The Theology of the Heart as the Spirit of Lenten Message

Even now says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping and with mourning, and tear your hearts and not your garments. (Joel 2:12-13)

Ordinarily, the first point of inquiry with regard to the Bible pericope above would be: why the much attention to the heart than the garment? How possible is it for one to tear his heart instead of his garment? In a layman’s assessment, the heart points to internal or interior object while the garment (though without specification of kind or type) is a pointer to something external.

The external is physical and naturally visible. The internal is spiritual and invisible and only made manifest insofar as there is an integrity, that is, a congruence between the interior and the exterior demeanors. It is quotidian for one to change apparels from time to time without much ado but it is more of an uphill task to work on a person’s psyche and attempt to redirect his or her desires.

Etymologically, the Hebrew word for “tear” as employed in the biblical quotation above is קָרַע qara` and it denotes “to tear, to rend, to split asunder or to enlarge”. On the other hand, the Hebrew word לֵבָב lebab used here for “heart” is not restricted to a single connotation either. It is a term in Hebrew that denotes the inner man, the mind, soul and inclination, resolution, determination (of will) or conscience.

The etymology is enough to resolve the controversy hovering around those terms like heart, mind or soul as it pertains to the Scriptures. The Hebrew word ‘lebab’ therefore covers almost the whole inner man and its peculiar functions. In the Biblical tradition, the heart is the seat of appetites, the seat of emotions (Deut 28:47; Prov 27:11; Acts 14:17) and passions and seat of courage, the real or true self, the psyche at its deepest level, the seat of volition (Prov 6:18; Jer 3:17; 23:20; Dan 1:8), the intellect, as well as the internal sphere in which God is encountered.

In respect to God’s relationship with his chosen people as evidenced in the Scriptures, the biblical narratives of Exodus 19; 20; 34 inform us about the nature of the Mosaic covenant as breakable having been carved on a breakable material (stone), and the susceptibility of the Jews in contravening and flouting the dictates of the covenant, and of the covenant being reformulated. In contradistinction to the old covenant, Jeremiah predicts the establishment and sealing of an invisible covenant in which the commandments of Yahweh would be written in the hearts of men (Jer 31:31-34).

At that point in time it will no longer be needful for one to remind his neighbour the ordinances of the law rather the law within our hearts becomes our judge. The root of the preference of a law scribbled on the heart was God’s desire for his laws to be fully honoured and his people wholly consecrated to him. Here, a discrepancy between the external and internal is implicitly created.

Perhaps, it was in a bid to depict the connection between the heart and external expressions of human desires and actions that Jesus Christ avowed in the Gospel of Matthew that “whatever comes out of the mouth comes from the heart, and it is this that makes someone unclean” (Matt 15:18). The heart is therefore delineated as the seat of intentions that come to pass in the physical realm.

Based on what has gone before, the heart is the hidden source of all significant human actions. Every heart, by its operations overflows into either evil or good. Hence, from the good treasure in the heart, a good person, like a good tree, produces good fruits (Lk 6:45).

Furthermore, the heart is the source of all loyalties and desires. Jesus affirms this when he says that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt 6:21). So in essence, the heart propels towards the site of its interests and desires. With this it becomes much easier to understand the work of repentance and conversion as endeavors on man’s heart desires and effort to reconfigure the heart towards the right direction. It is the rectification of the heart of man to focus on a better way of life so that metanoia may be effective.

Hence, the theology of the heart as the hub of man’s assent to God’s revelation is one that cannot be over emphasized or proved beyond measure to a right thinking Christian. The terminology of the heart connects it with virtually all the sense organs.

For instance, in relation to the eyes, blind eyes and hardened hearts are two ways of describing the same ailment (cf. Matt 13:15). Seeing with the eyes of the heart is personification that goes on to emphasize an empathetic or critical assessment of a situation, event or issue. Again, when we talk of the ear, the words of the psalmist come to mind – “Oh that today you would listen to his voice, harden not your heart” (Ps 95:7-8).

This in a way unveils one of the subtleties in the employment of the term “heart” in the Bible. Thus, deafness in responding to God’s word is the action of a disobedient heart. Today, we hear expressions like speaking from the heart, listening from the heart, hearing with the ears of the heart, seeing with the eyes of the heart to express or allude to a compassionate encounter with another or therapeutic attention to an issue or person.

The heart serves the double function of receiving and delivering messages. It receives signals through the senses which can condition man’s reaction or elicit a behaviour either unto good or evil. The receiving function of the heart is a very crucial one and very determining for that matter for if the heart lacks a good moral standard of judgment, it would find it hard to refine, adjudge, assess or purify the bad signals and information sent into it.

The dictates of the new law in the heart then becomes a standard of morality and foundation for elicited behaviours and attitudes. Now, we can imagine why God chose the heart as the new locus for inscribing his new covenant with the people. The new way set by Christ can only be imbibed and obeyed by a heart which has been transformed. It is also a gospel proclaimed from the heart and received with the heart that would elicit a change in attitude. It is in this case that Christ’s admonition to turn the other cheek (cf. Lk 6:29) becomes realizable.

In Psalm 95:10 the Psalmist laments, “For forty years, I loathed that generation and said, “They are a people who err in heart, and they do not regard my ways”. We can see that instead of mentioning the offences of the people, the psalmist went to the root of their inclinations – their hearts are astray! This root cause was enough to make God, the creator of the people wearied of his people.

In this season of Lent, the prophet goes to the core of human life, the heart. The Lenten Piety (Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving) is concerned, not only with outward show but with the private encounter with God in the inner man. It is a season of integrity that seeks a correspondence between outward action and inward thought.

Man sees the face but God sees the heart (1 Sam 16:7). Hence, the need for the heart to be torn open, so as to let in the brilliant and transformative light of Christ. The verb “tear” as employed here implies “surrender, submission and openness”. We are therefore, called to pay rapt attention to what burdens our hearts, the desires, the convictions, the worries, the thoughts, the goals, visions, ambitions, strife, affections, various forms of indoctrinations and lewd inclinations.

Now is the acceptable time to purify the heart of all its infirmities and impurities: – social, psychological, political, religious and many others and then reestablish the kingdom of God in our hearts. If the heart is purified and the law of God active within it, the world would be a better place and our souls more fit to offer a pleasing sacrifice to God in this Lenten Season and be qualified to participate joyfully in the celebration of Easter.

Rev. Mark Obiora Ikeh

A Deacon from the Catholic Diocese of Awka and a student of Bigard Memorial Seminary, Enugu.