What is the Holy Spirit’s relationship to our feelings? Many of us have been taught never to trust feelings. We have been told that logic is trustworthy, but feelings will lead us astray. To underscore this idea, Jeremiah 17:9 is typically quoted, which says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” But there are several common misunderstandings that need to be addressed on this subject.
The “Heart” in Hebrew Scripture
In English, we typically make a distinction between the heart (the seat of emotions) and the mind (the seat of logical thought). However, in biblical Hebrew (the original language of the Old Testament), that distinction did not exist. Passages like Deuteronomy 6:5 reveal that people have three primary aspects: heart (inner self), soul (life), and might (strength).
The Hebrew word, “lev” or “levav” is often translated, “heart.” However, it can also be translated, “mind.” That is because it refers to the whole inner self. So, when you see the word, “heart” in the Old Testament, you should remember that it refers to the place of both thought AND emotion. According to the Hebrew Scriptures, all the things that happen inside of us, happen in our heart:
Therefore, when the Lord says through Jeremiah, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick,” we should not limit this warning to feelings or emotions. Human feelings are certainly deceitful, but human logic is just as deceitful. In its natural state, the entire inner self is corrupt, twisted, and distorted.
The “Heart” in Greek Scripture
The Greek language, in contrast to Hebrew, adds new words to the biblical vocabulary that refer specifically to the logical mind. But even when using Greek vocabulary, New Testament authors were still operating with the same Jewish/Hebrew worldview.
In other words, the New Testament authors might agree that people are capable of both thinking and feeling. However, they would likely not agree with Greek philosophers who elevated human intellect over emotion. You simply will not find this sort of emotional-intellectual dualism in Scripture. In the New Testament, the words for “heart” and “mind” are used closely and interchangeably.
Therefore, according to a biblical worldview, there is not a stark difference between the thinking and feeling aspects of our inner self. Our feelings shape our thoughts and our thoughts shape our feelings. They are very closely connected, if not inseparable.
Most importantly, human thoughts and human feelings are both untrustworthy in their natural state. But the good news is, thoughts and feelings can be transformed by the Spirit.
The Hard Heart
One of the major themes of the Bible is Israel’s hard heart. God saved Israel from slavery by his grace and made a covenant with her. According to the terms of the covenant, Israel was required to love the Lord with all of her heart. The evidence of this love would be faithful obedience to the commandments of the Torah. However, Israel’s heart was hard (see Zechariah 7:11-12).
When Scripture speaks of a person or group with a hard heart, it means their entire inner self was obstinate, stubborn, and disobedient. It is a stubbornness of thoughts and affections (see Ephesians 4:17-19). When people have a hard heart, they find ways to logically justify their actions, so they don’t think they are guilty. They also find ways to assuage their guilty conscience, so they don’t feel guilty.
Such was often the case with the nation of Israel. But God made a promise through Ezekiel,
I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their GodEzekiel 11:19-20
As you might guess, the Holy Spirit was sent to fulfill this promise (see also Jeremiah 32:36-41). The Holy Spirit is the one who removes the hard heart of all who receive him.
The Transformed Heart
As we said earlier, the natural man—that is, the man who has not been transformed by the Holy Spirit—has a corrupt heart and mind (see 1 Corinthians 2:14-16). Both his thoughts and feelings are unsound and untrustworthy. The one who trusts in his own natural logic or natural emotion cannot do the will of God (Proverbs 3:5).
The only way to truly understand and do the will of God is to allow the Holy Spirit to transform your heart and mind (see 2 Corinthians 3:12-18; Romans 12:1-2). This means the Holy Spirit must, over time, change how we think and feel. From the moment of our baptism, if we walk with him, he is working to bring our thoughts and emotions into alignment with those of Jesus.
Consider Paul’s appeal in Philippians 2:1. Paul uses words like comfort, affection, and sympathy to describe being in Christ and participating in the Spirit. These are very emotionally-charged words. When you are in Christ and participating in the Spirit, you are not only supposed to think differently, but also feel differently than you did before.
From Emotions to Actions
But Christians are not supposed to simply feel affection and sympathy. We are to be moved to action by this new affection and sympathy. This is part of what it means to have the “mind of Christ.” When we have the mind of Christ, our hearts are becoming less selfish and conceited. They are becoming humble, affectionate, and sympathetic.
The change that the Spirit brings doesn’t happen by osmosis. We have to intentionally embrace this transformation. Christians are told, for instance, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts (Colossians 3:12). The Greek word for compassion means, a feeling of pity in your stomach or spleen. But that emotion is intended to move us to action. When we feel compassion for someone who is suffering, we must act compassionately to help relieve their suffering.
When we are being transformed by the Spirit, we feel:
- grief for our sin (2 Corinthians 7:10)
- sorrow when others are hurting (Romans 12:15)
- joy when truth prevails (1 Corinthians 13:6)
These are the sorts of feelings that reflect a soft and transformed heart. And when we experience these feelings, they help inform us how to act according to God’s will.
Some may rightfully ask, how are we to know if certain thoughts and feelings belong to our old heart or our new heart?
The answer is, we must know Jesus. The goal of spiritual transformation is to think, feel, speak, and act like him (Ephesians 4:13-16). So, we have to keep our eyes on the cross-shaped pattern of Jesus’ life. Obviously, thoughts and feelings that do not reflect the person and work of Jesus are not from the Holy Spirit.
The New Testament gives us several lists to identify thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are associated with the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 4:19; James 3:13-16) and those associated with the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23; Ephesians 4:25-32; James 3:17). Lists like these help us become wise, mature, and discerning followers of Jesus.
When our thoughts and feelings have been shaped by the Holy Spirit, we become people who know how to act in any given situation. We know how to love like Jesus.
I love you and God loves you,
P.S. If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy my conversation with Chase Turner, “How Are We Led by the Spirit?”