The Biblical Heart

1,
Though the Old and New Testaments refer to ‘mind’ quite frequently, they refer to ‘soul’ far more; and though they refer to soul a great deal, they refer to ‘heart’ by far the most. According to a Romanian Orthodox scholar I met, heart is mentioned 739 times in the Old Testament, and 169 times in the New Testament. This is because heart is central to the physical, psychological, and spiritual life of humanity. To lose heart is to be sorely sick, but to cease to have a heart is to be dehumanised. ‘Heartlessness’ is hell for us, because it means we have totally ‘lost the plot’; we don’t have any inkling why we, or everyone else, is in this world. It is to lose heart for history, time, space, matter, activity: everything that bestows meaning on being thrown into the world. Through nous and soul, we discover the world as ‘already meaningful’; but the Daemonic God preordains that this ‘already meaningfulness’ must be put at fundamental jeopardy, and can only be regained through a different kind of meaning, one that is only won where it seems lost. Nous: light; soul: water; heart: fire. Syriac Orthodox Christianity speaks of the world created by God in two ways: [1] the world is a “a book of light”; this is what the nous sees; [2] the world is a “sea of symbols”; this is what the soul lives. But St Gregory of Nysa speaks of the world in a third, more existential way when he says: [3] “The fire hidden and stifled under the cinders of this world will burst forth and divinely set alight the crust of earth.” This refers to the world as the provenance of the heart: the world is crusted over because the fire is extinguished in the heart. Fire will finally break through that coldness and stasis in the world because it will break through in the heart. Heart is the fire called to warm and dynamize the world. Heart is in a triadic relationship between itself, God, and world. This trinity cannot be broken. Judaism announces it by making love of neighbour the flip side of the love of God. But Christ ups the ante in both, by the third, new commandment to love as we were loved by him, and thus to love the enemy as well as the friend. Both are the brother.

In the modern world, mind is preferred to soul, and soul is preferred to heart. This should alert us to the fact that despite the heart being the centre of our existence, yet it is heart we most evade. We neither want to understand, nor act from, the heart. Our views of what the heart is are sentimentalised, romanticised, idealised, but not real. The heart is very real, because it engages with what is most real in existence.

Biblically, though the soul is the life breath that makes the body animated, as opposed to being a dead machine, the heart is the engine of action at the centre of our being. It is the most vital bodily organ, because everything goes out from the heart and everything comes back to the heart. Everything passes through the heart. Everything exists in the heart.

Themes of heart found in the Bible include the following [but this is not an exhaustive summary]. This list is in no particular order, and maybe some themes could usefully be combined, but this is how I recall the Romanian’s work:

1] Change in one’s destiny comes about through a change of heart. [Arabic’s core metaphor for heart is not ‘centrality’, as in Greek, but the idea of something that can change radically, like seeking to ‘turn over a new leaf’, or ‘pass across to the other shore’]. Heart is changeable, not fixed; in dynamic movement, not static. God promises mankind, through Israel, that he will give them a new heart, to mark the End of all Time, in the Eschatological Age to Come.

2] If we want to truly know someone, we must see into their heart, beyond their face and outer appearance. Only God really sees the heart, sees our intentions and hidden motives [1 Samuel, 16, 7; 1 Chronicles, 28, 9].

3] A person’s hidden good or evil intentions are always stirring within their heart. Thus one person can ask another, ‘is your heart true to my heart, as mine is true to yours?’ God asks us the same question: not so he will know, which he already does, but so we will know, by looking within, and honestly searching our most hidden motives. Christ refers to the good and evil treasure of the heart. Thus good and evil are a matter of what the heart values. What the heart treasures or values is what it seeks, and thus what it becomes. “As he thinketh in his heart, so is he” [Proverbs, 23,7].

4] Help causes hearts to knit together and be cheered up [Colossians, 2,2].

5] Rejoicing happens in the heart= through it we forget evil-doers. [Joy for the heart, like hope, is born of victory in remaining in struggle and contention.] The Old Testament says: “A glad heart is an excellent medicine” [Proverbs, 17, 22].

6] Serve God with a whole heart and a willing mind [1 Chronicles, 28,9].

7] Sacrifices of all kinds are brought forth from the heart: and offered freely.

