“The Heart Is Deceitful”

above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” -Jeremiah 17:9, KJV

Don’t trust your heart.

If I have heard that message once, I have heard it a dozen times. “The World” says to listen to your heart, the Bible says not to listen to your heart.

Or does it?

Later in Jeremiah, 24:7 says that God will give them a new heart. Ezekiel 11:19 and 36:26 echo God’s desire to give his people a new heart. A Newer Testament verse that I cannot locate right now reiterates this desire. The writer of Psalm 57 says that his heart is steadfast. The author of I Timothy has as his goal love from a pure heart. In Luke 6:45, Jesus says that the good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good. In saying this, Jesus seems to be assuming that good men are possible, Romans 3:23 notwithstanding.

I believe that this single verse is what has allowed for the shutdown of the evangelical heart. How often have we heard things like “I wish I could [act in a loving way toward someone who is doing something that I disagree with], but the Bible says…”

The Bible has become a shield to protect us from following the good desires of our hearts. We would act in a loving way, but some obscure verse in the Bible prevents us from doing that. Which reminds me of this story from Matthew 15:

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.’

He answered them, ‘And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, Honour your father and your mother,” and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” But you say that whoever tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God”, then that person need not honour the father. So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:

“This people honours me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.” ’ (NRSV)

Here Christ is critiquing a problem that he later outlines in bolder strokes in Matthew 23:23 when he says

‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practised without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! (NRSV)

Note the wording Christ uses: “The weightier matters of the law.” In our flat modernist textbook reading of the Bible, we have assumed that all scripture is equal and that all issues discussed in scripture are equal. Jesus specifically says that this is not the case. We trump Jesus with James’ statement that “…whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” Even here, the context of James 2 is about social justice and treating the poor and the rich with equality. Either way, James does not trump Jesus.

And then there’s this: Modernist assumptions have led to a distrust of the heart.

Modernism is the grand experiment in knowing. Modernism gave us science. Science has at its core the assumption that if we study hard enough, we can learn absolute truths about our universe. Charles Darwin applied modernism and came up with biological evolution. Josh McDowell applied modernism and came up with evidence that demands a verdict. The mantra of modernism is that truth is out there, and we can find it.

Naturally, modernism relies heavily on the mind. Modernism assumes that the mind can be trusted. In Applied Modernism we find that though the mind can be trusted, the heart cannot. The mind knows principles, but the heart sees exceptions. The heart is unpredictable and irrational. Modernism despises irrationality and sends it to the insane asylum.

In this way, we can take our modernist assumptions, find a Bible verse that agrees with them, and lock our hearts out of our faith, except for the purpose of metaphysically accepting Jesus into our hearts. As it turns out, that’s really all our hearts are good for.

But we don’t realize that the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. We don’t realize that deep down in our deepest heart of hearts, we don’t like people who are different from us. We don’t know that our heart is still running the show and sending our minds on quests to find Bible verses to justify our prejudice. We fail to realize that when the heart of Christ calls out for us to love our neighbors and pray for our enemies, the part of our heart that is fallen points to our head and says “Sorry, boss-man says no-can-do.” We deceive ourselves into believing that we’re doing God’s will by refusing to listen to the call of the Spirit because our heads succeeded at the mission our heart assigned: find a reason from the Bible to ignore God’s call to love.

A salient example: So often we ignore our GLBT neighbors. We try to get them to go to therapy to stop being gay. We call to mind those five or seven verses that have for so long been construed to be about same-sex relationships and been construed to be binding, and then we ostracize our neighbors instead of loving them. We fight holy wars against them. And when we get to know them, we tell ourselves that it’s still a sin. Our busy brain was only following our corrupted heart’s directions to chase down evidence.

It’s hardly different from when racism in the south was justified as Biblical. It allows us to see ourselves as good people coming and going. We have good impulses (to love our neighbors), but it allows us to continue to see ourselves as good people because we ignore those good impulses (because the Bible says not to follow them). Friends, if the Bible says not to act in loving ways toward your neighbors, you are reading it wrong.

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And if those loving actions that you are taking are perceived by your neighbors as hurtful and hateful, you may have misunderstood “love” and assumed that it meant “treat them the way the Bible says to treat people like them.” If that way that you think the Bible says to treat people like them looks like something other than love, you’re either reading it wrong or putting your understanding of the Bible above God and God’s command to love, which, as you’ll recall, is reiterated repeatedly in scripture as paramount. My mother reminded me that Christ said that “By this will all men know that you are my disciples if you love one another,” and she wondered how the world might know that we are Christ’s disciples by our love if our love doesn’t look like love.

We use the verse “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked” to shut down our God-given impulses to love and care for our neighbors who are different from us because we have built high intellectual Bible-based walls around our hearts to save us from heeding our consciences. And the part of our heart that is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked is what convinced us to build those walls in the first place.

Note: This post is a response to Geoff Holsclaw’s response to Richard Beck’s response to Rachel Held Evans’ much-read and much-responded-to piece on Millenials. Also note that I never said that it was precisely on-topic.

David M Schell About David M Schell
David M. Schell is a doubter, a believer, and a skeptic. He writes about God and stuff. He is happily married to Kristen, and that's why his posts don't come out as often or as angry.