A Change of Heart and a Change of Mind: Connecting Theology to Life

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Last time I spoke about using the tools of ethics and psychology as a means to better read Scripture, and the topic of "head versus heart" came up in the discussion following. This is a really important topic which I felt deserved a discussion of its own. It is particularly important because the idea of head and heart is ultimately about having our theories connected to reality and experience.

Let me begin by defining some terms. When I speak of the "heart" I am referring to our experiences, and how these affect our feelings, that is how we perceive and experience reality. When I speak of the "head" I am referring to how we cognitively understand those feelings and experiences, including the idea of language. If we have the cognitive alone -- disconnected from our experience of life, it remains merely theoretical, detached from lived experience. So the heart (our experience of life) is important, perhaps we could say it is primary. We however also need the cognitive to make sense of our feelings and experiences. Heck, the fact that you are reading this and thinking about whether you agree with me means you are engaging in the cognitive. At its most basic level it is about making sense, and giving a framework to our experiences and emotions. This does not need to be some deep philosophical exercise. It is something all of us do constantly. For example, a five-year old might think, "I'm feeling something, I think it feels good, it's caused by this other person, who I call 'mom', and this thing is a hug, and it makes me feel safe and loved. I love hugs from my mom." All of that is about understanding, conceptualizing about the meaning of our experiences. In short, both head (our understanding) and heart (our feelings and experiences) are essential for us. They impact theology, but they also of course impact way more, they impact how we all experience life.

With that brief intro, let's consider a comment made by Kent on my previous blog post (which was the impetus for this conversation). He begins by saying this,
"Living a life of being loved by God and loving others is not hard. From my perspective, we are changed (born again/born from above/become a new creation -- whichever biblical description one wants to use) when we experience the love of God in our hearts (right brain) through intuitional revelation."
First of all, there is far more in Kent's comment that agree with than there are things I disagree with. So let me begin where I agree. It is certainly true that we humans are formed through loving relationships. Ideally, as a child we are formed by the love of our parents, and out of that we grow to be loving, responsible, thoughtful, mature people. There is of course a parallel with God's love, and we find that idea expressed in the declaration that "God first loved us" (1 Jn 4:19), which is the context out of which we respond by loving others. As Paul puts it, "all that matters is faith expressing itself in love" (Gal 5:6). Again, just as we are formed by the love of our earthly parents, the idea is that God, our heavenly abba, loves us, and that love forms us, resulting in our loving others as a result. Our trust/faith in our experience of a loving relationship God expresses itself in our, in turn showing the same kind of love to others that we have known -- in short, trust expresses itself in acts of love.

Yet, often experience... let alone (shudder) feelings and emotions... has been spoken of in very dismissive ways by theologians, who tend to be very "head" focused and mistrustful of emotions and experience. That's a real shame because emotions and experience are vital to being human. Moreover, a theology that is disconnected from experience and feeling is disconnected from life, disconnected from relationship (including relationship with God), and disconnected from love. There is a biblical term used to describe that sort of head-only theology: dead. So when theology dismisses experience and feelings and the heart, that means it is very broken.


Experience: Changing your Heart

As noted above, our experiences shape and form us. They make us into who we are. The good news is that this is not only something that happens in childhood. Experiencing love can also change us as adults in positive ways, just as experiencing trauma as adults can change us in negative ways.

Where that connects to theology is that if we think that people are changed merely through information, we are misunderstanding something really basic about how we humans work. People are changed -- including changing our minds -- by what we experience. Change my heart, and that will surely change my mind. So if as pastors we want to change someone for the better, if we want to change the way we treat each other, a crucial part of how we get to that change is by positive experiences re-shaping us.

Let me give an example. One particular school of marriage therapy, known as Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), stresses the importance of couples experiencing positive emotions as the central means to healing relationships and rebuilding connections in a marriage. Let's say that there is a couple where the guy is kind of a brute. He barges in and takes over when she is parenting. As the therapist digs into this however, it comes out that the guy is actually pretty insecure, but feels like he needs to be "strong" to hold things together. This is not something that the therapist tells him, but something he uncovers about himself. In other words, EFT helps him to get to a vulnerable part of himself, beneath the protective wall of his outward "strong" behavior.

In turn, as his wife experiences him having these vulnerable feelings, opening up, seeing a side of him that she has never seen before, she herself experiences feelings of empathy and understanding towards him. Experiencing this together as a couple brings them together. So it's about helping couples to break out of old patterns of conflict, by getting them to vulnerable places beneath that outward conflict (their fears, their insecurities, their wounds), in order to build empathy and connection.

