Bridging the Heart and Mind

As Christians we want to believe what we cognitively affirm—that God is sovereign and good—and yet sometimes we struggle to make sense of the emotions that we feel when we encounter difficult passages of Scripture. How do we begin to bridge the heart and mind when dealing with hard issues? Ravi Zacharias sat down with Danielle DuRant to discuss their roles in one’s faith journey. Click here for the full audio interview.

Danielle DuRant: I’ve often heard you say that what I believe in my heart must make sense in my mind. Lately we’ve heard from many people wrestling with the reverse: that is, what I believe in my mind must make sense in my heart. Do you see a shift here and why might that be?

Ravi Zacharias : It’s possibly a shift. I think we went through a bit of that in the 60s and 70s. Alot was triggered by existentialist philosophers at that time; Sartre, Camus, and others were calling for the emotional side of life. Now after postmodernism, it comes in a second wave: there is a felt need that oftentimes supersedes the intellectual coherence of what it is that one believes. I would say the bridge has to be there, but I will always lean towards the fact that right thinking has to precede right feeling. Or, if the felt reality comes first, then the thinking has to be in keeping with what is being felt. So, I don’t know about the chronological sequence of it, but the logical connection obviously ought to be there.

DD: Well, I think, for instance, of the huge emotional response to Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. As Christians we want to believe what we cognitively affirm—that God is sovereign and good—and yet sometimes we struggle to make sense of the emotions that we feel when we encounter difficult passages of Scripture. How do you begin to bridge the heart and mind when you’re dealing with hard issues?

RZ: I think Rob Bell’s book is a classic example of the reverse in logic. I don’t want to be hard on it because I have no doubt whatsoever that he means well, that he is thinking that this is the right way to do theology. I don’t believe it is. I think it’s a very wrong way to do theology. However, he’s tapped into a nerve and that nerve is when he makes a statement like “millions of people believe this.” I’m not sure what that’s supposed to establish: that therefore it is right or therefore it is worthy of our investigation. If the latter, yes, but I don’t think it makes it right because millions believe it in a certain way. We don’t often make our judgments on very critical issues be it in our jobs, our families, in disciplines, on the basis of exactly how we feel at the moment. We have to go with what is right and do it in the kind and in the best way. When we talk of this thing called love, and specifically the love of God, God very clearly warned of moments of judgment and justice. He said, “He who is often reproved and hardens himself shall suddenly be cut off, and that without remedy” (see Proverbs 29:1). That’s a pretty tough statement. Not too many human parents would voice it that way, but God almost talks about a line that is crossed, and once it is crossed to regain the relationship is very difficult. You see the same thing with Esau who sought for a place of repentance but could not find it, after he had sold his birthright. Some lines when they are crossed cause one to lose ground and any remedy will never be total. So I think the touching of the nerve of emotions in Rob Bell’s book is a good way actually to phrase it, but it is the wrong way of thinking and demonstrates again the vulnerability that the human being has to move in the direction of felt realities rather than reasonable realities.

DD: So when you personally come up against difficult passages in Scripture such as Esau or hell and God’s judgment—perhaps you don’t have a visceral response anymore, but how do you wrestle with certain emotions or help someone else who is really wrestling with those difficult passages?

RZ: I think that's well put. Even if I don’t wrestle with it personally because I’m not surprised at it, as an apologist I often encounter somebody who’s gone through an immense struggle, tragedy, heartbreak, or disappointment. Then you have to articulate a response, and you have to be very careful. I’ll never forget, never forget, the early days of my ministry. I was in Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1970s, and a man came up to me after I spoke. He said, “I’m a relatively new Christian and all this stuff is new to me. I don’t know often what to believe about very critical things, so brother, you better be right in what you say because I’m listening to you.”

I thought, My word that responsibility is a very serious one! The speaker had better be right because there are an awful lot of people out there who are framing their answers on the basis of what they hear from the pulpit or what they are reading in books. So how do I deal with it? I have to deal with it because people ask me questions. Do I often think that I have comfortable answers? No. But, I do think I have to find satisfactory answers that pull together the nature of God and the character of God.

