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Reading the Bible with Your Whole Self

How the Bible shows “heart” and “head” working together for our spiritual life

Christians talk a lot about the “heart” and the “head.” The idea is that in matters of faith, there is some tension between the feeling, emotive side of our spirituality and our intellect. Some of us worship in Christian traditions that tend to emphasize one or the other. Perhaps you’re used to teaching and preaching as the assumed way to draw closer to God. Perhaps it’s worship or other emotive experiences. Regardless, most of us know what someone means when they talk about their faith using these terms.

But is this distinction helpful? Well, sort of. The Bible has these categories too, but it doesn’t use them the way we do. (In fact, various authors in the Bible uses each of these in more than one way––to reflect further just how brilliantly complex we humans are!) But the assumption that these two parts of us are naturally opposed or in conflict is not found in the literature of the Bible. And for good reason. Losing the human balance between our modes of engaging God and life is unhealthy and, in extreme forms, dangerous.

The Bible’s vision of humans is as integrated spiritual beings, who have multiple faculties––of thought, emotion, worship, and action––but can learn to live in balance, in an integrated, whole-hearted way. A good example of this vision is the famous command in Deuteronomy.

Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”

Deuteronomy 6:5

The idea is our entire human person can be directed in love toward God. This command as the basis of spiritual life was so foundational 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 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.”

Luke 10:26-28

Dedicating our whole person in love to God, our head and heart, to use our familiar categories, will result in life. When we live out of balance, some good part of our self atrophies, 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 symptom in our life. Perhaps it is a loss of freedom in worship, perhaps some insecurity, thinking that because we haven’t read or learned as much as another person, our relationship with Jesus is less mature or valuable.

A beautiful example of the balance we can aspire to can be found in Psalm 119. The psalmist, in a poetic acrostic tribute to the joys of God’s instruction, writes

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.

Psalm 119:10-15

Beautiful! The response of the psalmist to God’s revelation is that of a whole person! The psalmist seeks, treasures, blesses, declares, delights, meditates. The psalmist asks to be taught, a discipline of the head, but also commits emotionally to living out true love for God. The attention of their whole person is given to what God has presented. 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. One doesn’t have to wither to let the other grow. Both can mature, both can be in play in our lives, both can be part of an integrated faith. Both can nourish our whole person and lead us to faithful, productive lives. In fact, the Bible describes them working together in a kind of synergy that leads our whole person to grow.

Becoming better readers (and livers!) of the Bible means we need to let the head and heart work together. It is healthy for us to learn more and to 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 will be held back in our process of maturing to be more like Jesus.

As we grow, we should encourage each other to press beyond our comfort zones into human 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 our Maker with all the nuance and beautiful balance of his complex image? When head and heart begin to lose their distinction in a larger love for God and neighbor, we begin to live the Bible’s vision for humanity. And that gives hope. We can grow through the Bible’s intricate story to become better readers and more lively, authentic people.

This piece is from the Becoming Better Readers series, focusing on bridging rich ideas from the Bible with the realities of spirituality today.

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