The story of my childhood troubles began when the Protestant Reformers inadvertently adopted a form of Christian rationalism as a corrective for the (at least perceived) mystical vagaries, sensory superstitions, material corruptions, and aesthetic deceptions of the Roman Catholic church.
Then that same Christian rationalism, even more narrowly refined, traveled to colonial America at the heart of the Puritan experiment, eventually becoming the main cause of its failure (see The Guise of Every Graceless Heart for an in-depth study).
In spite of the failure of the Puritan experiment, that even narrower Christian rationalism (largely unamended) was the mold into which I was poured as a child growing up in a “Reformed” church.
And, as far as I can tell, it turned me into an operational psychopath.
It has taken me years to pinpoint some of the most damaging errors in what I was taught as a youth (in word or deed), and it will take me many more years to recover from their ill effects. This article explores some of the biblical and personal realizations I have made in the course of my recovery. It is long, but I hope it is useful and edifying to you.
“The Heart” in the Bible
Have you ever wondered why Jesus apparently added a phrase when he quoted the greatest commandment? Deuteronomy 6:5 reads: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” So why does Luke 10:27 add “and with all your mind”?
I believe the main reason for this was not a change in the truth, but a change in the culture. Jesus spoke Aramaic (a sister language of Hebrew), and he very well may have recited from Deuteronomy exactly as it is written. But Luke, Greek that he was, perhaps felt the need to include an additional phrase to properly translate the substance of what Jesus said for a Greek audience. Luke knew his Greek audience would have a far different perspective on the heart than ancient Hebrews did. So he changed the words to maintain the truth of the original.1
See, in Old Testament culture, the seat of the intellect was not the brain/mind. It was the heart (leb: לֵב), the “inner man.” In fact, it continues to be the case that many Eastern cultures (at least in their language) use the heart as the organ of the intellect. In Chinese even to this day, the pictograph for the heart (心), not the brain (脑), features prominently in words like “interesting (有意思)” and “smart (聪明).”
Similarly, the ancient Egyptians literally threw away the brain during the embalming process. Though the heart was preserved in a jar as the center of the will and creativity, they had no idea what purpose the brain could serve in the afterlife.
It wasn’t until much later that the organ of the intellect began to migrate to the brain, and the organ of the emotions eventually changed from the Old Testament kidneys (or “reins”) to the New Testament heart.
Old Testament translators have often rendered the ancient word “heart” as “sense,” “mind,” or “intelligence” for Western (read Hellenistic or Roman) audiences. But this translation is often inconsistent (sometimes for good reason) throughout English Old Testaments, which has caused no small amount of confusion. This is yet another reason why some familiarity with the original languages of the Bible continues to be helpful even to laymen like me.
For instance, consider Jeremiah 17:9-10. These verses are central to why many Christians reject emotions as deceptive and untrustworthy:
“The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it? I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give to each man according to his ways, according to the results of his deeds.”
“See!” they say. “God says it right there. The heart, the seat of emotions, not the mind mentioned in verse 10 is more deceitful than all else.”
Except the word “heart” in verse 9 doesn’t actually refer to the seat of your emotions. It refers to the seat of your intellect and will: your inner man. The misleading equivocation of the NASB translation becomes even more pronounced in verse 10. By using both “heart” and “mind” in verse 10, the NASB further emphasizes the wrong interpretation of verse 9, encouraging a projection of modern Western definitions onto ancient words. Here’s the thing: the word “mind” doesn’t belong in verse 10. That is, unless you translate “leb” as “mind” in both verses.
The two organs mentioned in Jeremiah 17:10 are “the kidneys”—the ancient seat of the emotions—and “the heart”—the ancient seat of the intellect, will, or inner man. As it is, either the NASB translators rendered “kidneys” as “mind” in verse 10 (which is an odd choice to say the least), or they are translating the same ancient word “heart” in two nearly opposing ways over the course of only two verses.
