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Columnist Valerie Schultz

“Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way?” (Luke 24:32)

The heart is arguably our most vital organ. If the heart stops and cannot be jump-started, it’s over. Near the end of my dad’s life, his weakened heart battled to keep pumping oxygenated blood into his system, but the poor atria and ventricles, the valiant valves and arteries, were too damaged to sustain him. His heart finally surrendered. Thus was a noble and beloved heart stilled.

Perhaps as a tribute to the heart’s essential physiology, poets employ the heart as a metaphor for that most elemental emotion: love. Many expressions in the English language borrow the heart to illustrate an idiomatic meaning. For example, if we are all heart, our compassion is boundless. If we are led by the heart, our decisions are based on sentiment. If we play with heart, our commitment is total. If we have a bleeding heart, our political agenda is a liberal one. If our heart is not in something, our devotion to that thing is lukewarm. If love deserts us, our heart is broken.

The biblical writers also give us evocative imagery of the heart. God tells the prophet Jeremiah, “When you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me” (Jeremiah 29:13). Jesus reminds us that the greatest commandment requires that we “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted,” sings the psalmist in Psalm 34 (Psalms 34:19). “A clean heart create for me, God,” asks Psalm 51 (Psalms 51:12). “God does not see as a mortal, who sees the appearance. The Lord looks into the heart,” God tells Samuel (1 Sam 16:7). “Oh, that today you hear [God’s] voice,” says Psalm 95, “do not harden your hearts” (Psalms 95:7-8). Jesus himself focuses on this hardness of heart several times in the Gospels. Two examples from the Gospel of Mark: “They had not understood the incident of the loaves. On the contrary, their hearts were hardened” (Mark 6:52). And “(He) grieved at their hardness of heart” (Mark 3:5).

Anatomically, a hardened heart is not a healthy heart. When the arteries harden due to blockage, the function of communication among the various parts of the heart is impaired or lost. Metaphorically, a hardened heart does not work as intended. It is rather one that has put up barriers and erected defensive lines around itself. If you have hardened your heart, you will not be receptive to new insights or ideas or feelings.

A bleeding heart, on the other hand, is sometimes so busy caring for others that it is perhaps in danger of failing to care for itself. Anatomically, in order to function without a hitch, the heart itself needs a share of the very blood fortified by oxygen that it delivers to the rest of the body. It needs to be charged in order to pump. Metaphorically, the bleeding heart errs on the side of emotion. It is overly understanding. It is simplistically sympathetic. It is foolishly forgiving. I have occasionally been accused of personifying a bleeding heart.

But better a bleeding heart than a hardened heart. Better mercy than judgment. Better love than hate.

Even if our hearts keep on pumping, they can be our undoing, whether bleeding or hardened. We sometimes fail to follow our hearts, and wander astray from our calling. We yearn to be healthy and whole, but we behave in ways that are not. We get off balance. If we turn to our brother Jesus in these moments of spiritual unsteadiness, however, we discover that, as always, he has the answer to our heartfelt prayers: “Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid” (John 14:27). With grace, we know our troubled, fearful hearts can find refuge and courage in him.

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