I was in Israel recently and I was talking to a young Palestinian man who told me about a fascinating conversation between Brother Andrew and a Muslim cleric, which occurred on the heels of an execution that the Muslim cleric had ordered. I think four Palestinians had been killed in a raid and he’d ordered eight Israelis to be killed. So Brother Andrew looked at him and he asked him two questions. He said, “Who has made you the executioner to execute people at your whim and your order?” The cleric said, “I’m not an executioner but part of my responsibility in life is to make sure God’s justice is implemented.” So Brother Andrew said, “What then becomes of forgiveness?” The cleric responded, “That’s only to those who deserve it.”

What a fascinating theory on the nature of God! That is the way Islam will see itself, as the executor of God’s justice in this world. Whereas a Christian sees the call to surrender to the state and the powers of government as described in Romans 13, and second, that forgiveness is never merited; you cannot earn it. So, comfort is not always the goal of your answers, rather coherence and truth tempered with mercy, understanding, and compassion.

DD: John Calvin begins his Institutes of the Christian Religion with this observation: “Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God. Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” Would you agree with his observation?

Romans 8:1-2 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.

RZ: I met a gentleman some years ago, a sculptor who was on his journey to faith. He said his favorite piece of work was the man lying on the side of the road with a bottle in his hand, disheveled and drunk, and the most important words in the Bible were of the prodigal son’s story when he came to himself. Those five words to him—“then he came to himself”— were the most important words. I believe there is a lot of truth in that. When you come to yourself, you realize the poverty of your life and your spirit. That’s why I believe Jesus spoke of this as the first beatitude. You start off with spiritual poverty, not just in my physical finitude or in my knowledge finitude, but in the fact that there is only one infinite being and that’s God. I think only when you get a glimpse of God do you truly get a glimpse of yourself. Isaiah the prophet said, “Woe unto me! I’m a man of unclean lips living in the midst of unclean people” after he had cried, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty.” So that true understanding of self will come only with a glimpse of God. An understanding of our shortcomings can come even in the human realm but with no real answers until you can put it in the context of who God is.

DD: You’ve often cited Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence. Goleman brought to the mainstream the critical importance of “emotional intelligence,” which he defines as a set of skills such as self-awareness, empathy for others, and self-control. Do you see a connection between one’s emotional intelligence and growth and one’s spiritual growth?

RZ: Goleman’s book was fascinating and ground-breaking. I seem to recall the only problem that I had with that book is how he put it altogether within a naturalistic framework, and that to me was his struggle. But yes, emotions are an indicator of reality. If I may get on to a bit of a tangent, people often think of men as being more intellectual and women being more emotional. It is such an unfortunate caricature. I like to put it this way. Maybe the women’s intellect is intimidating to men because the woman immediately connects it with emotion, and therefore there is a greater degree of coherence in her intellect with the felt need. Men like to amputate what should be the feeling on the basis of what they are thinking, especially if they’re in trouble or if they’ve gone the wrong way. This is true. I’ve seen it again and again. If a man has messed up in some way he likes to break that connection between what is true and what ought to be reflected in feeling. A woman doesn’t do that. You know, that’s what makes a mother a mother. She’ll sit down across a table and with the tears in her eyes tell you what is really wrong with what has gone on. The father may try to philosophize his way through and the son or the daughter is not quite sure and wonders, Is this as bad as my mom is making it out to be or is this very platonic, the way my father is making it out to be? So, I would say emotional intelligence is key to complementing intellectual coherence, and I believe this is probably the thorn in the naturalist’s side.

What do I mean by that? Why do we feel guilty? Why do we feel wrong is wrong even when somebody else is trying to justify it? Why do we invoke absolutes even if we are relativistic in our thinking and applying it in our own lives? Why do we blame people who break contracts or exploit others? That feeling tells you something is not right, which is reflective of the moral framework in which God has created us. Emotional intelligence has been a neglected kind of intelligence, but it is often times an indicator, just as the body is. You put your hand on a flame, and it will burn to tell the brain what’s going on, and the brain tells you to pull your hand away. So it is, I think, with the soul.

DD: When I think of emotional intelligence, at least of the categories Goleman uses —self-awareness, empathy for others, self-control—I believe Peter Scazzero picks up on some of these components in his book The Emotionally Healthy Church. You could certainly see empathy for others and self-control being the fruit of the Spirit. So, there seems to be a connection between emotional and spiritual growth.

