Getting to the Heart of the Matter

By Justin Rossow

I recently heard my good friends Steve and Jamie from Breathe Life Ministries lead a presentation on noticing yourself with God. As part of that workshop, they talked about how the biblical understanding of the “heart” is a little more complex than how we use the term in English.

Not only is the “heart” the seat of your conscience (Hebrews 10:22), the New Testament uses “heart” where we might typically use other words or locations. For example, in our culture we might say your thoughts exist in your mind; Matthew 9:4 talks about thoughts in your heart. We might say your resolute purpose resides in your will; Acts 11:23 speaks of a resolute purpose in your heart. You can find other examples, but the main idea is that for at least some of the cultures represented by the library of writings we call The Bible, the heart is a more diverse place than we typically make it out to be.

It’s not that emotions don’t belong in your heart in biblical usage—sorrow, for example, fills the hearts of the disciples in John 16:22. But your heart is the primary organ of feeling in our culture; in the biblical text the heart seems to be much, much more.

In my Scripture reading this morning I was in Mark 6, right after the Feeding of the 5,000. The disciples in a boat at night, rowing hard against the wind (and Jesus sees them—take comfort! Jesus sees you!). As the reading winds down, Mark says the disciples “didn’t understand about the loaves because their hearts were hard.” 

That puts the seat of understanding in the heart.

That reminded me of how the LORD grants Solomon’s request in 1 Kings 3:12 by giving the king a wise and understanding … well, heart in the NIV, but mind in the ESV: the Hebrew word is לֵב or LEV; look it up in your Hebrew dictionary and lev (rhymes with brave) refers to the inner person, the mind, will, or heart.

So, the CENTER of a person…?

I think that might be right.

Maybe the HEART of a person, biblically speaking, is connected to the CENTER of the person, and therefore the most important, most central, most true or prototypical of that person.

Our brains work with concepts and categories in a way that places the most important or representative thing in the center of the category and less typical, less important, less representative examples on the periphery of the concept. So a robin, for example, is at the center of our concept BIRD, while a penguin or ostrich would be still in the category, but much farther away from the center; somewhere on the periphery.

This distinction between CENTER and PERIPHERY is hardwired into our cognitive system by the way our human brains work in our human bodies. (I won’t go into that more right now, but you don’t have to take my word for it. Check out books like Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking; or Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought; or, my personal favorite, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind.)

After hearing Steve and Jamie talk about the heart, and reflecting on what I have learned about the cultures and languages of the Bible, and about cognitive linguistics, my new working theory is that the concept of the HEART in the Bible is directly related to what belongs at the CENTER of a person, as opposed to the PERIPHERY. That certainly could include emotions, but not all emotions, and not only emotions.

In English, we can also say, “the heart of the matter,” and by that we mean the most central, important, and essential elements at stake (not, for example, just the emotions related to the topic). But by and large, we tend to reserve the heart for emotions and emotions for the heart.

The heart isn’t the only organ of emotion in the Bible. The intestines or GUTS can house strong emotion, like compassion (in Matthew 15:32, for example, Jesus has compassion, literally, his guts twisted, in Greek, splagchnizomai, for the crowd). We also have phrases like “gut-wrenching” but I think, linguistically and conceptually, we prefer the heart as the seat of emotion, and we oppose the heart to the brain as the seat of thought.

At the beginning of Matthew 15, some Pharisees ask Jesus about hand-washing rules. In response, Jesus calls them hypocrites and quotes Isaiah: 

These people honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
    their teachings are merely human rules.

(Matthew 15:8-9, NIV; citing Isaiah 29:13)

Notice the CENTRAL/PERIPHERAL, NEAR/FAR orientation: lips are on the border between inside and outside, far away from the center; the heart is at the center, and therefore the heart is more prototypical, more important, and, well, more central.

Notice also that worship is parallel to lips (it’s the act of singing, confessing, professing, praising, not the feeling of adoration in view) while hearts are parallel with teachings. That reinforces the idea that thinking, teaching, reasoning, and believing are all seated in the HEART.

