At times, even painful insight does not grant one freedom. Yesterday, as I was driving about in the windy aftermath of a storm that knocked out power for many of my friends in the larger area , I heard a song from Selena Gomez that I could understand all too painfully well, not only in my own life but in the lives of many I have intersected with over the years. A headstrong young woman who is clearly in a dysfunctional relationship still longs for a bad person and eschews any advice, even when she knows it is likely right, and even though she is unhappy where she is. In many ways, this song is the mirror image of a much earlier single from her days as a young star on the Disney Channel, when she sang “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know,” pointing to the way that her heart gave her the dignity to resist being pulled down by what others were saying. Here, instead, it is her heart that lets her down by leaving her to feel chained to an unworthy and unfaithful man. The heart may want what it wants, but what it wants is not always what is best for us.
In the late 1700’s, Thomas Jefferson wrote a famous dialogue between the head and the heart over one of his few and spectacularly unsuccessful romantic quests of his life. Although we tend to think of Thomas Jefferson as an austerely cerebral person, almost monk-like as he racked up debts at unsustainable levels to build and rebuild Monticello, as his prose inspired and symbolized a young nation’s goal for freedom, and as he invented (or at least popularized) dumbwaiters to cover the eyes of his dinner guests to the reality of his dependence at home and in the White House on the cruelties of slave labor. Whether it was in a good life that he did not see possible apart from being a master of slaves, or whether it was in his avowed relationship with Mrs. Cosway or (at least reputedly) with Sally Hemmings, the heart wanted what it wanted, even if it brought him great suffering in life and a lasting loss of reputation after death, significantly clouding his many and conspicuous virtues.
Both Miss Gomez and Mr. Jefferson speak about the heart and its reasons in the context of romanticism, which deals not only with what we would term romantic matters of love and relationships but the relationship between man and nature and a celebration of the heart and the natural nobility of mankind in all walks of life. When we deal with the heart, there are a wide variety of responses. Thomas Jefferson’s head and heart talk past each other, neither convincing the other. The head knows what the head knows, but all that knowledge cannot equate to a wiser heart when it comes to our longings. Our contemporary culture celebrates the heart, considering its every whim and longing, no matter how or where it is directed, to be at least potentially legitimate, at least if enough people share that longing and can eloquently discuss their passionate desires. The opposite response, and one taken by many who consider themselves to be believers is to take isolated scriptures and point out the deceitfulness of the heart, often with the apparent goal of discouraging others who struggle in matters of the heart.
Yet when we speak about the heart in the Bible, we cannot merely compare it with the heart that we see as the seat of emotion. Instead, we must recognize that the heart included the will, and thus not only represented our feelings but also our commitments. Too often in our own modern considerations of the heart, we have to recognize that our emotions are not steering the boat, but that our determination and commitment can (and often should) overcome mere feelings. It is easy, in the euphoria of pleasant emotions, to heap too much credit on the heart and to confuse good fortune with wisdom. Likewise, it is all too easy when our hearts are spectacularly unsuccessful at achieving their longings to denigrate the heart and to curse the situations that we are led into because we long for love and affection, and find the path to achieve those far more tortured and lengthy than we think to be remotely just.
Some years ago, I read a book that provoked me to think about the longings of God’s heart , even if it was a book I did not wholeheartedly enjoy for other reasons. Although the corruptions of our hearts are easy enough for us to see (and, sadly, for others as well), it is easy to forget that being created in the image and likeness of God includes being created with a heart. Although our longings bring many of us a great deal of suffering and anguish in life, at the same time it is those longings that push us along as we make friends, seek out marriage and having children, and seek after God’s kingdom. However painful that process, whatever disappointments we face along the way, it is our longings that give us the hope and courage to rise up after disappointment and painful failure to try again. The heart wants what it wants, and sometimes it wants exactly the right things, even if there seems at times no good way for the heart to get what it wants while remaining a good heart. God willing, those times will not last forever.