When the Heart Hurts

Today’s post is the latest in a series of guest posts centered around my church’s annual theme of “Healthy Hearts”. This month’s contributor is Tim Gunnels. Tim blogs about Christian Spirituality at www.desertspiritual.com and he is currently writing a book about spiritual transformation. You’ll find a more complete bio at the end of the article.

The late Dallas Willard was a professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern California, and devout disciple of Jesus Christ. Willard challenged people without being difficult.  He wished for everyone to pursue their own spirituality, but he came at it from a Christian worldview. Though he wrote several books related to spiritual formation, two were most influential on me, Renovation of the Heart and Revolution of Character.

In Renovation of the Heart, Willard suggests that there are six basic aspects of every person’s life.[1] The six aspects are 1) thought, 2) feeling, 3) choice, 4) body, 5) social context, and 6) soul. True spiritual formation, he says (and I agree), takes place when these six essential parts of the human self are effectively organized around God.[2]  In Revolution of Character, Willard exchanges “thought and feeling” for “heart”.

“The ideal of the spiritual life occurs when all six essential parts of the human self are effectively attuned to God as they are restored and sustained by him.  Spiritual formation in Christ is the process leading toward that ideal end—the self fully integrated and attuned to God.  To mature in spiritual formation means to love God with all of the heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.” [3]

Here is the bottom line.  All the parts of our life are interrelated.  Our thoughts and feelings influence our choices.  Our body is the part of us involved in the physical world around us, and it does the things that we choose based on our thoughts and feelings. Our social context is our interpersonal relationships with others, and certainly we cannot separate our thoughts, feelings, choices, or body from those relationships.  The soul is the part that integrates the other five into one unit.

In the remainder of this post, I want to elaborate a little more on the role of thoughts and feelings (the “heart”) on our well-being, generally, and our spiritual maturity, specifically.  So, for our purposes, I will refer to them collectively as “the heart”.

desert landscape 02

I have suffered through two major depressions in my adult life.  The first was brought on by unresolved grief and newfound loneliness shortly after I graduated from college.  I had lost a dear friend to death, and I had not dealt with it appropriately.  I also had moved to a small town where there was no one my age and little to occupy me.  In the second instance, I became emotionally, physically, and spiritually exhausted while trying to mediate a terrible situation between three families.  I gave everything I had and it was more than I could bear.  I entered into the darkness a second time, but with several things in my corner: a wonderful wife, a dear friend who was a nurse, and a great church support system.  Plus, I had been through this before, and I knew better how to work through it.

The reason I am sharing this is because it is directly related to “the heart”.  Again, “the heart” combines thoughts and feelings.  Both times that I was depressed, my heart became heavy and overwhelmed with stress and grief.  My thoughts turned inward and self-centered.  I was filled with dread.  I began to feel sorry for myself and could no longer see anyone else’s needs.  My thoughts focused solely on me and my own miseries.  My feelings were raw.  Everything agitated me.  Everything pushed me over the edge emotionally.  My “heart” was not functioning properly.  It was not organized around God; it was organized around Tim.

My Dad (a minister and counselor) had given me a book around 1990 that I had in my library but had never read.  During my first depression back in 1992, I saw it on my bookshelf.  It was “Telling Yourself the Truth” by William Backus and Marie Chapian.  The concepts were simple and Biblical.  When we turn inward and focus on the negative in our lives, we become anxious and depressed.  However, when we begin to think about our blessings and turn “the heart” outward toward others and toward things that are excellent and praiseworthy, we begin to become healthy again.

One of the suggestions in the book is to take out a piece of paper and write out all the things that are good in your life.  Write out all the blessings, all the positives, all the things that are going well and then think about these things every day.  Invariably, those who are depressed believe that the whole world has turned on them and that nothing is okay anymore.  The truth is that that is a lie.  We must tell ourselves the real truth.  The truth is that we have a lot of things going well for us, even when a lot of things are bad.  When we recognize the good, the bad begins to diminish.  We need to turn our thoughts more toward God and hand our feelings (emotions) over to Him.  When we do these things then our life choices will impact how we treat our body, how we interact with other people, and thus lead to a healthier soul.

I am not saying that this is the cure for everyone’s depression.  In fact, if you are feeling hopeless, helpless, and overwhelmed by anxiety, then you should seek professional help right away (that is what I did).  By all means, go see your family doctor, talk with a friend, or make an appointment with a counselor or minister.  Whatever you do, don’t believe the lie that life can never be better again.

When we get caught up in the idea that life is all about us, then we are headed down a dangerous road.  Instead, we should focus on our blessings, turn our anxieties over to God, and start telling ourselves the truth.  The truth is threefold:  I need a relationship with the One who made me and knows me best; I need to recognize that there are other people in my world who need me and need to be served; I need to turn to God in prayer and my thinking to things that are pure, lovely, and admirable.  Then, the peace of God will guard my heart.

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:6-8)


[1] Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002), 30-31.

[2] Ibid, 31.

[3] Don Simpson and Dallas Willard, Revolution of Character: Discovering Christ’s Pattern for Spiritual Transformation (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2005), 23-37.

Tim Gunnells has been in full-time ministry for over 20 years, serving churches in Arizona, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee.  He is currently the senior minister for the Canyon Church of Christ in Phoenix, Arizona and was recently named the Director of University Relations for Amridge University (www.amridgeuniversity.edu) in Montgomery, Alabama.  Tim holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from Harding School of Theology.

Tim Gunnells has been in full-time ministry for over 20 years, serving churches in Arizona, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee.  He is currently the senior minister for the Canyon Church of Christ in Phoenix, Arizona and was recently named the Director of University Relations for Amridge University (www.amridgeuniversity.edu) in Montgomery, Alabama.  Tim blogs about Christian Spirituality at www.desertspiritual.com and he is writing a book about spiritual transformation.  Tim holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from Harding School of Theology.

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