H is For Heart

    In the Divine Alphabet, which sets forth God’s names or attributes, we have had Accessible, Beauty, Caring, Dumbfounding, Excessive, Friend, and Good. Now to the heart of the matter.
    A heart is, literally, the center of a living being. We know it as the muscle that circulates blood, without which we die. Indeed, two of the scariest words you might ever hear are “heart attack.” But people have not always understood the circulation of the blood. In older times, the heart was thought of as the seat of intelligence (while the brain was understood as a cooling system for the blood). Intelligence embraces not only thinking but feeling, and not only theory but practice.
    So, moving beyond literalism, it is misleading to contrast “head” and “heart.” The heart is not mere feeling, but rather is our center, where everything about us comes together—rationality, emotion, conviction, “core values,” our virtues and vices.
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    The word first appears in Genesis 6. The human race is going to pot, and God sees it: “every imagination of the thoughts of [the human] heart was only evil continually.” Note the claim that human thoughts come out of the heart. And they are bad thoughts. In the next verse, however, we discover God himself has a heart. God is sorry about how his creation has turned out: “it grieved him at his heart.”
    Hang onto this insight: there is some sort of parallel between evil in the human heart and grief in the divine heart.
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    Much later on, Egypt’s pharaohs are oppressing the Hebrew people, and clearly desiring to reduce their population if not ultimately to wipe them out. God intends to redeem his people, and his means for doing so is to “harden” the pharaoh’s heart. But pharaoh’s heart was already hardened—he was an oppressor, a willful and all-powerful ruler who brooked no counsel. So God’s punishment upon pharaoh is nothing other than to let pharaoh suffer what he has made himself. God hardens the heart that was already hard.
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    Still later, when God’s people had been redeemed from Egypt and taken possession of the land God gave them, they fell away from God and God allowed them to be taken captive and to be exiled far away. In their exile, God raises up prophets to encourage them to return to him. Perhaps the most important thing those prophets say is this promise. God promises them that he will change their hearts. Instead of the heart of stone that they have, God will give them a heart of flesh. And instead of having commandments written on stone that must be taught from one person to another, God promises to use their hearts as his writing tablet, to write his law upon their hearts.
    This means that God’s living law would be one with their heart, would be right at the center of their being.
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    Jesus was a doctor and when he saw us as patients, he knew what our disease was. And it’s still our disease. We have hard hearts. For instance, he told the people who wanted to trip him up about divorce, that the old law accommodates divorce because people have hard hearts. And sometimes he looked around at his opponents and grieved because of their hardness of heart.
    But how does a person change his or her heart? How is a hard heart softened?
    It’s there on the tree, the tree planted on Calvary hill. It’s a grieving heart—it’s that divine heart that we first saw in Genesis 6. This time, instead of a flood to wipe out sin, the cure is an exposed heart, stretched on that wooded tree, a heart that bleeds openly, until it stops.
    The cure for the hard human heart is there in the expiring divine heart.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."