The Head and the Heart: Our knowledge of God

Knowing Things

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between the head and the heart.  Specifically, how they work together through faith in knowing God.  Since Adam and Eve mankind has wrestled with what he believes to be true versus what he feels to be true.  It is tempting to think of knowledge as purely an act or state of believing true things; such as I believe there is a God and He created the universe.  While these beliefs are factually true, known as propositional  knowledge, they are more concerned with information about God and not of Him personally.  

In Christian teaching, true knowledge of God also requires a right relationship with Him through Jesus.  That relational aspect has much to do with the category of experiential knowledge.  This kind of knowledge assumes there is some information that can only be obtained through personal experience.

For example, I can know many things about a hammer which hangs on a wall, such as it’s weight, color, and dimensions.  This information can be accurate but is unlike the kind of information one gathers when they grasp that hammer in their hand.  What does the grip feel like?  How does it feel when you swing it?  Is the weight balanced?  Does the handle jarr your hand?  The knowledge required to answer these questions can only be gathered through the personal experience of using the hammer.  

Sure, someone who is experienced can describe those things to you, but even if you believed them, and what they said were true, you would still be lacking in the knowledge which can only be gained by your personal experience.  Someone can tell you, “the hammer is heavy”, and you have a proper idea about the concept of heavy.  Yet, this would still not replace the knowledge you would have by feeling the heaviness of the hammer on your own.

The same rule applies with human relationships.  You can read a person’s Bio on their social media page, learn all about their interests, where they have been, where they’re from, where they went to school, so on and so forth.  But of course this isn’t the same thing as having a conversation with that person.  In speaking with someone you can pick up on their unique personality and character.  You see how they respond to difficult questions, how they laugh at your jokes. Etc.

Where am I going with this?

It’s my observation that in our Christian faith we often encourage one another to let the heart, or our feelings and emotions, be directed or pulled along by what we believe to be true (i.e. know because of God’s word), and not the other way around.  The reason being is that it is more often our feelings which undermine our confidence and assurance in Christ and not false beliefs.  Additionally, Scripture is unalterable.  What God has revealed about Himself to us is unchanging and accessible through the Holy Bible.  So, often when we are concerned with having the right understanding about who God is we go to His word for that information.  We can’t change what His word says about Him, rather we must rest in it.

Now, here’s how I think these things are related.  Most, not all, of our propositional knowledge of God comes through reading the Bible and hearing it preached.  Our proper response should be to affirm these truths and live them out in faith.  The problem is that we struggle to believe because our hearts expect the experience of these truths to all of a sudden manifest in our lives as if by magic.  For example, we are taught that God is like a loving father who works toward our good.  Yet there are circumstances in our lives which cause us to doubt this notion.  Perhaps you lost a job, or have bad health, or a loved one died.  These experiences seem to contradict the things which God’s word reveals about Him.  So it is, when we can’t make our hearts feel the same way we think about God it’s as if our knowledge of Him is lacking, or imperfect, possibly in crisis.  We may even ask ourselves if we really know God at all.  All we can see at the time is that the things His word says about Him don’t match up with our immediate experience.

Perhaps the most personal example for myself is the tension between believing the reality that we are sinless in Christ, new creatures, and yet still experiencing sin.  What I know to be true here doesn’t always match up with my experience and as a result at times I will struggle with doubt and assurance in my faith.  In this way, there often exists a gap between our propositional knowledge and our experiential knowledge, between what we believe to be true and what we feel to be true, between our head and our heart.

Now, while I think the advice to let your heart be directed by the truth found in God’s Word is helpful and needed, I also don’t think that’s the whole story of knowledge and how the Christian knows God. That is, I don’t think knowledge will always exist in the form of waiting for our hearts to catch up to what we already believe to be true.  I find this passage in John 4:23-24 quite interesting in this regard.  It reads:

“But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”  

In my mind I like things to fit together and work based on logical steps; one premise built upon another which results in a sound conclusion; much in the same way a deductive argument works.  The problem I find with this verse is that it doesn’t offer a first or then, but an and between spirit and truth.  Secretly I really wish it did say “truth then spirit”.  I would feel a lot more comfortable thinking that having the right knowledge of a thing will result in having the right affections and feelings for that thing.  But that isn’t always true, and that isn’t what the verse says.  It offers the two concepts of spirit and truth as complements of one another.  No hierarchy or priority is given between them.

In addition, faith is not made possible by knowledge alone but by the combination of believing in Jesus (which assumes you understand who He is and what He did) and the enabling work of the Holy Spirit (giving us new hearts and affections).  As a result, I’ve come to think of true knowledge not in terms of whether my heart conforms to what I believe to be true but whether these things complement each other. The emphasis is not on belief directing the heart but rather the gap between these two being closed. When they work in unison, that is perfect and complete knowledge.

Like I’ve already said, I think the illustration of true belief directing our hearts is still very helpful and needed advice.  The reason is that it is our hearts which are prone to wander, not so much our minds.  In this way, closing the gap still has more to do with aligning our hearts to truth and not vice-versa.  This is not to say that we can’t or won’t struggle with having poor ideas and beliefs about who Jesus is, what He has accomplished through His death and resurrection, and who we are because of that.  Certainly part of the Christian life involves growing in knowledge of God through reading His word and gaining additional insight about His character.  In addition, Satan can influence this world and individuals in such a way as to diffuse misinformation which causes error in belief (i.e. Cults).

But for those faithful who have right knowledge of God, their weakness is not in what one believes (since they already believe the right thing) but in what one feels to be true.  It is that most human aspect of emotions which often create such trouble for us.  In Scripture this aspect of the person is often symbolized by the term heart and at times spirit and soul.  We use similar language to describe strong emotion by saying that we feel a thing “deep in our soul”, and to “let not your heart be troubled”.

An Anchor for the Soul

It’s this emotional corner of our human hearts which we wrestle against most vigorously due to the effects of sin and fallenness.  Our hearts are deceitful and prone to wander.  Our flesh is weak.  At times it is like a shipped tossed about by waves.  For this reason I believe the author of Hebrews, after describing for several verses the hope set before us in Christ concludes in 6:19 that “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul. Firm and secure.”

It’s as if the author is saying, “Here’s a truth; Christ has accomplished for you what you could not through the Law; that is, righteousness before God.  Now, believe in this truth, that in Christ you are righteous before Him, and let that be an anchor for your soul, the thing which prevents your being tossed about by the storms of life and faith.”

In this way we must let what we believe to be true direct what we feel to be true.  This is the reality we face as we live in a fallen world and are influenced not only by the sinfulness of culture but the sin within ourselves.  Yet we aren’t without hope in our present state either in that the Holy Spirit is giving us new hearts and renewing our minds along the way, enabling us to think and feel and believe the things which are true about Jesus and about us.  The Holy Spirit enables us to believe while also He works to conform our hearts and affections toward Christ.  We are becoming new creatures in Christ.

And one day, perhaps not too long from now, lest the Lord should tarry, we will know Him perfectly just as we are perfectly known by Him now (1 Cor. 13:12).  That gap between our head and our heart will be closed and the two will work in perfect unison as we know and experience God’s very presence.  And that’s a truth you can let your heart and soul rest in!

2 thoughts on “The Head and the Heart: Our knowledge of God

  1. Very interesting, loved how you were able to say what we have heard preached many times and yet most of us never understand the truth of it. How in our humanness we struggle to fully understand the nature of the relationship we should have with God vs the nature of our relationship in reality of this world. Very Good read, thank you.


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