Head, Heart, and Stomach

It is common to hear pastors or some other religious speaker warning us of the danger of listening to our emotions. Emotions are flighty things and may deceive us. Our faith should be placed in the Bible and reason. For a long while I went along with this thinking. Over time I began to see that it was not exactly Biblical. How we got to this way of thinking is a long tale, so its best to start at the start.

Plato’s enormous work, The Republic, is often criticized for suggesting that the best government would be one led by philosopher kings. Plato's SoulThe wider argument of the book often gets lost behind this. Plato was attempting to imagine a republic which was ordered according to a universal pattern of justice and goodness. The universal pattern not only provided the model for the perfect political government but for the perfect governing of the human soul. Plato divided the soul into three parts, the mind, heart, and stomach. The head was the part of the body in which the mind was located. It was responsible for reason and knowledge. The heart was the location of the emotions, specifically courage and passion. From the stomach came desire for things like food, money, and sex. In a well ordered human being, the head would rule the heart and stomach, just like in a well ordered government the philosopher king would rule the over the warrior class and the commoners. A person who let their stomach rule over the head would live a life of debauchery. Plato’s division and diagnosis of the human soul remained the height of learning on the subject for some time.

For better or worse, Medieval Christians imported the best of pagan philosophy and “Christianized” it. They adopted the Greek division of the soul that Plato popularized, with some additions. Paul uses the word flesh in Romans as a synonym for the our sinful nature. In medieval thought, the flesh came to reside in the stomach and to a degree in the heart. The mind participated in God’s divine reason. Reason, which they equated with the Old Testament concept of wisdom, was placed in the world by God to illuminate and help people perceive truth, just as the sun illuminates and helps people perceive the physical world. Sin, most often, though not always, came when the sinful desires of the stomach overcame reason. Emotions became the man in the middle. In a person who lived rightly the heart would obey the mind. In a sinful person the heart would join the stomach to overcome the mind. Some interesting teaching came of this.

For example, The Canterbury Tales ends with a sermon on morality given by a parson. He teaches that sex between a husband and wife was a sin unless if was done for the purpose of reproduction or a duty to fulfill the marriage debt of 1 Corinthians 7:3. To desire sex simply for pleasures sake or to fulfill sexual appetite was sinful.

We will have to skip over what happened between the middle ages and now as it is the era I know least about. What I do know is that today we have brought the stomach into the heart. (Ironically, after nearly finishing this post, the latest issue of my alma mater’s magazine came out, celebrating the school’s dedication to educating the head and heart, apparently ignoring the stomach.) The head is still the seat of thought and reason, but the heart is now the center of emotion and desire. Love the emotion has become almost almost inseparable from the desire for sex.

I want to propose a different way of looking at things. While Plato’s division of the soul into mind, heart, and stomach is not perfect, I like it. No model is perfect and this one is far better than Freud’s id, ego, and superego or a behaviorist model that denies the existence of a soul. What we tend to forget is that the Fall affected our entire selves. Head, heart, and stomach were corrupted by sin; each part was bent out of shape. This is why I am uncomfortable with the mind being elevated over emotions and desires. Our minds can deceive us too. Martin Luther once referred to reason as the devil’s whore. While he is obviously exaggerating, we need to remember that reason can be used for evil just as well as emotions can. Knowledge can be of good and evil. We are masters at rationalizing actions that we know intuitively are wrong.

What Christians need to realize is that all of us needs to be redeemed. This can only be accomplished through the Holy Spirit, Scripture, and other Christians. The closer our stomach is brought in line with the truth, the more our appetites will be pure. Likewise, as our emotions are redeemed they will become more in line with what God desire. Our minds as well. For this reason, we need to pay careful attention to our desires and emotions and thoughts. Sometimes our emotions and desires are ahead of mind. Like sensors in a large machine, they may notice that something is wrong before we see it directly.

As I have matured as a Christian, I have learned to listen more to my emotions and intuition. Often times, my mind is far too smug with its own cleverness for the Spirit to speak to it. Instead, the Spirit will speak through feelings or intuition. This is always a sign to slow down, be careful, examine, and pray. Why am I feeling that something is not right here?

Our desires and appetites also may tell us things that our minds miss. Because it is all too easy to rationalize busyness, exhaustion may be a sign that you we are working to hard and burnout is near. 1 Corinthians 7:9 says that if you are unmarried and are having trouble controlling your desire for the opposite sex, then you should probably get married.

Our minds also need to be renewed. Sometimes the logic of the kingdom of God is counter-intuitive to that of the world. Death brings life, poverty is wealth, the first shall be last. The Spirit will work on fixing the bends in our minds if we invite him in. As someone who is more mind oriented, I recognize that there is a danger in relying on the mind alone. The more intelligent we are, or dependent on reason, the easier it is for our mind to practice sophistry. Just as our minds are that much more skilled in discovering truth than other people, they are much more able of rationalize what is wrong and false. The bare truth that overcomes the simpleton will not get past our defenses. No one can be as brilliantly stupid as a brilliant man. We need to be more sensitive to our emotions and desires. Humility is absolutely necessary.

Some day our head, heart, and stomach will think, feel, and desire what is good in perfect harmony. Until that time we need to allow God to correct the misalignment of our souls.

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One comment

  1. Matthew Bible · February 15, 2013

    You have an annoying way of starting off a post with a statement that sets my teeth on edge, and then leading it to an excellent conclusion.
    Attacks on reason within the church bother me, because I find that most people seek out an emotional experience from Christianity, rather than a life based on the truth of the Bible. I realized after reading farther, however, that that’s not what you’re talking about and of course your conclusion is perfectly reasonable. Pun intended.

    I would submit that one of the issues you’re talking about here is that people tend to confuse our ability to interpret the Truth of God’s Word as the Truth itself. The Truth of God’s Word encompasses reason, emotions, and desires, but as we generally need to rely on our reason to interpret it, reason begins to take unhealthy priority.

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