The means to this is not primarily about understanding something cognitively, but much more about experiencing it together, and how that positive experience of being understood, as you were vulnerable, leads to deep connection.

The point of all this is that practitioners, who are working directly with people, people who need help with their relationships, with love, are finding that experience plays a crucial part of that work. It is through elicits positive emotional experiences -- not simply by cognitive understanding, but primarily through experiencing vulnerable feelings together -- that empathy and connection is built, the couple is re-connected, and the marriage is healed. Imagine what would happen if pastors learned how to elicit positive emotional experiences in people and how that could affect spiritual formation.

Experience is vital. Love is vital. But I have to disagree with Kent's claim that it is "not hard". Love is good, but it is certainly not easy. If love were easy, marriage therapists would be out of a job! Love is hard, and does not come to all of us intuitively. Couples often need to learn how to communicate, how to relate to one another in ways that bring them together, instead of ways that put them in conflict. A part of that is that most of us do not only have positive experiences as a kids, but also come with some emotional "baggage" that we bring with us into our intimate relationships. That is, we have learned some messed up ways to relate to others, and so we need to learn how to love well. The closer you are to someone, the deeper the intimacy, the harder that becomes.

Re-framing: Changing your mind

All this is not to say that there is no place for the head, for the cognitive. Indeed the cognitive is crucial because without it we'd have no way to make sense of our feelings and experiences. In fact, the way we understand and frame something actually changes the feelings we have about it, changes how we experience it. For example, as a kid I broke my wrist playing soccer, and because this happened in the context of sports, I thought it was cool. When some kids picked on me in school and pushed me against a locker, that was really upsetting to me. The physical pain involved was trivial compared to breaking my wrist, but the emotional experience of being bullied was really upsetting, while breaking a bone felt cool. How we frame our experiences, the narrative we place them in, changes how we actually experience them emotionally.

Theology is all about how we frame things. How do we make sense of who we are as humans? How do we make sense of suffering in our world? The way we frame those kinds of things makes all the difference. Do we frame human misfortune as a sign that God is angry and punishing us? Or do we frame suffering in the context of a God who shares our suffering with us? That framing changes how you experience your life, and that's why negative images of God can be so damaging and debilitating to people. It's not just a detached theory because it impacts our lived experience, in this case in a bad way.
Just as we can have both positive and negative experiences (the heart), we can also have understandings of life (the head) which can help and heal us, and we can equally have understandings that hinder and harm us. So the way we make sense of and frame our experiences matters tremendously, and even shapes how we experience life. That's why the cognitive matters, why theology matters, because badly framed theology can block us from experiencing God's love, and good theology can allow us to experience a life filled with meaning and love.

When all is said and done, we don't need to choose between head and heart, between thinking and feeling, between the experiential and the cognitive. Rather, we need to understand how they both work together. In a nutshell, the head interprets the heart, that is, our understanding frames our experiences. The way this works is not linear (first one and then the other), but more of a circular relationship where both influence each other.

So instead of disparaging one or the other as bad (head focused people saying that emotions are "weak" and "unreliable," or heart-focused people saying that the cognitive is "cold" and "detached"), we need to be able to embrace both of these aspects of ourselves, recognizing that they are both good and vital parts of what it means to be fully human. What we think and what we feel are not in fact separate, but intertwined, each influencing the other. They are not rivals, but partners -- two lovers in a dance.

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21 Comments:

At 5:26 AM, Blogger Clay Feet said...

This is such an important issue and I thank you so much for addressing it so well Derek. As I was reading this the analogy came to me of our body. We need our bone structure (mental, head, cognitive, logical) to hold our body together, to give it shape and strength. But without soft flesh, skin etc there would be no beauty, life or meaning. Doctrines are like bones too - important but not the main thing and can be very scary without the beauty of the life of God covering the substructure. We are attracted to beautiful people (before we know anything about them), not because they have attractive bones but because of their shape, skin and expressiveness. I believe this is so important to be aware of as we try to relate to what it means to be a real Christ-follower.

 
At 8:50 AM, Anonymous Heather said...

I think this is why debating someone to Christ isn't very effective, because in a debate you are appealing only to their head. As someone once said, "if you can debate them to Christ, someone can debate them away." People need emotional and relational experience for any strong argument to make sense. Thanks for drawing attention to the need for both heart and mind. And this reminds me of the greatest command given, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind."

 
At 12:48 PM, Blogger Owen said...

