on following your heart

[The following are some thoughts ignited by readings on the art of spiritual discernment.]

I have often been enamoured of the language of “following your heart.” In the West, we are culturally told to do this ALL THE TIME. Somehow, if we just listen to our inner selves, we will know what we are to do, and what will bring us the most happiness. If we do enough personality testing or journalling or self-awareness exercises, our true self will be revealed and we can trust this self to be a guide to our true aspirations. A quick scan of some of the literature demonstrates that we must follow our heart and take risks; if we don’t, we risk a lifetime of misery.

In his book The Voice of Jesus, Gordon Smith observes that the Christian spiritual heritage agrees on the idea that the core of who we are can be found in our affections. He points out that three spiritual giants of the Christian tradition, St. Ignatius, John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards, all agreed on the priority of the heart and the place of affect in Christian experience.

However, what arrested me was Smith’s following point:

What is happening to us emotionally does not correlate perfectly with the will, word and inner witness of God. Yes as we mature in faith, hope, and love, our emotions will increasingly reflect the intentions of God.

Put simply, our emotions do not immediately match the will of God. Wow!

As a Christian, it is critical to recognize how influenced I am by the cultural instruction to follow my heart. Somehow, as a Christian, I come to believe that my heart is naturally disposed to what is best for me (read: what God has ‘created’ me to be and do, or what God has ‘perfectly planned’ for my life). Smith’s observation is critical at this juncture. Our immediate emotions are not necessarily indicative of what is best. Rather, our emotions are immature and subject to growth and development. Our emotions must be checked and integrated with our heads. God did not make us and attach a warning label: ‘Follow your heart for best results.’

A messed-up notion of “following my heart” has handicapped me personally for a long time. That is, I have long believed that if I trust my impulses, they will lead me well. I have even kept thinking this in the face of impulses which seem to be worryingly deathly/inconsistent with my current life. What I now recognize is that this thinking is far from the truth. In reality, my emotions are certainly a part of me, and must be brought to light … however then, they must be thought about and analyzed – in short, taken seriously – and then used to make a decision about how to live well.

Some concluding words from Smith:

True emotion is the fruit of an enlightened and informed mind; if our emotions are confused and in turmoil, then our thinking is just as confused and potentially dangerous. There are two dangers that need to be avoided: a cerebralism that discounts the central place of affect and a sentimentalism that fails to appreciate that the affections be informed by our understanding. We must listen with heart and mind. […]

 What we long for is the ordering of our affection so that what we feel is congruent with our world, so that our emotions are the appropriate response, in due proportion to our world. When emotion is guided by reason, we can engage reality in a manner that not only enables us to live truthfully but also enables us to be transformed by the truth.

My heart can only be followed if I allow it to be transformed by truth. Amen.

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