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Mind, Heart, and Soul: What is the difference?

My last post Heart knowledge vs. head knowledge?, opened a can of worms that I am not really qualified to deal with. However, a commenter raised some questions (primarily concerning the nature of the “heart” and the ministry of the Holy Spirit) that I thought deserved at least an attempt at an answer. I’ll take my best stab at it…

By no means did I wish to indicate in my previous post that the Bible has little to say about the heart—only that I find no contrast between a knowledge that is housed in the heart and a knowledge that is housed in the intellect. Nor do I find justification in the pages of the Bible for a spiritual, hierarchical structure of the self wherein the intellect is of a more base nature than that of the heart or even of the soul.

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word that is most often rendered heart is לֵבָב‎ (lebab), meaning inner man, mind, will, heart. In other words, it is synonymous with mind. Indeed, it is at times translated as intelligence (Job 12:3, 24), mind (Dan 1:8; 1Sam 9:19, 1Kings 4:29), purpose (Isa 10:7), thought (1 Kings 8:47), and understanding (Job 36:5).

Similarly, one of the words that is rendered mind in the Old Testament is כִּלְיָה‎ (kilyah), which literally means kidneys. This is somewhat akin to our idea of heart—the seat of the emotions or the inner man.

Even the Hebrew word for soul (נֶפֶשׁ‎, nephesh) gets in on this parallelism action. It’s primary meaning is soul, life, or self, but it can also be rendered heart, appetite, desire, feelings, passion, or strength. And in some translations—mind.

It is when we get to the New Testament that we see the modern figurative language in which the physical organ, the heart (καρδία, kardia) represents the inner person. Even here, though, the idea is that of the very center of the self, including thoughts, feelings, and motives.

Let’s compare Deuteronomy 6:5 with Jesus’ later reference to this passage.

Deuteronomy 6:5 (NASB)
5 “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

Mark 12:30 (NASB)
30 AND YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH.’

I have already demonstrated that there is good reason to understand the Deuteronomy passage as a list of synonymous words that build emphasis and provide a thorough sense of what it means to love God with our whole selves.

The following sentence is an oversimplified example of what I mean by this:

Conquering the summit required him to use every ounce of his strength, to push his muscles to their very limits, and to exhaust all the reservoirs of his power.

Each phrase adds something to the overall idea, but the differences in meaning is slight.

In the parallel passage from Mark, I am unsure if Jesus is quoting a Greek translation of the OT or if his words are only recorded in Greek. In any case, the Greek words for soul and strength are much more exclusive in their meaning than the corresponding Hebrew words, and the word mind is added. I believe the sharp distinction between these words is owing to the precision of the Greek language, not to a new, intentional contrast between human attributes. All the same ideas are present. In fact, I suspect mind is added here because it was an idea inherent in the original Hebrew words translated heart and soul, but not as much in their Greek counterparts.

Jesus, or a New Testament author may choose, in other passages, to use only heart, soul, or mind for a specific emphasis, but this does not mean the other ideas are excluded or contrasted.

So, my point?

We have words to describe the different attributes of personhood, but, in my opinion, they are ways to describe different nuances of a unified whole—not three separate parts of a being.

God attributes thought, emotion, and identity to himself. We would not say that his person was more spiritual than his emotions, or that his emotions were deeper or higher than his thoughts. They all speak of the core of who he is, and they are all interdependent on each other.

Do we really have justification for assigning qualitative spiritual value to these words simply because we are speaking of human persons?  This lady doesn’t think so.

One other issue the commenter brought up was the direct influence of the Holy Spirit. This is not threatened or diminished if there is no real contrast between the heart and the mind. The Holy Spirit interacts with our soul (self). He illuminates, inspires, directs, convicts, and comforts us. But these things are accomplished by engaging our intellect, our motives, and our emotions, each inseparably bound to the other.

You do not have water if you do not have both hydrogen and oxygen. And you cannot say that one is more essential to water than the other.

The soul is the self, the sum of who we are. What we feel in our heart, we acknowledge with our mind, and vice-versa. How we choose to shape and respond to our own thoughts, motives, and feelings (or respond to God as he engages them), determines our character and condition of our soul—the person that we are.

What do you think (or feel :) )?

Is it reasonable or scriptural to divorce any of these from another?

Does a soul exist apart from thoughts and emotions?


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13 thoughts on “Mind, Heart, and Soul: What is the difference?”

