John F MacArthurOne of the things I have found most irritating over the years is the indirect encouragement of emotion by pastors, particularly famous Baptist ones, by using the word ‘heart’ with a tear in their eye.

However, John MacArthur tells us that heart in the Bible has nothing to do with emotion. Heart as used in Scripture refers to the mind. Mention of the gut — or bowels — in the Bible refers to emotion.

MacArthur’s sermon, ‘Strengthen Your Heart’, dated May 16, 1976, is about Colossians 2. It explains this distinction and tells us why we should not be ruled by our emotions.

Excerpts follow, emphases mine.

Let me begin by citing the first three verses of Colossians 2:

2 For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

‘Encouraged’ appears as ‘strengthened’ in some translations, which encompasses ‘comforted’. In our world, we see them as three separate concepts, but where Scripture is concerned, the three words go together.

Some reading this will find it hard to stomach the word ‘bowels’. They might do better to think of ‘gut’ instead, as in ‘gut instinct’.

MacArthur begins by giving us our definition of ‘heart’, i.e. linked to emotion, then the biblical one for the word, which means ‘mind’. That is how the Apostle Paul used the word:

Now when we talk about the heart, what do we mean? We have to make that clear, because otherwise we will not understand what he’s saying; because in the English language, the heart is the seat of – what? – emotion. “My heart cries for you,” we say. “I love you with all my heart.” The heart is the symbol of emotion. To the Hebrew it was not the symbol of emotion. Did you get that? In the English language heart represents emotion. To the Hebrew, it did not.

Now the Hebrews referred to two organs of the body, and I want to talk about these two. The two organs that they referred to many, many times in the Scripture are the bowels and the heart. Now we’ll take the bowels first. Don’t panic. There are many references in the Bible to the term “bowels.” They have been fairly well erased in the later translations, but the pure translation of the Hebrew indicates that that is the word.

Now it is used in the Bible to speak of the womb, of the stomach, of the intestines, and of several other abdominal organs; so it becomes a general term for the gut, if you will. When a Hebrew says, “My bowels such and such,” he means, “I feel it in the gut.” That’s what he’s saying. Now watch this. The Hebrews did not know anything of speculative thinking, and they did not know anything of interpreting things in abstraction. Everything to them was a concrete, experiential physical reality.

Turn with me to Psalm 22:14. And here is a description of Jesus on the cross; and this is a prophetic picture of Him on the cross. But I want you to notice how the psalmist expresses what Jesus feels. He’s dying on the cross. “I am poured out like water, all my bones are out of joint;” – a perfect picture of crucifixion; listen now – “my heart is like wax, it is melted in the midst of my bowels.” And here he means, “My whole abdominal area is in upheaval. I feel it in the gut,” is what He is saying. “I feel it, and my stomach is in knots.” A very experiential concept, not abstract at all …

I’ll show you another one. This is very interesting. Song of Solomon chapter 5 – and I know you’re all racing there. Song of Solomon chapter 5, verse 4. Now this is very interesting; just to give you an idea of how the Hebrew expressed his feelings. Now you’ve got to have the picture. The bride is waiting for the bridegroom. It is time to consummate the marriage. This is a great hour.

Now listen, the Hebrew says in verse 4: “My beloved put his hand to the latch of the door, and my bowels are moved for him.” Now you say, “Wait a minute. That’s in the Bible?” That’s in the Bible. You say, “What does that mean, John?” That means is that the bowels include that whole area, including the arousal of sexual desire in the human body. All of that area, even feeling in the genital area, was expressed by the Hebrews in that terminology. You see, they didn’t say, “And I began to sense great overwhelming passion.” That’s an abstraction. The Hebrew defined it in its lowest level of experiential feeling.