I have no fundamental objection to the NASB’s translation of verse 10 (if they are using the Western “heart” as a stand-in for the ancient “kidneys” and the Western “mind” for the ancient “heart”), but only if that same translation holds for verse 9: you know, the verse right before verse 10. This kind of stuff makes me want to scream. Right now the translation is at least very misleading, if not flatly wrong.
It makes sense that translators and church leaders would downgrade the value of emotions and place the intellect at the forefront of the Christian faith. After all, the Bible has largely been translated, interpreted, protected, and delivered by scribes and scholars, and it is only natural for them to emphasize (perhaps unconsciously) their own strengths and downplay the importance of their weaknesses.
But, as important as it is to love God with your intellect, I believe that it is of equal value to love God with your feelings. All of our capacities need to be submitted to God, obviously, and that means all of our capacities should be strengthened, valued, affirmed, and exercised within the expansive parameters of God’s character.
So I take issue with the notion that any one human capacity is not prone to fallibility, as if reason is more to be trusted than emotion. If anything, when properly interpreted, Jeremiah 17:9 indicates that the intellect is the most deceitful capacity of man. In modern terms, it could easily be translated: “The mind is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick…” I would rather translate it here as “the inner man,” but either way, the idea that feelings are less trustworthy or more fallible than reason is not biblical. Both feelings and intellect are important and equally indispensable. Lessening the value of one capacity over another within the church is bound to create dangerous and truth-distorting imbalances.
Growing Up Under Christian Rationalism
And just such an imbalance nearly derailed my faith. I was born into a small “Totally Reformed” Presbyterian church where the primary preacher regularly corrected young people for beginning sentences with, “I feel that …” He would tell them, “It doesn’t matter how you feel. Feelings are deceptive. Instead, say, ‘I think that…’”
I was baptized in this church as an infant. I graduated from the school the church started. My first three children were also baptized in this church by the same minister who baptized me. There has only been a handful of years in my life that I have not been a member there. As thankful as I am for many things about my first church, I believe its central errors were providentially aligned with my own worst sin tendencies. If there is such a thing as a representative product of its teaching for good and for ill, I am he.
And most days, I feel like a psychopath. Or, excuse me, I think I feel like a psychopath—with a seared conscience, almost no spontaneous empathy, and a nearly complete lack of remorse for wrongdoing. And I believe much of my emotional anemia resulted from the unbalanced and unbiblical teachings I imbibed on the emotions and the intellect.
I imagine most church leaders probably won’t believe they are actually Christian rationalists. But it’s not just what you say you believe that counts. It’s what you do about your beliefs that makes the biggest difference. Wisdom is, after all, vindicated by her children (Luke 7:35). And it would follow that folly is damned by hers.
In my church experience, I never heard anything like: “You need to restrain your intellect.” Young people in my church were encouraged to exercise their intellects as much as possible. We were encouraged to be scholarly and logical. We were encouraged to read voraciously and view the world consistently, analytically, even critically. We were rewarded if we got good grades and debated well. We were admitted to the Lord’s Supper only when we could give a satisfactory intellectual explanation of our personal commitment to Christ.
I was encouraged to have an unbounded intellectual capacity—as far as my limits would allow me. I was never encouraged to put a governor on my intellect. I was never taught in practical terms the profound difference between knowing about God and knowing God. Propositional preaching dwarfed every other work of our church’s worship and service. The pursuit of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom—all of which were mistakenly assumed to be primarily intellectual—completely overshadowed all the other means of grace. The nearly exclusive primacy of cool-headed rational processing was early and often impressed into the wax of my young mind.
And, on the other hand, I and my peers were regularly encouraged to put a strict governor on our emotions. With regular consistency, the leaders and parents of my first church said things like, “You need to control your emotions. Restrain yourself. Suck it up.” All the time. Sometimes they referenced Proverbs 25:28 in their reasoning, without ever mentioning that the human “spirit” which needed controlling might comprise more than merely the emotions.
