “create” in English refers to both creating something from scratch out of nothing, and also reforming something already existing. In the context of David’s words in Psalm 51, David is praying that God will take his already existing sinful heart and renew it with purity.

The Hebrew word tahor means clean, pure, and without foreign matter. David is asking God to take away any motive of his heart that is selfish, harmful, and reject God’s rightful place as Lord and Master.

The Hebrew word for “heart” is leb and commentators define it as the inner person, the self, the base upon which thought and emotion are energized. It is the natural condition of man, the same as our motives. That’s why having a pure heart is so important. It’s where everything else springs from.

Even after a person becomes a “new creation,” (2 Corinthians 5:17) by becoming a Christian, he is still influenced by his old nature. It’s not until we are in heaven that all our old sinful motives will no longer influence us (Philippians 1:6).

What Is the Context of Psalm 51:10 and 'Create in Me a Clean Heart'?

The context of David’s words in verse 10 and the whole of Psalm 51 is sobering. The prophet Nathan has come to David to confront him about David’s sin of adultery with Bathsheba and David’s selfish plan for the murder of Bathsheba’s husband (2 Samuel 12:13). David has deceived his own heart to think he can have anything he wants, and he can get away with his sins. Even after hearing Nathan relate a fictional story to David about a sinful man who killed the beloved lamb of a poor man, David’s hardened heart doesn’t recognize Nathan’s story as a metaphor for what David has done. Nathan has to clearly say, “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:7). Then Nathan describes the ways God will give David and his family many harmful circumstances thus communicating how seriously David has sinned and that sin has many repercussions.

Hearing all that Nathan says finally causes David to recognize his great sin. He exclaims, “I have sinned against the Lord” (verse 13). No wonder David needed a heart transformation, both a re-creation and a renewal. Through repentance—acknowledging his sin—David recognizes he can’t change his own heart. He has to depend upon God to do it within him. He can’t just grit his teeth, try harder and make his own heart change. Yes, he does have to cooperate with God’s work, but the cleansing change is primarily up to the Holy Spirit.

Why Is 'Create in Me a Clean Heart' Important?

We might be tempted to dismiss the importance of our own need for a clean heart because we haven’t sinned to the extent that David did. We haven’t murdered someone. We haven’t been an adulterer. We haven’t blatantly refused to acknowledge our every-day sins. But it’s essential and important that we recognize crying out to God for a clean heart must apply to all of us, whether we consider our sins “little” or “big.”

We can be too easily deceived if we are comparing our sin to the greater degree of another’s sin. Or we justify our impure “muddy” heart because we believe we only reacted to how someone was sinning against us. We convince ourselves our ungodly reactions are caused by others. “If only she hadn’t talked to me that way, I wouldn’t have gotten angry.” “If he would acknowledge his sin against me, I could forgive him.” Because we easily deceive ourselves thinking we are justified in our choices, God must repeatedly state in the Bible to examine our hearts. Each and every sin reminds us we must acknowledge our need for Jesus as Savior both for salvation and for ongoing sanctification.

All the way back to the Garden of Eden, the heart of Eve first sinned because her heart wanted something more. She believed Satan’s lie that God was withholding something from her and Adam. Like David, her heart told her mind, “There’s something more that is even better for me. I must have it.” When she sinned and Adam chose to join her, the heart of mankind switched from motivated by purity to motivated by selfishness and distrust of God. Interestingly, Adam tried the blame game by saying to God, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate” (Genesis 3:12 ESV italics added). God didn’t gulp and say, “Oh, that’s right. It’s not your fault, it’s mine.” No, He gave consequences to both Adam and Eve.

Adam and Eve devised their plan to cleanse themselves by using fig leaves to cover their sinful shame. But God sought them out when they were hiding and provided something superior. He set up his own heart-cleansing plan. The sacrifice of an animal to provide skins to clothe them was a visual representation of the future coming of Savior Jesus who would be sacrificed, shedding His blood, for the sins of the world.

How Can We Have Our Hearts Be Spiritually Cleansed?

All that David writes from a repentant heart in Psalm 51 instructs us how to have our hearts spiritually cleansed.

Verse 1: “Have mercy on me, O God.” See your dependence upon God’s love.

Verse 2: “Wash me thoroughly.” Ask!

Verse 3: “For I know my transgressions.” Don’t soften the impact of sinful choices.

Verse 4: “Against you, you only, have I sinned.” Ultimately even though you’ve hurt others, your sin is primarily against God.

Verse 5: “I was brought forth in iniquity.” Know there is a sinful nature, but sin is a choice.

Verse 6: “Teach me wisdom.” Your real wisdom comes from God through His Word, even as He often guides you through the wisdom of others.

Verse 7: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean.” Be confident that if God declares you clean, it’s true.

Verse 8: “Let me hear joy and gladness.” There’s no need to continue in regret or condemnation. There is a joy knowing you are forgiven and cleansed.

Verses 9-12: “Hide your face from my sins…renew…cast me not away…restore.” God takes the action. You don’t have to force Him.

Verses 13-15: “I will teach…my tongue will sing…my mouth will declare.” Know God will use you to give Him glory.

Verses 16-17: “you will not delight in sacrifice…The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit.” You don’t have to perform perfectly to receive cleansing. Action will come from a repentant heart.

Verses 18-19: “Do good to Zion…build up the walls…then will you delight in right sacrifices.” These are the kind of sacrifices not for sin but indicating a commitment to God, thus the worshipers of Jehovah will be built up, symbolized by “the walls of Jerusalem.”

We can feel and identify with David’s cries for a spiritually clean heart. We want that also. And God wants it for us even more. We won’t attain a perfectly clean heart on this earth but we will grow stronger in our ability to make wise choices. And in the meantime, we can be confident God quickly cleanses and forgives us when we ask.

Further Reading

Why Did David Ask God for a Clean Heart and Renewed Spirit?

Why Do We Ask God to ‘Create in Me a Clean Heart?’

Why Do We Ask God to ‘Create in Me a Clean Heart’?

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/yrabota

Kathy Collard MillerKathy Collard Miller delights in sharing biblical insights to inspire Christians to trust God more and know His attributes in truth. She is the author of 58 books and over a thousand articles and blog posts. Her most recent book, co-authored with her husband, Larry, is God’s Intriguing Questions: 60 New Testament Devotions Revealing Jesus’s Nature. Larry and Kathy live in Southern California and are international speakers, parents, grandparents, and lay counselors. www.KathyCollardMiller.com


This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.

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