MacArthur says that the ancient Jews considered emotions — feelings from the gut — the lowest form of human experience:

Lamentations chapter 2, verse 11. Now Jeremiah, he was a patriot. I mean he was a real patriot, Jeremiah. But he wasn’t a blind patriot. He loved his country when his country loved God. In Lamentations 2:11, he says, “My country’s falling apart,” in essence. He’s seeing the death of his country. That’s why Lamentations is called Lamentations; it’s the weeping of Jeremiah over the death of his country. He says, “My eyes do fail with tears,” – and here it comes – “my bowels are troubled. I feel it in the gut again. The pain in my stomach is – I’m in knots.”

Now you’ve experienced that. He is having psychosomatic responses in his body to anxiety in his mind, but the Hebrew expresses it in terms of the psychosomatic symptom, not in terms of the abstraction. So emotions biblically, in the Old Testament particularly, are not experienced as abstractions, but at the lowest level of experience. And so now, watch this, in the cases of the bowels being used in the Scripture, they have reference to emotional responses, so that to the Hebrew mind, the heart is not the seat of emotion. What is? The stomach. The bowels

… it says in 1 John 3:17, “Whosoever hath this world’s good, and sees his brother hath need, and shuts up his bowels from him, how dwells the love of God in him?”

Boy, that is strange. That is strange. What is he saying? He is simply expressing what, in the Hebrew mind, is an obvious thing. He is saying, “Look, when you see somebody have a need, that need ought to cause a gut feeling in you. It ought to stir you up, and tighten up your stomach, and make you feel some real anxiety”.

Now notice, in every one of those passages that I showed you, the bowels are always responding. They responded to pain, in the first one I told you about; they responded to sex, in Song of Solomon; they responded to disaster, in the case of Jeremiah; and they respond to human need, in the case of 1 John 3. So that that in the Hebrew mind, the bowel is always that which responds. It is emotion. They felt it inside.

That isn’t to say that there is no reference to ‘mind’ in the Bible. Occasionally there is, Revelation 2:23 being a case in point, when the Lord says:

I will search the minds and the heart.

However, overall, the heart is used alone in Scripture. I have read the following passages that MacArthur cites and wondered why the authors did not use ‘mind’ instead.

He tells us why the authors used ‘heart’:

What is the heart? Listen to me. First of all, we see from that passage [Revelation 2:23] the heart is the place of responsibility. It’s the place of responsibility. “The heart is that which is wicked,” in Jeremiah 17. “The heart of man is” – what? – “deceitful above all things, and” – what? – “desperately wicked.” It is the seat of responsibility. It is that which God is going to judge. And He will try men’s – what? – hearts. It is that which is righteous or wicked. When God redeems Israel, He will take away their stony heart, and give them a new – what? – heart. It is the seat of responsibility; it is that which is judged.

I’ll take you a step further. It can’t be emotion then. It can’t be emotion. What is it? Let’s look at Revelation 18, verse 7. And here he’s talking about Babylon the Great, the destruction of the final world system in the tribulation. “How much she hath glorified” – Revelation 18:7 – “glorified herself, and lived luxuriously, so much torment and sorrow give her;” – listen – “for she saith in her heart, ‘I sit a queen, and am no widow, and shall see no sorrow.’”

Now notice something. To say “in her heart” is a metaphor for doing what? Thinking. “She said in her heart.” What does that mean? She thought in her mind. What then does the heart picture? Not the emotions, but the mind. The intellect and the mind is made up of two things: the intellect and the will. That’s the heart in biblical terminology.

In ancient times, you don’t find them referring to the brain. Listen to this one: “The fool hath said in his brain.” No. “The fool hath said in his” – what? – “heart.” Why? Because the heart was the seat of thought. It was the seat of thinking. And so that the heart represents the mind that sets the pace, and the bowels represent the responding emotion.

You say, “Well how did they get to this discovery?” Well, it’s easy to know how they got to the bowels being connected with emotion, because when they got emotional they began to have what we have today: upset stomachs, colitis, and all those symptoms that we get, ulcers – right? – all right here.