Yet, often experience... let alone (shudder) feelings and emotions... has been spoken of in very dismissive ways by theologians, who tend to be very "head" focused and mistrustful of emotions and experience. That's a real shame because emotions and experience are vital to being human. Quote.. Exactly so. I was taught that, from the pulpit and theology.

 
At 8:51 PM, Blogger Brad Gustin said...

I get your desire to define heart in term of experience and emotions and i am all about validating our humanity but I think you may be missing the spiritual dimension of our hearts. As a charismatic I see a lot in the Bible that points to our hearts being where God talks, interacts, communicates, leads us away from lesser gods, pours his love into, fills us with compassion, breaks our uncaring to reach out to hurting, and shows us the true value of a person loved by God, worthy of love and belonging. The heart among other things has a great deal to do with spiritual connecting.

 
At 5:25 PM, Anonymous Robert said...

Very cool you decided to speak on kents comment derek. I want to focus on what you said about love actually being hard. The 2 greatest commandments are to love God and our neighbors. Human history shows doing so has been anything BUT easy. I think theology can become a filter through which interpret experiences and emotions. God reveals Himself as Love, yet He appears to be very judgmental in different Bible passages, let alone the entire notion of hell. I know you have spoken a lot about fear over the course of your blog. Love and fear are opposites right?? Yet, fear has been a tool many christians have used as a means to evangelize or present God to unbelievers. Fear and love are intertwined in many ways in the Bible. I am curious to hear from you and everyone else how you counterbalance these 2 in living life??? Cany anyone honestly say perfect love has cast out ALL fear from their lives???

 
At 7:55 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

""Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind."

Heather,
That an important observation, thanks. Jesus says that these two commandments sum up all of the law--meaning that love is at the heart of everything, and without love everything is meaningless (come to think of it Paul's 1 Corinthians 13 makes that point too).

 
At 8:05 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

" I think you may be missing the spiritual dimension of our hearts... our hearts being where God talks, interacts, communicates, leads us away from lesser gods, pours his love into, fills us with compassion, breaks our uncaring to reach out to hurting, and shows us the true value of a person loved by God, worthy of love and belonging. The heart among other things has a great deal to do with spiritual connecting."

Brad,

Thanks for bringing that into focus. Yes, the spiritual divine aspect is very important. I don't think there needs to be a conflict between human love and love of God, really they intertwine. So when I speak of things like experience and emotion, I don't mean that in a way that would exclude the divine at all. We experience everything in our lives, including experiencing love from God.

 
At 8:10 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Robert,

Let's explore this a bit. Do you experience fear in other intimate relationships, or only in your relationship with God? Would you say that it is important/necessary for children to fear their parents, or for a person to fear their spouse? Is there something about fear that serves a good purpose? What might that purpose be?

 
At 10:41 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

"Can anyone honestly say perfect love has cast out ALL fear from their lives?"

If you mean things like being afraid of death and illness, fear of loss, fear of danger, then I'm gonna guess we all struggle that. I certainly do.

I'm not afraid of God though, that fear is gone. God is the one who I cling to when I'm struggling with those other fears.

 
At 3:23 AM, Anonymous Robert said...

Derek- I think fear has a purpose as a way to protect and warn such as the fight or flight response. I was speaking about primarily the fear you said we all struggle with. I have heard it taught that fear and love cannot coexist, which, if you HAVE fear, causes a real dilemma lol. For me personally,I have struggled with fear of God in different ways because of an experiential/feeling thing where I feel I disappoint Him or am not meeting His expectations. It is a paradox because He is the One i run to when i struggle with those other fears as well. I also think my dad dying when i was 8 caused me to have a fear of intimacy of any kind because of feeling they would die and leave me too. This is ALL in my non-rational/experiential/emotional parts of me. I really appreciate you asking to explore things, hopefully others will too. I think a perfectionism creeps on as well which messes with fear/love. Emotionally/experientially, I think the issue is- if God is love, why does *fill in the blank* happen??? Look forward to your response and others.

 
At 7:31 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

There's a big difference between being afraid of something (like falling from a cliff) and being afraid of a person. Fear of a thing can be useful (so you stay away from the edge of the cliff). Being afraid of the person is useful too (if they are a terrible person, so you can stay away from them). But there is clearly a conflict between love and fear when it comes to people.

May I ask if you have kids Robert? I do, and I can tell you that I do not want them to be afraid of me. I also would hate to think that they would think that I was "disappointed" in them for not meeting my expectation to the extent that they would fear me. That would break my heart as a dad. I would want them to know that I do not love them because of their performance, but simply because they are my kids. I love them unconditionally. Jesus once said "if you can love your kids, even though you are an imperfect fallible human dad, how much more loving do you think your dad in heaven is?"

