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The Heart vs. The Gut November 18, 2009

One of the common errors in modern Western thinking is to confuse the “heart” with the “gut,” the home of the emotions and moods. My emotions and moods change over time. The attitudes that trigger my moods and feelings are much more stable and change, if anything, very slowly. The Bible speaks constantly of the importance of the heart and its seriousness to God; it is not primarily speaking of our emotional states, though emotional states, much to my chagrin, are not morally neutral, but of our attitudes and unexamined assumptions and idees fixes and dispositions and desires that trigger emotions and other actions. (To my chagrin also, all emotions are “behavior,” not internal private matters.)

I had to see, for example, that I was not responsible for my wife’s happiness or unhappiness. Because I thought in my heart that I was, I would be very distressed in my gut. There is a whole school of psychology now called “cognitive therapy”; the “heart” is exactly what it addresses and deals with.

There is also the fact that our “heart” includes our desires, which are fairly stable, often a-rational, and not arrived at necessarily through “reason.” I don’t reason my way to the fact that I am not fond of fresh tomatoes, olives, pickles, capers, and avocado, and scan the salad menus carefully to find a salad with none of these things in it. This is a desire of the heart. However, I have gotten over my sense of “entitlement,” also an attitude of the heart, and do not rage when I find few alternatives left after parsing the salad menu.

What are the dangers of the error of confusing the heart and the gut? (Because it is an unexamined error in our thinking, it is, ironically, an error of the “heart”!) If we, believing that our “heart” is our emotional life, hear that we are to accept Jesus into our “heart,” or that God wants our “heart,” or that “it’s all about the heart,” we think that we are to accept Jesus into our emotional life, that God wants our emotional love, and that He doesn’t really care about things pertaining to the “head” or rational thought, which we can pretty much keep to ourselves. This is not the message of the Bible or the Gospel. And it is a dangerous message for the Church. The attitudes and unexamined assumptions of the “heart” may not be rational, but they come from the “head.” Indeed, our “heart,” unlike our physical heart, is closely tied to our “head” and may be in it. We say of someone, “She’s got this crazy idea in her head.” Well, we say that because the crazy idea is in her “heart” and is influencing her behavior and her emotions. God cares about the “head.” He wants more than intellectual comprehension and belief, but not less.

3 Comments
Scott Walter 12/09/2009

I’ve never seen your distinction between “heart” and “gut” in those precise terms, but this is a profound insight that the best spiritual writers (and even mere psychologists) stress. And it’s something that both fervent evangelicals and sneering atheist scientists ignore to their peril.

[…] to Antithesis.  (How alliterative!)  Allergy to Antithesis is an attitude, or frame of mind, or really of the heart that there are not really good guys and bad guys, that we can all just get along if we sit down and […]

Keith Fredrickson 08/01/2015

I definitely share in the “chagrin”! The fact that my “emotions and moods” are never completely free from sin makes me dependent on the forgiveness of our Savior moment-by-moment. Your insight, as you will recall, was at the heart of the Reformation as it set forth our need for gracious justification.

And, regarding your statement “all emotions are ‘behavior,'” it is not widely known that Luther and Calvin, following Augustine, interpreted Romans 7:14ff as depicting the Christian’s struggle with “the passions of sins” (7:5 Gk.) and “lust” (v. 7 Gk.)—these are what Paul has in mind when he writes, “the evil I will not [to do] I do” (v. 19). Thus, according to them, in this passage Paul describes himself as one who wills to love God perfectly, but cannot accomplish this because he can never perfectly avoid sinful passions and lust (“concupiscence”).

In his Lectures on Romans (1515-1516), Luther writes , “For we are not called to ease, but to struggle against our passions, which would not be without guilt (for they really are sins and truly damnable) if the mercy of God did not refrain from imputing them to us.” (Works, 25:339, commenting on verse 17)

I personally have found this ancient interpretation of Romans 7 very helpful.

Praise God for our continuous free acceptance in Jesus Christ the righteous–
in spite of the flaws in our emotions!

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