The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. Who can know it?KJV Jeremiah 17:9
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick. Who can understand it? ESV
The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse – who can understand it? NRSV
The heart is more devious than any other thing, and is depraved; who can fathom its secrets? NJB
For us “the heart” is either the pump in our chests on which we rely for life to the body, or it is the source and center of the emotions. However, for Jeremiah the emotions were centered in the viscera and for him “heart” is what for us is “the mind”, the source of thinking, imagining and willing.
Therefore Jeremiah is stating here:
- The human mind is of such a make-up that it is constantly engaged in deception so that what a person thinks and says is very likely not to be the truth.
- The same human mind is deceitful and devious because it is sick, morally and spiritually corrupt.
- No human being can fully know either the content and workings of his own mind or that of any other person.
It is important to note that Jeremiah is a prophet who is speaking to and of the moral and spiritual condition of man, in this case Hebrew man. He is wholly clear that at the center of his life, being, thinking and acting each human being is – in moral and spiritual terms – sick, and, in fact, so corrupted as to cause him to deceive himself, without him realizing that this deception is going on.
Because Jeremiah is focusing on the moral and spiritual, we need to exclude from this statement those aspects of the mind that come under what we may call its logical and practical capacity. The mind is not basically deceitful in doing of arithmetic and geometry, or in its application to doing basic things like cooking, cleaning and mending, and in solving practical problems to do with machinery or technology.
For Jeremiah, the (outwardly) best of human beings constantly think, feel, say and do things believing that they so act for this or that reason, when in fact they deceive themselves for there are other hidden reasons more active than the perceived ones working in their minds! Today, after a century of the experience of psychiatry and psychological counseling in the West we know only too well that the mind is a complex reality and that the way we say, feel, think and act, and why we so do, is a deep mystery. To know ourselves is extremely difficult, perhaps impossible. So Jeremiah’s question of “Who can know the mind?” is entirely justified then and now.
If we reflect a while we can see that the deceitful and devious mind operates both individually and in a kind of a corporate capacity.
Of oneself it is often true, for example, that one gives a particular reason doing something (e.g., resigning from a board or committee) and one really believes what one says and the explanation offered; however, the real reason hidden in the mind is different, for the hidden reason is usually expressive of self-justification, self-protection and pride, and one does not want to know this either of oneself or to publish it to others.
Of a group, any close group, it may be the case that while they speak openly with one voice and supplying one reason in their opposition to this or that enemy, the real reason for their opposition is something more sinister and evil, but this they do not want to admit even to themselves even if they are wholly conscious of it.
What is here being described by Jeremiah – and confirmed by Jesus in his description of the human heart/mind (see Mark 7:30-21) -- is what Christian theologians have called “original sin” for this deceptive quality of the mind is inherited and each baby has it. It is with us as long as we are in this mortal body. Happily, it will not be present in the resurrection body of glory!
Is there an answer and an antidote?
In verse 10 of Jeremiah 17 we hear YHWH, the LORD, who speaks and says, “I, the LORD, search the heart…” God knows fully and completely the bias and content of the mind and thus faithful creatures will look to the LORD, his law and statutes as the basis for their self-evaluation and actions. Later in his prophecies, Jeremiah speaks of the renewal of man which will come in the new covenant – “I will put my Law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts, and will be their God and they shall be my people…” (31:33-34). In the New Testament this becomes the new creation, birth from above, and the gift of the indwelling Spirit.
Even so, the arrival of the new covenant and the writing of it in the mind does not cause the inherited mind to cease to be deceitful and corrupt for this mind belongs to “this body of flesh”! No, what the arrival of the new covenant does is to provide a new principle, a new paradigm, a new power in the mind to overcome and to mortify the corruption of the old.
The deceitful mind and modern popular Christianity – teaching, preaching and liturgy
In the “celebratory” context of much modern western Christianity, there is little recognition of the inbred, innate deceitfulness and deceptiveness and deviousness of the corrupt, sick mind of man. Because the mind is seemingly unaffected at the level of logical thought and in practical thinking in doing tasks, it is assumed that it is not affected, or only minimally affected by sin in its spiritual and moral content, self-evaluation, self-knowledge and self-esteem.
This is in total contrast to the historic teaching of the Church in days past when God’s servants had a profound knowledge of both Scripture and the heart/mind of mind in its relation to God, his law and his Gospel. If one takes the doctrinal and psychological content of the basic services of The Book of Common Prayer and compares this with any of the post 1970s celebratory modern services one notices immediately that the former take for granted and assume “the deceitfulness of the human soul/mind/heart” and thus look for penitence and a desire for forgiveness as a basic requirement of any worship of God. The human condition – as known to Jeremiah and Jesus – is stated with what seems to moderns perhaps a crude clarity in the old liturgies and books of devotion! In contrast, in their creation of new liturgy, the experts of the 1970s and 1980s decided that this element had to be removed or greatly reduced.
Much modern piety and worship pays only minimal attention to the true condition of human souls as they meet with God and, therefore, in the application of the medicine of the Gospel they do not attempt to get to the real problem or to its bottom! This is why there is much “celebration” and self-worth and so little “weeping and gnashing of teeth”.
Deceitfulness of the heart/mind and the LesBiGay agenda.
Looking on from the outside, as it were, it is so easy for traditional people to see and state that the homosexual activists provide a clear example of the deceitfulness and deceptiveness of the human heart and mind. They are persuaded that in their committed partnerships they live under the blessing and approval of God and that they deserve the blessing of God’s Church. In this persuasion, they reveal the ability of the mind to produce reasons and explanations in self-justification of perceived feelings and drives of the flesh and to do so in a convincing manner. Such self-deception can only be cured by the presence of the new nature, the principle of the Spirit and of the Gospel, cleansing and renewing the content and functioning of the mind/soul.
But, as I have remarked in other places, I think that many of the “would-be orthodox” also reveal the reality of the deceitfulness of the mind in their reasoning and public statements. It seems to be the case that it suits many to believe, and to do so sincerely (for all kinds of complex reasons hidden deep in the recesses of the mind), that the ECUSA was just fine before it took on board in earnest the homosexual agenda. Sort that out, they think, and the ECUSA has every opportunity to be “orthodox”. But here the mind is devious, deceitful and corrupt! It avoids looking at the major instances of apostasy and of heresy which prepared for the arrival of the homosexual agenda and thus reduces complex sinful phenomena to simple proportions that make only few demands upon people who claim to be “orthodox”..
No-one is exempt from the disease of the corrupt mind. The effects of this disease upon our daily living are immense and we know only part of the inner story of our souls. The way of the LORD for the humble is to engage in his presence in self-examination, in the light of his Law and the example and teaching of Christ, and then there begins the possibility of the beginning of genuine self-knowledge and therefore genuine repentance and forgiveness. Mortifying and overcoming the deceit in the mind is the an essential part of the process of sanctification by the Spirit.
The Rev’d Dr Peter Toon September 7 2004