But how did they get the heart out of the brain? Well, some have surmised that because when the brain is really functioning, the heart is really working, and they could feel it throbbing and pulsing. But that’s the way they did it. Real serious thinking, says a Hebrew, can be felt in the beat of the heart. So the heart thinks, and the bowels respond with emotion. That’s the way you are.

Now remember this. In the mind of the Hebrew, and in the Revelation of God, emotions never initiate, they always respond. The heart thinks, and the emotions respond. That is the divine pattern.

MacArthur says that it is important for us to be able to control our emotions, whereas the Baptist pastors I mentioned earlier seem to favour emotions running riot.

MacArthur says:

“I can’t control my emotions.” You know why? Because your emotions will only be controlled by your mind, because emotion is a responder. The key to controlling your emotions is filling your mind with divine truth. That’s the key to controlling your emotions. You see, the emotions respond to what the mind perceives as true. Did you get that? Your emotions will respond to what your mind perceives is true, even if it isn’t true. That’s right.

Have you ever been lying in bed, and all of a sudden you woke up with a jolt when you landed after falling off that forty-story building? You weren’t falling, but your mind perceived it, and your emotions responded to it. You know what that teaches me about emotions? Don’t ever” – what – “trust them.” Don’t trust them, because you can make your emotions do anything if you can just make your mind think it perceives that. And the only way to control your emotions is to make sure that your mind is filled with divine truth. Emotions are like bad little children, they’ll run amuck if you don’t control them. And you say, “How do you control them?” You control them indirectly by feeding the mind.

Let me take you to 2 Corinthians chapter 6 … And here’s what he says, 2 Corinthians 6:11, “O ye Corinthians, our speech to you is candid, our heart is wide open.” Now listen. “Corinthians, listen to me. My speech to you is straightforward, candid, pulling no punches; and my heart” – or my mind – “is wide open.”

“Listen, I’ve got all kind of truth to tell you. It’s in my brain, and my brain’s open. It’s in my mouth, and my speech is wide open and straightforward.” Now watch this. “But on our part, there is no constraint. But there is constraint in your affections.” You know what the literal Greek is there? “You are tightened in your bowels.” That’s the literal translation. “I would certainly like to impart truth from my mind to your mind, but you are all tightened up emotionally. You are straightened emotionally.”

Listen to this. The Corinthians had put an emotional attitude against Paul in the way, and they couldn’t receive the truth. Listen to me. When emotions get ahead of the mind, you’ve got a lot of problems. Paul says, “I can’t even tell you the truth.”

… Just think about the person who comes to church and has something against me. They can’t learn, can they, because they put their emotions in front of the truth. The emotions have stopped being a responder, and the emotions are running the show.

Here the Corinthians were putting emotions first. They wouldn’t accept Paul. They were emotionally upset at him, so they were all tightened, uptight, and they couldn’t perceive truth; they had it all backwards. When people start putting emotions first, then they really get into problems.

MacArthur cites a contemporary example of emotions running the show in church:

One classic illustration of that today is the Charismatic Movement, Pentecostalism. You know what they attempt to do? They attempt to start the emotions without the mind. And they get you there, and you’ve got enough hallelujahs going, and enough running around and waving going, you can bypass the mind and you can really get the emotions flying. The only problem is, the emotions are responding to something they perceive that isn’t the truth, because there hasn’t even been the introduction to the truth. What they attempt to do is short-circuit the truth, and let the emotions run wild; and that’s the opposite of the biblical pattern.

You see, emotions should always respond to the truth. The key then to behavior, and the key to the control of emotion is the heart, the heart as seen as the mind. We need to plant the truth in the mind, and it will control the emotional responses.

Therefore, when we read of the heart in the Bible, we should be thinking of the mind rather than of our emotions:

Proverbs 4:23 says – and this is good: “Guard your heart.” What does it mean? “Guard your mind, your brain, with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.” You see? You want to control life; guard your mind, and don’t let anybody short‑circuit it. That’s 4:23.

Proverbs 22:5 further, says, “Thorns and snares are in the way of the perverse; but he that doth guard his soul shall be far from them.” The same basic terminology: the guarding of the mind, the Hebrew.

