Saturday, June 20, 2009

Spiritual Learning, Part 1: Head/Heart

Some weeks ago now, my church small group split into two (as small groups that grow should!). We still catch up with each other from time to time, see how each group is growing and changing.

Last time we did a combined dinner, one of the leaders did a short talk/study on the spiritual discipline of teachability. Wiktionary defines teachable as "Capable of being taught; apt to learn; Willing to receive instruction or to learn."

What does it mean to learn in a spiritual sense, though? People often talk about "head knowledge" vs. "heart knowledge"; knowing something is different from "knowing" it. It's not enough to simply know and declare something to be true; the real proof that you understand something is in how you demonstrate it through your actions.

Unfortunately, all of us tend to favour one over the other: we place more importance on one aspect of our learning than the other, to our detriment. Some worry too much about understanding and doctrine, but then don't live it out. Others think that our walk and experience are more important than the deeper details of what we believe to be true, without realising that how and what we think affects the way we act.

Personally, I fall into the first category far too often: I say I care about the Truth, but do I actually let it change the way I live?

What about you: to which extreme do you tend? And how do you combat it in your life? Love to hear from you…

Creative Commons: mathieustruck on flickr


  1. Awesome. Spiritual learing is one massive topic! Hope to read more thinking from you on the topic.

    Just some thoughts...

    I think what we usually mean by the 'head' is our reason, and what we usually mean by the 'heart' is our affections. Truth and treasure.

    We can't say we treasure Christ if we don't care to know more of him. We can't treasure what we haven't seen or known. Neither can we say we really know Christ if what we claim to have seen hasn't moved us to treasure him. To whatever degree we don't treasure him, we haven't seen nor understood him.

    I've always been suspicious of the distinction made between 'head' and 'heart' in regards to the source of difficulty in spiritual growth/learning. I don't think striking a balance is the solution, necessarily. Regarding spiritual learning, rather than imagining two opposites ends of a scale, I think we need to somehow form a picture of the head and the heart being in harmony with each other through their connection to a deeper foundation reality - the spiritual. I'm thinking of the new self (which includes renewed heart *and* mind) and the indwelling Spirit.

    1 CORINTHIANS 2:6-16 is the passage to meditate on.

    The real battle isn't between the head and the heart, but between the spiritual and the unspiritual. Our struggle is between dependence on the power of God and dependence on the power of self (our mind OR heart can be sources of self-dependence) for our learning.

    I think it's so so very possible to learn the Scriptures unspiritually (without the Spirit's illumination) - you know this when your head knowledge doesn't move you or change the way you live.

    Equally, I think those who don't care much for theology but think that only feeling and doing are important, are living the Christian life without the Spirit - because all the Spirit ever wants to do is glorify Christ and make him known, especially through the way we live and relate! If that's not the purpose of our living - which necessarily must be informed by a mental and spiritual grasping of reality - then it is unspiritual.

  2. Interesting subject. I look forward to reading more.
    I think by nature I fall into the second category. When I became saved it was the actions and love of people around me that validated what they told me of John 3:16. I combat this tendency with some advice I got once from the principal of Bible College SA. He said that the relationship with God is like any relationship, in that, during the good and easy times we should invest time in understanding the other's character. Then in the hard times it is our knowledge of the other that will carry the relationship through, because we can choose to focus on what we know of him/her irrespective of what our feelings, emotions and experiences are. We can increase our knowledge of God's character by studying both the Old and New Testaments. Of course, some people with knowledge voluntarily give up their faith notwithstanding, so I am just talking about the value of scripture to those who commit to finishing the race. Personally I also find that knowledge of God's character as revealed in His actions through history gives confidence to take risks for God. If knowledge cannot be shaken by persecution, hardship, rejection, confusion, spiritual attack or any other experience, then if we have knowledge of God there is nothing we won't attempt for the Kingdom.

  3. BTW the last comment was mine; I didn't mean to be anonymous :)

  4. Hi Jack & Lorelei, thanks for contributing!

    Jack: Thanks for your thoughts. Perhaps the two scales can be married like this:

    A Spirit-driven growth in a Christian will lead to both proper knowledge of God's character and an appropriate response in the way we live and relate to Him and other people.

    But because we're sinful, fallen people, and our sanctification is a gradual process, we don't act like that. We will always err on one side or the other, and I guess that was the thrust behind my original post.

    Also, we must be very careful when labelling people as "unspiritual". We can't see their hearts; a good look at our own will quickly show that we're not that amazing ourselves.

    I know that I want to be guided and enlightened by the Holy Spirit. At the same time, however, I acknowledge that my sinful nature pushes me towards an incomplete/lopsided understanding of who God is and how I should respond; that's "unspiritual", as you call it.

    How would you advise a fellow believer who has a deep love for God but has trouble understanding the character of God as demonstrated in history? Would you say to them "you're not being spiritual/Spirit-driven enough?" Or would you say "You love God; let's look at His Word and see what He tells us about Himself?"

  5. Good thoughts...

    Well, to be Spirit-driven means to go to the Word. I would give the second response. The first response is poor because it's telling someone to try harder at something (which apparently they're a failure at) which they don't necessarily understand. The second response is pastoral, because it is kind and points someone in the real way to know God better; but not because its meaning in contrary to being 'Spirit-driven'.

    I think I totally understand the danger you're picking up on... the worst kind of Christian is the one who thinks they are spiritually superior to others, who looks down others whom they label as 'unspiritual' - over-spiritualising pharisees who's ideas about learning and living life have faint echoes of gnosticism in them.

    Just some clarifying thoughts (because I'm confusing :p): what is 'unspiritual' is the flesh, our sinful nature - that which is not born of the Spirit. The unspiritual man is the man who has not been born of the Spirit. But every Christian is 'spiritual' because they have been born of the Spirit... but the 'unspiritual', the flesh, is still with us, because we are still growing. Now, the flesh prides on its own ability to understand things or make life work: sometimes by reliance on the strength of the mind, sometimes on the strength of the heart, and the battle we fight is to be humbled and broken, and allow God's strength to be made perfect where our weakness lies - whether we find our hearts are too weak, or our minds too weak. Only the Spirit can quicken our hearts or our minds to true understanding and genuine affections and actions; the flesh can't achieve that.

  6. Good thoughts.

    I tend to the first extreme as well. In recent times I've been blessed to be part of a church and a Bible study group which seems to strike up a good balance of both; being part of that helps me combat it.

    Also, my wife probably tends to the other extreme, and so, as with so many other things, we balance each other out, in a mutually beneficial way.