When I was a student at Mercer University, my professor Walter Shurden would often talk about the “head, heart and hands” of faith. The “head” aspect of faith meant that one must approach the scriptures and one’s theology with a willingness to embrace questions and wrestle with doubt, to not blindly accept half-baked truths without careful thought. By “heart,” he meant a faith that was personal and heartfelt, one that seeks the holy through prayer, Bible reading, contemplation and silence. “Heart” faith trusts mystery; it is compassionate and caring; it feels. And by “hands,” Shurden meant a faith that does something, that is called to action. We are here to do the work of God, to be the hands and feet of God on Earth.
Head, heart and hands — these three aspects of faith are like a three-legged stool. If one leg of the stool is too short, the whole thing is off balance. In order to be faithful, whole people, we have to keep head, heart and hands working together.
People in different religious circles can tend to lean towards or away from one of these ways of expressing faith to the expense of the others. Some people love to learn and study and like to try to explain faith as if they are on God’s debate team. Others find fulfillment and purpose in their service to others. (I have a friend that likes to say that she identifies most with the “carpenter side” of Jesus.)
Personally, if one of my stool legs is too short, it would be the heart one. Some of us tend to shy away from “heart” religion. It feels too touchy-feely, too uncertain, even irresponsible. It is hard to trust our hearts. We are much more likely to put faith in our spreadsheets or our pro-and-con lists or our assessments of what’s working. We like tangible results. But when I think back to the times and places in my life through which God has guided me, I must admit that more often than not it has been through a tugging of the heart.
I know that when I was a college student trying to decide what to do with my life, the measurable things — my math aptitude, my SAT scores, my teachers’ recommendations — all said that I should study to be an engineer. But when I stepped into my first New Testament class, my heart told me something different.
And when my head told me it might be smarter not to date my good friend Jody because of the risk of harming our friendship if something went wrong, my heart assured me that it might be worth the risk. (I later married him.)
There was the instance that I didn’t think I had time for that hospital visit, but something nudged me to go anyway, and I ended up showing up just at the right moment to join a family at the bedside as their loved one passed on to the next life. So many of the holy moments of my life have been unscripted; they have happened because for a brief moment I listened to the tugging of my heart.
It also makes me wonder how many holy moments I may have missed because I didn’t listen to my heart. How many times have I, in spite of all of the evidence surrounding me, missed what was going on around me as the very presence of God?
Head, heart and hands — all three are needed for a whole faith. May we each strive to keep our stools in balance.
The Rev. Julie Long is associate pastor and minister of children and families at First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon.