The Amazing Truth About Our Deceitful Hearts
“My heart wasn’t in it.”
I listened to my coaching client Mark discuss vocational options for his next season, an active retirement. With each possibility he explored, this phrase would punctuate his reflections. I could feel his sadness and frustration.
So I asked, “So Mark, where is your heart?” And this question seemed to unlock something deep and genuine within him. Mark began to see a path forward into where God was inviting him to partner in vocation.
“Listen To Your Heart?” Now Wait A Minute!
The church seems to have a complex relationship with the heart and its associated emotions, ranging from ambivalence to outright dismissal. When the topic of feelings and emotions comes up in conversation, books or preaching, you often hear phrases like these:
“You can’t trust your feelings/emotions”
“Our feelings are unreliable and cannot be trusted to convey truth.”
“Do not spend too much time analyzing your feelings.“
“We must not allow our emotions to hold sway over our minds.”
“Faith, not feelings”
“Following your heart is one of Hell’s most effective slogans.”
These sound very good and some might even say, full of godly wisdom. Many of the above were pulled directly from books by well known Christian authors. Though not in the Bible, we quote them as if they were.
I hear some of you now — “Well, we admit they are extra-biblical, but they have a prophet’s proof text.”
“The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who can know it?” Jeremiah 17:9
Ah yes, that old deceitful and wicked heart. Who in their right mind would have anything to do with that diseased mess? Who would give it the time of day?
For decades I accepted the premise that given the wickedness of my heart, I couldn’t trust my emotions. I could, however, use my rational mind to read scripture and apply it to my life.. St. Paul’s “be anxious for nothing” and “get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger,” seemed like affirmation to stay within the safe space of St. James’ charge to “hear the word and do what it says.” The Proverbs 4:23 admonition to “guard your affections” seemed to imply that I needed to be very careful even with tender emotions.
Then a season of depression and life circumstances eventually compelled me to explore my emotions in a wonderful and ongoing healing journey with counselors and spiritual directors. But my thoughts would still turn at times to God’s commentary on my heart in Jeremiah, describing it in terms that remind me of the bottom of my refrigerator’s produce drawer when I haven’t cleaned it for a few weeks. Gross, slimy, disgusting.
In my perplexity I did what I’ve learned to do in like situations — bring my struggling questions into prayer. I sensed God inviting me to take a deeper look into Jeremiah 17:9. I’ve found these invitations always give me so much more than I expect. Our God is so generous!
First, I explored the words used in the original Hebrew, then read commentaries and articles about the various words and interpretations of the verse. This is the fruit of that journey. What I learned is I had misunderstood practically everything about this verse.
Are you ready to discover your heart as God really sees it? Let’s go!
Lev, the heart
First, let’s explore this word for heart, the Hebrew word lev. Hebrew culture doesn’t look at the heart the same way that we do. The heart, or lev isn’t the warm, gushy seat of lovey-dovey feelings. Lev is the will, mind and intent of a person, some also say the consciousness. The mind in Hebrew resides in the heart. (See note below.)
So we’re talking about our mind, will, intentions. In Western culture this encompasses what we often label “rational” or “left brain” and choose as the safer, reliable, and maybe even the best way for us to know God. We practically canonize this part of ourselves and leave the questioning and doubt to those pesky emotions.
In Hebrew culture and language we must understand that what we’re talking about in Jeremiah 17:9 are not our deepest emotions! Where is the seat of our deepest emotions? That’s coming — we’ll get to that in my next blog post.
This word at its most basic means “many footprints” or “heel of the foot.” So, imagine for a moment that you are following a path through a deep forest. After many miles, you get to a clearing. You look to find the way forward and you see hundreds of footprints, leading in many directions. How do you find your way? One way might seem right, but is it, truly?
Anash, desperately wicked
This word is translated wicked some times, but also means frail, weak, or helplessly sick. It’s used in Jeremiah five times, and most often translated as woeful or weak.
So, what is sly, confusing, mysterious, frail and helplessly sick? The heart – in Hebrew, our mind, will and intentions. This is what God calls into into question, and in turn, our Western perspective. He calls this part of our selves the most sly, confusing, mysterious, weak, wounded, and woeful thing in all Creation.
If you’re like me, and tend to rely on my rational/left brain a lot, hearing this might feel a bit like having the step stool knocked out from under you. But take heart, there’s good news!
Who can know the heart?
First, let’s look at the word for “know,” yada. It’s used for gaining knowledge and also for the intimacy of sexual relations (Adam knew Eve.) So God is asking, who can deeply and intimately comprehend a person’s thoughts, will, and intentions, this place of confusion and mystery, weakness and deep wounding?
God puts this question to us, and of course he knows the answer. But by asking the question he invites us to become more self-aware of this part of ourselves. God’s also reminding us of how impossible it is for us to understand it on our own. To sit, as it were, with our confusion, mystery, weakness, woundedness, and woe. To come to terms with the prospect that perhaps these are the parts of us that we seem to have “under control.”
The Lord who examines the heart
Jehovah speaks in the first person and tells us that he is able to know my lev. The Hebrew word chaqar means to search or examine thoroughly or explore deeply. God doesn’t just look at the surface, he goes deep. To seek out what, exactly?
On reading the verse and verse 10 following, it really isn’t stated outright what God is searching for, but I think we can assume from God’s character, that what he is seeking has something to do with truth. It reminds me of another verse, that also uses that “heart” word lev.
The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out. Proverbs 20:5
The thoughts, will, and intentions are confusing, and we are creatures “weak and wounded by the fall.” But the good news is that we have a loving God who not only knows us, but is also deeply committed to our rescue, transformation, and healing.
We have our high priest Jesus, who became man and understands our humanity (Her. 4:15.) We have his promised Holy Spirit, who guides us into all truth (John 16:13.)
We have wise friends, counselors, mentors, coaches, and spiritual directors who can companion with us to draw out what God is inviting us to more deeply understand about ourselves.
I hope you’ve found encouragement, challenge, and some insights as you’ve read this journey through the heart.
Tune in next time. You’ll be surprised to find out where our deepest emotions are located, from a Hebraic perspective!
Note: Some translators and scholars also include emotions as part of the Hebrew heart, lev. While some emotions are “felt” in the heart, most scripture using lev speaks to thoughts, will, and intent. As you’ll see from my next post, there is another word that is used for the seat of deep human emotion. Keep in mind that these parts of us are not isolated from one another. Our bodies affect our minds, memories stir emotion, emotions are felt physically, etc. Finally, if we do include emotions, since lev includes the mind, will, and intent, if we “paint it all with the same brush” then we can’t trust those any more than our emotions!
See https://dorshav.typepad.com/hebrewwisdom/2007/07/index.html and https://www.preceptaustin.org/heart_leb and https://www.torahapologetics.com/language–word-studies/hebrew-anatomy-part-1-the-heart for more on this.