Head or heart? Faith has room for both

There’s a lot of talk about how faith in God should be a “heart relationship, not a head relationship.”

But let’s be honest for a moment here. Our hearts don’t always do what we want them to do.

What about those days (… weeks, months, years?) when you just “don’t feel God”? Does that mean your faith is useless?

I don’t believe so: here’s why.

Faith is a journey of mountains and valleys

We don’t get to float through on the mountain-top experiences all the time. Sometimes walking in faith means we keep doing the hard work of trusting, even though we don’t have any real feeling of assurance to go on. All we have to go on are past experiences, and the commitment we’ve already made to believe.

Sometimes all we can do is fall back on our head knowledge: pray the Lord’s Prayer, read the Psalms, let the spiritual disciplines we’ve learned carry us through. Pray that in doing so, eventually the joy of that “heart knowledge” will return.

Head and heart

Perhaps it’s a false dichotomy to talk about “head vs. heart”. I wonder even if this is a particularly western kind of division to make. Apparently the Hebrew word for heart and mind is in fact the same word (lebh). The same is true in Chinese (xīn 心 ),1 and I would suspect a number of other languages as well. There’s a different kind of cultural understanding at play here, one that sees the heart and the head as working in harmony with one another, rather than as diametrically opposed.

Jesus certainly doesn’t seem to favor faith-with-the-heart over faith-with-the-head. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,”1 is his exhortation — the first, most important commandment! — that we know so well.

Jesus seemed to advocate a whole-of-body kind of faith. His was a dirty, messy, hands-on faith that involved putting mud on people’s eyes and spitting on the ground. It involved the messy actions of feeding people, tending to their needs, listening to them, weeping with them. It involved his heart, his soul, his mind, and his strength — no one part more or less than the other.

But it wasn’t always about “feeling” the right way. At the pinnacle of Christ’s story, as he hangs on the cross, Jesus has nothing to go on but his head-knowledge of who He is, and of who His Father is. His heart-cry to the Father, on the other hand, is one that breaks our own hearts to hear: “Why have You abandoned me?”

Lean on the ‘head’ until the ‘heart’ catches up

So if believing with your “heart” is something you can’t quite muster up some days, take comfort that you’re not alone in having experienced this. Trust in the remembrance of times past; the things God has done for you. Pare everything back to the foundations of your faith: what unshakeable truths do you know about God? Start from that. Sit with that, and trust God in the midst of the unknowing.

Many times, for me, it’s about going back to the Gospels and re-reading who Jesus is; the kind of person He lived as. When all else seems murky and unsure, I trust that this person, this person who lived and loved in such a revolutionary way, is the revelation of who God is. I trust that his life lived in rebellious love is the only real answer we have in our broken world.

And this head-knowledge carries me through, until my heart can sing out in praise again.

Unanswered prayer: the bogeyman of Christian faith

I often remember this particular moment in a small group I was once a part of. We were talking about prayer, and the joy of answered prayers, and people were listing off various things they’d prayed for that had been answered by God. After a while, there was a pause, and I asked quietly, “Do you think we sometimes avoid praying for things we don’t believe will really happen?”

For a few moments, the room went dead quiet. Then after a while, people started to nod. The group then began to acknowledge and talk about that scary problem of unanswered prayer — one of those things that as Christians we don’t like to talk about or think about, to the extent that we might even not pray about certain things to avoid having to deal with the issue.

It’s one of those things that for Christians can be a real challenge to our faith. It’s a problem that we don’t really have a pat explanation for. There’s plenty of attempts at explaining, but none of them seem to be completely adequate for those times when God just… seems… silent.

Why are our prayers sometimes unanswered?

So why do some of our prayers seem to go “no higher than the ceiling”? Maybe you’ve heard some of the following explanations put forward for unanswered prayer. While I don’t think any of them are adequate for all circumstances, they can certainly be true in some instances. There are plenty of times when I’ve found one or more of these explanations to be helpful to my own situation.

  • Sometimes the answer is there, we just haven’t recognised it, because it’s in a form we don’t expect.
  • Sometimes the answer is “not yet”. Maybe it’s about learning patience; maybe it’s about growth of some other kind: being formed, being prepared. It might be about other factors that we can’t see; other people involved who need to go through their own process of growth.
  • We might be asking for something that’s not in God’s plan for us. Guess what: that’s ok, and it doesn’t mean your prayer was “wrong”. God’s not going to hold it against you. We don’t have a perfect knowledge of God’s will, and we don’t need to pretend that we do. The truth is, sometimes we do want things that aren’t what’s best for us. Healthy, honest prayer involves bringing those desires out in the open, so God can work with them.
  • Sometimes the prayer has been answered, but we didn’t like the answer all that much. So we pretend we didn’t hear, hoping for a different response. Does this sound familiar to you? I know I’ve been guilty of this. And I know, too, that God remains frustratingly silent until I deal with whatever it is God has already asked me to deal with, whether it’s giving up something that’s not good for me, or taking a leap of faith that scares me.