Children who felt very deeply were not encouraged or rewarded for their peculiar gifts. They were often “bad” students. Their parents compared them (negatively) to the “smart” kids. They weren’t allowed or encouraged to explore the upper limits of their capacity to feel. In fact, they were encouraged regularly to “Be reasonable!” They were criticized—sometimes mocked—by teachers, leaders, and other students if they processed or reacted in “overly emotional” ways.
Since these children couldn’t always explain the relationship they had with Jesus in clear propositional terms, their faith was often questioned or demeaned. They couldn’t debate or defend their views, so how were they going to be proper Christian soldiers? Their value in the church was diminished or overlooked. They questioned doctrines that upset them, and their doubts were coldly set aside with pre-fabricated “reasonable” answers. These children became convinced that they were “stupid.” Maybe even “worthless.” And the church either crushed their spirits or sent them into the world completely unprepared for the freedoms and temptations of adulthood.
My Psychopathic Heart of Stone
And this antagonism toward emotions affected me deeply. Each of us has been given quite different inclinations and tools for understanding the world. I have always been inclined toward verbal processing and abstract thought. I was already predisposed to demean the value of emotions even as a young child. I am not naturally empathetic. Like most children, I was also quite sensitive to mockery—a reality my childhood peers were savage in exploiting. At a young age, I learned to view my emotions as a weakness and a vulnerability. I hardened my heart into a tablet of stone.
So I was all too delighted to find out from my trusted authorities that curbing and restraining my emotional capacities under the rigors of logic and intellect was actually central to godliness and the Christian faith. If knowledge was at the center of the Christian faith, I was peculiarly suited to be a star in the church. And I loved the attention and praise I got, not realizing until much later the kind of damage I was doing to myself.
It was only in my twenties that I started to realize what a monster I had become. There was truly no wickedness that was beyond me. I felt absolutely no remorse when I hurt people. I could cheat, lie, and steal without even a tremor of feeling. I could use people mercilessly and sleep peacefully afterward. I had quietly compartmentalized my personality, stowing away my most rapacious lusts in a version of myself I could easily disavow in public without any hesitation. None of my personas were totally or really me, so there was nothing I couldn’t justify intellectually.
I was desperately sick in my inner man, but I could still give all the right answers, perhaps more clearly than ever. From the outside, I looked as serenely knowledgeable and “Christian” as ever, but I was a cruel and calculating thinking machine. In other words, I was an operational psychopath.
That is why it has always troubled me when people call Hitler “crazy” or when we say serial murderers suffer from “mental illness.” Hitler wasn’t crazy. His reasoning is sound if you accept his premises. His was not a failure of logic, but a failure of feeling. Any normally emotional person would not have been able to conceive the atrocities he orchestrated without being overwhelmed by guilt and remorse.
It’s interesting that psychiatrists have also not been able to pinpoint any common complex of mental illness when it comes to the vast majority of serial murderers and terrorists. In other words, psychopathic minds and psychopathic logical capacities are working just fine, often far better than average.
The problem is that psychopaths have generally subjugated their feelings to cold rationality to such an extent that their feelings are no longer useful as a check on their actions. They feel no remorse. They can justify anything in their minds. The mind is, after all, quite deceptive, especially when it has nothing to restrain it.
Taking Hold of “the Reins”
Notice that “the kidneys”—the ancient seat of emotions—are also called “the reins” in the Old Testament. This figure is quite fruitful. On one hand, your feelings restrain you from some of the worst things you are capable of doing. When you are a child, you feel bad when you hurt someone. When children lie, it’s usually obvious from the expressions on their faces. Your feelings “out” you. They keep you in check. They let you and others know what’s going on deep inside you. Even when they are pointed in the wrong direction, your emotions are nearly always an honest picture of your “inner man.”
