The Science of Taking Heart

 “Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord” – Psalm 31:24

To take means to “seize with authority” or “to grasp”. In the Bible, the heart is the center of you. “The heart is the center not only of spiritual activity, but of all the operations of human life”[1] When we combine take with heart, we now have a greater understanding of what it means to “take heart”. It is to grasp with authority in the center of us: our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

When Jesus healed the paralytic, He said to him, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven” (Matthew 9:2).  And to the woman who had suffered greatly with bleeding for twelve years, “Take heart, daughter…your faith has healed you”. The text says, “The woman was healed from that moment” (Matthew 9:22).

From these accounts we learn that to take heart is to believe our faith has had a healing effect on us. For the paralytic and the woman there was immediate, measurable change. The bleeding stopped; the man picked up his mat and walked out on his own. Jesus miraculously changed the places where there had previously been suffering and immobilization.

This begs a practical question: Why do so many people continue to struggle with the very same problems they always had when they come to faith? Should we expect that our faith will immediately wipe away all of our suffering? Those of us who have been walking the faith road a while learn it is a journey not a destination. Change is a process not an instantaneous cure-all.  The very fact that Jesus tells us to “take heart” is evidence enough there is more to do, even in the wake of miracle healing. After our initial excitement wears off, we begin to understand faith is more difficult than we anticipated. It often seems like an uphill climb with some harrowing turns. 

In his book, Necessary Endings, Henry Cloud says there are three kinds of people in the world: wise, foolish, and evil. He defines wise people as those who “don’t resist the truth they have to align with. As the phrase goes, they take it to heart with no defensiveness”. The way I interpret this is to think of taking heart as internalizing wisdom, or the process of becoming wise. The Bible tells us that wisdom comes from God and the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). Faith puts us in the position to receive wisdom. It is the beginning, not the end of the matter.

I have been reading a book on the science of the brain by Dr. Caroline Leaf[2].  It is the only book I have ever read that combines Biblical thinking with brain science. It is fascinating to bring the two domains together and see how perfectly God has wired us, right down to the last nerve ending. Dr. Leaf teaches some interesting things about the heart. She says we have a second brain, which she calls the “brain in your heart”: “Your heart has its own independent nervous system which is a complex system composed of at least 40,000 neurons. This is as many neurons as found in our actual brains. Your heart is not just a pump…In effect, the brain of your heart acts like a checking station for all the emotions generated by the flow of chemicals created by thoughts. The heart checks the emotions and produces an important balance hormone called an atrial peptide. This hormone regulates your real brain and your behavior.” That might sound like a bunch of scientific mumbo-jumbo,but let me try to breakdown what I think she is saying in regard to taking heart:

 Thoughts  →   Emotions/Heart Check  → Behavior

We’ve known for a long time there is a mind-body connection, and that our thoughts can make us sick.  But if I understand Dr. Leaf as saying the heart is the real brain of the operation, this is more significant. This chemical hormone that comes from the heart regulates our brains and behavior. This would mean that it is physiologically and spiritually impossible to “take heart” without fundamental change to our whole system: thoughts, emotions, behavior. Taking heart is a complete overhaul not a minor tweak.

That sounds intimidating, like one of those “this is too hard so why even try” type of projects. But that is a lie. God has given us everything we need to take heart. Jesus is saying more than an unsympathetic prod to “toughen up”. If Jesus Christ, the Living Lord, tells us to “take heart”, we better believe He has the power to deliver on that promise. There are two essential components He has given us: The Word of God and the Holy Spirit. The Spirit interacts with the Word in the same way as the brain in our heart communicates with the brain in our head. They are intricately linked in the change process. Think of the Word as the “input” and the Spirit as the “output”. You are the middle, or the “processing” part. (Sorry, slipped into business process mode for a second). I heard a pastor speaking recently on the vitality of keeping The Word and Spirit together. He called them the “sperm and egg”. If we are to birth real change (or take heart) we need both.  The balance of the Word and Spirit re-orders our lives in the same way as the atrial peptide regulates our brain and behavior. 

I have more to say on this, but I am already over 1000 words in this post! This might become my first blog series. Stay tuned for more on that. But for today, let it suffice to say “take heart” is not a stoic, passive position; an uninspired appeal to “put on a brave face and wait it out” or “grin and bear it”. But it is not an angry, aggressive bull-in-a-china-shop either. Taking heart is both a grace and a skill.  It is grace because we cannot change ourselves apart from God, and we are dependent upon His timing (i.e. “Wait upon the Lord”) . It is skill because we will only make lasting changes to the degree that we develop new habits, disciplines, and self-control. Taking heart is not quick, easy, or painless; but the rewards are infinitely greater. The quality and eternal significance of our lives are directly connected to how well we “take heart”.  That’s a truth worth pondering in our hearts for a very long while.

[1] Easton’s Bible Dictionary
[2] Who Switched Off My Brain? Controlling Toxic Thoughts and Emotions

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