Theology in 3D

18 Inches from Head to Heart?

Ken Casillas | April 8, 2018
New Testament, Old Testament, Theology

Recently I was shopping online for some graduation gifts. I noticed that a favorite bookseller organized its “Spiritual Growth” titles under the tags “Head,” “Heart,” and “Hands.” This struck me as a convenient categorization, but I’ll confess that I was a little disappointed at the theological imprecision.

Surprisingly, shortly afterward I received this in an email from a perceptive colleague:

I read recently that in Hebrew there are not two different words for heart and mind, and so in the shema [Deut 6:4-5], for example, both are implied. I have two questions. First, the linguistic question, is simply whether that affirmation is true. Second, the theological question, has to do with the implication of that. The author I was reading seemed to be saying that we sometimes make an artificial distinction in Christianity when we divide the head (i.e., mind) from the heart. I was wondering what you thought of that? It does sometimes bother me when preachers make that distinction, because I don’t think that it’s always fair, but I also understand that there is such a thing as mere “head knowledge” (e.g., a fact like the dates of WWII).

Later he added:

Perhaps you could also address the common evangelistic phrase of the distance from the head to the heart being 18 inches (and the distance from heaven to hell being the same, or something like that). I forget exactly how it goes, but I have never liked or fully understood that phrase. I think it creates a lot of unnecessary angst. I understand that if people only hear the gospel, with no response whatsoever, then they are lost, but the way that expression is used has always troubled me.


My friend raises legitimate concerns, and with his permission I want to respond to his questions in this post. On the one hand, there is surely a difference between being aware of facts and responding to those facts in a proper or positive way. Our lives reflect this difference all the time. We know what the speed limit is, but we may not abide by it. We know junk food is bad for our health, but we may still eat it. We know we need to get out of bed at a certain hour in order to make it to work on time, but we may sleep in anyway.

More significantly, we may grasp orthodox theological content but not respond to it appropriately. This was evidently the case with the bulk of the Israelites under the Old Covenant. It’s a major reason Jesus excoriated the Pharisees (see Matt 23). It’s been sadly repeated in the lives of countless people who have grown up in Christian homes but have turned away from the gospel. And it has severe ramifications now and eternally. In fact, even some seemingly positive responses to truth will not prevent people from hearing Christ say, “I never knew you!” (Matt 7:21-23). May God have mercy on us and enable us to respond to his truth with genuine faith, worship, and commitment!


We must come to the other side of the matter, however. The head-heart distinction attempts to capture in a concise way what I’ve just described, yet such formulas often end up obscuring and confusing complex issues.

For instance, Scripture uses the “knowledge” category in diverse ways. There are different kinds and levels of knowledge.

  • Surprisingly, Jeremiah 9:23-24 almost defines knowing God in terms of knowing truths about him. The intellectual and the experiential cannot ultimately be separated.
  • At times Jesus equated an accurate understanding of the Scriptures with the right response to or application of them (Matt 12:1-8; see my discussion of this passage in chapter 6 of Beyond Chapter and Verse).
  • “All who know the truth” (2 John 1) functions as a title for true believers.
  • Sticking with the popular phraseology, one could argue that Paul was more concerned about his fellow Jews’ “heads” than about their “hearts.” “For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (Rom 10:2).

Similarly, even some biblical usages of “faith” vocabulary overlap with what has been called “head knowledge.” James 2:19 doesn’t say, “You know that God is one; you do well. Even the demons know this—and shudder!” Instead the verse states, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (emphasis added). So there are different kinds of faith as well as different kinds of knowledge.


The point is that the Bible’s theological terms resist the kind of simplification that we sometimes subject them to. This is especially the case with the term heart. The Hebrew term lēb and its longer form lēbab encompass the entirety of the inner person. This is the sense in, say, Proverbs 27:19: “As in water face reflects face, so the heart of man reflects the man.”

Often, however, “heart” means specific aspects or capacities of the inner person. This includes the emotional aspect that English speakers typically associate with the term (e.g., 1 Kgs 21:7). But other aspects surface as well, including the capacity for thought and reason that we tend to call the “mind” or the “head.” Consider a few examples:

  • Describing human depravity, Genesis 6:5 speaks of “every intention of the thoughts” of man’s heart.
  • “But to this day the LORD has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear” (Deut 29:4).
  • In 1 Kings 3:9 the ESV goes ahead and translates lēb as “mind.” “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?” (emphasis added).
  • One description of a godly man is that “the law of God is in his heart” (Ps 37:31). Here again, the “mental” can’t be separated from the “spiritual.”
  • In Proverbs 3:5 the contrast to trusting the Lord with all one’s “heart” is leaning on one’s own “understanding.”

In the New Testament as well, the Greek term kardia sometimes refers to man’s capacity for processing thoughts. Here are two prominent illustrations:

  • God’s Word discerns “the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12).
  • Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians includes this request: “having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (Eph 1:18).


Beyond defining Hebrew and Greek terms, my main concern is getting right the relationship between our thinking and our deeper commitments. Of course, we need truth inputted into our brains in order to be spiritually moved by that truth. But the converse is also true and even more important.

Here we come to another sense of “heart” terminology: man’s desires or affections, the fundamental “likes” and “dislikes” at the core of his being, the basic loyalties that drive his choices (e.g., Deut 6:51 Kgs 11:3Eccl 8:11Matt 6:21Eph 5:19). These affections influence what we choose to think about and how we perceive truth as well as how we respond to it.

Romans 1:21 describes the noetic effects of sin: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” Because of their godless affections, there is a sense in which unbelievers are unable to understand the things of God’s Spirit (1 Cor 2:14).

Conversely, conversion can be described as “repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 2:25). And this fundamental change of allegiance toward God results in a lifetime of growing in knowledge (2 Pet 1:53:18). Stated in Old Testament terms, “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov 1:7). Only as our hearts are yielded to God in trust, love, reverence, and submission do we come to know things as they truly are.


I’ll make one more point about the common head-heart distinction. I sometimes get the impression that this distinction is being used to downplay or discourage the life of mind, to suggest that it is less “spiritual” than other pursuits. Such anti-intellectualism has long plagued conservative Christianity and ought to be fervently resisted with God’s own Word. Intellectual pursuits involve their own set of dangers (perhaps a topic for another post), but such dangers must not lead us to neglect a significant emphasis in Scripture. I leave you with two key passages along these lines.

First, when Christ quoted the shema he added a word that was implicit in the original term lēbab (as well as the original term nephesh, “soul,” meaning “whole person”): “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt 22:37, emphasis added). For our Savior, loving God includes using our intellects to the best of our ability for his glory.

Second, Paul’s well-known statement to the Philippians sets the agenda for Christian intellectual pursuits: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil 4:8, emphasis added).

Photo credit: JDG/

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