In my experience of helping people step into their heart, especially in Christian communities, I hear one consistent rebuttal. It is a powerful one, used like an FBI badge that can stop an entire discussion in its tracks.
“The heart is deceitful.”
This statement comes from Jeremiah 17:9 and is packaged in all kinds of conversational versions:
“Don’t trust your emotions”…because your heart is deceitful.
“Don’t just go with whatever you want”…because your heart is deceitful.
“Dreams are impractical”…because your heart is deceitful.
“Your passions are untrustworthy”…because your heart is deceitful.
And like most complex topics with Christians, I understand why people say this–they want to be faithful to the Scriptures. I respect that, but mishandling this one statement in Jeremiah has caused more heartache, confusion, depression, and disillusionment than I wish to account because the heart is simply misunderstood, neglected or suppressed.
What is the Heart?
From my studies in the Hebrew around the word for heart (leb) the Jewish worldview held that the heart was the place of the mind, emotions, will, and desire (motive and motivation). In other words, Jesus’s worldview (a Jewish one) held that the heart was holistic, it is your inner person. And from what I can see in this worldview desire is the king of the heart, it rules or leads the other parts of the heart: the mind, emotions and will–not the other way around. And if this is Jesus’s worldview, I want it to be mine.
The Entire Verse
The full verse of Jeremiah 17:9 is: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” Yet, most people who use it as their badge to refute you to not listen to your heart don’t quote the second part. Omitting this second part, “the heart is beyond cure” misses a key point that the entire book of Jeremiah is driving hard from the beginning. And since this derails the point of Jeremiah, you can be sure we are missing the vital role that Jeremiah plays in the entire Bible.
Just one verse later it says:
v.10 — “I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve.”
In summary, the two verses (vv 9 & 10) could be paraphrased this way, “The heart is royally messed up and not possible to be fixed or healed, who can understand how to handle it in its current state? Well, I, the Lord Can!”
The Trajectory of the Book of Jeremiah
On the one hand, when people quote Jeremiah Jer. 17:9 (part a) as their authoritative badge to discount the heart as a reliable source of wisdom and guidance, they are enforcing the theme leading up to chapter seventeen, without even knowing it. Jeremiah makes twenty-three references to a messed-up heart! Seventeen of the references happen before chapter seventeen—so, by the time you get to chapter seventeen you already should be growing sick and tired of this heart-thing. Thank you Jeremiah, for telling us the truth even when we don’t want to hear it—this is what prophets do.
Then something unexpected and miraculous happens.
Chapter 31 happens–Chapter 31:31-33 to be specific.
31 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them” declares the Lord. 33 “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (NIV – Jer. 31:31-33)
This is the New Covenant. You have probably heard of it—the whole reason Jesus came, to do away with the old ways and bring in the new ways, so we can be back in intimate relationship to God again, and live fully alive as He always intended—at the deepest levels possible—yes—from your heart.
Hebrews 8:7-13 clearly shows that Jesus fulfills this prophecy. (Ezekiel 36:26-27 also recounts the New Covenant from a slightly different angle, connecting the heart given to us with the giving of the Spirit.)
What is the role of the book of Jeremiah? I think we can argue strongly that one of Jeremiah’s primary roles is to establish just how distant the people of God had become in their intimacy with him and how this very problem was because of the messed up heart…and how God was specifically going to cure this problem through the giving of a new heart. We find out later on in the timeline that this is purchased through the death and resurrection of Jesus. If you miss this trajectory of what is declared and prophesied in Jeremiah and is fulfilled in the New Testament through the work of Jesus then you miss a really important part of the Bible and a HUUUUUGE benefit that is yours in the Gospel—that you are given a new refreshed/rewritten heart that is supposed to be listened to and trusted.
In my opinion misusing and misunderstanding this one verse has created a version of Christianity that the world is rightly skeptical of because it perpetuates a very weird, emotionally disconnected, and stale approach to life that misplaces desire for allegiance to a god that could care less about your heart. I believe Christians should be the most alive and desirous creatures on the face of the earth, not the biggest curmudgeons or weirdos that others know. I promise you, if you begin living from the desires of the heart Jesus gave you life will never be the same—and the world will take notice—you will be burning fire of radiating joy that others cannot ignore.