  1. I like the comment about different attributes of our personhood. It is fitting that there are 3 like God’s trinity.

    1. Jennifer –
      There are lots of fun and interesting parallels to the trinity in nature. It can be fascinating (though not conclusive) to read some of the ties that people have stumbled upon. :)

  2. One of the things we find when dealing with addiction and abuse, is the power of the subs-conscience mind to cause us to flee, fight, or freeze due to being confronted by certain stress or trauma. These actions will override your conscience mind and cause you to react with what the sub-conscience mind (specifically the limbic system) has learned to be best for your survival. What you talked about does not take into account the sub-conscience brain and how it affects us, sometimes in a way we would not consciously choose. Rom. 7:19-20

    There are two schools of thought in regards to this, Dichotomy and Trichotomy. Dichotomy believes there is no difference between the soul and the spirit. Trichotomy believes there is a; body, soul, and spirit three parts to man. I like the trichotomy view based on 1Thess, 5:23. But whichever one we believe makes little difference, as neither position really affects any other major doctrine found in the Christian church and should not be used to divide us.

    Hydrogen and oxygen exist separately and even in the presence of each other and do not automatically join together to create water, it takes some energy to create a reaction to cause them to be bonded together. It takes the power of the Spirit to bond our three parts together and work in unity to fully walk in the power of Gods grace and mercy.

    Just some thoughts.

    1. Phil -
      Thank you for joining the discussion. As I said, I address this topic only as an attempt to clarify my position on “heart knowledge vs. head knowledge” . This post is nothing like adequate for addressing the question of the nature of the human being…nor am I really qualified to do so.
      That being said, I do believe Rom 7 is a description of the fight with the sinful nature, not a lament concerning the overriding power of the subconscious.
      You obviously picked up on the fact that I hold to a dichotomous anthropological position. This is, quite admittedly, informed as much by other of my theological views as it is by how I understand verses that speak directly about soul and spirit (ie., how God interacts with and relates to humans, the role and responsibility of humans in partnership with God, and the nature of the scriptures ). I am of the opinion that trichotomy is a result of attempts to synchronize Greek philosophy and Biblical revelation. As I understand it, the words for spirit speak more of the life of a thing, and the words for soul speak more of the self or the identity. Still, I see no compelling biblical evidence that they should be seen as as separate parts of the being, rather than two attributes of the same thing. But you’re right…I could be wrong, and it’s definitely not worth dividing over. :)
      Again, thanks for stopping by!

  3. Tha

    Thanks for posting this! I was reading Deut and wondering what the difference between soul and heart is. This really helped, especially learning more about the hebrew. God bless!

  4. I love this post and, incidentally, it ties beautifully into an entry I posted earlier today about what it means to love. I agree with you – the Bible seems to use these words about the intangible parts of us interchangeably at times. You are much, much more articulate than I am, though! :) I’m absolutely fascinated by differences in translation and love to dig a little deeper when trying to understand a passage, but I haven’t done much of that. I feel like I don’t have the knowledge I need to really start. If you have good sources (reference books, language basics, etc.) that you’d be willing to share, I would really appreciate it. Thanks again!

    1. I am constantly bothered by a feeling of being at “the mercy of the experts”. There is so much I don’t know – so I am reliant on those who have invested their lives into Biblical studies – but even the experts often disagree with one another. How in the world am I supposed to make an informed decision? But we have to start somewhere. It feels overwhelming, but it is better to dig in, be wrong, build on my knowledge, and change my mind later than to decide I’m hopelessly inept and quit trying. :)

      My most valuable tool for language study is my Strong’s talking Greek and Hebrew dictionary. It is a considerable initial investment, but worth it in the long run if you can get a hold of a good PC Bible program (they usually include a Bible dictionary). The commentaries that come with them are usually inadequate, but you can always purchase some to add. I have Word Search with Bible Explorer, but there are many out there. I don’t actually know any Greek grammar, which I understand can be a significant aid in understanding a passage, but it is amazing what can be learned from a simple, but disciplined word study.

      One thing I have for sure learned is not to assume that the experts (including ancient and revered theologians) must have something figured simply because it is widely accepted. They may well be right, and I may well be out in left field, missing some vital information – but even the really smart guys are/were not immune to inconsistency, bad logic, and faulty presuppositions. I have learned that I need to be as open to them being wrong as I am to me being wrong.

      Just keep digging – it all builds! The God of the Bible is a God who longs to reveal himself, not hide himself in a shroud of unknowable mystery. If you have a heart to know him and you diligently seek him, he will show you more and more of his heart.

  5. Crystal,

    Thank you for a well thought out discussion of this challenging topic. I have read a number of posts this morning on this topic and yours in the clearest description I have seen. I like your integrated view. I believe that one reason we get tripped up is that we try to draw hard lines between heart, soul, spirit, mind, and body. I also appreciate your humility. I am a lay teacher also and feel intimidated by the complexity of God’s word and my lack of formal education in theology. However, I believe that an honest, deep reading of God’s word, with the help of His Spirit, can powerfully reveal His meanings. I look forward to reading your other posts.

    David

  6. If d soul then could be self and d heart is interlect dat means d heart is inside d soul, it is d heart dat derefore control d soul, bcos d carries emotion, will, desire, as said this means there is no difference btwn d sou and d heart.

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