Story, Value, and Becoming More Real
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Take Heart

June 17, 2024

Matthew Clark

Cultivating Calling and Pilgrimage is a meandering column documenting the pilgrimage of faith. It’s an occasional letter arriving in the mail from that shabby, wandering uncle you only see a few times year, describing the odd bits and bobs of books, songs, stories, people and places that have struck his fancy, put a lump in his throat, or kept him putting one foot in front of the other toward the Face of Jesus, that Joy set before us all.

My brother had a He-Man playset when we were kids, but since he’s seven years older than me, by the time I was six or seven, he was mostly done with it. Somehow it got stored in the top of my closet. It was a greenish foot-and-a-half tall Castle Grayskull. Craggy teeth and vacant skeletal eyes presided over my bed from the corner of the room every night. I don’t know how long it took me to tell someone that I was scared of it. I would stare at it, look away, and try to go to sleep. 

At some point in that same age range, I saw a movie about alien abductions. These kinds of things were common enough, I guess, for the youngest of four children in the ’90s. Once “Castle Evil Closet Skeleton Face” was removed, it was quickly followed by two years of absolute certainty that aliens were coming to get me and my family every night. The only comfort was to sneak out of my room and, quietly as I could, make a pallet for myself on the floor next to my parents’ bed. I’ve heard that the brain doesn’t develop the capacity to differentiate fully between reality and fantasy until about twelve. So, to my little eyes, those movies were as good as real. Boy, I still remember feeling the fear.

I can relate when, in Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the stalwart sailors encounter Nightmare Island and turn tail. As they enter the darkness, they’re sailing backwards in a sense, back into those childhood years, where every person remembers what it’s like for their worst imaginings to take hideous and certain shape at the foot of their bed just after the lights have gone out. In those places, you’d think even a candle flame could freeze. Who can sleep in that roiling blackness? Where will courage come from? 

As I’m sure you’ve heard pointed out before, the word “courage” is nearly synonymous with the word “heart.” The Latin cor means “heart,” and you can see the resemblance. So when the Albatross (Aslan) in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader whispers to Lucy, “Courage, Dear Heart,” it’s almost redundantly repetitive (I couldn’t resist). It’s like saying, “Have heart, heart that has my heart.” Of course, it’s not actually redundant, but the repetition creates a funny sort of verbal effect. [1] Maybe another way of putting it would be, “Because your heart is so dear to me, take more of my heart for you into your own heart so that your heart doesn’t lack any heart.” That’s pretty clunky though, isn’t it? I’m glad Lewis didn’t go that route.  

The paradox of courage, or heart, is that courage, if it comes, comes when your resolve is at its frailest point. You wouldn’t need to be courageous otherwise. It’s precisely when your will is crumbling that something greater than mere willpower must take over. And that thing is heart.

When what you believe to be the right decision has been shaken to pieces by fear and suffering, what you actually care about will be the only thing able to take it from there. Or when, like Frodo at the crack of Doom finally unable to let go of the Ring, our courage and will both fail, we’ll realize as we all must that it was always the Lord’s unfailing heart alone that was going to save us—if there was ever any hope of being saved. 

Does that sound strange? Maybe like me, you were taught that a person’s will is the realest thing about them; the real fundamental test of character is what we will, regardless of how our hearts seem to feel. Voluntarism is the historical philosophical movement that established this view “that the will is the highest and strongest function of the person, higher even than emotion or the intellect.” [2] In the last twenty-five years, as we’ve learned more about how God has designed our neuro-biology, the “will-first” belief of voluntarism appears to have been wrong. There is much more support for a “heart-first” appraisal. According to neuro-theologian Dr. Jim Wilder,  

From a brain perspective, reason, will, and choice are neurologically weak factors. The will is a fickle cortical function that starts to disappear as soon as we are a little sleepy. The will is well down the brain’s control hierarchy for making changes in character or identity and wired to have only a weak influence… character change is extremely difficult to achieve from the “will” end of the brain… The will is where processing ends rather than begins. [3] 

Philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, in his book The Heart, says, In many respects, the heart is more the real self of the person than his intellect or will.” So, if the will isn’t the deepest, truest thing about a person, what is? What is deeper than the will that can motivate the will? The secure, loving attachments that constitute our hearts. To illustrate, let’s step aside and look at how the worship of willpower and idolatry are related, and maybe something about God’s cure for idolatry will help us understand how this deeper motivating reality of the securely-loved heart works. 