Trust God in the unknowing

Any of those explanations might be true for your particular situation. Or maybe they’re not. Sometimes, the uncomfortable truth is that we just can’t know the reason for our unanswered prayer. Maybe you’ve asked God why, over and over, and still, He just… seems… silent.

And that’s the hardest thing, isn’t it? That’s the part that gets painful, that can sometimes even tempt us to pack it all in and give up on prayer altogether.

Sometimes the reason for our unanswered prayer is simply that we live in a broken, messed up world. Romans 8 describes all of creation as groaning as in the pains of childbirth. Creation has been “subjected to frustration,” it says, in the hope that one day we will be liberated from all this frustration, and “brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God”.1

God’s will is being worked out, but even so: not everything is going to be as it should be in this lifetime.

That doesn’t mean we give up on praying, though. We pray in spite of the brokenness — and we pray because of the brokenness. We pray because God is right there with us in the grieving and the hurting.

I don’t have all the answers about how prayer works, and why sometimes it feels like it doesn’t. But I will say this: Don’t let it stop you talking to God.

Trust God in the midst of the unknowing. Remember that prayer changes us, too, and that even in those periods of “no answer”, there is change happening in us and around us that we might not even be aware of.

Prayers of lament

There is a place in prayer for crying out and expressing our frustration — for lamenting. Many of the Psalms are psalms of lament. Look at this passage from Psalm 44:

You have made us a reproach to our neighbors,
    the scorn and derision of those around us.
You have made us a byword among the nations;
    the peoples shake their heads at us.
I live in disgrace all day long,
    and my face is covered with shame
at the taunts of those who reproach and revile me,
    because of the enemy, who is bent on revenge.
All this came upon us,
    though we had not forgotten you;
    we had not been false to your covenant.

Psalm 44:13-17

Wow… this psalmist certainly isn’t afraid to be upfront with God about their disappointment! What a great reminder that God doesn’t need our prayers to sound perfect, or for us to pretend our uglier feelings aren’t there. He just wants us to be honest; to give him our hurts and our grievances. He can take it.

God is with us

Even if we can’t see any change at all, even if it seems we’re still in that foggy, in-between place of unanswered prayer, remember that God is still listening. He never stops listening. He hears what we have to say, and he keeps on loving us, no matter how we express it, or how angry or hurt we get, or how many times we repeat ourselves.

God is with us. He’s with us in the dark places, as well as in the light. He’s with us even when he seems silent; even in the times when he feels most distant. He’s with us even when we’re not sure where we are ourselves, or where we’re going. Sometimes that knowledge is enough to carry us through.

Wrestling with God: Daring to wrestle hopefully

The man said, “From now on, your name will no longer be Jacob. You will be called Israel, because you have wrestled with God and with men, and you have won.”

Genesis 32:28 (Read Genesis 32:22-32)

In many Bible translations, the heading of this particular tale in Genesis reads somewhat mystifyingly: “Jacob Wrestles With God.” The text itself sheds little light on such a stunning proposition. A ‘man’, we are told, wrestles with Jacob overnight. Who this man is, and where he comes from, we are not told.

We read that this man is on the verge of losing his wrestling match with Jacob. But incredibly, on realising his impending loss, he is able to simply reach out, touch Jacob’s hip, and dislocate it! It’s clear right away, then, that this mysterious wrestler is not just any normal man.

So, on realising the immense power wielded by this peculiar being, our friend Jacob — always the opportunist! — demands a blessing from him.

In response, he gives Jacob a new name. No longer Jacob, he is now to be called Israel. His reasoning: “Because you have struggled with God and humans and have overcome.”

Jacob’s blessing: a new identity

Names have great significance in ancient Hebrew culture. Do you remember the story of how Jacob initially received his name? Fighting with his twin brother in his mother’s womb, he was born grasping onto Esau’s heel. It seems that even in birth, he was desperately trying to assert himself. And so he was christened Jacob, which in Hebrew literally translates as “he grasps the heel”.

Figuratively, though, the word Jacob can be translated as “the deceiver”. And indeed, Jacob comes to live up to this title. He conspires with his mother, firstly to deceive his elder brother, then his father Isaac, fraudulently obtaining the birthright and the blessing that rightfully should belong to Esau.

So it seems Jacob’s character is almost predetermined, by way of his mother Rebekah’s influence. Named a deceiver, raised to be a deceiver — this is his role in the family. This is how his brother, his mother, and his father all view him. This is his very identity, set in stone via prophecy from the time of his birth. Why should he ever change?

