A Biblical Theology of the Heart

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God is the one who created in us both the capacity to think and the strength to will and the sensitivity to feel. Was that a mistake? Does he interact with us only at the level of the understanding and the will? Are the affections of the heart only a problem and never a resource?

We need a theology of the heart. We have a theology of the head, and that’s good. Our faith is a thinking faith. What’s more, our capacity for understanding is the gatekeeper for everything else that happens inside us. If our understanding of the Bible warns us that a certain experience coming at us doesn’t square with the gospel, then we say No to that experience, because what God gives is always consistent with his Word.

When the Beatles split up in 1970, an interviewer asked one of them what happened. And part of the answer was a difference in the mentality of the members of the group. In 1966 the Beatles came out with the “Revolver” album, which was their first daringly experimental album. And one of the lines in that album was, “Relax, sit back and let your mind float downstream.” John Lennon and George Harrison were able to do that. In their drug experimentation they allowed themselves to relax, sit back and let their minds float downstream. The indeterminate destination of their experience-seeking was necessary to the whole experiment. But Paul McCartney couldn’t bring himself to relax, sit back and let his mind float downstream. And that created tension within the group, according to this interview.

Christians do not relax, sit back and let their minds float downstream. Why? Because God engages us with all that we are, as whole persons, head and heart together at the same time. We never turn our brains off. We always bring our experiences under the judgment of the Word of God. He is a good Shepherd. We want to feed in his green pastures, and nowhere else. We will yield to his Spirit, and no other. So we keep our minds alert (I John 4:1). But for the very same reason — because he engages us as whole persons, not as fragments of persons — we should never shut our hearts down either. The Word of God legitimates and requires a whole-personed engagement with God. But we’re less familiar, and even less comfortable, with the heart-side of that engagement. We need a biblical theology of the heart.

Previous generations of Christians lived in a rich and full spiritual atmosphere in their churches. Head and heart worked together. But somewhere along the line we diminished the role of the heart in valid spiritual experience. Maybe it was during the battle for orthodoxy in the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries, the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy, when we had our backs against the wall just to survive theologically. I don’t know. But somewhere along the line, we lost our way. Our faith drifted into a one-sided, merely cerebral belief in facts, along with moral obedience, but with little heart-engagement with God. We came to believe (to feel?!?) that living by faith meant living without experience. We neglected the heart. We didn’t mean to. We just drifted into a one-sided paradigm of the Christian life.

Growing up in a strong church, I remember moments when our youth group stumbled onto the worshipful adoration and enjoyment of God — maybe at summer camp singing “How Great Thou Art” while watching a sunset in the mountains, and suddenly our hearts were deeply moved by the grandeur of God — but those moments were accidental and episodic. We didn’t aim at the enjoyment of God. We weren’t opposed to it. It just never occurred to us to aim at it. We didn’t have a theology of the heart. We knew we were supposed to believe the Bible, and we knew we were supposed to live godly lives. But we didn’t know we were supposed to have hearts filled with pleasures forevermore. We didn’t understand that those very pleasures empower godly living and that empty hearts (however full our heads might be) jeopardize godly living. But the fact is, God did make us with passions, and those passions are going to attach themselves to something. They’re going to drivesomething within us — if not godliness, then something else.

But still, some Christians get nervous about the heart. They become defensive. They feel threatened. In a way, it’s understandable. Our hearts are evil. We can be seduced by foolish feelings. And when we see Christians launching into kooky experiences in the name of God, we all want to put on the brakes. And, if not eccentric, the flavor of some churches is simply mawkish and sentimental and syrupy. But what’s the answer? The answer is not to deny the heart, to delete it from our paradigm of the Christian life. The only answer is to follow God’s Word. Anyway, our thoughts are just as evil as our feelings! When Peter advised Jesus not to go to the cross, the Lord said to him, “You are not thinking the thoughts of God, but the thoughts of men” (Mark 8:33). God thinks. We think. God has good thoughts. We have bad thoughts. Our minds are not perfect. Our minds need redemption just as much as anything else about us. Our only safety is in the Lord himself, according to his Word alone.