But your feelings can sometimes be your “reins” in a different way—controlling you—causing you to react too quickly or unrighteously in the moment. It’s for this reason that we encourage children to “think before they act and speak.” The problems start when you tell children (in word or deed) that emotions really needn’t enter in to their decision-making or worldview at all.
God wants you to submit your reins to his spirit. This very well may be why God required “the kidneys” in sacrifice (Exod. 29:13, Lev. 9:10). He doesn’t merely want cold willingness from us; he wants passion. He doesn’t want you to cut off your feelings as if they are intrinsically untrustworthy or valueless. We are to love him with our whole person.
And, from my own experience as well as a consideration of “the reins,” feelings are directly connected to “the conscience.” Feelings need to be conformed to the spirit of God, and they can be faulty, of course. But feelings are no more faulty than the intellect, and they need to be allowed to operate as an independent and equal check and balance on the deceptions of other human faculties.
When Feelings Are Subordinate to the Intellect…
But in so many churches, like the one in which I grew up, feelings are subordinated to the intellect, and the implications of this subordination are massive.
For one, it creates psychopaths like me. Over the past few years, I have started to learn to feel again. The process has been painful and humiliating, and I feel like a vulnerable and awkward child when I am attempting to exercise sympathy or empathy. I must credit my wife as the central means God has used in my emotional development. Without her forgiving, long-suffering patience and perseverance I would likely be as cold-blooded and dangerous as ever.
But many of my childhood peers have not fared as well as I have. I have kept up with many of them since we’ve grown up, and nearly all of them have had similar experiences to me. A sadly significant number of them have rejected Jesus at this point. Basically all of them have had major crises of faith, many of which were connected to the unbalanced teachings of our youth.
If you look at the American church’s current retention rate of young people, the numbers are damning. That in itself should be reason enough to take a hard look at what we’re teaching our children, by word but especially by deed. It’s not good enough that they know the right things. We have to teach them to love the right things. And loving the right things involves valuing deep feeling.
Second, just as emotions have been subordinated in individuals, emotional people have been subordinated in the larger church body, especially in “Reformed” churches. And just as an individual loses his conscience without healthy feelings, so the church and this whole country have lost their collective conscience.
Somehow we can rationalize killing unborn children by clever bits of wordplay. Somehow we can rationalize drone killing terror suspects, bombing cities, and operating as police forces in sovereign nations overseas. And that’s just murder. We also justify slavery of all kinds, national theft and fraud, the widespread devaluation of women and feminine prowess, cruelty toward the foreigner, the widow, the orphan, etc. We are a rationalistic and scientistic society. We have sawn off our reins. And I hold the church directly responsible for this.
I believe the leaders at my birth church—and so many other Christian congregants and leaders—are wrong for assigning feelings a low place and importance in the church, and I believe their nearly exclusive affirmation of the utility of intellect is detrimental to the true and biblical practice of Christianity. The same error that sank the Puritans, rationalism, is sinking the inheritors of that legacy.
But is Emotionalism Any Better?
“But wait!” you might say, “the main problem with many churches in America today is that they operate entirely on feelings without any critical thinking at all.”
Yes. That may be true. But this problem is actually very much connected to the legacy of Christian rationalism, oddly enough.
Most “feeling-centered” Americans operate on mostly uncultivated and undisciplined feelings. Why? Because when a society discards a natural human capacity as basically useless, that capacity doesn’t cease to exist—it just becomes trivial and shallow in its applications.
Years ago, when I heard childish, repetitive worship songs and saw (or avoided seeing) childish, predictable “Christian” movies, my first thought was, “These people are intellectually deficient. If they knew more, they would reject this garbage.” I thought the main problem was that Christians were allowing themselves to be directed by feelings rather than by reason. My heart was filled with pride. I wanted people to be more like me, as if that would fix the church.
