This is an updated version of a Bible study I did in 2006 on the role of the heart/spirit/will in spiritual formation in Christ. It is inspired by Dallas Willard’s book, Renovation of the Heart. This article on the heart is part of a series from my class for counselors on “How People Change.” (See my other articles on the thoughts, feelings, body, social, and soul.)
In his Greatest Commandment Jesus teaches us, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength… and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31).
What is the Heart in the Bible?
In Biblical terms the human heart is essentially the same as our spirit and in practical terms it refers to our will. (To call it spirit is to refer to it as nonbodily personal power. To call it heart is to emphasize that it is central and sensitive. To call it will is to say that it has the power of choice or the ability to originate a course of action.) So we are essentially asking God to transform us in one area when we pray, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me… Grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.” (Psalm 51:10, 12)
The heart with its intentions is the eternal core of our being and the precious part of us that distinguishes us as creatures made in God’s image; only God and human beings have a spirit. It is only with our heart that we can genuinely love and worship and this is why our praise and service mean nothing to God if they don’t come from our heart.
An important clarification is that the heart, as the Bible speaks of it, is not our feelings, but our power to choose a course of action. Spirit is unbodily personal power – the power we have in life to choose, take initiative, and express creativity. God has created us to take dominion with him and for him in his kingdom, to be creative under him (Genesis 1).
The Spiritual Formation of Our Heart
It is in the heart (spirit or will) that real change must begin. God sends his Word and Spirit to us and we respond by putting our faith (trust and confidence, leaning the whole weight of our being) in Christ. As we connect with Christ we come alive with his abundant, eternal, God-kind of life.
Our hearts can be good or bad. The proud heart is hard and unreceptive to God – because it hasn’t trusted in Christ it is dead. The healthy heart is soft soil that is as receptive to God as the good soil is to seed: listening, trusting, and responding to his initiative by sprouting with loving obedience. The spirit that trusts God and is brought to life through faith in Christ by God’s Spirit, is well-directed in spiritual fervor, rejoicing to overflow with love for God and others, including strangers and enemies.
We can think of our “spiritual formation” in Christ as interacting with God in the renovation of our heart or the forming of our spirit or will. But in all the situations of our lives we don’t have direct access to our heart, but must use our minds (thoughts and feelings) to get a hold of our will, make an intention to engage with God and his kingdom, and put our choice into motion/action.
Submitting Our Divided Will to God
It is in our capacity for free choice, including our abilities to be creative and responsible, that we are most like God and this is our source of dignity. But apart from God our will normally is conflicted between competing desires and even if it is focused it’s power is tiny. In his D.Min, class on “Spirituality and Ministry” Dallas Willard said, “The strongest human will is always the one that is surrendered to God’s will and acts with it.” (See James 4:1-10 for a description of the contrast between a human will set on divided desires verses the one that is submitted to God and lifted up by him.)
This set of our will on God is the key to our character, but we cannot engage it directly with God or anyone else, but must work off of our mind. “The human spirit and mind are closely related,” Dallas explained in class. “You cannot will without thought and feelings.” So the beginning of personal transformation is when God’s Word and Spirit accesses our will through our minds. Our thoughts focus our will and our emotions incline it, for good or for evil, which is why it is so important that we renew our minds in Scripture and cultivate the godly feelings associated with the living in dependence on the Holy Spirit, who in turn grows his fruit in us.
Bible Verses on Renovation of the Heart
“I will praise the Lord who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me” (Psalm 16:7).
“Take heart and wait for the Lord” (Psalm 27:14).
“Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me… Grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me… The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:10, 12).
“God is the strength of my heart” (Psalm 73:26).
“When my spirit grows faint within me, it is you who know my way” (Psalm 142:3).
“Trust in the LORD with all your heart” (Proverbs 3:5).
“Above all else, guard your heart” (Proverbs 4:23).
“The lamp of the LORD searches the spirit of a man; it searches out his inmost being” (Proverbs 20:27).
“Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall. Better to be lowly in spirit” (Proverbs 16:18-19).
“Follow the ways of your heart” (Ecclesiastes 11:9).
“The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind to reward a man according to his conduct” (Jeremiah 17:9-10).
“I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the LORD. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart” (Jeremiah 24:7).
“You will…find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13, NKJV).
“I will… give you a new heart and a desire to be faithful” (Ezekiel 36:26).
“I’ll give you a new heart, put a new spirit in you. I’ll remove the stone heart from your body and replace it with a heart that’s God-willed, not self-willed. I’ll put my Spirit in you and make it possible for you to do what I tell you and live by my commands” (Ezekiel 36:26-27, MSG).
“The LORD… forms the spirit of man within” (Zechariah 12:1).
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).
“For out of the heart come evil…” (Matthew 15:9).
“The Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:6).
“God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).
“[Jesus said] ‘The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life’” (John 6:63).
“He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:22).
“The conscience is like a law written in the human heart” (Romans 2:15, CEV).
“He has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love” (Romans 5:5, NLT).
“But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness” (Romans 8:10).
“The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (Romans 8:16).
“Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord” (Romans 12:11).
“May… God… give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus” (Romans 15:5).
“He who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:17).
“Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts” (1 Corinthians 14:1).
“Stand firm then…with the breastplate of righteousness in place” (Ephesians 6:14).
“Plant your roots in Christ” (Colossians 2:7, CEV).
“Set your hearts on things above” (Colossians 3:1).