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The Problem With Head Knowledge Versus Heart Knowledge

There are some things that Christians say that are so catchy that they catch on as we popularize them. After a while, they become Christian cliches, which does not have to be a bad thing.

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But then some Christian cliches lose their force because of their lack of theological precision. The cliche, “head knowledge versus heart knowledge” is one of those misguided mantras.

Typically, what the person is trying to say is that they know what is right in their head, but their heart is not following along with that understanding. Christians make this familiar juxtaposition as a way to distinguish two conflicting things that are happening to them.

Most of the time this kind of language detracts from what an individual needs to do rather than clarify what they are doing. The idea of “heart knowledge and head knowledge” are one thing, not two things.

When a person says “heart and head knowledge, they are talking about their thoughts. Both labels point to how they think about things.

  • Head knowledge implies that you know (thoughts) what the Bible says regarding a topic.
  • Heart knowledge means that you have other thoughts that conflict with your biblical thinking.

An Emotional Digression

Some believers would agree that head knowledge is their thought life but would add that what they mean about heart knowledge is their emotions. But that is more convoluted because feelings come from thoughts. If your emotions are wrong, your thinking is wrong because it’s a person’s thought life that feeds their feelings.

E.g., if you give me one million dollars, I will feel good because of how I think about all that cash. If you point a gun at my head, I will feel bad (terrified) because of your actions. You cannot detach your feelings from your thoughts. It’s a continuum as one causes the other.

The formula is explicit: Thoughts, good or bad, lead to feelings, good or bad. If your emotions (heart knowledge) is not right, there is something wrong with your thoughts (head knowledge). You can’t have right thoughts and bad emotions.

Back to Your Thinking

Biblically speaking, head knowledge means that you know what the right thing to do while heart knowledge says that you want something else.

Mable is upset at Biff. She knows (head knowledge) that her anger is sinful, but her heart is in another place; she wants Biff to change so badly that she is angry about it.

I know (head knowledge) that what I’m saying to him is wrong, but I don’t know how to change. It’s like I have head knowledge, but my heart knowledge is saying something else.

Mable feels stuck between biblical thinking and unbiblical thinking. She knows what God’s Word says but she wants something that she cannot have, at least not at this time. Though she knows the truth (head knowledge), she is thinking in unbiblical ways about what she is not getting at this time.

The Bible talks about this idea of “thought life” in several places.

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. – James 1:5-8

James talks about the “double-minded person,” which is an accurate descriptor of what’s going on in Mable’s head. James said that kind of person is unstable; she knows the truth but is craving a good thing so much that she is sinning in response to not getting it.

The solution is for her to “think” on the right biblical things so she can bring all the un- or sub-biblical thoughts back into God’s wisdom, which will stabilize her, and keep her from “being tossed by the waves of the sea.”

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. – James 4:1-3

James also said that our desires (thoughts) could tempt us to frustration (anger) if we want something so badly but can’t get it (at this moment). In this instance, Mable’s thoughts (desire) for something good is so big that it’s affecting her. It’s not that her desire is wrong: she wants her husband to follow God and love her. But she must bring both of those desires into the obedience of Christ, or they will toss her like a wave, per James 1:5-8 with the double-minded person.

For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete. – 2 Corinthians 10:3-6

A third text is where Paul talked about taking our thoughts captive. As you can see, when you re-translate the “heart and head knowledge” idea into one thing (your thought life) and see it as good thoughts versus evil thoughts, you can begin to address the bad thinking. Your goal is to bring your wrong thinking to the place where it aligns with God’s Word.

Paul said it this way to the Philippians 4:8-9

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, THINK about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

Call to Action

  1. What is something that falls within this “head knowledge, heart knowledge” idea?
  2. Do you see how both types of knowledge are one thing: it’s two different kinds of thoughts?
  3. James called this being double minded. How do you need to change so that your mind is single on an issue rather than oscillating between good and bad thinking?
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