The secular equivalent of seeing willpower as primary shows up in the more recent popularity of “manifesting” and the “law of attraction,” which seem to be hand-me-downs from older trends like “the power of positive thinking.” The basic idea is that if I believe or will something hard enough, I can create the reality I desire. It’s interesting to see even secular psychology decrying this approach as dangerous. [4] It’s a repeat of the reliance on human effort to manipulate the world and work to achieve our own salvation. It’s the same old pattern of idolatry, which is any system of procedural exchanges meant to gain power over untrustworthy, unloving deities and fickle fates. 

God’s way of disarming idolatry is the revelation of His hesed. Hesed is a Hebrew word so prevalent in Scripture that it gets translated lots of ways: God’s tender mercy, steadfast love, covenant faithfulness, loving-kindness, and so on. In other words, idolatry really is a natural and even valid response if you’re dealing with a heartless world run by heartless gods—gods you know don’t actually love you, but who at least seem to respond with some sense of deference when bribed. The idea is that God meets the insecurity and fear that motivates the manipulative approach of idolatry with a kind of secure attachment love that renders idolatry obsolete.  Manifesting, magical optimism, the law of attraction—all idolatry—is rendered unnecessary now that we know God’s heart for us is so deeply tender, steadfast, kind, and committed to our flourishing. I like to sing, “I thought I had to climb that holy hill to twist your arm, but when you bent to wash my feet, I knew that I’d been wrong.” [5] 

When you find out the astonishing truth that nobody had to guilt-trip, bribe, or persuade God into dying for us “while we were still sinners,” you realize that all the fiddliness and anxiety of having to manage reality by willpower—how exhausting!—is a burden you can toss, like a millstone, into the ocean of God’s delight over you. Watch it sink, dissolved by distance and depth. Idolatry might be a sort of secular substitute for the courage that only being loved by God can afford us.

Maybe we can begin to see how von Hildebrand can say that “the heart is more the real self of the person than his intellect or will.” Because the fundamental reality of having been securely loved (hesed) into being by a delighted God is the very reality that has given rise to our hearts in the first place, years before we had the capacity to will or choose anything. A baby is loved before it can love back. As God and God’s human representatives take joy in the child, it develops the capacity to return love.  For the first several years of your life, your one and only job was to be delighted in, and for that care and joy to give shape to your heart as it filled with the most fundamental truth: a Great Heart at the center of reality takes immeasurable delight in you. “We love because he first loved us,” says St. John. Jim Wilder agrees that,

The brain is wired to change character directly from the love and attachment end of the brain. These in turn are hardwired to grow from joy. Joy-based character change always moves us in the direction of being more like the One we love. [6] 

The heart comes before the will or the intellect.   

If the heart is more the “real self” of the person than the intellect or will, then it really is the “wellspring of life,” of character, of action. In that case, the will springs forth from the heart, rather than the heart being shaped by the will. [7] The heart must be formed in a certain direction, if the will is to have anywhere to go. But formed or filled by what? Another heart. By having been loved. By having been drawn into an embrace of delight, care, and affection. Only a heart that has been loved can have the heart to love. That’s the repetition in Aslan’s encouragement to Lucy: as he assures her of his heart for her, she takes of his heart and finds that her heart has been . . . heartened, given cor. Couraged.

But what if we’re dis-couraged? Dis-heartened? Another word for that is to be cursed. Either blessing simply remains unspoken, withheld, or a deliberate malicious anti-blessing is pronounced. Do you remember the story of Balaam and his donkey in Numbers? [8] Balaam was a sorcerer called upon by a king who hated God’s people, because his specialty was cursing enemies. Apparently, he had a reputation of success adequate to attract royal patronage. I mean, his curses had real power; they worked. Most likely, he was participating in and drawing upon the demonic. It’s even possible that his name means “devourer.” [9] At any rate, as attuned to the spiritual world as he may have been, he failed to perceive what was clear to his donkey: that he was about to go up against the Creator of the universe. He had no idea what he was getting himself into. In the end, the real God would not allow Balaam to curse His people.

Cursing is real and heartbreaking, covering your cor like a nightmare. It’s very important to be a person who uses words to bring blessing upon others. [10] I remember once when someone stood and pronounced a curse over me, saying that I was worthless and they wished I was dead. That was many years ago, and those words still flash a decrepit grin at me like a death castle from the top of a nighttime closet, stealing sleep. I’m sorry if you know what that’s like, because you never forget such dis-heartening words. But you can be heartened again.  

How does Jesus endure the curses hurled at Him throughout His ministry and during His passion? He holds on to the powerful blessing given at His baptism, “You are my beloved Son, in whom is all My delight.” And, to take one instance, He quotes Psalm 22, which, initially at least, voices the real felt misery of His suffering. But He winds up in the end saying that, though He appears to be cursed and abandoned, this is far from the case: 

For [H]e has not despised or scorned

    the suffering of the afflicted one;

[H]e has not hidden [H]is face from him

    but has listened to his cry for help.

