This week, we continue our series Ask Mission Central, where we tackle real questions on spiritual life from emerging Christian leaders. Subscribe to get the next post in your inbox!
Ask Mission Central: Question Sixteen
“How can I move truth from my head to my heart and know it’s working?”
We all know what it’s like to understand something intellectually but not translate that knowledge into how we live. I wrote a few weeks back about how I had a great streak of running regularly early in the pandemic, but didn’t keep it up. My intellectual apprehension of the benefits of exercise didn’t change, but my behavior did. To use the terms from your question: I’ve got the truth about exercise in my head, but it’s apparently not firmly rooted in my heart! (Local readers, shoot me an email if you’re looking for a running buddy.)
Definitions can be helpful when we think through questions like this. I take “head” to mean our capacity for intellectual understanding, while “heart” means our spiritual center, which is reflected in our lived behavior. The verb “believe” overlaps both head and heart: when we believe a truth with our heads, we agree with it intellectually. When we believe it with our hearts, we agree with it in our actions. This is a different meaning for “heart” than the source of our affections and feelings. When a truth rests in our heart, it means that how we live will be different because of it. How we feel will often be different, but not always and not necessarily as an immediate result. Let me give an example in the form of a parable about Frank and Shawna.
The Venmo Parable of Shawna
Frank and Shawna are friends in a campus Bible study. They hear about Jesus’ teaching that “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35 NIV). Neither of them see anything philosophically wrong with this statement. Both share enthusiastically during the Bible study about times when they have experienced the joy of giving. When their Bible study leader challenges them to put the verse into action by giving something away that week, they’re open to it.
Frank leaves Bible study and immediately forgets about the generosity challenge. Later that evening, Shawna’s sick roommate asks her if she can borrow twenty dollars to pick up some meds at the pharmacy. Shawna says, “Sure!” and opens Venmo. She remembers the Bible study discussion as she’s about to click “send” and says, “You can pay me back next week—actually, you’re sick. This is a gift!” The roommate is grateful, but Shawna is still a little anxious about the money that she gave.
Frank and Shawna both grasped the truth of Jesus’ teaching in their heads by looking at Scripture. Shawna grasped it with her heart by responding in obedience. Shawna’s immediate emotional response of anxiety is still understandable for someone who is not used to giving—it will likely change into an emotional response of greater joy and eagerness if she keeps at it and sees how God provides for her own needs even when she is generous to others.
A Virtuous Cycle
Shawna has taken the first step in what could become a virtuous cycle. Instead of a vicious cycle, where negative results reinforce each other, a virtuous cycle consists of good results reinforcing each other. In this particular case, it is also a “virtuous” cycle in the sense that it leads to the development of a virtue: generosity. First, someone understands the truth in their head. Then they believe it in their heart. Then they bear out that belief through the actions of their body. In reflecting on the results of their actions, they gain a deeper understanding, and the cycle repeats. We could put the cycle in a diagram like this:
You might notice a similarity between this cycle and the habit loop described by Charles Duhigg (which came up back in our post about making time for prayer). When we move truth from our heads to our hearts, we end up forming truth habits. Another way of phrasing your question could be, how do I embody truth in the habits of my life?
Rather than something inert or abstract, the truth is a powerful catalyst for dynamic change. The apostle Paul uses the phrase “obeying the truth” to describe the pattern of life for believers (Galatians 5:7 NIV). That turn of phrase might seem odd to us at first: We are accustomed to thinking of the truth as something we understand, not something we obey. But when we grasp the truth of God’s love for us in Christ, it takes hold of us at such a level that our behavior reflects the reality of what we have learned. Paul tries to convey that dynamism by describing the resulting habits or conditions of life as “fruit,” something that ripens into maturity over time: “the fruit of the Spirit love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23 NIV). Each of these virtues is an embodied truth habit: the truth made real in life.
We Live At the Mercy of Our Ideas
You got the order of things right in your question: Often, the truth does start in our heads. Philosopher and theologian Dallas Willard once observed,
“People are fully at the mercy of their ideas. Every one of us has a map in our mind made up of our ideas about life . . . Even if we want to get a better map, the only place we’ve got to start is with the map we’ve already got. That should make us very humble” (pp. 17-18).
The first step to getting truth from your head to your heart is to get it into your head in the first place. The best and surest way to do this is to grapple directly with the teaching of Jesus as it is presented to us in the Scriptures, within a community of people seeking to put those teachings into practice. Jesus, astonishingly, said, “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (John 18:37 NIV). Jesus is claiming that people who resolutely seek out and stand with the truth will see that his ideas are reliable and trustworthy. He says that those who practice his ideas will be identifiable by their manner of life: “By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:16 NIV). In this sense, Jesus’ ideas are empirically verifiable. It is not a matter of conjecture whether a given human being’s life overflows with love, joy, peace, and so on. When the disciples of Jesus possess these qualities, it is because they have internalized Jesus’s words, his ideas.