But then! Enter this strange man, and this strange wrestling match. As Jon Bloom notes over at Desiring God, wrestling with God alters more than just Jacob’s name. It alters his very identity. No longer a man who grasps for blessings through trickery and lies — the version of faith he inherited from his mother — Jacob has now wrestled honestly for a faith and a relationship with God that belongs to him and him alone.

When God gives us a season of wrestling

Although it is Jacob who asks for the blessing in this story, there is something else that we should notice here. It is God, not Jacob, who initiates the wrestling match. It is God who establishes this encounter.

We might also encounter times when it seems that God has initiated some kind of wrestling match with us. We might rack our brains for what we’ve done to cause the conflict, when there seems to be no obvious reason.

Perhaps you find yourself in a season right now when faith just doesn’t seem to come easily. When the words of Scripture don’t make sense, and your prayers feel like they’re going no higher than the ceiling, and everything seems to contradict what you thought you knew about God.

This can be a hard thing, and often we respond in one of two ways. We might abandon our faith completely, or we might continue on in denial as if nothing has changed.

Neither of these options involve actually engaging with the wrestling match that God has initiated.

Trust the process: hopeful wrestling

Sometimes, we need to fight to figure out what we believe.

We need to spend some time “working out our faith with fear and trembling,” as Paul puts it.

This might involve facing some uncomfortable or challenging truths. It might mean abandoning beliefs about God that we’ve inherited, and never really questioned before. Often, it means taking part in a thorough examination of who we really are. It means sorting out what’s really important to us, and what influences we’re going to let shape us going forward.

That, in turn, might mean we end up hurting some people along the way — people who assumed we’d always agree with them. Or people who just assumed they would always hold a place of influence in our lives. Making those kinds of changes can be incredibly difficult, and may leave us feeling like we’ve been given a metaphorical hip-dislocation. But the fact is, while other people can tell us what to believe, until we do the hard wrestling with God ourselves, we won’t find a faith that really rings true.

So go ahead: wrestle with God. Don’t be afraid of the encounter. Yes, it’s true, you might come out with a limp. But wrestle in hope nonetheless. Trust that there will be a blessing at the end of it, a blessing that sees you taking on a new purpose, and a new identity. A new understanding of who God is, and a new understanding of who you are.

Go ahead: wrestle with God. You might come out with a limp, but trust in the blessing of a new purpose and a new identity. Click To Tweet

What are you wrestling with in your faith right now? Where do you think the wrestling process might be taking you?

The God who sees

She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”

Genesis 16:13 (Read Genesis 16:1-16)

Hagar was a woman who had no real rights to speak of. Abraham’s slave — more than that, his mistress. Doing what she needed to do to survive in that time and place, fulfilling her role as was required of her, but hated and abused by the matriarch of the house as a result. With no one to turn to for protection — there wasn’t exactly a Concubines Union to step in and help! — Hagar did what seemed like the only bearable thing left to do: she ran away.

But God is not yet finished with Hagar’s story. Intercepting her on her path, an angel brings her news that she is pregnant! She has provided Abraham a son and an heir; thus assuring her protection and her worth in this patriarchal society.

As troubling as we may find many aspects of this story, Hagar’s beautiful response to the angel is one that always sticks with me, and it’s a response that I find myself echoing in prayer all the time:

You are the God who sees.

Knowing we are seen

Have you ever felt as though you’re not really being seen? Perhaps as part of your role at work, or perhaps even in a room among family and friends. You’re expected to play a particular part, carry out some task in a particular way, maintain a status quo, relate to the people around you in a certain manner, because “that’s just the way things have always been done!” But maybe you feel unappreciated, unrecognised, unfulfilled. Maybe you feel misjudged or even victimised, and it seems like no one is acknowledging it. Or maybe you just feel like you’ve been reduced to a role that doesn’t quite fit you anymore, that you’re not being acknowledged as a person in all your complexity, with the potential for growth and change.

God sees you.

Let the words of this passage in Genesis speak to you the way they spoke to Hagar. The God of creation sees you, knows you, better even than you know yourself. God sees your potential, the things you long for but don’t dare to voice out loud, and the things that haven’t even entered your mind yet.

Sometimes that’s all we need — to remember that we are seen. That our situations are seen. That whatever injustices we are contending with are seen, and that the very essence of who we are is seen.

God sees you, he knows you, and he loves you. Hold on to that knowledge, and let it carry you through.

God sees you. He sees your situation, the things you long for, the very essence of who you are. Let that carry you through. Click To Tweet

What does it mean to you to be seen?

A lamp to my feet and a light to my path

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.

Psalm 119:105

When I was a kid, there was a computer game called Goldfields that we played in school sometimes. It consisted of a series of educational puzzles and adventures, one of which involved finding your way through a maze in the dark as quickly as possible. You were equipped with a torch, so you could see inside the maze. But the catch was that the torch had low batteries, so you could only see a very short distance ahead. This meant that reaching the end of the maze was a slow and frustrating process. You’d go down each path with no idea where it was leading, or if you might need to turn back.

