Warning, this blog entry is Scripture-heavy! And there is so much more that can be said about this topic, this rambling entry is just a drop in the bucket. I apologize if I don’t do this topic justice…
I was recently at a small group at church where we were sharing how we feel God speaks to us or leads us. One of the group members brought up Jeremiah 17:9 which states (NIV): “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure, who can understand it?” to discount God using emotions or our hearts as a way to experience Him. I have heard this verse many times over the years, I even have it memorized, and believe there is truth in it, but it is a pet peeve of mine when people use it to discount our emotions.
Over the years, I’ve found that this verse is usually brought up by Christians who are analytical and big thinkers, not by people who are driven by their emotions (the very people that might want to look at following their hearts or emotions without evaluating whether they should). These people are taking a stand against having emotions play a significant role in their faith walk and would rather it be thought-driven alone. There are multiple problems with this stance.
One, it doesn’t allow for the emotional content of the Scriptures to be valued. Anyone who thinks emotions don’t play a role in our faith walk has not spent much time in the Psalms! I briefly looked into how many times the heart is mentioned in Scripture. My commentary lists that the word is used over 200 times (and this is just an estimate, I stopped counting at a certain point)! So to base all of your beliefs about the heart on Jeremiah 17:9 alone is short-sighted! And it’d also be good to know what Biblical authors meant when using the word “heart”. Does it means our emotions? Is it our attitude? How does it differ from our soul or mind? That is a study for a different day.
Two, focusing solely on Jeremiah 17:9 to describe the condition of the human heart regardless of it’s connection or redemption by God (and thus always undependable or evil), doesn’t take into consideration that our minds and thoughts are also distorted from sin and fall short of fully understanding or knowing God. Scripture talks about this over and over: Romans 12:2 states: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…”, I Corinthians 1: 10 says: “For it is written: I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate. Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” and Isaiah 55:8 states: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Engaging with God with our minds solely will only get us so far.
And three, it doesn’t provide for a holistic view of who we are as people walking with God. God has given us both a brain and a heart! Both are fallen and distorted due to sin, but both can and are redeemed as we draw closer to God. Matthew 22:37 is a great summary verse, “Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Our hearts are definitely called to be involved in our relationship with God, not just our minds!
I think I react so strongly to this type of narrow perspective because the Christianity I originally experienced when younger focused on right thinking and right theology which people believed should lead to right behavior. It ignored emotions and relational experiences. It was brain-heavy, but lacked heart. The mind was the focus rather than cultivating a relationship with God where as we draw near to Him, He changes not only our thinking patterns, but also our emotions. As I got older, I saw a lot of people react to this style of Christianity and swing to the opposite extreme—focusing on emotions and experiences only. This can also be seen in the move from modernism to post-modernism. In modernism, science, facts, and the mind are the ultimate, in post-modernism, there is no such thing as truth and facts are seen as overrated. Experience and emotions become the most important thing. I believe there needs to be room in our faith for truth and facts (from God’s word) but also emotions and our own personal experiences.
Having been a therapist for years, I have seen up close and personal how it is not just messed up emotions that lead to problems, but also thought processes. Problems arise not just when we let our emotions get the best of us, but also when we don’t check our thoughts against truth (both anger and anxiety are two easy examples of emotional problems that have HUGE mental components to them). Our thoughts and our feelings are closely linked—not just to each other, but also to our behaviors. How often do our thoughts justify our behaviors—behaviors that hurt others, behaviors that are selfish? One of the psychological theories most often used (and most effective) with juvenile delinquents and adult criminals is called cognitive behavioral therapy. Simplistically, it states that if you want to change behavior, you need to address the thoughts behind the behavior. This concept lines up with Biblical concepts. II Corinthians 10:5b reminds us, “we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ…” So from a biblical and a secular standpoint, it is clear that trying to curb or change behavior or character without looking at your thoughts won’t get you very far.
Our emotions are also an important part of what it means to be human. They tell us something about ourselves, our experiences, and are a crucial part to relationships (with both other people and God). We shouldn’t be led by them, but to fully ignore or discount them is wrong. There is a reason we were equipped with negative emotions such as fear, guilt, or even anger. To let these emotions take over our lives is unwise, but they can protect us, challenge us to make a change, or make us aware that something wrong on injust is occurring. And to forego savoring more positive emotions or experiences such as joy, peace, happiness, delight, well, that is just depressing!
God calls us to love him with our hearts and minds, checking both what our emotions and minds are telling us with our knowledge of Him through His Word. A faith walk that ignores either emotions or thoughts is not a holistic, healthy faith. By focusing solely on one part of it, you miss out on a whole other way of knowing God.
*Are you more of a thinker or feeler?
*How is this tendency seen in your faith journey with God?
*What is more risky to you—exploring your feelings in relation to your walk with God or digging deeper into the intellectual or thoughts-aspect of faith?
I like how the Message translates Jeremiah 17:9-10 because it addresses not only the heart, but also the mind. “The heart is hopelessly dark and deceitful, a puzzle that no one can figure out. But I, God, search the heart and examine the mind. I get to the heart of the human. I get to the root of things. I treat them as they really are, not as they pretend to be.”
Jeremiah 24:7 “I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart.”
Psalms 19:14 “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.”