Why Living from Your Heart Requires Using Your Head

In my circles, I hear a lot of talk about living from the heart, not the head. That message is nothing new; it has been around for decades, and I understand where it comes from. There’s certainly an underlying truth to it; unfortunately, though, the way it gets expressed often tends to imply a false polarity instead of a balance. The heart and intellect are not incompatible. Far from it! Living fully and wisely from the heart involves using our head, and problems arise when we emphasize either at the expense of the other. I know because I’ve lived on both ends of the spectrum. Here is what I’ve found:

  • The mind is not where life dwells, and to emphasize it at the expense of the heart is to experience less than the abundant life Jesus offers us.
  • However, to scorn the mind is to ignore a vital part of our being which God created with the intent that we might love him with it as surely as we do with our heart.

In some of the church cultures I once moved in, the intellect was distrusted to the extent that it was actually maligned. I didn’t fit in well, because I didn’t know how not to think, and to process, and to question, and even to disagree. I didn’t know how not to mentally engage with the Scriptures, and to ponder how they connected with life, and with how people, including me, are put together, and with what God himself is like. I just couldn’t seem to shut off my “thinker”–I didn’t know how.

It finally occurred to me that those who emphasized heart over head didn’t know how either. They just didn’t realize, or perhaps didn’t want to admit, that they thought a certain way about the mind, and had become so set in that way of thinking that they used their minds to reinforce their negative view of the mind without recognizing the irony involved.

Out of that, I came to this understanding: You had darn well better learn to think for yourself, because if you don’t, someone else–a person, a group of people, even a religious culture–is going to think for you. And when that happens, you can run into trouble. Because cloneliness is not next to godliness: the two are a world apart.

That said, if the mind is meant to inform the heart, the heart is meant to guide the mind. I don’t know how better to put it. The intellect is not the source of life, merely a gateway to it, and the mind apart from the heart is lifeless. It is as capable of self-deception and idolatry as it is of getting at truth; it takes the heart to ignite facts and make them explode into life inside us, resulting in a rich life that overflows with the Holy Spirit.

We are complex creatures who are to “love the Lord [our] God with all our heart, mind, and strength”–in other words, with all that we are, to the best that we are granted. The mix of that three-part combination is different for every person, but the point is that we cannot shut off any of those aspects of our being. It’s impossible. In this life, we simply are physical, mental, and spiritual. Even those of us who live their lives from a wheelchair have unique ways of loving God with their their physical nature; they just express that love differently from those who have no physical encumbrance.

As for those of us who are more intellectual by nature versus those of us who are more intuitive and passionate, we’ll do well to recognize that the mind and heart are intended to complement each other in a symbiotic relationship. Neither can be shut off, only stifled in a misguided attempt to be a “better Christian.” But only the grace of Jesus makes us any kind of Christian at all. If we attempt to improve on that grace by emphasizing one aspect of our humanity at the expense of another, we’ll only experience less than the full, free life that our Father intends for us: a life vitally connected to him that causes our thinking to align with his, and that shapes our heart according to his own.

Of Specks and Planks: Why True Discernment Starts with Self-Discernment

What’s this business about specks and planks in the eye that Jesus talks about in his Sermon on the Mount? I’ve long been struck by it. This morning, reading through Luke’s gospel over my first cup of coffee (I’m now on my second), I came across it again, and I thought, What planks do I have in my own eyes?

I long ago got tired of Christians who major on trying to “fix” other people. My feeling is, Clean up the mess in your own backyard and you’ll be amazed at how much better your neighbor’s looks when you’re finished. In other words, discernment begins with self-discernment. This is what Jesus was getting at.

Does that mean I’m not to exercise my critical thinking faculties regarding people’s behavior, their attitudes, and even the way they think? Of course not. I can’t function in life that way, neither can you, and neither did the New Testament writers nor the Lord himself. In Matthew 7:3–6, Jesus follows his admonishment about specks and planks by telling his disciples, in the very next breath, not to cast their pearls before swine. Telling swine from non-swine clearly requires judgment, right?

Lest you wonder, Jesus didn’t tread lightly with the Pharisees of his day, nor did Paul mince words about the Judaizers, nor did John about the gnostics.

So let’s get some balance: the thing Jesus did not say was that we should never help our brother or sister remove the speck from their eye. What he said was that in order to do so, we’ve got to first make sure we ourselves are seeing accurately, and that requires dealing with our own issues. Why? Because we’re prone to deflect them onto others. The speck I’m so cocksure I see in your eye might be nothing more than the reflection of a log that’s in my own. Once I remove my log, I might just discover that your speck never existed. Then again, maybe it really does exist, but now I see it with a new clarity that allows me to approach it–and you–in a humbler, more merciful, more respectful, and more helpful and life-giving way. Because I no longer see myself as your fixer but as just a fellow-traveller with his own junk to deal with.

