I hope you don't mind that these posts are a little serious. I just like to get these sort of thoughts down, but mindless babblings I prefer to verbally plaster on unsuspecting friends =)
I had a thought yesterday after reading the story about Abraham and Isaac again. God had to test Him to see if Abraham would put God first. This is the thing that struck me, surely God would have known Abraham's heart before the test - so couldn't He have known and not needed to test him?
But I realised this: what if our character is literally built through the decisions we make? Character may not be some inherent part of our heart, but rather the sum of the decisions we make. Futhermore, we cannot built character by thought alone, but rather by real-world choice. After making a habit of choosing to be kind, we can say we are kind in character because we habitually are kind in action. I have often made the distinction between spirit, heart, mind, and body, but I am now not so sure there is such distinction. Our actions and our heart are intimately interellated, just as our minds and our hearts and our minds and our body.
How can we really have made a decision unless we act on it? Could Abraham actually 'put God first' in his heart without choosing to do something which requires it to be so? It's just a thought until we act on it, for true choice necessitates the foregoing of one alternative by committing to the other. Faith without works is dead, and I think so is character without action, because character is built on action.
How can we become patient in character without choosing to be patient in practise? How can we become trustworthy unless we are actually trusted, or become kind in heart unless we show kindness? The thoughts go hand-in-hand with the actions. I think our actions are motivated by our hearts, certainly, but there is a distinction here, I think. For example; first, comes the will to act kindly in the heart; then the action itself. It is in the action that the choice is made, not simply in the thought. Likewise, it is the action that builds the character, not the thought.
I have never been able to build character by thinking about it. I don't think Abraham really loved God more or less than Isaac in His heart before He was tested. I believe He put God first when He was presented with a test, and chose through action to put God first. How can we choose God over other things in our hearts until we are forced to make a real choice?
A baby is born with comparatively little character - plenty of personality, but they haven't had the exerience to develop much character. Would it make sense to scorn a baby for not being humble? No, because a baby has not the life experiences to build that character trait (attribute). The child needs the choice to develop that character through choices in order to develop that character at all. The child needs the opportunity to be proud or humble in a given situation, and then choose humility. Then that child has learned something of humility.
And so this, I think, is why God cannot simply look at our hearts and know how we will act, for our heart may only contain an unanswered question - unanswered because we have not responded to it with action. God knows our hearts through and through, certainly, but our hearts do not contain our responses to choices we have not made. Character is not simply shown by our choices - it is made by them, and so we should be careful what we make.