You find it in Proverbs 23:19: “Hear thou, my son, and be wise, and guide your heart in the way.” Guide your heart: guard it, and guide it, that it might hear and perceive the truth, and that your emotion might respond to the truth.

A beautiful passage, Deuteronomy 4:9. I can’t resist reading it to you. “Take heed to yourself; keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things which your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your” – listen – “heart.” I’ll read it again. Listen to this: “Take heed to yourself. Guard your soul diligently, lest you forget the things which you have seen, and they depart from out of your heart.” Don’t forget the truth. Guard your heart.

In Psalm 139, a beautiful portion of Scripture, in verses 23 and 24: “Search me, O God, and know my” – what? – “my heart. Try me, and know my thoughts.” You see, the heart equated with thinking. “And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” Guard the heart. Guide the heart. Ask God to protect the heart – that’s your brain, your mind.

“A good man” – said Jesus in Matthew 12:35 – “out of the good treasure of the” – what? – “heart brings forth good things.” All the goodness will come out of the mind. The mind must guide the pattern of behavior.

One other passage, Matthew 15:19. “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, theft, false witness, blasphemy.” Jesus said in Matthew 12, “All the good things come out of the thinking process.” Jesus said in Matthew 15, “All the bad things come out of the thinking processes.” So the Bible says, “God, guard my thinking processes.”

Earlier, I mentioned the commonality between ‘encouraged’, ‘strengthened’ and ‘comforted’. Readers thinking that these sound like gifts from the Holy Spirit — the Paraclete — are correct.

MacArthur explains how the meanings tie together:

Now let’s go back to Colossians, and watch what this means to you now. “I wish you knew how great a conflict I have for you and for them at Laodicea, and for as many as have not seen my face in the flesh, that their” – what? – “hearts might be strengthened.” What do hearts mean? Minds. Paul says, “Number one thing I want out of you is to be strong in heart.”

What about the word “comforted”? You say, “It’s comfort in my Bible.” Sure, parakaleō, parakaleō, a very beautiful word; a word used repeatedly in the New Testament, and a word that always contains the idea of strengthening.

In Ephesians 6:22 it says, “that He might strengthen your hearts.” In 2 Thessalonians chapter 2, “Strengthen your hearts.” The word parakaleō includes in it the idea of comfort. It includes in it the idea of courage, it includes in it the idea of being strengthened, and it always carries all those aspects. In fact, we can look backwards into etymology and we can find the use of this word to mean specifically “strengthened.”

It means to provide a strong, courageous inner man; an intellect, and a will that will act heroically for God. A strong heart means a firm mind: a mind that has courage, a mind that has conviction, a mind that believes, a mind that has principle

He tells us how essential the Holy Spirit is in giving us a strong mind in all the right ways:

You say, “But how do you get strong like that?” I’ll show you. Ephesians chapter 3, verse 16 tells you in one verse. How do you get that mind, that inner part of me strong? Verse 16: “He prays to the Father that He would grant you according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power by His” – what? – “Spirit.”

Who is the strengthener of the heart? Who is it? It’s the Holy Spirit. And we need it. We live in a world with a weak heart. People don’t have convictions. People don’t believe in things. People don’t know the truth. People don’t learn the truth: they don’t pursue the truth, they don’t mine the truth. And he says, “I want you to be strong in it. I want you to be courageous. I want you to be comforted, encouraged, and strengthened by it.” All of that’s in the word parakaleō. And the Holy Spirit is the one that can do it.

You say, “How does it happen, John?” I believe as you yield to the power of the Spirit of God, as you walk in the Spirit, He strengthens the inner man. I think that’s what he’s saying here. You give the Spirit of God control of your life on a day-to-day, moment-by-moment basis, and the Spirit of God will feed that inner man. The Spirit of God, by the revelation of God, will feed your mind, and strengthen your mind.

