The wicked, deceitful human heart.

by K.W. Leslie, 29 December
HEART hɑrt noun. Hollow muscular organ which pumps blood through the circulatory system.
2. [in popular culture] Center of a person’s thoughts and emotions; one’s mood, feeling, enthusiasm, mood, or courage.
3. [in popular Christian culture] Center of a person’s lifeforce; one’s innermost being; the true self, particularly one’s true thoughts and feelings.
4. A conventional heart shape, as found on a deck of cards.
[Hearted 'hɑrt.ɛd adjective.]
Jeremiah 17.9-10 KWL
9 “The heart is more twisted than everything.
It’s human. Who knows it?
10 I, the LORD, examine the heart and test the kidneys,
to give men according to their ways, the fruit of their deeds.”

The ancients didn’t know much about anatomy. So all the stuff we recognize are part of brain activity, the ancients believed were the function of other parts of the body. The heart, they imagined, did our thinking. The kidneys did the feeling.

Seriously. And why not? When we get excited, our hearts beat faster. When we’re sad or mournful, we feel it in the chest, and not so much the head. They saw a connection between mental activity and the heart. So they deduced it was the cardiac muscle behind our thoughts and feelings… not our thoughts and feelings behind our heart’s behavior. Yep, got it backwards.

What’d they imagine our brains did? Well, they didn’t. Seriously: The word “brain” isn’t in the bible. Y’might find it in various bible translations, but that’s because the translators know what the brain actually does, and decided to swap it for lev or kardía where appropriate. But in the scriptures, when we come across mental activity, the authors kept referring to one’s heart.

  • The thoughts Ge 6.5 or imagination Ge 8.21 of one’s heart: Of one’s mind, really.
  • Saying in one’s heart Ge 11.17, 24.45, Dt 9.4, 18.21 is saying to oneself, in one’s head, or at least privately.
  • One’s heart failed or fainted or was discouraged Ge 42.28, 45.26, Nu 32.7, Dt 1.28 means they lost their nerve.
  • One’s heart was hardened Ex 4.21, 7.13, Dt 2.30 means one’s mind is closed.
  • One’s heart was stirred Ex 35.21, 36.2 is what we’d call a brainstorm.

We still do this in our culture. When we remember, we “search our hearts.” When we rethink things, we “have a change of heart.” When we make up our minds, we “determine in our hearts.” And so forth.

Medical science didn’t realize the brain’s importance till Hippocrates in the fourth century BC, and Galen of Pergamon in our second century. For the longest time, more folks were familiar with Aristotle, who claimed the brain’s job is to cool down our blood. Considering all the bible’s talk about thinking and saying with our hearts, most people up until the Renaissance assumed the heart literally did as the bible describes.

But as I’ve said before, the bible’s not a science textbook. When its authors wrote about other subjects than God, they repeated what their culture had told them. They’d always been taught so, and God saw no reason to correct them: “No, guys, you think with your brains, not your hearts.” He had bigger fish to fry. He even used their terminology: He stated he thought in his heart. Ho 11.8 He was trying to relate to humanity, and it wasn’t the occasion for a biology lesson.

So if you’re worried about the scientific inaccuracy of the scriptures, don’t. Unlike young-earth creationists, we aren’t making anti-scientific claims about human biology based on our overly-literal interpretations of the scriptures. We’re simply reading the bible so we can understand God better. To a lesser degree, we’re also trying to understand the sin-damaged human mind better, and if the bible’s authors persisted in using “heart” to mean “mind”… well, let’s adapt.

We don’t mean the physical heart. (Usually.)

From thence we’ve come up with the Christianese definition of “heart.” It doesn’t refer to the literal, biological heart. ’Cause rarely does the bible even refer to the literal, biological heart. (Like when Yoav ben Cheruyah put three spears into Abšalom ben David’s literal heart. 2Sa 18.14) When the authors wrote “heart,” they meant thought processes. So when we say “heart,” we mean the center of a person’s soul. Whatever you think, feel, or determine to do: That’s your heart.

Problem is, we don’t bother to tell people that’s what we mean. Hence when I was a little boy, and the Sunday school teachers encouraged us to ask Jesus into our hearts, I got a bit confused. ’Cause children are very literal-minded. They don’t understand metaphor all that well. They don’t always realize there’s a difference between the organ that makes our chests thump a little, and the center of one’s soul. They honestly think having Jesus in their heart means Jesus is literally in there, rattling around. Tight fit, too. I’ve even heard children claim the reason we bow our heads to pray, is because that’s the direction Jesus is: He’s in our hearts, remember? But no. The physical heart, and the non-physical heart (i.e. spiritual heart), are entirely different things.

Materialists will argue “the spiritual heart” is really our brains: It’s not all that non-physical. But Christians will argue right back that since God apparently has a heart too, Ge 6.6 it can’t be physical, ’cause God’s not physical. He’s spirit. Yet he chooses, thinks, remembers, and feels. He has no organs. But he has a heart.

Meh. All this talk about God’s “heart” may be nothing more than a useful metaphor to describe the fact God chooses, thinks, remembers, and feels. After all, the scriptures elsewhere bring up God’s wings, Ps 36.7 and apart from a few wacky artists, most Christians are pretty sure God doesn’t have literal wings. It’s a metaphor for his nurturing nature. Same as God not having a literal womb Jn 1.18 either.

And if “heart” is a metaphor for God’s thought process, maybe it’s best if we consider “heart” a metaphor for our thought processes. We know it really means our minds; we know it’s used to refer to how we choose, think, remember, and feel. Does it matter if there’s some actual, real “heart” in our souls? Nah. Not really.

But in any case, whenever Christians talk about our hearts, that’s what we mean. Don’t overanalyze it.

No, seriously: Don’t overanalyze it. ’Cause many Christians have. I’ve known Christians who try to “map out” the spiritual heart in great detail. They wanna know how the “mind” interacts with the “will,” and how both these things interact with the “emotions,” and which feature of our psychology is most susceptible to God’s voice. Most of these ideas come from a Christianized version of Freudian or Jungian theory, which they try to defend with out-of-context bible verses. It gets pretty bonkers.

All this speculation will make your head spin. I just recommend if you wanna understand mental processes, take a psychology class. You’ll learn where the philosophy behind some really iffy Christian teachings originally came from. And, because today’s psychology is based on studies and experiments, you’ll learn proven information… instead of some wild guesses based on misquoted bible.

Watch out for those hearts.

But don’t just study psychology. Read your bible too. Because the scriptures have a lot to say about why we humans behave the way we do: It has to do with all sorts of evil we have stashed away in our hearts. Mk 7.21-23

Pop psychology, along with way too many Christian teachers, claim it’s important to listen to, and follow, our hearts. But as we can see in the Jeremiah verse at the top of this article, the human heart isn’t trustworthy. We’re selfish, and the heart reflects this. We’re not motivated by love, but greed. Our entire economic system is fed by greed… and greedy people defend it, and even claim it’s God’s will for us to have free markets, but really it’s because of their greed. “More twisted than everything” is how the LORD put it, and he would know. He didn’t make it that way; we do. But God can see right into our hearts.

So for this reason, we oughta pray, along with David ben Jesse:

Psalm 51.10-12 KWL
10 Create a clean heart for me, God. Fix an upright spirit within me.
11 Don’t throw me away from your presence! Don’t take your Holy Spirit from me!
12 Give me back joy and your salvation! Put a generous spirit in me.

David knew how messed up he was, and how much he needed God. We need to recognize this too, and keep turning to him.