These days, most of us tend to think of the heart as related to emotions. But back in Bible days, that was the role of the kidneys! In the language of the Old Testament, or Hebrew Scriptures, levb, “heart,” means the direction in which my life leans, in other words the thrust of my life, what my actions tell other people, all apart from my words. So it means a lot when the ancient psalmist says to God, “I give thanks to You with my whole heart!” (Psalm 86:12).
As I said, in our lives today we see one’s heart as the place of our passion lived out. One of the saddest things I’ve ever experienced was when a colleague looked back at his life and told me, “If I had it all to do over again, I wouldn’t! I would not have made the choices I made, for the vocation I followed. It wasn’t worth it!”
On the other hand, you and I both can feel it and see it, when someone is following his or her heart! They are radiant with it all! They just brim over with enthusiasm and light!
But the psalmist says, “I give thanks to You with my whole heart.” Why is that? Well yes, we also have seen half-hearted living, when people are ambivalent in their witness. They struggle between two commitments that are ultimately mutually exclusive. For example, “I follow Jesus, but I also want everyone’s approval.” Or “I want to care for all God’s people, but I need to hoard ‘my’ money, for emotional security.” Of course, we don’t actually say it that way, but that can be the nonverbal message of our actions (to take the Hebrew understanding), including our emotions.
Okay, so we all live to some degree with divided hearts: a faith that goes one way, and a lifestyle that goes the other way, or at least gives an ambiguous message at times. Another way to say this is that we’re all totally dependent on God’s forgiveness and grace! So when we pray, “I give thanks to You with my whole heart,” it’s a prayer of adoration but also a statement of intention. And it’s also a prayer of supplication, asking God for the grace, the Holy-Spirit power, to live it out.
So here with Psalm 86, we may say, “I give thanks to You, O God, not just with words, but with my actions; and not just with individual actions, but with the unspoken total witness of my life, the ingrained pattern of my lifestyle – that is, with my ‘stewardship’ with whatever I do with whatever You, God, have entrusted to me, including my very life.”
This fits, doesn’t it, with Jesus’ bottom-line description of God’s Teaching (that’s the meaning of the word Torah, teaching). He said to love God with all your mind, heart, soul/life, and strength/body, and to love your neighbor as much as you love yourself. They are two sides of the same coin.
So I want to come back to this thing about the heart. When we try to “lean” our lives toward Jesus’ values, toward God’s priorities, even though we may be wobbly about it and not always consistent, we find that “our heart is glad in God!” That’s Psalm 33:21. And it also expresses the community dimension to our life together. As a people, as a congregation, as a gathering of two or more people of faith anytime, we trust the One who has created us and who speaks to us personally, so we can receive and give time and money and relationships to others, to one another, without keeping score.
There’s another “heart” Scripture that jumps out, as well. It’s when Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Luke 12:32-34) We can understand “heart” there in both ways, as well: not just as the home of our emotions, but as the overall message of all that we do with what God has given us.
Certainly Jesus knows a lot about the bad side of what can make us tick: worry, greed, getting possessed by our possessions or stuck on our stuff. But (as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message), he says, “What I’m trying to do here is get you to relax, not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God’s giving.” (That whole section is masterful, the way Peterson puts it.) Jesus wants us to focus on God’s Rule, God’s being in charge of our lives, and let the rest take care of itself. In other words, we can follow our hearts. Then Jesus gets down to particulars. Be generous. Give to the poor. Invest in a “bank” that can’t go bankrupt. Because “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Your commitment and your actions will naturally bend in God’s direction.
We can see this same truth from the other side, as well: if you want your heart to be somewhere, put your treasure there, and your heart will follow! We can give our involvement, our time, our money or things to God’s priorities (to ourselves and to others), wherever we believe the Holy Spirit is actually alive and active, working in this world, and then let our hearts (in both senses) work everything out from there. We can focus on our relationship with God and how we express it in our care for our neighbor, and the treasure of our hearts – the witness of our actions as well as the seat of our emotions – will go there. And in that way, in our daily lives, we give from our hearts back to God.