Jun 28, 2024

What Does the Bible Mean by “the Heart”?

4 Min Read

We call those white flakes that appear in the winter snow. Whether the texture is flaky or crusted, thin or deep, fine or wet, soft or heavy, it’s simply “snow.” But the tribal Yup’ik people in northern Alaska and Canada employ many words to describe these different kinds of snow. Snow is one simple thing in English, and yet snow has different qualities (no matter what language you speak). The same is true of the word heart in Scripture. The heart reflects both the simplicity and the complexity of our inner self. It is one, and yet it has different functions.

Our Inner Unity

Put simply, the heart in Scripture conveys the totality of our inner self. We are governed from this one point of unity. From it “flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:23). It is the control center—the source of every thought, the seat of every passion, and the arbiter of every decision. All of it is generated from and governed by this one point of undivided unity. That is why everything vital to the Christian life—your speech, repentance, faith, service, obedience, worship, walk, and love —must be done with “all your heart” (Deut. 10:12; 30:2; 1 Sam. 7:3; Ps. 86:12; 119:34; Prov. 3:5–6; 4:23; Isa. 38:3; Jer. 24:7; Matt. 22:37). The heart is the helm of the ship. It takes a bearing and then sets the course of your life. As goes the heart, so goes the person.

Our Inner Complexity

Put comprehensively, the heart encompasses various functions, including the mind, the desires, and the will. The mind of the heart includes what we know: our thinking, ideas, memories, and imagination. The desires of the heart include what we love: what we want, seek, yearn for, and thus feel. The will of the heart refers to what we choose: whether we will resist or submit, whether we will say “yes” or “no,” and whether we are weak or strong in our resolve.

Mind. Although we moderns tend to think of the heart primarily in terms of our emotions, the Bible associates the heart with our ability to think. For example, Paul prayed “May [God] give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened” (Eph. 1:17–18). Jesus said, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts” (Matt. 15:19). Psalm 139:23 draws the parallel:

Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts! (emphasis added)

Often, English versions of the Bible will translate heart with words like understanding, sense, or, most often, mind, which shows how strong the connection is between the heart and thinking (Ex. 14:5; 1 Kings. 3:9; Ps. 26:2; Prov. 19:21; Jer. 17:10; Matt. 22:37).

The heart dwells upon what it holds most dearly. Its choices are motivated and reflect how it is emotionally invested.

Desires. For good or for ill, the heart desires satisfaction, security, comfort, happiness, and so much else. Desires can be for sinful things (like fleshly passions) or for good things (like Jesus’ desire to eat the Passover with His disciples) (Deut. 12:15; Ps. 45:11; Isa. 26:9; Matt. 5:28; Rom. 1:24; Gal. 5:24; 1 Tim. 6:9; 1 John 2:16). The word Paul uses for the desires of the flesh is the same one he uses for the desires of the Spirit (Gal. 5:16–17). In essence, desires reveal what we crave and ultimately love, or what Christ calls our treasure (Matt. 6:21; see also Ps. 63:1; Isa. 55:2; Matt. 5:6; John 4:10; Heb. 5:14; 1 Peter 2:2). Depending on whether our desires are satisfied or denied, our heart feels anger, joy, envy, rage, anxious fear, sorrow, lovesickness, anguish, despair, and many other emotions. Our emotions bring out what lies at the core of who we are, not just what we feel.

Will. As the seat of volition, the heart decides whether we submit to or resist what we desire and think. It will either say “yes” or “no.” Here is where the battle for control of the heart is fought. How it goes will depend upon the will’s strength or weakness, its callousness or brokenness, its hardening by sin or renewal by grace. The heart of sinful unbelief is stubborn and unyielding to God, and yet it is weak and unable to resist temptation (Ex. 4:21; Deut. 1:28; Rom. 2:5; 2 Cor. 3:14). In direct contrast, the heart made new by the Spirit bows before God in humility but is also resolved to obey the Lord by dying to sin, the world, and devil (1 Sam. 2:1; Dan. 1:8; Acts 4:13; 2 Cor. 7:10–12; James 4:7; 1 Peter 5:9).

Our Inner Unity and Complexity

Our mind, desires, and will are distinct but inseparable as they work together as a cooperative network. Our thinking always has an agenda. The heart dwells upon what it holds most dearly. Its choices are motivated and reflect how it is emotionally invested.

This alliance of mind, desires, and will reveals itself in its deep entanglement with sin. As Paul says, the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God and cannot submit to God’s law (Rom. 8:7). But it is also true of a Christian’s “new heart,” which he or she gains when born again by the Holy Spirit. There is nothing in the Christian’s heart—whether in the mind, desires, or will—that is untouched by God’s grace. Our hearts are enlightened, made pure, and established in the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We know God truly, love Him sincerely, and follow Him resolutely. We are more and more able to believe, serve, obey, worship, walk and love our God with all our heart.