The Thoughts of the Heart

Phillip Cary
Friday, April 5th 2024
A thought bubble and heart shape overlaid with a compass.
Mar/Apr 2024

In the Bible, the heart is not just where people have emotions. It’s also where they think. In a good translation of Scripture, you will often hear about the thoughts of the heart. It’s a holistic way of talking: it unites thoughts and feelings in a single whole by putting them together in the same place, rather than cutting them apart and locating them in different compartments—thoughts in the head, feelings in the heart. The Bible evidently wants us to realize that our thinking and feeling always go together.

You can see this in biblical Hebrew, where the word most often translated as “mind” is actually the word for “heart” (lev or the closely related word levav), which refers to the organ in your chest as well as to the place where you think and feel. But that’s not the only part of you that both thinks and feels. You can also think with your gut, as the good Samaritan does when he sees a man lying half-dead on the roadside and has compassion on him (Luke 10:33). The Greek term for this compassion refers to the bowels (splanchnizomai), like the King James Bible in its description of “bowels of mercy” (Col. 3:12; cf. Phil. 2:1; 1 John 3:17, using the word splanchnon). Jesus has this gut-level compassion on the crowds throughout the Gospels (e.g., Matt. 14:14; Mark 6:34). You can even think with your kidneys (just look up “reins” in a concordance of the King James Bible—it’s an old word related to “renal”—and then compare it with a recent translation, and you’ll see).

What you won’t see in a good translation is talk of people using their heads to think. (The only exception I know of is Nebuchadnezzar, who seems to dream in his head in Dan. 2:28.) Even in New Testament Greek, which unlike biblical Hebrew does have a separate word for “mind” (nous), biblical writers do not talk as if the mind and its thinking are located in the head. In Luke 5:22, for example, Jesus knows the thoughts that are in the Pharisees’ hearts, not their heads.

One consequence of this biblical habit of speech is that Scripture never tries to find a way to bring head and heart together. There would be no point to it. We already think, feel, desire, and understand in one and the same place. Call it the heart—though you can also call it the spirit or soul or indeed mind or kidneys if you wish.

The Bible is not fussy about exactly where to locate our thoughts, it seems, because it’s not trying to give us a theory about the mind. It is conveying how it feels to think, such as when the sight of human suffering hits you in the gut. So, we need not be fussy either. We don’t have to use exactly the same terms as biblical Greek or Hebrew in order to learn from the Bible’s way of speaking, where thoughts and feelings occur together in the same place.

What I am suggesting is that we never have to make the effort to bring our thoughts and feelings together because they were never separate in the first place. The problems we have about head and heart today, both in education and Christian discipleship, arise mainly from bad habits of speech. We talk as if our thinking originates in a place different from our feelings, and that makes it hard to notice what’s really going on in our hearts. We overlook the way our thinking is always affected by our feelings—sometimes driven by them—and also the way our feelings are stirred up by our thoughts. If we adopted more biblical habits of speech, we would have a better understanding of ourselves, our hearts and minds, and our moral lives.

Consider one familiar habit of speech that’s a problem particularly for teachers. People often talk about “head knowledge” as if this were different from “heart knowledge.” But if the biblical habit of speech is right, then all knowledge inevitably shapes our hearts. It’s just that some forms of knowledge do so in a shallow way. Students know this. What they call “head knowledge” is something that gives them no practical ability other than knowing how to give the right answer on a test. Once the test is over, they have no more use for this kind of knowledge, so they go on thinking just as they did before. Shallow knowledge, in other words, does not deeply shape the heart in its emotions or actions or its thoughts.

Thoughts are different from emotions, to be sure, but they don’t take place in an emotionless brain. It’s possible to miss this point, because when we’re thinking hard, we’re often not paying attention to our feelings or bodies. Moreover, thinking typically goes best when our emotions are calm rather than explosive, because many kinds of thinking (such as solving a math problem) require a fair amount of peace and quiet. Indeed, those of us who love math know there’s a special, quiet kind of excitement—even joy—that comes with figuring out an abstract problem.

This is why ancient Western philosophers sometimes spoke as if they were trying to protect their thoughts from their emotions. To put it in Greek, they wanted apatheia, which literally means freedom from passion. By “passion,” they meant emotions that get out of control and drive us to do stupid things—like raging anger and paralyzing fear and poisonous resentment. So apatheia is related to self-control, and it’s a quality of soul that ancient Christian writers often admired. Unfortunately, the word has sometimes been translated as “apathy”—but it’s really about something quite different, as we can see in the dialogues of Plato in which Socrates is presented (as later philosophers recognized) as a model of apatheia.

Plato portrays Socrates as calm but not emotionless. He is persistently cheerful and often a bit amused, but he is remarkably free from overwhelming passions. He doesn’t get upset when his friends disagree with him or his enemies insult him. He’s always willing to have his ideas criticized. This is an emotional freedom that helps him keep his eye on the prize, which is the pursuit of wisdom through intellectual conversation. It also helps him to be patient and kind with people who don’t quite follow what he’s saying. Thus his apatheia puts his emotional life at the service of the shared work of philosophical inquiry.

There is more to life than philosophical inquiry, of course, and when we look beyond Socrates, we can see that emotions serve the work of thought in more than one way. The gut-level compassion of the good Samaritan gets him thinking about how he can help the man lying half-dead on the roadside. Ruth’s intense feelings of loyalty to Naomi teach her how to think about the God of Israel. David’s joy as he dances before the ark of the Lord is a way of knowing who God is.

But it’s not just virtuous thinking and feeling that go together. Thoughts and feelings go together in a wicked heart as well. The jealousy of the scribes and Pharisees leads them to thoughts about how to get rid of Jesus. Herod is constantly thinking about how to stay in power, and the result is murderous rage when he hears that there is a newborn king in Bethlehem. Pilate, intimidated by an unruly crowd, is led by his fears to think of excuses for putting an innocent man to death. For better or for worse, feelings inspire thoughts and thoughts stir up feelings—and both give shape to our hearts, to our vices as well as our virtues.

The task of moral formation and Christian discipleship is misdescribed, therefore, if we conceive of it as bringing head and heart together. Our thoughts and feelings are already working together, for good or ill. Growth in righteousness always means cultivating both truthful habits of thought and virtuous habits of feeling, for the two are inseparable. We think more clearly—and more like Jesus—when the suffering we encounter on the road affects us like a kick in the gut or a pain in the heart.

Photo of Phillip Cary
Phillip Cary
Phillip Cary is professor and department chair of philosophy at Eastern University. He is the author of Good News for Anxious Christians (Brazos, 2022) and The Nicene Creed (Lexham, 2023).
Friday, April 5th 2024

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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