The reason we may feel comfortable with our heads, but not with our hearts, is not because we’re so biblical but because we’re children of the 18th-century Enlightenment. We’re modern people. Our cultural tradition tells us that truth can be reduced to hard data, life can be made subject to our own control, and we can remain detached observers. But where does the Bible teach that? Where does the Bible even encourage such a perverse approach to life? It isn’t biblical; it’s the idolatry of modernity. “Knowledge puffs up.” I can know a lot about the Bible and God and even prayer but remain unbroken and proud. But the heart is humbling. My heart cannot love God without melting into humility. I cannot love God without melting into sweetness with other believers. The heart is where we’re humbled, and maybe that’s another reason why our natural instincts feel more comfortable with a merely cerebral faith.

God’s redeeming love does not destroy our nature; he restores our nature, all that he has made us to be, and he deploys all that we are in his worship and service. The Scriptures address both head and heart, and we want to please God. We want to be authentic Christians. We want our witness amplified in power. We want to be whole. We need a theology of the heart.

The Bible is drippingly rich with holy affections on every page. Every page is freighted with two kinds of meaning — both semantic meanings (what the text is saying) and affective meanings (how those teachings simmer on the page). Every page is calculated to illuminate our understanding and to quicken our affections. And if I don’t read the Bible alert to both dimensions of its value, I’m missing something. The affective is material to the message of the Bible.

And what I mean by the word affections is this. The inclination of the will, the likes and dislikes of the hidden person within, the pleasure and displeasure with which our inmost beings respond, the strongly felt power to approve and to disapprove, the waves of deeply felt emotion that move us so powerfully — that dimension inside us is what we mean by affections. This is the work of the heart. As Jonathan Edwards points out, God has given us two great capacities: the head, for discerning, judging, seeing, viewing and understanding; and the heart, for welcoming and rejecting, for yearning and adoring, for zeal and determination and joy. And just as the mind can see with degrees of clarity, the heart can feel with degrees of intensity. And the more clearly our minds see the glory of Jesus in the gospel and the more intensely our hearts long for him, the more boldly we will obey him and the more gladly we will live for him. Why should that be threatening? What is scary is when heads are full of orthodox opinions but our hearts are cold, or when heads are darkened in ignorance but hearts are enflamed with passion. Both distortions render the church unconvincing and sterile. But when heads see clearly and hearts feel deeply, that’s when God is at work mightily with saving power.

Most of what we do in life we do out of desire. And until our desires are transformed, we are not transformed. Until our desires are lifted up from their natural dullness and purified and intensified and enflamed for God and with God, we are not transformed. We may be informed, but not transformed. We cannot demonstrate the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ until we as a church legitimate the affections, because it’s the affections that drive our lives. Think about it. Do you parents love your kids? Do you sacrifice for your kids? Have your kids changed your life? You bet they have. Why have you allowed that? Is it because you say to yourself, “This is my child. A birth certificate says so. I will therefore be kind to this person”? You love your child because your heart won’t let you respond any other way. In the same way, our affections are not a problem in living for Christ; they’re a powerful resource.

The Bible is rich with holy affections. Jonathan Edwards is so bold as to propose that “true religion consists in a great measure in vigorous and lively actings of the inclination and will of the soul, or the fervent exercises of the heart.”[1] Edwards is proposing that an enflamed heart is necessary to authentic Christianity. It is not marginal. It is not optional. It is not embarrassing. It is necessary to godliness, and it is beautiful in the sight of God. You be the judge of Edwards when he argues, “That religion which God requires, and will accept, does not consist in weak, dull, and lifeless wishes, raising us but a little above a state of indifference; God in his Word greatly insists upon it that we be in good earnest.”[2] Why does Edwards say that? What biblical warrant does he have for emphasizing the affections so strongly? Here’s a very small sample of what the Scriptures call us to:

Deut 6:4 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your might.

