Robert L. Saucy: "The heart, above all, is designed to seek wisdom and knowledge by hearing God’s Word."
The Levels of the Heart in Spiritual Formation
We noted in Chapter 2 that there was a deep hidden dimension of the heart. It is important to explore this matter further noting the different levels of the heart and the effect that this has on our life. Perhaps more correctly, we should speak of gradations of depth in the heart, extending from its surface to its deepest core (generally known as the unconscious). Recognizing this feature helps us understand something of the unrest and discord in our life. It is also a valuable key to discovering the process of how the heart is transformed.
The Various Levels of the Heart
The existence of levels in our heart is apparent in Jesus’ parable of the sower in which seed fell on different types of soil (Matt. 13:3-9; 18:23). Some of the seed fell on the well-trodden pathway and was easily snatched away by the birds. From this picture we may think that this seed never got to the person’s heart at all. But Jesus says it was “sown in his heart” (v. 19), obviously at what might be considered a surface level. The story proceeds to the final “good” soil that produces fruit. This is the person “who hears the word and understands it”—an “understanding” described as an “understanding with [the] heart” (v. 23, cf. v. 15).
Between the first hard-packed soil of the surface and the final productive “good soil,” some seed fell on the rocky places where there was not “much soil.” Here the seed sprang up quickly, but soon withered away because “they had no depth of soil” (vv. 5-6).
In his picture of the seed going to different levels—surface, shallow and deep good soil—Jesus illustrates the truth that God’s Word penetrates the human heart to various levels, with only the latter “good soil” receiving the Word at the deepest level where it brings forth the fruit of new life.
The Hidden Levels of the Heart
Not only does our heart have different levels, but Scripture tells us that we do not fully know the contents of the deepest subterranean levels of our heart. Declaring that the heart is deceitful and incurably ill, Jeremiah posed the question: “Who can know it?” His answer, “I the Lord search the heart,” plainly tells us that as humans we cannot fully know our hearts; only God has that knowledge (Jer. 17:9-10).
Without specifically mentioning the “heart,” the psalmist similarly acknowledged an unconscious realm when he wrote, “Who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults” (Ps. 19:12). He also implied that he doesn’t know the depth of his heart when he prayed, “Search me and know my heart” (Ps. 139:23-24; see also Ps. 26:2; Prov. 16:2; 21:2).
Finally, the apostle Paul referred to an unconscious depth in the human heart when he testified, “I am conscious of nothing against myself,” but then quickly added, “yet I am not by this acquitted.” His final adjudication, he said, must wait “until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts” (1 Cor. 4:4-5).
The recognition of the various levels in our heart, including the unconscious level, is vital to an understanding of our actual experience. Simply stated, the deeper something is in our heart, the more it influences our life.
Our heart, as we have previously noted, has a natural tendency to draw in outside influences and powers and be shaped by them. How much the heart and the life that flows from it is impacted by the elements that it takes in depends on the depth to which those elements are absorbed. Pedersen helps us understand this dynamic:
Every time the heart merges into a new entirety, new centres of action are formed in it; but they are created by temporary situations, only lie on the surface and quickly disappear. There are other entireties to which the heart belongs, and which live in it with quite a different depth and firmness, because they make the very nucleus of the heart. Thus there may be a difference between the momentary and the stable points of gravity in the heart. But none of the momentary centers of action can ever annul or counteract those which lie deeper.
The deepest-lying contents of the heart are, it is true, always there, but they do not always make themselves equally felt.
What Pedersen tells us is that our encounters with various outside influences—such as people, circumstances—affect our heart. Some of these interchanges affect us only at a surface level and have a temporary effect. Others go so deep that they become a more integral part of the very core of our heart, and as a consequence, significantly characterize the experiences of all of life. As in the ocean, there are surface waves, but also deep currents such as the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic. The former surface undulations may vary greatly with the winds, but they have no effect on the deep currents. Likewise, some influences affect the heart only at a surface level and have no lasting effect. Others penetrate to the core of the heart and bring change to its fundamental character.
How something is absorbed into the depths of the heart to bring about its transformation is therefore crucial to our spiritual growth as a person.
The Problem of the Hidden Heart Level
The reality of a hidden depth in our heart is also the answer to a common problem: our lack of understanding of why we behave or feel the way we do. We have certain conscious thoughts and attitudes, but our experience doesn’t seem to correlate with them.
The truth is that other thoughts and attitudes deep in our heart—of which we are not fully conscious—are actually driving our life. As psychotherapist Michael Bernard explains, we have conscious rational thought, but also deep internal thought not immediately accessible to us. It is this latter form of thought that often activates our life and contributes to “emotional and behavioral disorders.”
We often feel like we know and believe something as Christians, but in reality it is only a surface belief that has never reached the depth of the heart to activate our life. We may believe, for example, that we truly trust God. We know that he is trustworthy. He knows everything. He is all-powerful. And, he is infinite love. The combination of these attributes surely makes him trustworthy in every situation. We can rely on him. Yet when negative circumstances arise, we experience anxiety and fear.
The question we must ask ourselves is: do we really trust God in our hearts? Do we know that he is great and loving in the depth of our heart, or is it simply good theological doctrine lying on the surface, in our head?