The critical next step, as shown in the parable of Shawna, is to translate these ideas into action. Now, there is a dead end here that many disciples walk into: Trying to obey the most strenuous teachings of Jesus by direct effort, failing miserably, and giving up. I call this the (vicious) cycle of try-fail-repeat. For example, the teachings of Jesus about forgiving enemies or truly radical generosity are beyond our direct ability to perform obediently when we are at the outset of life with God. They are destinations, not starting points. When we try to perform such spiritual feats, we strain but then collapse like someone trying to deadlift a weight that’s too heavy for them.
The alternative is to do what weight lifters do: train. Instead of trying to deadlift the maximum, deadlift a few pounds more than you did last time. Shawna’s twenty dollar gift to her roommate could still inspire a measure of anxiety. It felt risky to her. It was a “next step” in applying the teaching of Jesus that allowed the fruit of the Spirit to grow in her, just a bit. We can train in the same way, by taking the next step of risky obedience. Generosity is an easy example, because it can (sometimes) be measured. What if you gave a certain percentage more to your church or to the poor over the next six months than you did over the last six months?
We can also train by engaging practices that turn our minds and hearts toward God regularly. We don’t know when an opportunity for risky obedience will appear: Like the request from Shawna’s roommate, it’s often something unanticipated. Regular spiritual and emotional practices allow us to get our “reps” in so that we’re ready to lift the weight of obedience when the moment comes.
How Do I Know?
The last four words of your question may be the most important: “How can I move truth from my head to my heart and know it’s working?” It’s so easy to fool ourselves that we’re making great progress when we really have a long way to go. We can also be too hard on ourselves because our progress is slow, even though it’s real. Paul encourages the Roman believers to think of themselves with as much realism as God gives them grace for: “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you” (Romans 12:3 NIV). One way to reflect soberly on ourselves is to think about how we’ve been facing similar “obedience challenges” over time. The last time we had an opportunity to be generous, did we take it? How was it versus the time before that? Without indulging in pride, we can be grateful when we see that the Spirit is making a difference in our habits.
Asking yourself a set of questions to help you reflect on the patterns of your life, good and bad, can be helpful. You can try John Wesley’s questions for self-examination (warning: they’re intense). Another option: the fruit of the Spirit described above follows a list of “acts of the flesh,” or vices, from Paul; you could use each list to spark prayers of confession and reflection (see Galatians 5:19-23):
- Sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery
- idolatry and witchcraft
- hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage
- selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy
- drunkenness, orgies, and the like
But reflection like this, even in the beauty of solitude with God, doesn’t have the same power as an outside voice telling us the truth about our lives. That’s why Scripture also encourages us to “confess [our] sins to each other and pray for each other so that [we] may be healed” (James 5:16 NIV). When we’re vulnerable with another person and invite them to speak to us, we can get the feedback we need to really grow. In any area of life, improvement usually comes through routine, focused practice guided by timely and specific feedback. The limit on your awareness of your weaknesses is whether you give others permission to speak about them honestly.
Of course, use discretion in choosing the people you trust to give you such feedback. Not everyone deserves to have that kind of input in your life. Those who do will prove themselves by honoring your confidence and speaking with gentleness, grace, and frankness.
More and More
The virtuous cycle of moving truth from our head to our heart is simple: we understand Jesus’ ideas, take steps of risky obedience, and solicit honest feedback from trusted fellow disciples about how it’s going. That simple process will last us a lifetime of walking with Jesus. No matter how many times we return to his words, we will never exhaust their insight. As we keep putting them into practice, we’ll gain fresh eyes for the same ideas again and again, proved true in our joyful, embodied lives.
Sometimes conversations about truth can make people feel constricted, like when they worry about “narrow-mindedness.” But the vision that the Scriptures give us of truth is not narrow; it’s expansive. The truth that we discover in Jesus is what allows us to enter into a continuous, unending process of increasing life, joy, and love. Obedience is not checking off a box to fulfill an obligation or a constricting set of duties; obedience is the liberation of becoming the kind of human beings that we most deeply long to be: People whose lives reflect the truth of God’s love more and more.
Photo from Annie Spratt on Unsplash; source images for diagram from LAFS / Lars Meiertoberens / Nikita Kozin on the Noun Project (CC BY 3.0)