In my last post we looked at the commandment that Jesus said is the most important one in the Bible. God calls us to love him with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mk. 12:29-30). But what is the biblical understanding of the heart? How do our assumptions about emotions hold us back from obeying this command.

The Challenge of Religious Affections

We don’t know what to do with the many commands regarding our religious affections because of two of our cultural assumptions about emotions:

  1. Emotions are caused primarily by people or circumstances outside of ourselves.
  2. There is little we can do to change our emotions.

If these assumptions are true, how can we obey the commands in scripture regarding our religious affections?

Our usual approach is to interpret these commands in a such a way that they are not really about emotions. For example, one commentary on Mk. 12:29-30 says that we need to make a commitment to act in a loving way. It is about decisions and actions, not about feelings. My question is whether Jesus really intended these commands to be taken in this way. We need to take a closer look at what the Bible says about the heart.

The Biblical Concept of the Heart

What is the biblical understanding of the heart? To get an idea of how often various terms are used in the Bible to describe the inner life I did a quick search based on the ESV translation. You can see the result in this chart.

Biblical terms for the inner life

To do an in-depth study it would be necessary to examine the usage of the Hebrew and Greek terms, but this quick survey is enough to get a general idea. The surprising thing is that the word “emotions” does not occur at all in the ESV Bible. There are many passages that talk about various emotions, but none that describe emotions as a separate capability. The word “heart” is by far the most important term used in the Bible for the inner life (used 917 times). So what does the Bible mean by “heart”?

Here are some of the ways that the word “heart” is used in the Bible:

  • Thought and understanding (Mk. 2:6-7)
  • Knowledge and memory (Job. 22:22)
  • Emotions (Acts 2:26)
  • Decision making (Ezra 7:10; Lk. 21:14)
  • Attitude or Disposition (Mt. 11:29)
  • Moral character (1 Kings 9:4)

In our modern usage, “heart” refers primarily to our emotions. But in the Bible “heart” is a much broader term, includes our thinking, emotions, decision making, and more. Loving God with all our heart means to love God with our entire inner being.

The Biblical View of the Inner Life

When I was a new believer, I was taught that the three primary functions of the inner self or soul are mind, emotions, and will. At the time I understood these to be three largely separate capabilities. But that is not how Christians have viewed the inner self for most of church history.

Some of the most influential theologians in church history believed that “affections” include both emotions and thought. These include Augustine (5th c.) and Aquinas (13th c.), as well as the two most famous Reformation leaders, Luther and Calvin (16th c.). Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley (18th c.) shared this classic view of the inner self. Last time I shared Jonathan Edwards’ definition of “affections”:

“The affections are no other than the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul.”

Note that his definition of “affections” includes thought (“sensible”) and decisions (“inclination and will”). He does not see these as separate functions.

Neither scripture nor church history support the idea that our inner self is divided into three separate functions of mind, emotions, and will. What happened to get us so far off track? What are the implications of a biblical view of the inner self? I will explore these questions in the next post.

If you would like to learn more, you can watch a sermon that I shared recently on this topic.

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