8] Temptation strikes the heart. The heart is labile, changeable, influenceable. It is vulnerable, as well as strong. If its vulnerability were removed, it would cease being a heart. Strength without vulnerability is ‘heartless.’ Vulnerability opens us to the short cut, the easy answer, the deceptive fraud. But if we were not vulnerable, we would become ‘hard’ of heart, and hardness of heart is the condition of demons. This is why to be fully human, we must be open both to existential victory and defeat, we must be capable of resisting temptation and giving in to it. If we armour ourselves in the wrong way, we loose a softness of heart that the Old Testament calls ‘the heart of flesh’, and instead we become hardened, toughened, brutalised, and operate out of the Old Testament ‘heart of stone.’ A stone heart is deaf to the suffering of itself and of its brother: generosity and mercy, kindness and tenderness, patience and forbearance, will never trouble it. In a sense, by closing ourselves to evil in the wrong way, we cease to be reachable by any good. We must be human before we can become divine: thus the paradox is that God works not through the stony, inflexible, fanatical, infallible heart, but through the fleshy, flexible, humble, fallible heart. Religious fundamentalism and fanaticism, damning people to hell, arises from the heart of stone. It is better to repent of one’s failings than pretend one cannot have failings by putting a hard shell of correctness or rectitude around the heart. The way of the heart of flesh is paradoxical, and contains the whole story of mankind’s slow and difficult redemption, from the Sacred Garden of the Beginning to the Holy City of the End.

9] God tries the heart, and has pleasure in its uprightness. Uprightness of heart is linked to ‘righteousness.’ God tests the heart [1 Thessalonians, 2,4].

In the Old Testament, it says that the Holy Spirit ‘tests the deep things’ of God and of mankind. Trying and testing is to purify, but existentially it is more than that: it is to risk the heart– to see what it is made of, to try or test its mettle; but even more radically, it means to try out the heart and let it struggle to hit the mark, so that heart depth can be tested, in God and in mankind, by really using it. This is where trust, faith, truth, ‘passability’, comes in. We use the passable, and pass through it, to the far shore. That passing through the passable, reaching a good end with it rather than it being defeated mid way, is what ‘heaven and hell’ refers to, and what the victory of God in humanity is all about. The heart is affected and affectable; spirituality will not rise above this affected state, but will purify it, strengthen it, and by its sufferings and strugglings, its carrying of burdens, prove its worth. The final heart, that has come through, is golden= the gold colour signifies tried and tested, really used, checked out in full, and having passed every trial and having passed every test. Found worthy. Up to it. Finally, despite missing all through, coming through and hitting the mark. We finally repay the trust God put in us, and vindicate the risk he took with our heart.

10] The heart is inherently ‘directed’ toward God, but must keep certain thoughts and purposes consciously before it, lest this direction be weakened or deflected. Hence the heart ‘keeps’ the words of God– the promises [‘testimonies’] and commandments– “that I might not sin against Thee” [Psalm 119,11; Psalm 118,11].

11] All great decisions for the glory of God are taken from the heart [2 Chronicles, 6,7].

12] God shows his might, or power, on behalf of those whose heart is blameless towards him [2 Chronicles, 16, 9]. Our hearts tremble before the majesty of God and are bound to it.

13] Through hope the heart looks to heaven and brings the divine providence closer. God becomes the heart’s strength and defender, because in him the heart trusts; thus is the heart helped by God, and this causes the heart to ‘exult’ [Psalm 28,7; Psalm 27,9].

14] The heart wavers, and fails: “My heart fails me” [Psalm 40,12; Psalm 39,17]. The heart becomes faint: “The whole head is sick, and the whole heart is faint” [Isaiah, 1,5]. In this condition, the heart must cry out to God as to “the rock that is higher than I” [Psalm 61,2; Psalm 60,2]. Human passion prevaricates, but God’s passion is firm.

15] God will help the heart that surrenders humbly to him and cries out to him: “…pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us” [Psalm 62,8; Psalm 61,8].

16] The heart is like the sun in the middle of our body. [For the Chinese, the heart is the king or emperor, and is likened to the warmth and fieriness of the sun shinning upon all the earth from a clear sky.] The heart has many kingly properties in terms of its fairness, justice, truth-upholding, mercy, kindness, tenderness, generosity.

17] “Wisdom will come into the heart” [Proverbs, 2,10].

