The phrase is rather depressing really, “The heart is deceitful above all things,” and seems more at home in an old style romance novel than modern life but, as usual, there’s more to the story if we dig.
First off, to the Hebrews, our feelings are in the kidneys/gut and not the heart; to them, the heart is where we think. This is why in the following verse where our translators have “I the LORD test the mind and search the heart” the actual Hebrew reads “I the LORD test the heart and search the kidneys/guts.” The translation is thus the meaning but not the literal words as originally written. We can spend some time arguing over which approach is better but the truth remains that when v.9 says “the heart is deceitful” (or as the NRSV translates it “devious”) what the Hebrew means is “our thoughts are deceitful.” And that is the first wrinkle to understand this text.
The next wrinkle is exactly what it means to be “deceitful.” The Hebrew word is Akov and carries a sense of ‘difficult, grabby,’ and in a moment of poetry, ‘walking on the heels of someone’ i.e. tripping them up. It is the root of the name of the grabbiest, jerkiest, little snot in Genesis; Ya’akov (Jacob). Yes, this word is related fundamentally to the obnoxious little twerp who came out of the womb grabbing his brother’s heel and then went on to steal his brother’s birthright and blessing; Mr. ‘Nothing is too underhanded for me’ himself.
So while we read the word as “deceitful” and our translators add in “it is perverse” to try and explain what they meant, it’s really grabby/tricksy/and perhaps best described as “untrustworthy.” (Note, “it is perverse” is not actually in the Hebrew, it’s a scribal addition that our translators kept in order to try and explain the first clause).
What then does it mean that our heart/thinking is untrustworthy? Consider a child in a shopping cart at the grocery. It’s bedazzled by all around it and grabs everything it can to stuff them into the cart. The child, to borrow a phrase, is “grabby above all else.” In the same way, our heart/thinking grabs everything and anything, it leaps onto this idea and devours that notion without considering the rabbit hole it may be going down.
To a large extent, social media and the advertising state exist to feed that grabbiness because it makes them money. We even find ourselves rewarded with little bursts of dopamine when we get likes, shares, and comments on our posts. So, like anyone who likes dopamine, we come back for more (and more, and more, and…).
This ‘see, want, take” approach is problematic enough when we face ideas and things, it gets even worse when we face people. We want love/closeness/respect and grab the other person expecting them to give us what we need/complete the hole in us and (surprise) end up damaging them and us into the bargain. In all seriousness, we see others as a means to our ends and the heartbreak and cruelty that comes of that is widespread and dramatic.
So, in spite of cultural imperatives to “follow your heart” and “all you need is love” we find this biblical reminder that our heart/mind is a grabby, untrustworthy mess. What do we do then?
A first step is to remember that our wanting and our reason need to be tempered with caution. But even that caution needs its own tempering because while our heat/mind is grabby and often less rational than helpful, it is not entirely given over to evil. In fact, if we live a life entirely distrusting our inner being, we’ll end up as some shallow caricature of health rather than actually healthy. Or, even worse, by denying our deepest self, we’ll end up entirely unaware of our emotions and why we’re screaming at our best beloved, or simply a negative image of our own ID anyway.
Self distrust is not the solution. Acceptance of our irrational grabbiness and a willingness to monitor ourselves because of that grabbiness is however, a good place to start. Another good step is suggested in v.10 where God points out in essence, that our own inability to ‘know our heart’ does not mean that we are hopeless, because God does know our deepest self.
This reality most emphatically DOES NOT mean that we are best when we turn our brain off and accept what ‘god’ tells us to do. If God had wanted mindless/heartless drones, we would never have had free will from the start. God’s existence and clear sight of who we are at our deepest means that we have a partner to help as we puzzle out the best way to go forward.
We have a friend who works to help us “test the spirits” that rise up in us to see whether they lead to life or not. We have someone outside ourselves who reminds us of (to use the theological terms) our sainthood and our sinner-ness. (In fact, one way to test any external helper is to see if they are willing to tell us when we’re great AND when we suck. Anyone who is only willing to tell us one side of that tale, is not our friend).
The heart/mind IS grabby above all else. Instead of blindly following it or blindly rejecting it then, our call to life is for us to test it. Our task is to see its tricksy nature, test it, argue with it, follow it, and live in it to the best of our ability. The blessing is that we are not alone in this work as both God and God’s messengers (the people around us) can help us in this testing, living, being work.