For the sake of clarity on this subject of listening to our hearts, think about it in terms of hearing God's will regarding one's vocation. There seems to be two extremes on a spectrum of thought. The first begins with the doctrine of universal sin, which in it's most basic form means that man is unable to enter into a self-help program and get himself out of that pattern of sin. With this, all orthodox Christian theologies agree. However, there is a dominating thought which assumes that the heart continues to be controlled by sin and "deceitful above all else." In other words, we cannot ever really "trust our hearts" so why listen to the heart. As a result, everything that we naturally desire or naturally want cannot be from God. So if we have a desire to enter into a specific vocation, our natural response should be to distrust that desire. This stream of thought is based in a totally negative view of personhood.
The other end of the spectrum takes a totally positive view of personhood. It assumes that we need to listen to the desires of our hearts, that we need to pay attention to the longings within us and that we need to wake up to the hidden aspects of our inner self that we cover up with things like people pleasing and money making. In this stream, there is little talk about things like sin, deceitful hearts, or our how we might deceive ourselves with regard to our vocation.
Of course there are tons of nuances and many who fall in between these two extremes. However, we live in a world of bifrication. We tend to boil things down into two categories: democratic vs. republican, democracy vs. communism, conservative vs. liberal, Christian vs. non-Christian. In other words, we tend to think in us vs. them terms. So those who lean toward the "deceitful heart" camp look at those who teach about listening to our hearts and criticize. Of course it goes both ways. But need this be the case?
I think not. If we actually read Jeremiah 17:9 within the context of the entire chapter instead of pulling it out and quoting it to support what we already assumes that it means, we hear YHWH speaking through Jeremiah to the Israelite people who have been hardened by patterns of sin. In this one chapter, this is the third reference to "heart." In verse one it reads "Judah's sin is engraved with an iron tool, inscribed with a flint point, on the tablets of their hearts and on the horns of their altars." Then in verse five we read, "Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who depends on flesh for his strength and whose heart turns away from the Lord."
These three references to the "heart" are not found in sentences of systematic theology. This is high rhetoric. This is imaginative poetry. These are word pictures meant to stir up God's people to help them see the dire situation in which they find themselves so that they will understand why they are in exile. Jeremiah 17 speaks to a people whose hearts had been trained by deceitfulness and sin. To this point, they could not even know their own hearts. They were out of touch with the core of their beings. God's people had been practicing sinful ways for so long and so much that it was engraved with an iron tool. As a result, they could not understand their own hearts.
The continued practice of rebellion, sin and self-fulfillment shapes the heart. We assume that these are the desires of the heart because it's what we want when we live apart from God. But these are the shallow desires, or shallow whims of the heart that control actions. Of course, we know what these shallow whims look like in our culture today. We have heard them preached against many times, things like sexual immorality, stealing, unfaithfulness to church, selfish desires, anger, drunkenness. The Apostle Paul had quite a few lists that included such things. I've also found that shallow whims come in other forms. These include: pleasing other people, job security and financial stability, success in the eyes of rivals, and duty and obligation to the way everyone does things. Shallow desires also come in forms like relief from pain through comfort food, drug use, empty entertainment or co-dependent intimacy. We make decisions based on these shallow desires and they keep us from hearing the deep desires of our hearts. To apply it to the example of vocation, many times we make decisions about our vocation or job situation based on these shallow desires. Our decision might look good on the surface, but something deep within is being pushed down and shut in a room within our hearts.
The shallow whims are what the New Testament calls "desires of the flesh." And so much of our teaching focuses on not giving into the flesh that we end up not ever trusting anything that might arise from our own hearts. Is that all there is to our hearts? Is our heart so one-layered that all we can see is the shallow-desires that we must avoid? I hope that we are not limited to such a simplistic understanding of who we are as persons.
There is a deeper place in the heart where our deep desires reside. A place that we rarely have the time to go. But we need to pay more attention to how we can "listen to our heart", how we can unlock those rooms of our hearts and find our deep desires. Jeremiah who also wrote God saying to his people, “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts." (Jer 31:33). If we are ever going to get in touch with the law that the Spirit is writing on our hearts we must go deeper than what we are NOT to do. We must go deep to the point of listening to the deep desires of our hearts.
Jeremiah 31 is speaking to the deep desires of our hearts, those that go to the core of who God created us to be. There we find that the Spirit of God is writing God's ways within us. As we follow the Spirit we train our hearts to speak to the deep desires that we often cover up with shallow whims. It's hear that we find that our deep desires cry our for things like friendship, community, laughter over meals, freedom to love and be loved, and non-violence. It's also here that we discover our unique contribution to the world, one created and formed by God. Here we find what we can offer to others in our vocation, not because we must, not because it makes the right amount of money, not because it is pleasing to others. But because it longs to burst out of us.
When I met Shawna, no one had to tell me that I wanted to ask her out on a date. No one had to tell me it was God's will for us to be married. There was something deep within me that wanted to be with her and share life with her. It was, and still is, bursting out from within me.
Getting in touch with the deep desires of our hearts is a bit like this. It's about finding our passions, our longings, and our joys. It's about allowing that which we would die for to arise freely from within and then giving our whole being to that. The voice of the heart will not speak quickly because most of us have trained that voice to stay quiet and shut away in a nice safe place within. Nor will the voice of the heart come out with a great boom or a loud yell. It will not compete with the frenetic noise of our world. It's too valuable to come out like that.
Instead, the voice of our heart speaks as the Spirit leads us to open the door of our true and honest self. It's not the self we covering up what lies within through performance or religious pontification. It comes out as we unlock what we really think, what we really believe, what we really feel. Sometimes, that involves the unlocking doors of pain, frustration and loss. Sometimes it involves opening doors of fear, hatred and failure. Behind these doors are the things that we tell ourselves not to feel or think. But in those same rooms are hidden desires, deep desires that line up with who God has made us to be. There the Spirit is already at work, pulling away the stuff that covers those desires up.
Listen to your heart! To the deep parts of your heart! What do you hear?