18] “The heart of the wise are in the house of mourning, but the heart of the fools is in the house of mirth” [Ecclesiastes, 7,4].

19] “Keep your heart with all vigilance; for from it flow the springs of life” [Proverbs, 4,23]. “A tranquil heart gives life to flesh” [Proverbs, 14,30].

20] “A man’s face will reveal his heart” [Sirach, 13,30].

21] The heart is an abyss: “You cannot plumb the depths of the human heart.. how do you expect to search out God, who made all these things?” [Judith,8,14].

22] “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” [Matthew, 5,8].

God cannot be seen, by mind or soul, so this carries the extraordinary implication that only heart can penetrate the wall of separation between God and humanity, and see deep into God’s hiddenness. In effect, the human heart becomes able to see God’s Heart. This seeing is the “eye of fire”, when the heart finally ‘knows’ and need not ‘seek’ any more. It knows God’s Heart, and it sees the world as God’s Heart sees it, seeing no person as profane, condemning no one, seeing all as good however far from that they have wandered.

23] “Out of the heart comes evil thoughts” [Mark, 7, 21-22]. “They are a people who err in heart” [Psalm 95,10; Psalm 94, 11]. “This people knows me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” [Mark, 7,6]. Proverbs says men think they are ‘right’ in their own eyes, ‘but God sees the heart.’

24] The kingdom of heaven is always ready to descend into the heart [Old Testament], or is already present but undiscovered in the depths of the heart [New Testament].

25] God lays a task on the human heart from its very inception: “Work heartily” and “serve God, not men” [Colossians, 3, 23]. The Messianic and Eschatological hope in Redemption for all of mankind is the ultimate burden laid upon the human heart by God [Acts, 1,24]. The heart’s deepest energy, motive, urge, in serving God, is directed towards the world. For, the heart’s ardour, its most fervent and zealous burning, is “that all people may be saved” [St Paul, Romans, 1,10]. This really means that the venture shared by God and humanity, through the heart, will be redeemed, will come good in the end.

26] Be thankful to God: sing praises to God out of the heart [Colossians, 3,16].

27] “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” [Romans, 9, 2].

28] “Comfort your hearts” [Colossians, 4, 8]. This does not signify comfort as laziness or ease, but has the Old English sense of to ‘strengthen.’

29] The heart has key sins that betray its mission, and among these is greed, avarice, meanness [2 Peter, 2,14]. “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” [1 John, 3, 17]. St John also says that if anyone claims to love God, but hates their brother or sister, that person is a liar. If they cannot love those human beings right before them, whom they see, how can they love the hidden God whom they do not see? If the second commandment is lost, then the first commandment is rendered vain, and cannot be fulfilled. Also seriously derailing the heart are “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition” [James, 3, 14]. Pride and vanity are attributed to the heart, as well as hate, hostility, malice, vengeance, judgemental accusation.

30] Eastern Christian Tradition says, “there is a saving cry that destroys all despair by its vibration.”

It is the heart that ‘cries deep to deep’ to God in the psalms of David. The depth of the human heart, in a certain sense, is God; for, without God assaulting our heart, dragging it out of the shallows where it pleases itself– serving nothing, doing nothing, sacrificing nothing– we would have no depth of heart. “The heart that has become calm through knowledge sees [in itself] a deep abyss” [Mark the Recluse]. Or: “The human heart is an unfathomable abyss” [St Macarios of Egypt].

31] St Maximos says, “It is the natural beating of our heart to want to conquer the world. This has to be purified, so we conquer by love.”

32] Terms and metaphors applied to the heart include:

–weighed down and heavy heart,
–foolish heart,
–conscience of heart,
–troubled heart,
–steadfast heart,
–opened heart,
–innocent heart,
–righteousness and firmness of heart,
–shining of heart
–wide and broad heart,
–a heart dwelling in God,
–a heart darkened in understanding and alienated from the life of God due to blindness of heart [Ephesians, 4,18],
–togetherness in heart,
–guidance or instructions that direct our heart,
–refreshment comes to heart; rest the heart,
–the heart is strengthened by the power of God,
–a deceived heart has an unbridled tongue,
–the day star arises in our hearts.