The reality is this: We have got to practice discretion in our lives. We’ve got to discern between good and evil, tell godliness from ungodliness, and distinguish healthy influences in our lives from unhealthy ones. We’ve got to sort between truth and error in how others handle the Scriptures. We’ve got to be able to look at sin and call if sinful just as surely as a doctor has got to be able to look at cancer and call it cancer.

But the place where it all begins is with us. If we don’t start there, we’ll handle other people wrongly. We’ll see problems in them that are really problems with ourselves. And the problems they really do have, we’ll be apt to mishandle because we haven’t cleared our own vision and applied the salve of grace to our eyes.

Of course, the problem with getting the beams out of our own eyes is, we can’t see those beams. What may be apparent to others is invisible to us. And to complicate matters, our beams may seem to us like wisdom. Indeed, they may be intimately entwined with genuine wisdom because they flow from the same source. When we get wounded, we ought to learn from the experience, and that learning is valuable; but that same wounding can also teach us lies that we need to unlearn. Insight and distortion can come from the same experience. Beam removal involves removing the distortion so the wisdom that remains becomes that much clearer and wiser.

I’m sure I have beams in my eyes that I’m not aware of. This morning, my prayer has been, “Lord, please help me remove them. Gently, okay? Some things, I’ve lived with for a long time. But I want to see more clearly tomorrow than I do today. So I entrust the process to your hands.”

The Gypsy: Remembering Gil

When I was in junior high, back before rocks were born, I got to be friends with a kid named Gil. He was a big, strong lad and a bit of a bully, but I was on his good side, which, being the squirrel I was, was unquestionably the better side to be on.

Gil and I hung out together through high school, during which time he moved from Ada, Michigan, to the inner northeast part of Grand Rapids, where he lived with his mom. It was a rough area with a lot of streetwise white kids and plenty of drugs. The drug part fit the kind of teenager I was, but I couldn’t fake the tough-guy persona—it just wasn’t me.

It was Gil, though. He was good to his friends, but if you weren’t in that circle—well, Gil liked to fight, and sometimes he just looked for an excuse to get into a scrap. If you happened to cross his path when the mood seized him, then if you didn’t give him a reason to fight you, he’d create one for you. He was helpful that way. I was with him one night when he tried to pick a fight with a whole table of guys at a restaurant. He followed them outside and had them all backing down by the time I followed after, at which point I actually had the audacity to give him a tongue-lashing. Had I not been his friend, I’d never have gotten away with it, but he reluctantly cooled his jets and went back inside with me and a couple of our other buddies, and that was that.

There was an anger in Gil that he didn’t understand and didn’t know how to handle other than to take it out on others. Today, for whatever reason, I find myself thinking about him and about that anger and why it was. I knew little about his pre-teen years—just broad splashes of information: a broken home, a brutal dad, and a mom obsessed with the occult in a way that, from what I could see, had driven her crazy. Gil hadn’t been dealt a good hand. Once, he told me, when he was thirteen or fourteen, he had chased his mother’s abusive boyfriend around the house with a baseball bat. Was that a true story? Maybe, maybe not. I’m inclined to believe it. What was it like for Gil to grow up in those conditions?

Those were the days when young people still hitchhiked, and Gil had gotten around much of the country that way. He’d been to New Orleans for Mardi Gras a few times, and I don’t know where else his thumb had taken him. Lots of places, though. Which brings me to the conclusion.

When Gil was eighteen, he hitchhiked down to Florida with a couple buddies, and while he was there, he got sick. I suspect drugs were involved, but whatever the case, his friends left him by the side of the road to get help. During their absence, he picked up his sleeping bag and, swinging it around his head, stepped out in front of a car.

I imagine the driver’s astonishment and horror, with no time to avoid the inevitable. I think of Gil, dying on that lonely Florida roadside; of the police arriving and flashers flashing and an ambulance carting my buddy’s body away; of his two friends and their reaction to a fun time transformed into a tragedy; and I wonder. . . .

What would it have been like for Gil if his family life had been different? If his home had been stable, if his mom and dad had loved each other, if both of them had been spiritually and emotionally healthy? If he’d known love instead of harshness and uncertainty?

Ah, Gil! I think of you still today—you in your blue jeans and red bandana and that hoop earing like the full moon’s silver rim. You liked to be called “The Gypsy,” and I guess that’s what you were: a gypsy just travelling through, apt to pick up and move on at a whim. Your caravan left far too early. I wish you’d had a chance.

But you are not forgotten, my friend of long ago. I remember you.