The Heart of the Matter

By Eric Venable

The Bible’s teaching on the heart is one of the most significant subjects in all of Scripture but it is also one of the most under emphasized and misunderstood words in Christian teaching.  In many ways the heart can be understood as the control center and inner, unseen essence of our person.  The word translated “heart” is in the Scriptures 850 times which tells us the enormous significance of this word.  The word “heart” is even associated with God in a variety of places (Gen. 6:6, Deut. 10:15).  The heart in Scripture is connected to various dynamics that happen inside a person and a variety of things that are essential in all our relationships, such as our emotions, sin, desires, obedience to God, conviction over sin, words, faith and identity.

The most essential aspects of who we are as humans takes place in our heart.

Jesus tells us that our words are always a reflection of our hearts (Luke 6:45) and all our emotions and desires flow from our heart.  Also, all spiritual movement either toward or away from God begins in our heart.  Often the Bible talks about faith and unbelief not with intellectual words of abstract ideas, but with language that describes what takes place in our hearts.  But the complexity and significance of the Bible’s teaching on the heart can often be misunderstood and misused.    

Many of us might have hang-ups about seeing the necessity of the Bible’s teaching on the heart.  Men especially have been taught that understanding your heart is an exclusively feminine or un-masculine trait.  Others might think this emphasis on the heart will lead to an overly introverted, subjective kind of faith that is theologically suspect.  Many churches, usually in the Reformed tradition, have responded to the emotional excesses of revivalism with an emphasis on intellectual knowledge and a skepticism of any emphasis on the heart or emotions within the Christian faith.  While the Bible does give us warnings about the deceitfulness of the human heart (Jer. 17:9), it never tells us to ignore what we find there.  Like a blinking sensor light on our car’s dashboard, the heart and our inner emotional world communicates that something important is going on under the hood of our external behavior that needs our attention, something that we would do well to pay attention to and not ignore.

And again, it’s important that we see that the Bible never views its teaching regarding our heart as a spiritual liability or something that threatens God’s design for human maturity in both men and women.

We (especially men!) would do well to consider the fatherly advice given to a son in the book of Proverbs.  Solomon instructs his son in Proverbs, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life,” (Prov. 4:23).  And again, later in Proverbs we read, “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep waters, but a man of understanding will draw it out,” (Prov. 20:5).  This verse is significant because it indicates that discerning the activity and purpose inside of our hearts doesn’t come easy; it’s actually hard work.  This means that godly wisdom looks like growing in discernment of what takes place in our own hearts and the hearts of others, something that both mature men and women will be able to do.  

People who have biblical understanding are able to look underneath the surface of our words and behavior and see the deeper issues of the heart that are driving these external things.

Wisdom means we are able to face and understand our desires, emotions, sins and foundational steps of faith.  If the heart is the control center of a person or the blinking light on the sensor board, we can easily understand the danger of having no understanding of how it works.  This is akin to jumping into the cockpit of an airplane but having no idea what any of the buttons on the control panel mean or how they work.  Or continually driving a car with a “Check Engine” light on.  A crash landing or broken-down car is a guaranteed result in this scenario.  In the same way, not being able to discern our emotions, desires and sinful temptations happening inside of us is a sure recipe for conflict, frustration and sin.  Not understanding our own hearts is akin to spiritual and emotional amnesia since the Bible also says our hearts are always an important reflection of who we are as individuals.  There is a very real sense that if you don’t understand what happens in your own heart, you really don’t know yourself at all.

Discerning what’s happening in our hearts can be challenging and many find this essential Christian task something they would rather avoid.

What are reasons for avoiding what happens in our own hearts? Often the things we find there are too painful and overwhelming and we would just rather avoid the mess. We run from what is going on in our hearts because it often brings us in touch with our brokenness or makes us feel out of control if we take the time to stop and understand what is happening there. We would rather live under the illusion that we are strong and self-sufficient than face the unpleasant reality of our desperate need for God and the help of others.

Our heart is where we encounter emotions we don’t want to name and face.  It’s the place we experience our deepest sorrow and loss.  It’s the place where we must face and voice our deepest spiritual questions about God and a world that has no easy answers for our pain.  The Psalms are filled with such agonizing questions that flow from the hearts of God’s people—“How long, O LORD?  Will you forget me forever?  Why have you forsaken me?”  The heart is the place where anger, jealousy and fear take root.  It’s the place where we first begin to have our desires for good things corrupted so that we begin to desire evil.  And again, facing all of this in our hearts is hard work that many of us have been taught to avoid.

Sadly, many versions of Christianity have taught people that faith and painful emotions in our hearts are incompatible so that acknowledging what happens in your heart is viewed as sinful or a sign of weakness.  I find Peter Scazzero’s words from his book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality to be tragically all too true for many churches:

“When we deny our pain, loses, and feelings year after year, we become less and less human. We transform slowly into empty shells with smiley faces painted on them. Sad to say, that is the fruit of much our discipleship in our churches” (Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, 70). Running from what goes on inside our hearts acts as a temporary anesthetic that tries to avoid and dull the pain we feel. But running from the contents of our heart in the long run will prove to be more costly than facing the painful, scary things we find there.

For many, a life of addiction is the preferred strategy of avoiding the spiritual ache we find in our hearts.  For others, an issue like depression can be significantly impacted by not being able to name and face crucial heart issues that must be addressed, things like anger, grief or shame.  Counselor and author Chip Dodd says this well, “Many of us were raised in ways that taught us to reject, numb, or hide our hearts.  We ended up as adults who don’t know how to use our feelings in order to live fully.  Consequently, we don’t know how to handle our woundings except by being more defensive, survival oriented, or self-sufficient.  We develop philosophies that excuse our own impairments, and we eventually become wounders ourselves” (Voice of the Heart, 24). 

When we consider what is happening in our heart we will quickly discover where we need the Gospel the most.  

God’s message of love and forgiveness gives us the courage and freedom to honestly see ways we are drawn into sin and take responsibility for how we have participated with the work of evil instead of fighting it.

If sin begins in our hearts, then the bent of our flesh is going to be to run away from our hearts so that we fail to face and confess our own sin.  The way of evil is to get us focusing on cleaning up our external behavior but never addressing the sin that takes root in our hearts. 

The good news of the Gospel is that that God wants to help us change the deepest parts of ourselves so that we don’t simply rearrange our sinful words and actions.

The target of God’s restoration of His people centers around our hearts, the fountain from which every meaningful thing in life flows.  Only in the Gospel do we find the change we need and long for the most—-a heart transplant where God removes our hearts of stone and replaces them with a heart of flesh.  He gives us a heart that can begin to do what it was made to do—to feel, desire God, trust His voice by faith and do good things!

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