As we yield moment-by-moment to the presence of the Spirit of God, we’re strengthened. Paul is a perfect illustration of that. In Acts 9 he tells us that he was converted, and immediately one of the things that began to happen after he was converted was that he began to be strengthened. Acts 9:19 says, “He was strengthened.” Acts 9:22, “But Saul increased the more in strength.”

He became stronger, and stronger. It wasn’t that he was lifting weights, and it wasn’t that he was eating a lot of food. It was that he was being equipped by the Spirit of God, and he became so strong in his heart, he became so solid in his confidence, he became so unflinching in his ministry, that in chapter 20, verse 22, he said, “I go bound in the Spirit to Jerusalem. I don’t know what’s going to happen, except I hear that bonds and afflictions await me. But none of these things” – what? – “move me”

If the word parakaleō means to strengthen, it is the very same word that is used in John 14, 15, and 16 as the name of the Holy Spirit. Do you remember the Holy Spirit being called Paraklētos, the Paraclete? That’s the identical word. You could just as well translate those verses this way.

John 14:16, this would be accurate according to the meaning of the word. John 14:16, Jesus said, “And I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Strengthener.” Verse 26, “But the Strengthener, who is the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things.” John 15:26, “But when the Strengthener is come.” John 16:7 “If I go not away, the Strengthener will not come.” It’s the same word.

MacArthur brings us the methods of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, in practical applications:

If you’re going to be strong in heart, then you’re going to be strengthened by the Strengthener, and that’s the Holy Spirit. And I’ll tell you what makes a weak Christian: that’s a Christian who walks all the time in the flesh. Right? Listen. Every step you take walking in the Spirit is a step like spiritual weightlifting, just that much stronger in your mind, in your convictions, in the things you know and believe about God.

Now I want to go a step further. Although the Holy Spirit is the Strengthener, He uses human instruments. He uses people like me to strengthen you, people like you to strengthen each other. Listen to Acts 18:23, “And after he had spent some time there,” – that’s Paul – “he departed and went over the country of Galatia and Phrygia” – now listen – “strengthening all the disciples.”

What was he doing? What was Paul doing? What did he do to them? He went in there and he poured into their minds divine truth, and that strengthened them. God uses human instruments empowered by His Spirit to strengthen.

Did you ever read 1 Timothy 6:2 this way? Paul says to Timothy at the end of the verse, “These things teach and strengthen.” Same verb. You know what strengthens people? Teaching. “These things teach and strengthen.” It is the Word of God in the hands of the Spirit of God, whether it’s directly as he ministers to you, or through a teacher that strengthens you.

… “Beloved, when I gave all diligence” – Jude 3 – “to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful of me to write unto you, and strengthen you that you should earnestly fight for the faith once delivered to the saints.” He says, “I had to write you to strengthen you.” “What do you mean?” “I had to impart to your brain knowledge to make you strong.”

MacArthur says that emotions are a sign of weakness. May our minds prevail in God’s truth via the Holy Spirit:

Listen. People don’t get strong by exercising their emotions. Do you understand that? You must understand what it says. “I want you to have strong hearts. It doesn’t mean I want you to have over exercised emotions. What it means is that I want you to have the input of the Spirit of God and the truth of God in your mind.” And so it will come from the Holy Spirit who is the Strengthener; and it will come from other instruments, such as Paul, such as Jude, such as me, such as anybody. And you know something, it will come from you; because if you’re strong, you’ll be able to pass that truth on.

I can think of a world-famous couple who have done a lot of damage — and continue to do so — by relying on their emotions rather than cool-headed, rational thinking.

They caused rifts within a tightly-knit family, rifts which might never be mended. They also caused ongoing anxiety in the matriarch of the family, who was already ill and grieving. She died this month and was buried exactly one week ago.

They did it by putting their emotions first and foremost.

We mustn’t be like that couple.

Instead, let us pray for increased knowledge of the eternal truth via the Holy Spirit, as the matriarch did during her long life of service and devotion.

May our minds be ever strengthened and at peace in Christ Jesus via the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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