 
At 12:01 AM, Anonymous Robert said...

Derek- Totally agree with you about fear dealing with cliffs and such. I do not have kids but I am with you in how i would feel also if they were afraid of me. I would like to have you respond to a few more areas of experience i brought up before. I think most people who lost a parent to death at a young age find struggles with fear of intimacy,death & abandonment to be common. The issue which has been the struggle for me in life is the counterbalance between God as Love & as Judge. Various verses, portray a tone in which God judges because of His holiness and our sinfulness. Those who believe hell is eternal conscous torment would say Jesus is most strict of all talking abut hell. The intimation in James and John that lacking faith & obedience can result in dire consequences also add to the mix. Let me say again, these are issues which swirl around amongst many others. I would like you and others to talk about places in the Bible where performance appears to be asked for and how you deal with it.

 
At 7:09 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Robert,

First of all, I think it's very important to understand that the experience that you had with your father as a young child impacts how you encounter these biblical passages. That heart experience from childhood changes how you intellectually interpret these passages today. So while it is good to deal with the passages themselves, that is not all that needs to happen. There needs to be healing emotionally too, and that will in turn have an impact on the head. The two are connected.

As far as the "head" part of this, I can point you to several places where I discuss fear in the context of hell:

The chapter "Undoing Judgment" in Disarming Scripture

The following blog articles:
Fear, Fundamentalism, and Moral Development
Why Fear is Incompaible with Faith
Why Do We Need to Believe in Hell? (Part 1: Fear)

 
At 2:47 PM, Anonymous Robert said...

Derek- You hit the bullseye when you said the heart experience affects the intellectual interpretation of Scripture passages. I wonder though about the title of your one post- *why Fear Is Incompatible With Faith* As you said before, we all struggle with certain fears like loss,death,pain,rejection etc. I think of the man who told Jesus, I believe help my unbelief. My fear is mainly about pain & being hurt,both emotionally & physically. God has given me grace to deal with getting cancer & heart disease which both can be deadly. For me, whenever I see an absolute statement like *no fear*, it brings anxiety because honestly at times i HAVE fear. I have a very vivid imagination which expands on things. Can you expand here a lil more on how love & faith remove fear in your experience?? How do we deal with fear when it occurs and we don't want it?? Thanks Derek.

 
At 8:07 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Robert,

There's a categorical difference between struggling with fear, and cultivating fear. The post "Why Fear is Incompatible with Faith" is challenging the idea that fear is something that should be cultivated.

Once we agree that it is a negative thing that we struggle with -- basically synonymous with worry -- the question is how do we deal with worry?

 
At 1:51 PM, Anonymous Robert said...

Derek- very good clarification there. i definitely seek to cultivate love grace & peace, even in the midst of struggling with fears. I hope to see some people comment on how they handle worry. I think polls show worry/anxiety top the list of stresses people face in daily life. I know suppressing,denying or force do not work well with worry. Acceptance seems to be a key which helps worry dissipate. Your take??

 
At 2:58 PM, Blogger René Lafaut said...

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At 3:05 PM, Blogger René Lafaut said...

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At 6:56 PM, Blogger Brad Gustin said...

I heard Jim Wilder speake on people's fear maps tracking the scariest thing in the room. A person that lives by fear is paying attention to the biggest scariest thing. In proverbs if we are going to live by fear, if we are going to pay attention to biggest scariest thing we should pay attention to God. Fear not people, but him who has the power to throw your body and soul in hell, Jesus tells us. So watching big scary God because we will find that we are loved more than we could ever imagine. In this way the fear of the Lord should lead us to the love of God.

 
At 6:57 PM, Blogger Brad Gustin said...

I heard Jim Wilder speake on people's fear maps tracking the scariest thing in the room. A person that lives by fear is paying attention to the biggest scariest thing. In proverbs if we are going to live by fear, if we are going to pay attention to biggest scariest thing we should pay attention to God. Fear not people, but him who has the power to throw your body and soul in hell, Jesus tells us. So watching big scary God because we will find that we are loved more than we could ever imagine. In this way the fear of the Lord should lead us to the love of God.

 
At 10:00 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

I'd say acceptance-commitment therapy helps a lot with dealing with worry. A good book on that is Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life.

Let me also says that while that book is really good, no book is the same as working with a therapist who does acceptance-commitment therapy.

 

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