Head or Heart?

Jesus rebuked the Scribes and Pharisees saying, “’This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'” (Matthew 15:8-9) Usually people want to define this same problem by contrasting the head with the heart. The Bible primarily contrasts the heart with the lips. People offer “lip service” rather than serving from the heart. Some people talk a good talk, as we say. Someone is all hat and no horse-sense. Notice that the problem is not using the head, or the mind as opposed to following God with your heart. The problem in lip-service is that the ‘head” is wrong. It is following bad thinking, teaching as doctrines the kind of religious rules people think up that are not in the Bible. Paul criticizes this in Colossians 2:20-23

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations  “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”  (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings?  These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

The problem the Bible presents is not the head versus the heart, but the kind of thinking that flows out of the heart.


Thinking and Logic Come from the Heart

The Bible uses words for the “head” like mind, thoughts, and reasonings. However, rather than placing these in opposition to the ways of the heart, the Bible teaches thoughts flow from the heart. We could call the mind the thinking part of the heart. The Old Testament does not have a special term for the mind as opposed to the heart. English translations use mind because of the context, but the words translated are reins, spirit, soul, and heart. From my study, spirit and heart most frequently refer to the mind. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 2:16 Paul quotes the Isaiah 40:13 Greek translation of the Old Testament Hebrew: “Who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been His counselor?” The word translated mind in this verse is spirit in Hebrew. In the very encouraging Lamentations 3:21-23, Jeremiah says, “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:  The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” The word for mind here is heart in Hebrew. We begin to see that the Bible recognizes a similarity between the head and the heart.

The New Testament uses different words for mind: thoughts, plans, reasonings, and mind. More than likely, this recognizes the use of these words in the Greek culture. But like the Old Testament, the New Testament also places “thinking” in the heart, not the head. (The Bible does not seem to use head as a metaphor for thinking or knowledge.) For example, Luke records Jesus’ response to the Pharisees who questioned his forgiving the paralytic’s sins. “When Jesus perceived their thoughts, he answered them, “Why do you question in your hearts?” (Luke 5:22.) The Greek uses the word for reasoning here. “Why reason ye in your hearts?” (KJV) The word “thoughts” also comes from the same word. This word includes the use of logic. Contrary to Everett McGill’s cynical observation, the Bible finds logic in the human heart.

Now does this mean that the head and the heart are the same thing? No, not exactly. The heart includes more than thinking. It also includes feeling, willing and the conscience.  Let us look at willing first. The passage about the lips and heart above implies willing and doing in contrast to lip-service. But even those with just lip-service will and do also, they just do wrong things—the commandments of men—based on unbiblical thinking.  If our heart is spiritually healthy, the mind, will, and emotions function harmoniously for our growth.


Emotions are not Just Feelings, Nothing More than Feelings

Mr. Spock from Star Trek famously squelched his emotions so that his logic would work better. While many may see an emphasis on logic in this way, the view comes more from Stoic philosophy than the Bible. (Acts 17:18) Feelings are important to our spiritual lives. “Therefore, my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure.” (Psalm 16:9) Just as there is unbiblical thinking, there is unbiblical feeling. These involve passions, delighting in sin, and human wrath and revenge. (Romans 7:15) We need to train our feelings. There should be proper emotional responses that accompany and motivate what we think and do. We should be angry at injustice without letting the sun go down on our anger. (Ephesians 4:26) We should rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. (Romans 12:15) We should grieve over our sin that grieves the Holy Spirit. (Ephesians 4:30) We should rejoice in God for our salvation. Just as we need to learn to think biblically, we need to learn to feel biblically.


How Can You not Do Something?

Of course, if our heart is not far from God, we will want to follow and obey. The heart also involves “willing.” The heart wills things that we do. “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.” (Proverbs 20:5) Our actions are motivated by what we think is right or good or beneficial. Biblical truth motivated by just and proper feelings leads to righteous actions. Unfortunately, because of sin, we do not always do what we want to do. (Romans 7:19)


Jiminy Crickets, the Conscience Matters Also

The heart also includes the conscience. “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37) The Bible describes the function of the conscience in Romans 2:15. “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them….” Paul reveals that unbelievers’ consciences reveal that the law is written on their hearts. We normally think of the conscience only as feelings of guilt. However, Paul says that the conscience also gives feelings and thoughts of support and comfort that excuse actions.  Although this describes an unbeliever’s conscience, unless a conscience is biblically trained, a believer’s conscience also may wrongly tell them that something is wrong or right. A conscience is a blessing, but the word of God is our authority, not our thoughts or feelings.

Unfortunately, some Christians will make either the mind, the feelings, or willing and doing more important than the other two. This gives that one primacy. Some give the mind primacy and become like Mr. Spock. Some give the feelings primacy and then over-emphasize inner impressions. Some give actions primacy and play down studying and understanding. This could be due to our various personalities or the way we were taught. However, all our faculties are equally important and work together for biblical living. We could look at it as if the mind has priority, not superiority, but first place in line. We understand the truth of the word of God through the mind. Our emotions or passions then appropriately concur with that truth through emotions like zeal, joy, guilt, anger, or peace. Then based on the mind and emotions, we take the appropriate and committed action of obedience, repentance, advocacy, or rest. Though the process ideally works like this, it may happen in a different order. Also, sin often causes the processing to break down. The working together of all our faculties in devotion to God comes from the power of the Holy Spirit and helps us love God with our whole heart.


Honor God with Your Heart not Just Your Lips

Although the reality of some people having only knowledge of Christianity without trust in Christ represents a real problem, the Bible does not seem to describe this as a conflict between the head and the heart but serving God with their lips only. The biblical dynamic does not pit knowledge against faith as much as, bad “knowledge” versus the truth, following false ideas instead of trusting true knowledge. The mind, will, and emotions play an equal role in our lives. Understanding without obedience indicates a lack of understanding or rebellion. Likewise, action not based on understanding is just as dangerous. (Romans 10:2) Understanding without emotion stifles obedience. However, passion not anchored in the word of God can lead astray. (2 Timothy 2:22) And though our hats are off to Jiminy Cricket for pointing us to the conscience, it cannot be our final guide, only the word of God can be our ultimate guide. So, let us draw near with our hearts and not just our lips.

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.


Brad Swygard

Brad Swygard

Brad Swygard received his two best gifts while at WTSU, his salvation and his wife, Jeanette. They have been married 31 years and have three grown children, Sarah, Joel, and John. Brad has been in the gospel ministry for 27 years, most recently as Senior Pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Dewey, Oklahoma for the last seventeen years. He graduated from WT in 1985. He received his Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary in 1990. He has started a window washing business in Amarillo while pursuing his Ph.D. in Biblical Studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City. He has been a church planter and a school principal, as well as coaching a High school speech and debate team for sixteen years. Brad likes to spend time with his wife, ride trains, hunt, fish, and train his bird dogs.

1 Comment

  1. Well done, Brad. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and wisdom.

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