“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.

Summary
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.

  • David, You said: 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…”

    My answer: …never.

    That verse has to do with following your heart into temptation and sin, pride and deception, not following your heart into loving people like Jesus did. You are totally off in your interpretation of the question, my friend, therefore the rest of your article is answering a question that isn’t connected to that verse.

    You quote a story about hypocrisy: 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:

    and this verse about the heart being deceitful has nothing to do with hypocrisy – but rather with the conflict between the good desires of our hearts and the evil desires of our hearts. It’s a warning not to respond emotionally without filtering those feelings through a screen of spiritual wisdom to protect you from selfish, shortsighted, unable-to-delay-gratification decisions.

    You are doing the same thing you accuse others of doing – using a scripture to back up what you believe/or disagree with, out of context. Here is the context – Jer. 17:1-4 “The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron; with a point of diamond it is engraved on the tablet of their heart, and on the horns of their altars, 2 whiletheir children remember their altars and their Asherim, beside every green tree and on the high hills, 3 on the mountains in the open country. Your wealth and all your treasures I will give for spoil as the price of your high places for sin throughout all your territory. 4 You shall loosen your hand from your heritage that I gave to you, and I will make you serve your enemies in a land that you do not know, for in my anger a fire is kindled that shall burn forever.”

    Do you know what Asherim/or Asherah poles are? it was the worst kind of wickedness and involved sexual sin, prostitution and adultery in worship – look it up! He was talking about people who were justifying their sexual sin as a way to worship God! And you are using this verse to justify homosexual behavior as acceptable to God! Forget the scriptural references that people disagree about – from a purely physical and medical perspective – it is full of highly unhealthy practices, both physically and emotionally. The average gay male has 1000 partners – ask the people who have to contact their partners when they are diagnosed with HIV. Not emotionally or physically healthy. Male gay sex causes microscopic tears in the lining of the mucous membranes of the anus and large intestine, releasing all the bacteria and waste that the body has just cleaned out and sends it into the surrounding tissues with fecal matter. Very unhealthy. The body is designed specifically according to function- digestion, sex and reproduction, breathing, etc… with very differentiated cells and organs to best serve those needs of the body. Our bodies are designed to have male and female sex, not male to male or female to female – that won’t change and no one can argue that. If someone feels that they are a female in a male body, etc… then I think they need help with their feelings. And I know there are lots of ex-gays who will say they were helped by counseling and that it helped them in all their relationships, not just the romantic ones.

    Sorry that you feel the way you do and that we disagree. Jaye

  • Hi Aunt Jaye!

    Unfortunately, I have heard that line about “wishing we could [act in a loving way] but the Bible says…” far too many times. The abusers of this scripture were obviously taking it out of context, and I have no issue agreeing with you on that matter.

    As regards my (hopefully innocuous) misuse of that same verse, my goal was not to argue that my usage was the true meaning, but rather to turn the abuse that I had lived through on its head. My argument does not stand or fall upon that verse, so I hope you will forgive the way the indulgence of my desire to deconstruct did not come very close to the original meaning.

    As regards your statement that the average gay male has 1000 partners, I fear I must inform you that that data is not correct. That is based on a discredited book from the 1970s in which the author interviewed men in gay bars in Los Angeles. This is hardly a valid study. This article in the Washington Post points out that “two surveys found that most gay men have a similar rate of sex with unprotected partners compared to straight men or women.” However, it does admit that gay men are at a higher risk for HIV than other people. http://wapo.st/15b9es6

    On the converse, I read recently that lesbians have lower rates of HIV infections than straight men AND women. According to the CDC, “To date, there are no confirmed cases of female-to-female sexual transmission of HIV in the United States database.” http://1.usa.gov/o6s3Iz

    In short: the medical deal with gays and HIV is really a deal with promiscuity and unprotected sex. The emotional deal applies just as well to promiscuous straight people, and I’m not arguing that promiscuous behavior is normative, healthy, or appropriate.

    Regarding ex-gay therapy, I’m sure you’re aware that the founder of Exodus International has recently apologized to the GLBT community for the work that his organization did in ex-gay therapy. The story is here: http://exodusinternational.org/2013/06/i-am-sorry/

    Never be sorry that we disagree. If everyone agreed on everything then nobody would stand a chance at learning anything!