I think I was in Sunday School as a boy when I learned the “head, heart, hands” saying that describes how God’s Word should affect our lives. It is a great way to show how knowledge is the spring from which obedience flows. Each of the three parts toward obedience is necessary; eliminating any single one is dangerous. In this post I want to examine the danger that skips the heart aspect of obedience.
It’s very clear that the Bible commands certain conditions of the heart. I can list countless verses where we are commanded to feel a certain way– perhaps most popularly the shema in Deuteronomy 6:4-5 “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Love is an emotion. “Rejoice in the Lord with all your heart. I will say it again: rejoice!” Joy is an emotion.
The way to get around this is the redefine love. And this is how Christians do it: they say God can’t command emotions because emotions are spontaneous and transient– coming and going without our command– and God wouldn’t command us to do something out of our capacity to obey. So love, then, is no longer an emotion, it’s an action. Loving God isn’t having affection for God, it’s doing things for God. It’s reading the Bible. It’s going to church. It’s praying. It’s serving. And it’s all justifiable because it’s impossible to feel love for God every single day.
I can’t tell you how many Christians buy that. Too many. So these things become to equivalent of love. And the true nature of love is lost. Suddenly you are able to love God without liking him very much. And the fact that you are a joyless person isn’t a big deal because, after all, you are going to church, reading your Bible, and giving your tithe.
One way they further illustrate how love is not an emotion is by speaking of marriage. It’s kinda like marriage, they say. “You won’t always feel love for your spouse, but love means you stay committed, you work it out, you make it through.” We equate love with service, commitment, and sacrifice. While I agree with the first statement, that we won’t always feel love for our spouses, I don’t go so far then to redefine love as simply “staying committed”. But that is what love is for many Christians and many spouses.
Why are we so ready to believe that God wouldn’t command an emotion, believing that God wouldn’t command something we aren’t able to control? God commands us to be born-again (John 3:3) and the new birth is a gift from the Spirit (John 3:8). God commands us to repent (Matt. 4:17) and repentance is described as something granted to us (2 Tim. 2:25). Paul calls us to be reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:20), but he also tells us it is God who justifies (Rom. 8:33). Why do we think it strange that God would command spontaneous (as opposed to conjured up) emotions such as love, joy, humility, fervor, hatred (toward sin), or peace?
I’ll show you why love can’t be defined as service, commitment, or even sacrifice. 1 Corinthians 13:1-3:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
You can speak nicely to someone without loving them. You can be a brilliant person without loving people. And here’s the kicker: you can die for another person and not necessarily be a loving person. Here the line is drawn– love is not words, love is not knowledge, love is not even service, commitment, or sacrifice. Love is, well, love. Love likes.
God is commanding your heart to be a certain way. To feel certain way about things. There’s no getting around it. And the reason God does that is precisely because it’s impossible for us to succeed apart from his changing power.
Here’s the scariest consequence of skipping heart and go straight from head to hands. This scariest consequence is this:
We might succeed.
And if we succeed in becoming obedient, nice, churchy people (without serious heart-change) we will become self-righteous, joyless, stagnant Christians.
Because the message of the gospel is not simply “behave.” It’s not know what to do, now do it.
Why? Because once full obedience is accomplished we will think we’ve arrived. We may not say it that way, but we will act that way. We will be satisfied with avoiding the sins of infidelity and perjury and cheating on your taxes. And we will stop looking after our souls. And if the church succeeds in creating this kind of culture, it will succeed in something extremely dangerous. C.S. Lewis once said,
We must not suppose that if we succeeded in making everyone nice we should have saved their souls. A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world.
Head, heart, hands. Don’t skip the heart part. You might succeed and have no further need of the cross.