The 3 functions of the heart you need to know

A crucial element for maturing in biblical spirituality

When I came to Christ I was all in. Yet, after a few years and a few discouragements, my spiritual interest waned and I began to chase after the things of the world. How did this happen to me? What changed? Had I known about what the Bible says about the heart, it may have been different. If you want to develop a healthy spiritual life, knowing the three functions of the heart can help you avoid pitfalls.

When the Bible talks about the heart, it isn’t talking about the ball of muscle in your chest. According to the bible, the heart is the center of our being. Jesus said that it was from the heart that the mouth speaks (Matt 12:34), and from the heart come the things we think and do (Mark 7:21-22). The heart then is the part of man from which our life flows (Prov 4:23).

The Bible doesn’t really tell us what the heart is, but it talks a lot about how it functions. It turns out that there are three primary ways the heart functions. I want to introduce you to them, and as I do, I hope you’ll see why they are important to know. Each function is fairly broad, and there are verses that describe more than one function. Each function is described in a variety of passages, so the verses below are not exhaustive.

Cognition

The first function of the heart is cognition. This includes thinking, believing and conviction. When Jesus healed the paralytic, the scribes “said to themselves, ‘This man blasphemes.’ Jesus, knowing their thoughts said, ‘Why are you thinking evil in your hearts?'” Notice where the thinking was going on? In the hearts of the scribes (see also Luke 9:47). Similarly, Paul prayed for the Ephesians that “they eyes of [their] heart may be opened so that [they] will know what is the hope of His calling.” It was in the heart that they needed to know the hope of belonging to Christ. The thought life is in their heart. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen in the brain. The point is that the immaterial part of man is where this thinking and believing takes place.

Affection

The word affection is an old word that speaks of desires, emotion and values. According to Matthew 5:28 desire (or lust as it is commonly translated in this verse) happens in the heart, “everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Note that the longing, or desiring happened in the heart. Fear, value and desire go together (where we desire or value something we fear it’s loss), so emotions are also part of the heart’s function. In John 14:27, Jesus said, “Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful.” This verse uses troubled and fearful as parallels to indicate two emotional responses that take place in the heart. Another, sorrow, is found in John 16:6. Just like desire and emotions go together, so too values and desire. We desire things because we value them. When Jesus commands us to love one another (John 15:12), He really is commanding our emotions.

Volition

That brings us to the final function, our volition, will, choices or commitment. This is evident in passages such as Matthew 15:8, which says, “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me.” This indicates that while these people speak well of God, perhaps even singing praise songs, etc, their heart is still far away, and this is evident from their actions. In this case, they kept their law, not God’s law (see the context). The commitment or will of their hearts is also what lead to the death of Ananias and Saphira. According to Peter they “conceived this deed in [their] heart.” Their actions indicated their heart. See also 1 Cor 7:37, which indicates that standing firm in our heart means someone “has authority over his own will.”

These functions work together

Each of these three functions affects the other. For example, have you ever seen something in a store and desired it? What happened? You probably went in (at least one time in your life) and bought it. Your desire led to the motivation of your will. Similarly, do you recall a time when having desired something you began to rationalize to yourself why you should have it? Here your desire is influencing your thinking. It also works with the will influencing your desires (if you do something long enough you often eventually enjoy that activity) and so on.

So what?

Why is this important to developing a healthy spiritual life? For me, if I had known how desire works and that this was something I needed to guard myself against, I might have been better prepared to resist the temptations of the world, and maintain my walk with Christ. When the Bible says that we are to love the Lord with all our heart (Deut 6:5, Matt 22:37), he includes our mind, our emotions, our values, our desires, our commitments and will. Likewise, when the Proverbs tell us to “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov 4:23) you can start to see that this is a comprehensive task.

Hopefully this post has allowed you to dip your toes in to why the heart is important to your spiritual health, but later this week, we will see how this is important when it comes to your Bible reading.

Question: Most people are stronger in one heart function than in the others. Which of these functions of the heart is strongest in you? You can leave a comment by clicking here.