I don’t know about you but I love to doodle. I have been in school for 20 years, and I can look back over 20-years worth of class notes and find all around the edges of my paper little stars, smiley faces, trees, and yes, my most adored doodling character, hearts. For as long as I remember, hearts have signified that one, most sought after word – love. I will sign a letter with a heart as a substitute for the word love, knowing that it is understood that I mean love. I even wear a t-shirt, along with most of America, that reads, “I ‘heart’ N.Y.”, with the big red heart standing in the place of the word love. To us, the heart is a symbol of love, a love that is often times defined as an emotional and sentimental feeling.
There is nothing wrong with this; however, the danger comes when we read our understanding of heart back into the Bible. Every Christian, no matter their culture, is in danger of reading their own culture, thoughts, and experiences back into Scripture thereby potentially making a passage say something that it never would have meant in the time and culture in which it was written. This is called eisegesis.
The Old Testament, like us today, refers to the heart symbolically. One of the most popularly quoted OT verse is Deuteronomy 6:5 – “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Verse 6 follows with “and these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.” If we want to leave eisegesis (reading into the text) and to cleave to exegesis (reading out from the text), we must first ask what did the heart symbolize in the ancient near eastern culture and thus to the Hebrew people?
The heart, especially in the book of Proverbs, is interchangeably used with the mind. Since the heart symbolized the seedbed of decision making and since thinking is very much involved with making decisions, the heart and mind almost overlap in their function. The heart is thus the spiritual side of you that makes decisions. When David confessed his sin to God after committing adultery with Bathsheba, he asked God to renovate his heart. When he prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God,” (Ps. 51:10) David was asking for a decision-making rehabilitation. This is why David said a few verses prior, “Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart”(Ps. 51:6). David desires truth and wisdom in his heart since it is where he makes his decisions. Understanding then that the heart in the OT is often understood with mind, thinking, and decision-making, we can rightly understand Psalm 119:11 – “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” If you are going to hide something in your heart, it means you will keep it in memory and let it influence the decisions you make.
This does not mean that the heart in the OT had nothing to do with love, but a Hebrew hearing the law would not have equated the heart with an emotional feeling of love. I thought it was quite comical when one of my professors at Beeson Divinity School, Allen P. Ross, to whom I credit this understanding of heart in the Old Testament, told our class that a Hebrew would not likely say, “I love you with my whole heart.” Instead, they would more likely say, “I love you with my whole liver.” The liver to the Hebrew people was a bigger and more important organ. In fact, it would be easier to change a heart than a liver; therefore, the liver would be a better way to express love – it was bigger, more important, and unchanging. I don’t think “I love you with my whole liver” will catch on anytime soon, but it makes sense nonetheless.
To love the Lord my God with all my heart does not mean loving him with all my emotional and sentimental love. It means to love him with my decisions and my thoughts. It is how I live my life. I must love God through and with all of me and let my words, thoughts, and deeds reflect that I truly love God. Peter’s thrice confession that he loved Jesus after Jesus’ resurrection meant nothing until he fed his sheep, just like Jesus said to do. I must reassess the condition of my heart. What do my decisions about what to say, what to wear, what to do, what not to do, how to respond to my enemy, how to treat my neighbor (and the list goes on) reveal about my love for God? What do they reveal about my character? It takes one second to doodle a heart, but it takes a lifetime to fashion one’s heart, one’s seedbed of decision-making, to love God.