Psalm 2:11 Serve the Lord with fear, rejoice with trembling.

Psalm 37:4 Delight yourself in the Lord.

Psalm 42:1-2 As the deer pants for the water, so longs my soul after thee, O Lord.

Psalm 63:1-2 My soul thirsts for thee, my flesh faints for thee, as in a dry and weary land, where there is no water.

Psalm 119:20 My soul is consumed with longing for your ordinances at all times.

Prov 8:13 The fear of the Lord is to hate evil.

Isa 26:8 The desire of my soul is for your name.

Matt 5:4 Blessed are they that mourn.

Luke 24:32 [When Jesus opened the Scriptures to his disciples, their hearts burned within them.]

Rom 12:11 Be fervent in spirit.

Phil 3:1 Rejoice in the Lord.

Col 3:12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion.

I Pet 1:22 Love one another earnestly, from the heart.

I Pet 2:2 Like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation; for you have tasted the goodness of the Lord.

Rev 2:4 But I have this against you: you have left your first love.

Rev 3:16 I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! Because you are lukewarm, neither cold nor hot, I will spit you out of my mouth.

Think of David — the man after God’s own heart. Think of Paul — who was swallowed up with such a loving esteem of Jesus that he gladly suffered the loss of all things that he might gain Christ. Think of Jesus himself — a man full of a tender and affectionate spirit. He prayed with tears. Zeal for God’s house consumed him. He grieved over Jerusalem. He was moved with compassion as he saw the crowds of people like sheep without a shepherd. He didn’t despise them; he was moved for them. He didn’t scold them; he helped them, because he loved them. When Mary and Martha grieved over Lazarus, Jesus wept. He did not dismiss their feelings as weakness. He valued their feelings and entered with them into their feelings, even though he was about to raise their brother from the grave, because Mary and Martha themselves had value in his eyes. Think of heaven. It is not a vast lecture hall. It is a temple for worship. And what love there is in heaven! What joy, what intensity, what release, what a holy fire! And isn’t heaven the ultimate perfection of our faith down here on earth? Isn’t our enjoyment of the Lord here a foretaste of that joy, a dawning of that heavenly light? Should we feel apologetic or awkward about entering into the atmosphere of heaven down here? Think of the biblical warnings against hardness of heart. What a provocative sin hard-heartedness is in the sight of God! Jesus was deeply offended by the Pharisees’ hardness of heart. Paul says that hard hearts are storing up wrath for themselves (Rom 2:5). The Old Testament prophets reproached Israel for their unresponsiveness. In Psalm 95 we are warned, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart.” But a sign of grace is when our hearts are broken (Psalm 51:17) and softened from stone into flesh (Ezek 36:26). Grace tenderizes us. We become like little children when we enter God’s kingdom, who can be led.

This is not to say that all religious feelings are approved by God. But this is to say that the Bible is a richly affective book and that authentic Christianity is a richly affective experience. So Edwards writes, “If we be not in good earnest in religion, and our wills and inclinations be not strongly exercised, we are nothing.”[3] The Bible is rich with holy affections, and so should we be. Every service here at First Pres should be rich with holy affections, if we aim to be faithful to God’s Word and fruitful in influencing our generation.

With God’s help, I intend to provide ongoing resources to help us assemble in our understanding a theology of the heart. We cannot demonstrate the transforming power of the gospel without hearts on fire. So I ask you to join me in pressing on toward full engagedness with our Lord — both head and heart. I ask you to turn away from a head-only religion. I ask you to make the connection between what you know in your head and what you feel in your heart. I ask you to trust God so much, that you allow him to fill your heart with everything that pleases him and that makes you fruitful. In his presence there is fullness of joy, and at his right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Notes

[1] Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections (Edinburgh, 1997 reprint), page 27.

[2] Ibid. I am indebted to Edwards for most of the following references.

[3] Ibid., page 28.

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