~ Psalm 22:24 NIV

Whatever curses have broken your heart, dis-couraged you, the Lord contradicts them with a better word [11] of blessing. We are truly baptized into Christ’s baptism, and those same words rush like cooling rivulets around us as we rise from the darkness of death, washed in the Father’s pronouncement: “You are my beloved one, in whom is all my delight.” 

Like Lucy, we are heartened by the heart of God: that is the literal sense of encouragement. Our heart doesn’t come from us; it is given to us. Courage is a relational reality that no one can generate from within themselves. We can only draw upon what has been stored up. Whatever heart we do have is actually God’s heart for us put in us. It is God saying, “Because I have loved you, you now have within you that which makes it possible for you to love.” 

It’s worth pointing out, too, that courage doesn’t remove fear. It puts it in perspective. As long as there’s nothing bigger to compare it to, fear seems to fill and blacken the whole house. Then that apocalyptic enormity, Love, lifts the roof off the doll-sized prison; Wind and Starlight rush in, pricking and tossing the dismayed shadows like pale strands of smoke. A huge smiling face rumbles high above, “Come, Beloved; the world is bigger and better than all that.” 

Only those who have received the love of another will have what they need to take heart, to be courageous. Even Jesus in Gethsemane chose to follow His Father’s heart rather than mere willpower. It was out of the Father’s heart that Jesus acted when His own resolve had dissolved. He took the next step toward further agony not out of willpower but because He had been given cor by His Father. 

John, in the prologue to his gospel, pointed out that Jesus had come from the Father’s “bosom” (or heart), and toward the end of the gospel, John laid his head on the bosom of Jesus. Even now, the Holy Spirit is sent from the heart of Jesus so that we might abide in the heart of Him who, in turn, abides in the heart of the Father—and that His heart might abide in us. [12] That same Spirit, says Paul, testifies deep within us that this “better word” spoken over us is, astonishingly, unchangeably true. Paul goes on to warn that he doesn’t recommend anyone daring to curse what God has chosen to bless, saying, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” [13] 

We have every reason to take heart. Our attachment to Jesus grows, as with every tribulation we find His love to be undiminished and stronger than we could’ve dreamed. When the nightmares come croaking those same old hoarse curses, may the blessing of God blanket you in a song of loving-kindness as “He gives rest to those He loves.” [14] 

The joy that heartens our hearts, the light that gives light to our faces is, it turns out, the delighted face of Jesus, revealing the surprising, secure reality of God’s hesed love for us. Take into your heart, beloved, the very heart of God. Don’t we say, “receive Jesus into your heart”? That is the right idea. He is, in fact, giving you His heart. Take it, for your heart is to Christ a dearly bought abiding place. And just as Jesus has come to us from His own abiding place in the heart of His Father, he is pledging to en-courage you with that heart that has so en-couraged Him.

[1] I think it may technically be called an antimetabole, which is a turn of phrase where the same words are flipped and repeated to create an interesting play of meanings. For instance, “I mean what I say, and I say what I mean.” 

[2] Jim Wilder, Joy Changes Everything, Conversations Journal: A Forum for Authentic Transformation, Fall/Winter 2014, Issue 12.2: Flourishing

[3] Wilder, Joy Changes Everything


[5] Matthew Clark, When I Cried Out, from the album “A Tale of Two Trees.” 


[7] I’ve often heard it said that we must begin doing the right thing even if our heart’s not in it, if we hope to have our heart conform to God’s will. I don’t think what I’m saying contradicts that, since what motivates us in this case, even when our “heart’s not in it,” is our having been “heartened” by the love of God. In other words, we are responding to God’s love, which supports our will via the heart. 

[8] Numbers 22-24; Balaam is eventually killed for conspiring against God’s people in Numbers 31:8. 

[9] See:

[10] Proverbs 18:21a – “The tongue has the power of life and death.” 

[11] Hebrews 12:14

[12] I’d never noticed this. I’m thankful to David Ford, in his commentary on John, for pointing it out. 

[13] Romans 8:31-39. There seems to be a warning here, maybe even to the point of demonstrating the absurdity of standing in God’s way when He’s so clearly determined to redeem us.  I.e. “If God is [so clearly] for us, who [would be foolish enough] to be against us?” Paraphrase mine. 

[14] Psalm 127:2

The featured image, “Magdalen Window,” is courtesy of Lancia E. Smith and is used with her glad permission for Cultivating.


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