RZ: Definitely, and again to invoke Calvin, he talks of the third use of the law. When you put laws into society, it is to tame the will for some people who want to take justice into their own hands. Or in the law courts, a judge may have compassion upon somebody and then bring that as a component into the decision making. So you have that even within the naturalistic framework. But once you bring in the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, He gives you self-control, helping you resist temptation, helping you ground your belief as to why you are saying No to certain things and at the same time, as C.S. Lewis said, being impatient with your own foibles and failures but very patient with the other person’s. These, I think, are spiritual components to these categories of selfawareness, compassion, and self-restraint.

DD: Our colleague Stuart McAllister speaks of the hidden inhibitors that keep Christians from experiencing deep transformation and you’ve also written of being troubled by why change is sometimes not more obvious after one comes to Christ. Of course, the apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15). How do you make sense of this disconnection and how does one begin to experience deep transformation?

RZ: I think the following chapter in Romans 8 really gives the help: it is through the Spirit-filled life and the empowerment of God. But let me back up a moment and ask the question, “Why is this so often the case?” It is there, no doubt about it. I find it probably the most distressing aspect of the Christian walk. The fact that more believers do not show what the fruit ought to be of the life that is walking closely with God. But you watch the characters in the Bible and you notice that there is a path along which they move. It was not an instant transformation. It was an instant conviction. But it was a process transformation.

You look at Peter after having walked with Christ all that while and then towards the end betraying Him. You watch the apostle Paul who had been set aside for three years to be disciplined in what God wanted him to do, yet going into that conflict with John Mark. You look at Moses for forty years in the desert, another forty years in the wilderness, and then he’s not going to make it to the Promised Land because of his impatience and struggle with faith and with God’s purpose and plan.

So I think there’s a two-edged sword here. On the one hand, you see this in personalities in the Bible. You see some of the best of them struggling, stumbling. Who would have ever thought that Peter, after seeing all that he had seen, all the miracles that he had witnessed, would end up in the last days of Christ before the crucifixion denying Him? Just recently I was at Mount Carmel in the Middle East. I was thinking of Elijah: as powerful as he was in challenging the prophets of Baal, we then see him running from Jezebel and sitting under a tree saying, “That’s it! I’m not going to make it!” You look at Paul after all the preparation he’d been given and then having that conflict with Mark, and in the end saying, “Bring him to me; he’s going to be helpful to me.” And Moses, in eighty years of his life—forty years in preparation, forty years in the wilderness—and yet he never makes it to the Promised Land because he faltered in the very critical moments. So, on the one hand you see that.

On the other hand, you have to realize that while life may have its up and down moments, it has to be moving upwards at an angle rather than on a flat terrain. Look at it as a 45° angle going up so that the downs are not as low as the previous down and the highs are higher than the previous high. That’s the way I think the apostle Paul meant it in Romans 7. Then in Romans 8 he talks about how the Spirit enables, empowers, and gives strength. That I believe is accomplished in two ways. First, in your own personal devotion to the Lord each day. So your mind is framed fresh in the morning rather than looking at God through the challenges you’re going to face; it’s you looking at your challenges through the eyes of God whom you’ve already met with in the morning. The second thing is to have some good mentors so that you realize that you are not unaccountable; you are not just responsible to yourself. Especially those in ministry, you have to find a way of viewing challenges where others may falter but you yourself should really have graduated from and moved forward. You’ll never be perfect, but I think you can have that sense of godliness in your walk that will touch people’s lives, and they will see you not as a perfect person but as a great example to follow when you have those imperfect moments.

DD: So perspective—seeing things through God’s eyes—and fellowship, relationships are key. As we seek deep transformation, we need both the Word of God and input from others that we can trust.

RZ: I think so. The interesting thing about Middle Eastern culture is community is a very big thing. Very big thing. That’s why you see it in the Bible. You know, whether you are talking of Cornelius and all of his house has come to the Lord following his example or whether it’s Joshua saying, “As for me and my house,” community is very important. We in the West stress so much on individuality that we have forgotten our responsibility to the community, both the immediate family and extended believing family. If you have that connection you have a built-in context of accountability.

DD: Shifting gears a little, some Christians speak of the abundant life, which Jesus alludes to in John 10, as one of God’s great promises. How would you define this abundant life and has your understanding of this concept changed over the course of your faith journey?