In our culture, when we say we believe something in our hearts, I think we also mean that we believe it with the core of our being. But I think we shade that belief toward a feeling or emotion in your heart, because the HEART is the seat of emotions for us. In a more biblical way of talking, belief is shaded toward what is CENTRAL, which of course includes but does not preference emotions.

The Apostle Paul can say, for example:

It is with your heart that you believe and are justified,
and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.

(Romans 10:10, NIV)

I gather Paul would use HEART as the seat of understanding, and reasoning, and trusting, and depending on Jesus (i.e. faith). Paul isn’t talking about an emotional experience of the heart as opposed to your reason. That is, I think emotions are part of what comes from the heart, but HEART emotions (as opposed to GUT emotions?) are usually (always?) connected to thinking and understanding as well as emotion. The concept of the HEART is more of a whole person, center of the person, self, soul, reason-and-emotion-together kind of idea. 

The Latin word credo, from which we get “creed,” means “to give your heart to.” I don’t think the Latin Church Fathers meant “to give your feelings to;” I think they meant, “to give your whole thinking, reasoning, trusting, feeling, person, self, and soul to.” That’s what I think we mean when we say. “Credo; I believe in God, the Father Almighty, …”

Back to Matthew 15, you can see pretty clearly how Jesus uses HEART to mean CENTER rather than “seat of emotions.” What goes in the mouth originates outside a person and stays peripheral, just passing through, in one end and out the other. But what comes out of the mouth comes from the center of the person and therefore reflects what the person is like, actually and truly, at their core. “For out of the heart come evil thoughts … ” Jesus says.

Again, the heart is tied to thinking rather than feeling. Or maybe better said: the heart refers to a person’s CENTER, and therefore includes thinking and understanding as well as emotion. The heart is who you are at your core, as a whole person.

As we continue to explore the heart/soul/emotion/thinking/believing dynamic in the way the Bible talks about the whole person, my big suggestion is simply the idea that CENTRAL/PERIPHERAL is one key element in understanding what the Bible means by HEART. Emotions in the guts are less central than emotions in the heart. Thoughts that belong to the core of who you are live in the heart. When you have faith or even love in your heart, you have it in your CENTER, at the nexus of who you are as a person, your self, your soul.

That doesn’t mean you don’t have emotions in your heart; just that maybe not all emotions are in your heart. And not everything in your heart is emotions.

If you said someone makes decisions “with their heart,” I would take you to mean that their emotion clouds their reason and they “go with their gut” instead of their head. Our Romantic idea of “following your heart” means we give into our feelings against our judgment, reason, and sometimes even conscience.

But I want to love the Lord my God with all of my HEART; that is, from the center of who I really am, with all of my (fallen but redeemed) thinking, reasoning, imagining, trusting, desiring, judgment, conscience, and of course, emotion.

I have the Spirit of Jesus dwelling in my HEART (Galatians 4:6); that is, at the CENTER of who I am, and how I think, and what I trust, and how I reason, and what I believe.

When the evil things in my HEART come out and show how much I still struggle with my old, sinful self, I join King David in praying, not for a new set of emotions, but for a renewal of my whole person, the restoration of who I really am in Christ, the transformation of my being, my thinking and feeling and acting: “Create in me a clean HEART, O God; and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10)

When we read “heart” in Scripture, we should be thinking HEART: the center and most important part of a person. That’s my working hypothesis, anyway.

Try it out. Look for “heart” language as you read Scripture. Try thinking or praying or living out your faith as if “heart” meant CENTER and not just emotions. And let me know what you think. This faith thing is, after all, a grand experiment in following. And we follow Jesus better when we follow him together.

Good thing I have Jesus “down in my HEART.”

2 Comments

  1. Well said JP. God has given you understanding…and that comes from the ❤️. Thank you. Unc

  2. I heard Ephesians 3:16-17 during a devotion the day after I wrote this:
    “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being (or inner person) so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.”

Leave a Reply