2,
The prophet is one of the key figures of heart passion, and the prophet is moved and inspired by the Spirit of God; not surprisingly, then, there is a particularly close connection of the Holy Spirit and human passion. Though every person has heir own ‘spirit’, we were designed to be ‘possessed’ by the Spirit of God, and this distinction between human spirit and God’s Spirit is not always clear cut. More important, Biblically God’s Spirit is explicitly portrayed as God’s Passion.

Jewish prophets deliver both the promises and judgements of God; they reveal the dynamis and dynamics of God, they announce the divine heart that is disposed toward humanity in a particular way. The Spirit of God is called ‘Ruach’ in Hebrew, and this Ruach is a mysterious presence in the creation, making it strange. He is the breath of life that grants us aliveness, but he also does two other things: he inspires, and he influences. Particularly relevant to passion is that the Ruach influences both nature [the special interest of Shamanism] and history [the special interest of Judaism]. The Ruach is God’s Active Agent who shapes the events of Israel’s history: a divine dynamism, always ‘moving’ mankind through their hearts, in their passion. He is called an east or west wind—the parallel with the bad black road of Lakota Shamanism is obvious—because the Ruach can be beneficial or harmful according to God’s will, or God’s disposition, in a given situation. Thus the Ruach conveys both the Erotic and the Daemonic sides of God.

The Word of God, later called Logos by St. John, rests in the Ruach and is carried by the Ruach. Without the Ruach, the Logos is just a letter to us, its spirit is missing, and so we grab at it in the mind but do not understand it with the heart. Biblically, we ‘understand’ holiness, and thus it is the heart that understands. Without the Spirit of Holiness, the heart cannot understand anything about God or itself, or the world. Literal interpretations of the Bible, as in Evangelical–Fundamentalist Protestantism, are lacking in inspiration by the Ruach, and therefore do not understand from the heart: the mind merely ‘calculates’ the ‘letter’, but misses entirely the ‘spirit.’

The Word’s economy is to ‘manifest’ God, but the Ruach’s economy is to remain invisible yet to ‘bring to life’ God in us: to ‘touch’ like a caress does to a body, to ‘move’ like wind does to sail, to ‘ignite’ like fire does to wood. The Word is a clear declaration of God’s intent, but the Ruach is the warmth of love in that declaration that melts us like wax in heat, and reforms us to become a candle not only lit up but actually on fire with that same love. Thus to be a Spirit-Bearer is to be God-Bearer.

A Russian Orthodox theologian points out that by 700 BC, the Ruach implied humanity’s spirit, as the seat of our dynamism: our deepest disposition. Hence the heart’s passion is the heart’s ‘spirit.’ At this point in Jewish religion, no very hard and fast distinction between the Ruach as God’s Spirit and the human spirit is drawn; thus Ruach designates ‘the seat of all human passions’, as in Genesis, 41,8, when we hear of Pharaoh’s “troubled spirit” or in Genesis 45, 26-27, where we hear that “Jacob’s heart fainted” but “his spirit recovered” [or “revived”]. This means that in Jewish anthropology ‘heart’ and ‘spirit’ are almost inter-changeable. It is God’s Spirit who is always probing and dealing with the secret heart of humanity and its basic disposition, its passion. It is Biblically clear that this most ultimate ‘disposition’ in the human being is not of the nous, and is not of the soul, but is of the heart. This is why the human spirit in Judaism is identified with passion, and by virtue of that, can be affected by existence, especially its anxieties, crises, worries and pains. These are ‘troubles’ of the spirit: troubles in our spirit because of what they mean for what God’s Spirit is doing with our spirit.

All spiritualities, Oriental or Western, that transcend these troubles of existence, rising higher above them, leave behind the heart, and thus lose the truest spirituality; they lose the spirituality of heart passion. This is not Jewish, and therefore it cannot be Christian.

The human heart, and its passion, is the true vehicle of our human relation to God. This is what the Ruach of God, the Spirit of Mystery, the Spirit of Holiness, the Spirit of Fire, reveals.

A letter from an Orthodox Bishop: “What occurs to me is what Christ himself said about the heart in Matthew, 12, 35: ‘A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of the heart bringeth forth evil things.’ That is to say, the heart is the source of all energy and activity, transcending both the good and evil that we do. It is God’s primary point of contact with man, the deep point of our existence, behind which stands only God.”