RZ: The most important thing to know is what it is not. It is not the prosperity gospel. I was waiting to be picked up for the airport recently in Stuttgart, Germany. It was a Sunday morning and a preacher on television was going to town on all that you can have—and he is the best example of it, I guess. I think it is very sad, especially when you are coming from a context of so much deprivation. So first, the abundant life does not necessarily mean the wealthy life. The abundant life is what I would distinguish as zoe from bios, the spiritual life versus the biological life.

Abundant life, to go back to your earlier questions on contentment and emotional complementariness to the intellect, is where you’ve learned whatsoever state you are in therewith to be content. When eleven out of the twelve disciples die a martyr’s death and when Peter is told that while he was young he went where he wanted, but when he was old somebody else was going to lead him, signifying the manner of death that he was going to die—that was hardly a projection of the abundant life. It was a projection of some abundant sacrifice that he was going to have to make. I like the way the apostle Paul talks about it because Paul came sequentially in a different way than the rest of the disciples. The rest of them came through Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection. Paul came from the resurrection to the crucifixion, and that’s why he says, “That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death” (Philippians 3:10). He came triumphantly, getting a glimpse of the risen Christ, but he knew he had to move back towards the cross and be conformed to what it might entail. So the abundant life to me is a full life of understanding what life is all about, whether to know how to abound and to know how to be abased. That is the one, I think, who is leading the abundant life: the one who can handle both success and failure.

DD: As I listen to you, I’m just amazed how far we are from the biblical text in Western culture. We really need, as Christians, a paradigm shift. We need to immerse ourselves in Scripture and understand it in order to rethink some of things that we assume that we know— like the idea of the abundant life, that we want X, Y, and Z. And not just material things, of course; we have existential longings. But there is a real discipline of the mind that you have spoken of today that is important as well.

RZ: I think so, Danielle, and I think so very deeply. What we are doing and the way we are thinking is symptomatic of what we are reading. If you read the right kinds of authors, they will shape you to think God’s thoughts after Him. I don’t want to be critical here but so much of our theology today is based more on the songs we sing than on the biblical text or the books we read. And that’s why so much of it reflects a kind of a jive or a dance or the happiness of it all. That’s not to be denied, but I think it conveys the impression that that’s all the Christian life is. Music is powerful and ought to reflect good thinking. But I’m afraid music helps shape our thinking rather than our thinking shaping the lyrics of our music. So I would say if we are going to win this battle in the West, we had better learn to read some of the great writers and great authors of history who will not rob us of the joy but will also give us the tremendous breadth of the Christian faith. This faith has a broad stroke brush but it all comes together in the person of Christ, who best represents for us what the abundant life is all about.

DD: The German theologian Jürgen Moltmann writes about the essential nature of hope, and he observes that “without hope, faith falls to pieces… hope nourishes and sustains faith.” You’ve had the privilege of traveling the globe and experiencing some amazing opportunities, and yet you’ve also encountered enormous heartache and suffering along the way. I’m just wondering how you’ve held on to hope over the years and how do you personally find renewal when you struggle in this area?

Romans 10:11 As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.”

RZ: Hope that the Bible talks about is “that which needeth not be ashamed” (see Romans 10:11). It’s a marvelous way of describing hope. But I would say probably meeting the people that I have met has brought such strength in my own walk. When I’ve seen people deprived of so much or having to endure so much, I think of “Breathe on Me, Breath of God.” That song talks about “to do” and “to endure.” We’re always either doing or enduring. We are doing the will of God to honor Him or enduring what’s come our way, which we are not comfortable with or not happy with. When I see the great saints of life who have walked through a lot, I don’t ever wish the same things upon myself because I would rather learn it without having to go through what they have gone through. But what I have learned is what Malcolm Muggeridge said: that some of the greatest lessons in life he ever learned were through suffering and not through moments of great pleasure alone.

So there is a great paradigm in this as well. Dr. John Henry Jowett said that when you’re speaking to the grieving, you’ll never lack for an audience. A.W. Tozer said, “Whom God will use greatly He will hurt deeply.” So sometimes those great hurts almost seem a pattern for great instrumental usage of God. I’m not saying it’s one hundred percent of the time, but as Thornton Wilder wrote, “In Love’s service only wounded soldiers can serve.”

