In her recent book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, psychological anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann exposes the scandal of much evangelical Bible study. Luhrmann, having spent significant time collecting data in several different congregations, found her own “irrepressible scholarliness” an unwelcome guest at the Bible studies she attended. She describes one group’s discussion of Jeremiah 1:11-19, where the prophet predicts calamity for Israel. “I wanted to know about the text, its history, and its construction—scholars’ questions,” Luhrmann explains. “No one else was interested.” She concludes eerily, “People just did not worry about heresy. They worried about making God come alive for them.”
Luhrmann’s observations illustrate a troubling trend in evangelical culture: we seem to want, at all costs, for the gospel to make us feel good. We read the Bible for its powers of consolation. We go to church in search of emotional experience. So long as God makes good on his perceived promise to banish loneliness, fear, and self-doubt, we persevere, however precariously, in the faith. Yet as Jen Wilkin points out in Women of the Word, this roller-coaster ride of “sustaining our emotions can be exhausting and defeating.”
The dangers of a sentimental approach to our faith are legion. Nevertheless, there may still be valid reasons for the collaboration of the “heart” in the life of faith.
First, the Bible doesn’t neatly divide the rational and emotional parts of a human being. Whereas English readers interpret “mind” in the Scriptures to describe “thinking” and “heart” to describe “feeling,” the Bible doesn’t enforce this dichotomy. In Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary, “heart” in the New Testament is defined as that which stands for a person’s “entire mental and moral activities, both the rational and emotional elements.” “Mind” is described as “the seat of reflective consciousness, comprising the faculties of perception and understanding, and those of feeling, judging, and determining.”
We can’t superimpose our cultural understanding of “mind” and “heart” onto the Scriptures, nor can we assume that “thinking” is more reliable than “feeling.” Perhaps it is closer to the truth, biblically speaking, to say that human beings have a comprehensive set of skills for perceiving and interpreting the world and deducing truth. All of these skills—rational and emotional—are fallen, and all have redemptive potential for good. We are commanded to love God with a beautiful, congruent wholeness: heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Second, emotional reaction is clearly one divinely intended response to the revelation of God. Take, as an example, the vivid language of judgment used against Israel in the Old Testament. God doesn’t simply call his people “unfaithful” or “idolatrous.” In the book of Jeremiah, he calls the Israelites whores, comparing them to a “wild donkey used to the wilderness, in her heat sniffing the wind! Who can restrain her lust?” (Jer. 2:24). This description intentionally provokes abhorrence and disgust and moves readers beyond a “rational” understanding of sin (Sin is bad, and I shouldn’t do it) to a visceral response.
In the New Testament, Jesus relied heavily on the use of parables to teach the people. He made his points in pictures. He told stories about seeds and vineyards, estranged families and wedding feasts. Jesus could have relied exclusively on didactic teaching and alliterated sermons, but his methods were often purposefully illustrative. This seems to indicate, at least on one level, that he intended to engage “mind” and “heart,” thought and feeling.
One final example (of the many I could use) is found in Luke 24, when Jesus walks alongside two befuddled believers on the day of his resurrection. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus exposits the Scriptures, revealing himself in the narrative as it travels from Moses to the Prophets. Nevertheless, these two disciples do not recognize Jesus until they arrive, invite him in, and break bread. Suddenly, their eyes are opened. “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:32). Here, they are describing something more than a rational conviction they develop about Jesus’ identity. Instead, they locate their reaction in the body, illustrating the sensory effect of Jesus’ words.
Third, consider the important anthropological claim that philosopher and theologian James K. A. Smith defends in his book Desiring the Kingdom. According to Smith, we are not first and foremost “thinking” creatures—or, homo sapiens. He blames the Enlightenment, not the Scriptures, for this mistaken view of the human person, which he sees as failing to fully reflect the reality of human behavior. Instead, Smith argues that humans are primarily “worshiping” creatures—or, homo liturgicus. In this framework, humans are understood to be less cognitively driven and more “teleological” in nature. “Rather than being pushed by belief,” he says, “we are pulled by a telos that we desire.” If Smith is right, spiritual formation isn’t the intellectual enterprise we may want to make of it. Though doctrine has been and will continue to be important, we must also pay attention to desire. The church must work to help believers form the best, most biblical vision of the “good life.” And that’s the job of shaping affections, not just belief.
Evangelicals are rightfully nervous about Christian faith built on the sand of feeling. We must follow and obey Christ regardless of how we feel, and our approach to the study of Scripture should not be stunted by our misguided emotional expectations. However, the three reasons above compel us to reconsider the rightful place for feelings in the life of faith. For if the ‘heart’ matters as much as I’ve suggested, than discipleship is more than a “mind” game.