In one of the truly great cinematic tales of the last 30 years, The Princess Bride, one of the characters, Vizzini, uses the word, “Inconceivable!” over and over. Finally, Inigo Montoya replies, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
There is a word that followers of Christ use regularly and I can hear the echoes of Inigo Montoya saying “you keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” That word is the word “heart.” It is used to describe conversion (“a new heart”), the place where the Spirit of God dwells (“dwells in our heart by faith”), a struggling faith (“a hardened heart”), and the list could go on.
What do we mean when use the word “heart” or, better yet, what does God mean when He uses it in the Scriptures? The reality is that we often have some vague sense of what is meant and if 10 people are asked, 15 definitions might result.
If we were to collect and condense all the definitions, we would likely come up with some vague notion that the heart is the essence of who we are, the inner person, the unseen/immaterial substance of us, etc. However, it is vital that we have better than a vague sense of what is meant by “heart.”
When Jesus was asked about the most important commandment of them all (the Hebrew Scriptures contained 613 commands), He sublimely posited, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
A familiar passage to be sure, but the words heart, soul, and mind speak to a reality that is often quite vague for us in the western world. We have physicians and biology classes that have made us fully aware of the parts of the body but words like heart, soul, and mind are often not clear, which is problematic if this is the greatest commandment. How exactly do I love God with my mind and/or my heart? Additionally, if loving myself (which would certainly include heart, soul, and mind) is necessary for loving another; our vague notions are doubly problematic.
If I am to “love” with these elements of who I am, I need to know clearly what they are and what they aren’t. Equally problematic is the “wariness” and “suspicion” that many have with things of the heart. Many a sermon has been preached about the deceitfulness and sickness of the heart from Jeremiah 17:9.
In Jeremiah 17:9, we find the following: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” From these words, many have suggested that the heart can’t be trusted. To the degree that the “heart” is associated with emotions or perceptions, there arises suspicion. However, Jesus says that we are to love with all our heart. If the heart is deceitful and sick, this would seem to be a strange thing for Jesus to say.
On the other hand, there is no strangeness to Jesus’ words at all when take a closer look at the text in Jeremiah 17. One of the features of the Hebrew language (the language of the original text) is that words generally have a broad range of meaning. Ancient Hebrew, as a language, did not have a lot of vocabulary. So, each word had to be able to function with a lot of potential meanings. Meaning, as in any language, is determined by usage and context. The words in 17:9 for “deceitful” and “desperately sick” have other much more likely meanings. The word “deceitful” (Heb., achov) seems to carry a negative connotation, but the usage of this word in the Old Testament generally meant “deceptive” in the sense of being tricky or shadowy (i.e., hard to understand). In addition, the word “desperately sick” (Heb., anush) was generally used to speak of physical illness or vulnerability. In a metaphorical sense, it wouldn’t translate into being a moral weakness but a spiritual vulnerability.
The ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) renders Jeremiah 17:9 as “The heart is deeper than all things, and it is human, and who can know it?” This translation fits better with the context of Jeremiah 17 as well. In the first 8 verses, two groups of people are described: those who trust in man and those who trust in God. In verse 10, God is described as One who searches the heart. Why does He have to search? Because the heart is deep and fragile and not easily discerned. However, the heart can produce the fruit of trusting God or trusting man.
How does all of this help us understand the nature of our souls? First, it reminds us that introspection, under the guidance of the Spirit, is not only profitable but essential. What is going on in our hearts is important to God. 1 Samuel 16:7 makes clear that “man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
Second, in part two of Anatomy of the Soul, we’ll look at the nature of the heart, soul, and mind, but the starting point is a humility that leads to dependence. If the heart is indeed deeper than all things (quite a statement actually) and fragile, we need to approach our own hearts with a sense of humility, a fear and trembling. Our inability to discern and see the depths leads us to depend on Him to lead and guide. Most often, well meaning followers of Christ exhibit an arrogance about their heart (“everything is fine”), or a wariness (“I can’t trust my heart”), or a nonchalance (“I don’t worry about it”). However, it is a humility that is most appropriate.
A humility regarding who we are means that we ask Him to search our hearts (cf. Psalm 139:23-24) and prayerfully listen to what He has to say.
*Building on this place of humility, in coming posts, we’ll look at a definition of, a vision for, and a distinctively Trinitarian path for the soul.