I think it brings back what you are talking about: the compassion, the empathy, the understanding, and the example. All of that is pulled together. I would say hope is that needed posture of mind at all times, and it seems to only come by watching other lives and having gone through much yourself. To know that you can go into the desert and come out triumphant to full service—that is the promise of God.

DD: I think it’s interesting that you define hope as a needed posture of the mind. When I think of hope, perhaps not in the biblical context, but my immediate response is it’s an emotion, an emotional response. But again you’re going back to what we said earlier: the importance of perspective and the mind informing our emotions.

RZ: It's the same with the Sermon on the Mount. When you talk about loving those who hate you and persecute you, you never feel like that. But it’s the posture of the mind that says, “If this is what I need to do in order for truth to triumph over evil, I will do it.” These are things that some of the New Age gurus don’t understand. Deepak Chopra’s treatment of the Sermon on the Mount is bizarre; he doesn’t understand it. The Bible talks about dealing with contrary indicators and the emotions and how to triumph over them. Jesus is telling us to operate not with the feeling here but that which is the truth and that which needs to be the triumphant note.

I was talking to a man working in a section of Jerusalem; he made a fascinating comment to me. He said, “I have learned until I love a person I will never win them, but they are my enemy in politics. Yet, I had to actually first learn to love my own people whom I’d seen as the victim.” This was an interesting way for him to begin. He always thought it was that you start by looking at the other guy, but he said, “I’m not even sure if I love my own people. So I have learned to love my own people and then love those who may even persecute my people, and every one of my congregation today loves the ones who are our enemies politically.”

What a remarkable thing. And as he said, “It’s our only hope.”

DD: It seems he’s been able to bridge the heart and mind as we’ve been speaking about today. Love is a decision of the will but it is an emotion as well, and hopefully we exhibit the fruit of the Spirit and we reach out in the Spirit’s way.

RZ: A little personal note here, he is one of our Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics graduates. He said to me that was the best year of his life. What he learned there in apologetics has had to be put into practice through an emotional reality of loving people, so he said that the combination of argument and feeling was significant.

DD: I have one more question for you. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “Because I live, you will also live.” This could be read as a simple statement of fact, but you had a deep emotional connection with these words immediately upon hearing them as a troubled young adult. You were recently in India celebrating RZIM’s twenty-fifth anniversary there. Are you amazed that the simple message that captured your heart so many years ago still captivates your heart and mind and countless others around the world?

RZ: It is a captivating message; it was a captivating message; it will always be a captivating message. And being there for the twenty-fifth anniversary, the most thrilling thing to me as always is to see two kinds of people at those gatherings: highly successful professional people—doctors, business people, heads of conglomerate empires and so on—and then the young people. There were a number of young people—engineers, computer experts, students at high-tech schools—coming for the meetings and up to the front to have a photograph taken. It’s quite moving. Whether we like it or not, they are establishing their heroes in life. It’s a very touching thing to know that their hearts are so right in their ambitions. They want the right kind of thinking to shape their lives. So actually it makes me take my responsibility a lot more seriously.

Ephesians 1:13-14 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.

I always go back to the day when for the first time I heard the word, “Because I live so you also shall live,” in John 14:19. That is the verse that Jesus gave to Thomas, of not just living beyond the grave but living now with the truth that life goes beyond the grave. It is a present down payment of a future total inheritance, the arrabon in the Greek (see e.g., Ephesians 1:13-14), the inheritance that we have coming to us and the down payment of it right now.

DD: Of course, when you heard those words you were in a very critical period in your life, weren’t you?

RZ: YES. I WAS HANGING between life and death. I attempted to take my own life. And to me, lighting up the meaning of life with that verse at a time when I was in total darkness is nothing but the grace of God and a reminder to me that He is the ultimate merciful invader who comes to you at moments that you least expect and when you are most vulnerable to let you know He’s on your side. Lying in the hospital bed, mulling over those words in my mind without full explanation but to know that He meant something— I could never have given life meaning in a way that He does. He rescued me and not only rescued me from myself, but rescued me in order to be a propagator of that truth to people around the globe.

DD: And thanks be to God for that.

RZ: And I’m grateful too!

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