There are times when following God’s Word feels a lot like fumbling my way through that maze in Goldfields. Like all I’ve been given is a lousy torch with low batteries, when what I really want is a floodlight. Or a map! A map would be nice.

But God hasn’t promised me a roadmap for life. As much as I think I want it, He’s not going to lay out for me precisely all the twists and turns my life is going to take. God’s Word isn’t a floodlight that I can shine all the way down to the end of my journey, enabling me to see every obstacle that exists on the way. Frankly, if that were the case, I’d probably be so discouraged by all those obstacles that I’d give up before I even started.

A lamp to my feet: showing the next step

Instead, what God does promise me is that His Word will be a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path. He promises to give me enough wisdom and clarity to see my surroundings clearly, so I can determine the next thing that I need to do.

When you hold a lamp up in the dark, you can just see where you are now, and what the next step is, and all you have to do is take that step. And then you can take the next one, and then the one after that. You don’t have to leap across large chasms of belief and opportunity; you just need to keep taking one single step at a time. That’s how you end up in the place where God has led you; that’s how you end up doing whatever it is that God has designed you for. You go step by step.

Fulfilling God’s plan for our lives is only ever about just taking that next step. Beyond that, he wants us to trust Him, and to stay in relationship with Him.

Imagine how much the world could be changed if we all stopped making excuses, and took the next step.

Fulfilling God's plan for our lives is only ever about taking the next step. Click To Tweet

When the prayers aren’t pretty

Lead me, Lord, in your righteousness
    because of my enemies—
    make your way straight before me.
Not a word from their mouth can be trusted;
    their heart is filled with malice.
Their throat is an open grave;
    with their tongues they tell lies.
10 Declare them guilty, O God!
    Let their intrigues be their downfall.
Banish them for their many sins,
    for they have rebelled against you.

Psalm 5:8-12

I have mixed feelings about this Psalm. On the one hand, sure, I can certainly relate to some of the emotions it describes. There are many times I’ve wanted to rant and rail at God to deal with that awful person, already!  Declare them guilty, Lord! Let them know how wrong they are! Give them enough rope to hang themselves, embarrass them and bring them to justice in front of everyone!

Sure, I’ve wanted to pray like that sometimes.

The problem is, it usually sticks in my throat. It’s a bit hard to pray, Lord, declare my enemies guilty! — when I’m all too aware of my own shortcomings, and of all the ways God has given me grace. Besides, isn’t this what the New Testament tells us: that we should love our enemy, not condemn them? That we should forgive, as we’ve been forgiven?

Yes, of course we should! So where does that leave us with Psalm 5? Do we toss it out as irrelevant, in light of Christ’s message of grace and redemption?

God can handle our angry prayers

Not so fast. I think we can still learn a great deal from Psalms like this one, although they might sit uncomfortably with us at first.

To me, Psalm 5 says that we can confess to God honestly, no matter what is on our minds. And it says that we should continue to do so, even during those times when what’s on our minds feels like the kind of stuff we’re not supposed to say. Psalm 5 says we can trust God to be big enough to handle our angry prayers, even if they’re not pretty. It says that we can trust Him to turn that anger into something good.

Trust Him with the outcome

Who knows what that good might be? Maybe that person you’re furious with really is in unrepentant sin — and perhaps God will remove them from your life, and allow you to move on. Or maybe they’ll come to repentance, and having allowed God to deal with your anger, you’ll be in a better position to offer them forgiveness and grace.

Or maybe, through praying, your own heart will be changed, and you’ll come to see this person with an empathy you didn’t have before, and realise the situation isn’t as straightforward as you thought.

“Loving our enemies” doesn’t just happen by pretending hurt isn’t there. Instead, we need to acknowledge the hurt, and work through it with God first. God doesn’t need us to pretend our feelings are “right” all the time. He just wants us to come as we are, angry prayers and all. Trust Him to take it from there.

God doesn't need us to pretend our feelings are right all the time. He just wants us to come as we are. Click To Tweet

In the beginning…

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
2 He was in the beginning with God;
3 all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.
4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

John 1:1-5

We all need to begin somewhere.

Starting a new phase of life—whether it be a new job, a new relationship, a new project of some kind—can be challenging, scary. Often we put off taking that first step, preferring to stay in the comfort of well-trodden paths rather than risk branching out into the unknown.

But whatever it is we’re starting, we can be assured that God has been there first. God, who has been there since the beginning, has walked these unknown paths before us, and will be there alongside us as we step out in faith.

So take that first step—and trust that you are not alone, and that the journey which follows will be worth it.