But in fact, this is not the case. Many of the people who are at home in “feeling-centered” churches cannot be scholars, and that’s potentially a very good thing for the church. Not everyone is like me: inclined to intellectual pursuits. Some people are inclined to, or at least capable of, emotional pursuits. They should be allowed and even encouraged to expand and cultivate their emotional prowess in the same way we encourage intellectuals in the church to expand and cultivate their intellects.
It is because we have not valued and affirmed the emotions that so many emotional people have not capitalized on their potential. The fact that so much of the mainstream church is adequately stirred by repetitive, childish pabulum is not primarily a failure of the intellect. For them at least, it is a failure of feeling. If they felt more deeply and expansively, such shallow emotion would not touch or satisfy them. The problem in the church, even in feeling-centered churches, is not too much feeling; it is too little.
Just imagine what would happen if the roles of the intellect and the emotions were reversed: What if the intellect were deemed useless and the emotions were alone invested with utility in our culture? Would not the intellect become to us like the emotions have become? Stilted at young ages, carelessly crushed or discarded, a human novelty exercised only for entertainment or amusement—receiving no nurture, little praise, and little affirmation.
There are biblical standards and values for both the intellect and the emotions. There needs to be a balance, both individually and corporately. I will not ever be as great as my wife in empathy and sincerity, but through diligent practice, I can at least learn to appreciate how great she is. And because I recognize that my wife is far superior to me in this area (at least), I rely heavily on her emotional intelligence to contribute to our decisions and inform my tone. (I’m still learning, so please don’t hold anything against her.)
No gift is insignificant in the church, and there should be mutual love, respect, and honor between brothers and sisters in the church for the varieties of gifts we all bring to the body (1 Cor. 12).
Knowledge involves discipline, sure. But knowledge involves intimacy too. Knowledge without intimacy is lifeless. Attempted intimacy without true knowledge is selfish and shallow. Churches have currently separated into divisive hemispheric lobes—some of hot aimless fire, some of cold heartless light. This has to change. There should be a healthy mix of hearts and minds in the church, each submitting themselves to one another in the fear of Christ.
But right now, the church desperately lacks deeply feeling people with expansive emotional capacities. They are our conscience. They are central to uninhibited worship. They are vital to our empathy for the broken world.
It’s time we hold feelings to the same standard we hold the intellect to, and we can do that only when we value feelings as much as we value the intellect. It’s time to topple the idol of Christian rationalism. It’s time we Westerners learn to love God with all of our human faculties.
The ideas in this article have many other applications. For instance, I can’t help but think that Christian rationalism affects gender relations in the church. It’s no great surprise to me that the patriarchy movement has grown naturally out of the Reformed Puritan Renaissance or that women (even in more “liberal” environments) have accepted a masculine-centered hierarchy of values and prowesses.
Also, I don’t think it’s a mere coincidence that so many serial murderers grew up in strict religious homes.
Also, some of the greatest Emotionals in the church belong to the artistic community, so it makes sense that many, if not most, artists don’t feel at home in either shallow-feeling or Christian rationalist congregations.
If you can you think of other applications, or just want to sound off on something, please do so in a comment. Thanks for reading!
- Thanks to EricW for these corrections/refinements:
I’m not sure Luke’s “Greek audience” would be the reason “he changed the words,” or that Luke was even the one who changed the words. Mark 12:30 has the same four terms, but in a different order (kardia, psyche, dianoia, and ischys; both Luke and Mark substitute ischys for the LXX dynamis) and Matthew 22:37 has three of them (kardia, psyche, dianoia), including “mind” but omitting “might.”
In the LXX translation of the Hebrew Masoretic Text, it uses dianoia, psyche and dynamis to translate Deut. 6:5. So perhaps Mark (and Luke by carryover) added kardia (“heart”) to reflect the broader meaning of the Hebrew lev. In other words, kardia, and not dianoia, would be the “addition” to the text (as well as changing dynamis to ischys). ↩