David committed adultery with Bathsheba, murdered Uriah, and cost Israel thousands of lives by pridefully numbering the fighting men. Yet God calls him a man after His own heart. What is the meaning of this?

Most teachers I’ve heard on this subject have taught that repentance is what’s needed. They are not wrong. Psalm 51 is David’s song of repentance. It drives right to the heart of the matter, describing the repentant “heart” in verses 6, 10, and 17. After he sins, the man after God’s heart comes to God in heartfelt repentance.
But the key to understanding more fully what it means to be “a man after God’s own heart” is found in another phrase that the Bible itself places alongside the one with which we are so familiar:
“And when he had removed him, he raised up David to be their king, of whom he testified and said, ‘I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will’” (Acts 13:22).

Repentance is only one example of the larger issue. God says that “a man after my heart…will do all my will.” That is, to be after God’s heart means to be willing to obey, even when the thing commanded is exceedingly difficult. The repentant heart only comes into play after a stumble, because the command at that point is to repent. But the obedient heart is what God is actually after.

What separated David from Saul? That’s the contrast that set up the famous description of David. David is Saul’s opposite (1 Samuel 13:14). Both of them sinned. Both displayed occasional periods of stunning hardheartedness. But Saul was never an obedient man, whereas David was. When faced with a giant who taunted the God of Israel, Saul was able to consistently stifle the prompting of his conscience and of the Spirit (1 Samuel 17:11). David obeyed (1 Samuel 17:32). David had heart! Saul’s sacrifice of sheep (1 Samuel 13:13) and then unwillingness to slaughter other sheep (1 Samuel 15:14) demonstrated that Saul simply did what he wanted, not what he was told to do. Conversely, David was a man after God’s heart because he would obey God.

Christians today have made an art out of confession and repentance. Preachers rightly emphasize grace, but speak too little about the necessity of obedience. As a result, many Christians live in persistent sin, regularly confessed and subsequently repeated, yet they convince themselves, “God knows my heart.”

Well, to the one living in persistent disobedience, God does know your heart. He knows that it is not after His.

How then can a Christian have a change of heart? It begins with sincerely praying Psalm 51. Literally read it aloud as a prayer to God. But it doesn’t end there. There are acts of obedience that you must go forth and do. That’s the second step, the definitive step. To describe David, some translations render the second part of Acts 13:22 this way, “he will do everything I want him to do.” After repentance (according to 1 Samuel 15:11, even Saul cried out to the Lord all night), subsequent obedience to what you know God has told you to do is what will define you as being “after God’s heart.”

It’s not enough to keep a quiet time. Taking time to read the Bible and to adore, confess, thank, and supplicate (A.C.T.S.) is good, but quiet time alone is only enough to make you half-hearted. When Jesus says “abide in my love,” he’s not primarily referring to quiet time. Jesus’ command to “abide” in John 15:10 means “keep my commandments.”

The Sight and Sound theater portrayed David beautifully. You can listen to the songs from that production on Youtube. In one of them, David sings, “I am after your heart.” David’s obedience proved those words true. We should stop assuming that we are “a man after God’s heart” until we learn from Acts 13:22 what God is after. We can become like David, but to do so, we’re going to need to show some heart.