Transformation! The Heart of the Matter

Robert L. Saucy: "The heart, above all, is designed to seek wisdom and knowledge by hearing God’s Word."

Emotions: The Revelation of the Hidden Heart

If the thought of our heart affects our life, but it is hidden, the question arises: how we can come to know what we really think in our heart? Is there a way that our unconscious thought reveals itself to us? The answer to this question lies in the emotional life. Our emotions are the direct way that we—including the real person of our heart—experience reality.

As we go through life we are always experiencing the world around us, but this experience may not immediately become an object of our thoughtful reflection. It is, however, experienced in the realm of our affective or emotion. In other words, our experience of something is not first with thought, but with feeling. A smile from someone makes us feel good before we think about it. Watching newscasts of negative events and thought can bring depression without cognitively recognizing the connection.

There is, as the German philosopher-theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher recognized, an “original ‘symbiotic’ solidarity of self and the world in feeling.” Our emotions are like sensors that are always evaluating the situations of our life with feelings of pleasure or displeasure, with resonance or dissonance.

We are drawn toward what is sensed as desirable with positive feelings like love, joy or gratitude, and repelled from the undesirable with negative feelings like hatred, anger, fear or grief.

Although, as we have noted, we may consciously experience these feelings before we think about them, we must always remember that our life, including our feelings, flows out of the heart where, as we have seen, thought is primary. The emotions that we feel therefore always reflect what we really think about the circumstances of our life in the depth of our heart.

This relationship of thought and emotion will be considered more fully in Chapter 7. But it is helpful here to briefly note philosopher Robert Roberts’ definition of an emotion as “a construal of one’s circumstances … in a manner relevant to some … concern.” Martha Nussbaum similarly says, “Emotions … view the world from the point of view of my own scheme of goals and projects, the things to which I attach value in a conception of what it is for me to live well.”

Defining our “concerns” as those things that we really care about—the things that we really value—Roberts explains an emotion as the result of the way we construe a situation in light of our values and passions, or the way we think about things. I feel shame, for example, because I believe I have done something dishonorable, or because there is something about me that I don’t want others to see. The feeling of shame thus involves my perspective of myself, my dignity and worth, and how others view me.

Roberts thoughtfully applies this relation of thought and emotion to our Christian experience:

To experience peace with God is to see God as a reconciled enemy. To experience hope is to see one’s own future in the eternity and righteousness of God’s kingdom. To be Christianly grateful is to see various precious gifts, such as existence, sustenance and redemption, as bestowed by God. Because emotions are construals, and construals always require some ‘terms,’ and the ‘terms’ of the Christian emotions are provided by the Christian story, there is a necessary connection between the Christian emotions and the Christian story … Emotions are no less tied to concepts than arguments and beliefs are.

Our unexplained emotional feelings are thus the result of the unconscious thought deep in our heart. There is a reason why we feel the way we do about things. We feel that way because our heart thinks the corresponding way. Our emotions reveal the real thought of our life, what we are concerned about, our true set of values. In short, it is not what one says he believes, but what one feels that really indicates what he believes.

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Therefore, if we would change our emotional life and the behavior that results from it, we must change the thought of our heart.

Being Honest With Our Heart

It is difficult to cure a physical illness without a proper diagnosis. The possibility of cure is even worse when one refuses to acknowledge the very existence of the illness. Such a person simply muddles along through life with lackluster health or until the problem becomes so troublesome that he acknowledges it and does something about it. The truth that solutions or improvements are achieved more readily when problems are known applies equally to our personal and spiritual growth.

One of the greatest hindrances to our healing and growth is leaving the issues that trouble our life and stifle our transformation hidden and unknown in the depth of our heart, split off from our conscious thought. So long as we think that we believe something, but the real thought in the depth of our heart is different, we will never experience personal transformation.

Attending to Our Heart

An honest appraisal of our spiritual condition—and that means the condition of our heart—is absolutely necessary for spiritual health and growth. The 19th-century English expositor Charles Bridges rightly said, “The heart must be known in order to be effectually kept [i.e., guarded]. Nothing is more difficult, while nothing is more necessary. If we know not our hearts, we know nothing to any purpose.”

With more explanation, John Henry Newman declared:

It is in proportion as we search our hearts and understand our own nature, that we understand what is meant by an Infinite Governor and Judge; in proportion as we comprehend the nature of disobedience and our actual sinfulness, that we feel what is the blessing of the removal of sin, redemption, pardon, sanctification, which otherwise are mere words. God speaks to us primarily in our hearts. Self-knowledge is the key to the precepts and doctrine of Scripture. The very utmost any outward notices of religion can do, is to startle us and make us turn inward and search our hearts; and then, when we have experienced what it is to read ourselves, we shall profit by the doctrines of the church and the Bible.

In like manner this kind of self-examination was of utmost importance for spiritual vitality in the Puritan tradition. As a member of that tradition John Flavel, in his little classic work Keeping the Heart, pleads with his readers: “O study your hearts, watch your hearts, keep your hearts! … All that I beg for is this, that you would step aside oftener to talk with God and your own heart; … that you would keep a more true and faithful account of your thoughts and affections.”

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Keeping our heart in this way means opening our heart to God, to expose our heart to the truth of God’s Word and quietly listen in prayer for the voice of the Spirit as he uses the Word to probe and search the recesses of our heart to reveal what is there. Other believers might also be used of the Spirit to enable us to see what otherwise we might have difficulty seeing or resist seeing.

To be sure, we cannot fully know the contents of our heart in this life. Mercifully, this is no doubt for our own benefit as a clear view of its sinful distortions would be overwhelming. Nevertheless, failure to attend to our spiritual heart leads to failure in personal life in the same way that blindness about what is going on in our physical heart can lead to heart problems and the diminishing of physical life. On this point Bernard Lonergan wisely explains:

It is much better to take full cognizance of one’s feelings, however deplorable they may be, than to brush them aside, overrule them, ignore them. To take cognizance of them makes it possible for one to know oneself, to uncover the inattention, obtuseness, silliness, irresponsibility that gave rise to the feeling one does not want, and to correct the aberrant attitude. On the other hand, not to take cognizance of them is to leave them in the twilight of what is conscious [i.e., in vague negative feelings] but not objectified [i.e., cognitively understood]. In the long run there results a conflict between the self as conscious and, on the other hand, the self as objectified. This alienation from oneself leads to the adoption of misguided remedies, and they in their turn to still further mistakes until, in desperation, the neurotic turns to the analyst or counselor.

A strong word of caution is needed at this point. As important as the knowledge of our heart may be for transformation, like diagnosis in medicine, the knowledge of our heart is not in itself the cure. We may take great pains to fully understand the darkness in our heart. Yet unless we appropriate the cure, this effort is not only fruitless, but can easily lead to depression as we focus on the ugly sinful distortions still residing in our heart. God’s desire is that the recognition of our needy condition will increasingly lead us to his gracious remedy in Christ, and that with gratefulness we might experience the joy of growing in newness of life.