Christians talk a lot about the head and the heart, with some faith traditions elevating the importance of one over the other. There is tension between the emotive side of our spirituality and our intellect. You may see teaching and preaching as the best way to draw closer to God. Or you may be from a tradition that emphasizes worship and other emotive experiences to show love for God. So which is it? Is one more important than the other in our worship? And what does the Bible say about loving God?
The Bible has the categories of emotion and intellect, but it doesn't use them the way we do. In fact, some biblical authors use these categories in more than one way. But the assumption that these two parts of us are naturally opposed or in tension is not found in the Bible. And for good reason. It is healthy and good to engage with God with our whole selves—with our heads and our hearts. Losing this balance may even be unhealthy and, in extreme forms, dangerous.
Love the Lord Your God
The Bible portrays humans as complex beings capable of deep thought, emotion, worship, and action. And humans can learn to live in balance, integrating their whole being into everything they do, including worshiping and loving God. But how?
Let’s look at a famous command, also known as the Shema prayer, in the book of Deuteronomy.
Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one. And as for you, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.
The core idea here is that an entire human person can be directed in love toward God. This command was the basis of Israel’s spiritual life, and it was so fundamental to Jewish faith that it formed the backbone of this exchange between Jesus and a young man coming to him with questions about how to live a faithful life.
What Jesus Said About Loving God
Loving God with our whole selves, our head and heart (to use our familiar categories), will bring life. When we live without this balance, some parts of us can atrophy, like a muscle that is underused. We can become numb to this reality until we don’t even consciously miss what we’re missing. But there will always be some symptoms in our life, like a loss of freedom in worship or insecurity in our relationship with Jesus, believing that because we haven’t read or learned as much as another person, our relationship is less mature or valuable.
“What is written in the Law?” [Jesus] replied. “How do you read it?” He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind.’ and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
Balancing Head and Heart
A beautiful example of this type of balance can be found in Psalm 119.
With my whole heart I seek you; do not let me stray from your commandments. I treasure your word in my heart, so that I may not sin against you. Blessed are you, O Lord; teach me your statutes. With my lips I declare all the ordinances of your mouth. I delight in the way of your decrees as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways.
The psalmist is responding to God with their whole being—seeking, treasuring, blessing, declaring, delighting, meditating. The psalmist asks to be taught, a discipline of the head, but they also commit emotionally to living out true love for God. No part of the self is left behind. After all, what would feeling be without thinking? And what joy could we take from an intellectual exercise that did not move our heart with emotion?
Our heart and head don’t have to be in opposition as we learn to love God. One doesn’t have to wither to let the other grow. Both can mature, both can be in play in our lives, and both can be part of an integrated faith. Our thoughts and our emotions can nourish our whole person and lead us to faithful, productive lives. In fact, the Bible describes them working together in a way that leads to holistic growth.
How To Love God With Your Whole Self
If we are to follow the Bible’s vision for loving God, and have the kind of wholehearted devotion that the psalmist talks about, we need to let the head and heart work together. It is healthy for us to learn more and let our mind entertain new ideas and complex questions. Similarly, it is good for us to embrace emotion and our “gut” as we grow. Feeling and intuition are just as much reflections of God’s image as intellect and reason are. If we dismiss them, we can miss out on opportunities to mature and become more like Jesus.
As we grow, we should encourage each other to press beyond our comfort zones into territory that might feel new to us. If we gravitate toward the intellectual, we need vibrant, immediate emotions to ground us in our real experiences and point us toward God. If we tend to feel more than we think, perhaps we need to inject fresh ideas or the spiritual discipline of study into our lives.
What would it be like to experience life in the whole-person way that the Bible teaches? What would it feel like to love God with all the nuance and beautiful balance of his complex image? When head and heart lose their distinction in a larger love for God and neighbor, we begin to live out the Bible’s vision for humanity.