“I love you with all my heart.” I’ve heard this phrase a few times in my life, and it always brings a smile to my face. It’s a stereotypical expression that usually comes from someone trying to express deep feelings but hasn’t come up with a more creative way to say it. Yet as long as it comes from the heart, we’re usually okay with this quaint expression. But what does it mean? Why love from the heart?
Most people I know, relate a person’s heart (not to be confused with the physiological blood-pumping organ) to their emotional response. In other words, to love someone with all your heart means to feel your love for that person deeply. Interestingly, that’s not the biblical understanding of the heart. A Bible professor once told me that the ancient Hebrews associated deep feelings not with the heart but with the bowels. Try that on your significant other: I love you with all my bowels. There’s a reason that hasn’t caught on. The biblical perception of the heart has less to do with feelings and more to do with choices—the will. Biblically speaking, the heart is understood to be the executive center that oversees the whole person. My heart directs the path I take and all my responses to outside circumstances.
The Executive Center of My Being
So, it is in my heart where I determine how I engage with the world. My actions, attitudes and words all flow from the mysterious workings of this place inside me. Of course, the Bible has a lot to say about the heart. We’re told that we are to guard it because it determines the course of our life (Proverbs 4:23). We learn that it’s capable of being deceived and extremely wicked (Jeremiah 17:9). But we’re also informed that it can be pure and sincere (Matthew 5:8; Colossians 3:22). In addition, Jesus said we’re to love God with all of it (Mark 12:30). Whatever direction one’s heart goes, it takes the rest of the person along. It’s no wonder that in seeking an intimate relationship with each of us, it is the heart that Jesus asks to be given to Him. For when He has my heart, He has me.
And that’s the trick. Our hearts don’t naturally want to be given completely to someone else, especially to a divine Lord. To the heart that doesn’t recognize who Jesus is, such a request appears as an invitation to captivity and slavery. But for the one who sees Him as the rightful Lord and source of all life, to submit control to Him is peace and the beginning of true freedom.
A Stony Heart Toward God?
But so often our hearts resist Him. We harden our will against God and His ways. Every heart has this ability to harden or soften its attitude and response toward another person. The condition of my heart is determined by the beliefs I entertain about others. Do I see them as good or bad, for me or against me, trustworthy or unreliable? It’s the same with how I perceive and what I believe about God. And with Him, I can also harden my heart by simply ignoring Him. This is especially true when He shows me something He wants me to do or respond to and I simply say, “no” or convince myself that that wasn’t God communicating to me. When I do this, it’s like I’m spraying my heart with a protective coating of concrete that dulls my ability to sense His prompts or hear His voice.
The most famous hard heart in the Bible is Pharaoh. The story is told in the Book of Exodus, chapters 7-14, how this Egyptian king resisted letting the Israelites, whom he had enslaved, leave. But where it gets confusing is that many times it’s worded that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and that’s why the man refused to respond to all the miracles he witnessed.
Some people interpret this to mean that God overrode Pharaoh’s will. It seems more likely to me, however considering the rest of scripture, that God, who searches and knows every heart (Jeremiah 17:10) merely saw which direction the king’s will was already bent and let him go the direction his heart was leading him. Often when people are already resistant, added pressure only pushes them harder into their obstinate position. The pride of Pharaoh was such that he would not submit his “executive center” to anyone, no matter how many miracles he saw. His heart hardened more with each time God confronted it with a supernatural display.
Hardness of heart is a condition that even followers of Jesus must be concerned about. It’s a soft heart that God is looking for in His followers. When our hearts are tender, they sense what God is wanting from them. We may not like it at the moment and it may be inconvenient, but soft hearts respond to God’s stirrings. Crusty layers of hardness develop as we decide we don’t want to submit to Him on specific issues. It may be through overt defiance or a more subtle passive negligence of just not paying attention. Either way, hardness and callouses of insensitivity grow thicker as choices to resist or ignore become more automatic. And it’s later that we wonder why we can’t feel the love of God anymore or hear His voice like we used to. Hearts grow hard, they don’t transform into stone overnight.
What’s the Condition of My Heart?
I first have to recognize the signs of a hard heart. Once I see where I’m susceptible, I can address my condition by asking God for help. It is amazing how willing He is to lead us in the softening process if we will only humbly ask. While there’s probably many indicators, I can think of three obvious ones.
1) A hard heart is insensitive to the pain of others. Lack of sensitivity, especially to those who are unlike me, is a common symptom of a heart growing crusty. God in His holiness is very unlike me. I and many like me have hardened ourselves to what He desires. With our whole nation being confronted with racism right now, have we asked God how He feels about where we’re at? Our insensitivity to the hardships or injustice others are facing often is indicative of our insensitivity to God. God has feelings, and they may be different than ours. Have we asked Him to show us what they are? He has much He desires to reveal to us regarding many matters, if we’ll open our hearts.
2) A hard heart cannot be penetrated with new ideas or perspectives. The inability to consider what’s outside my own context, be it political, religious or philosophical is a bright red flag of warning that stony callouses may be growing. It’s not that I have to accept everyone else’s view point as right or good, but can I humbly listen without accusations or defensiveness? God’s perspective often challenges me if I’ll just stop and ask Him what He wants me to see. The problem is I often think I already know what His perspective is, or I just don’t care.
3) A hard heart cannot adjust or flex to embrace something that feels strange or unknown. Sometimes this has to do with fear of change. But often for me it is due to my hatred of discomfort and mental dissonance. Walking with God is not comfortable. He challenges me a lot as a good Father should. I have had to adjust many personal opinions, habits and beliefs over the years in light of His Word. If Jesus’ followers cannot flex and change as the Word of God directs us, we will eventually be broken in our brittleness. Only soft hearts can be reshaped without being crushed.
Ultimately, it’s a soft heart that can learn to love. And you can ask God for one. It is His will for all of us to be able to sincerely say to each other and especially to Him, “I love you with all my heart.”