When you have heart failure, you look to a lot of different resources to help you learn to manage the symptoms of this chronic illness, and perhaps the side effects of essential yet powerful heart drugs. But dealing with the physical aspects of the heart is not the only thing that you will have to manage.
There are the troubling questions that continue to nag at you but which may have no answers: Why did I have to get heart failure, especially since heart issues do not run in my family? What do I do with my life now that I seem to have hit this permanent speed bump? How much time do I have left on this earth? How can I make my life count for something in whatever time remains? The list seems endless.
I think it would be challenging to function with a crummy, weakened heart if I just looked at the physical functions. I do a lot of reading and it is not just to find answers to health questions. Sometimes I read to find spiritual direction. I have learned that the heart is mentioned many, many times in the Bible. Depending on the website you look at, the heart is in the Bible anywhere from 500 to 1000 times.
While the Bible is definitely heart heavy, you should not be going there to look for medical advice. Indeed, you will not find guidance on what an ejection fraction is, or the various ways to repair valve issues, or the symptoms of cardiomyopathy, tachychardia, or even on hypertension (though with as angry as some of our biblical fathers could get, they had to have high blood pressure!) Nope – God and his messengers are rarely concerned in this book with the physical aspects of the heart.
But this is a good thing. When you’re looking for spiritual guidance, as well as answers to difficult, emotional and often rhetorical questions, you want to look at a reference that is not clinical and detached. So I turned to the Bible and learned that the heart has an emotional, discerning role. The Bible has given my weak heart additional strength, and has inspired me to heal and nurture my spiritual outlook.
I found an article on a website called Bible Study Tools. I do not know much about this website, other than it says that the commentaries are written by well-known and popular theologians, and are meant to aid in the study of Scripture by providing explanation and interpretation of Biblical text. The particular article I found listed numerous Old and New Testament verses that showed the various qualities of heart in relationship to our faith. A number of verses helped me reflect back on my life and how I may have ignored my faith. But as I read, I realized I also have time to repair any cracks in my faith. So I began reflecting on how the heart can contribute to my faith going forward.
One verse quoted in the article is Proverbs Chapter 16, verse 9: "In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps". This verse speaks to me because over the last 10 years of my career, I continually charted a path to positions of more advanced and challenging responsibilities. Sometimes my personal life and other non-career endeavors, even my faith life, took a back seat. I always told myself that the public service mission was so vital that I wanted to contribute to it as much as I could. In thinking it over, I think my plan itself had merit in terms of serving the public. But it did not allow me time to reach into my heart, and to be introspective. My plan also did not give me the opportunity to renew my heart and my spirit.
So look at the verse again. Notice the comma – and ponder over the gift God gave us by making commas. Because after the comma came the most important part of the verse. Here it is: despite all of our deliberation, God figures out the steps we really need to take. I can reflect and determine times earlier in my life when God and I were on the same page. What I planned as my life unfolded seemed to be tracking with God’s plan for me. On those occasions where I was not on the same page, I felt out of sorts and unfulfilled.
In addition to highlighting important concepts, commas are also cues for us to pause and reflect. Reflection was something I remember doing when I was younger. People who knew me when I was working might not believe this, but I actually used to reflect and mull over an idea before I methodically put my plan into action. But reflection was edited out when I got really busy in my career. Instead of my life being made up of deliberate sentences with pauses and reflections, my life became a series of run-on sentences, a life lived in fast forward mode.
It was at the point of my life shifted when I shifted into fast forward mode that I now realize I forgot one of the most important lessons in Genesis, the very first book in the Bible. God made the seventh day for rest. I read this both in the term of how our weeks unfold: Sunday is the day of rest. But I also see it as a symbol of how we should live our lives. We work really hard to hone the gifts God gave to us, but we also need to discern when we should take a break in our busy lives. We should find a time put our goals on the hold while we look after ourselves and those around us.
The article also provided a laundry list of the heart's emotional functions: joy (Deuteronomy 28:47, 1 Samuel 2: and Proverbs 15:15); sorrow (1 Samuel 1:8); raging (2 Kings 6:11); peace (Colossians 3:15); feeling troubled (John 14:1); rejoicing (1 Samuel 2:1, Psalms 104:15); love (Romans 5:5, 1 Peter 1:22); selfish ambition (James 13:14); modes of doubts (Mark 11:23); fear (Genesis 42:28); trusting (Proverbs 3:5); repulsive pride (Deuteronomy 8:14); when it is lowly and humble (Matt 11:29); and when one loses heart (Hebrews 12:3) or takes heart (John 16:33). A lot of activity going on in there! I believe each and every one of those emotions races through my heart on a regular basis. In the past, perhaps I did not keep the negative emotions in check. Now I will strive to do just that.
The article makes the case that the emotional state of the heart affects the rest of a person: "a cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones" (Proverbs 17:22). This verse really speaks to me. It tells me that I must not harden my heart to the illness I have, but to find humor, optimism and compassion in everything that I see and do. Because that will give me the hope I need both to help others, and to eventually find peace and fulfillment regardless of the challenges in my health condition.
As the article reminds us, we should not forget that the heart, in addition to the great physical role it plays, also has impacts our intellectual and spiritual Functions. The heart thinks (Matt 9:4, Mark 2:8), remembers, reflects, and meditates (Psalms 77:5-6, Luke 2:19). What I can add to this is that when part of this medley of functions gets out of balance, chaos can erupt. Sometimes I overthink things and this is when the anxiety sets in. I forget that the spiritual function of meditating and prayer can relieve the anxiety and give my poor brain and heart the rest and balance they deserve.
These verses on spirituality and intellectuality that make me realize that we often let the heart’s physical aspects take precedence over the spiritual. We exercise to keep the heart pumping blood efficiently so that we have the fuel to engage in demanding activities. This is not a bad thing because everyone in general, and me in particular, wants a strong heart. But while physical exercise is important, so is the exercise of the brain cells that is also fueled by the heart. The heart and the brain, working together, help us to discern what our role is in this complex world that has too many conflicts going on. And our heart and brain gives us the insight on how we should react and deal with people to help extinguish even the little conflicts in our lives that can escalate out of control quickly.
So as you can see, the word heart is used liberally in the Old Testament. The Old Testament has guided both Jews and Christians for many many years. And the word heart is used 132 times in the Koran. So what I take from this is that the three biggest faiths on this earth revere the heart not just for pumping blood, but for guiding our lives and our spirituality.
So when you find yourself feeling conflicted, what should you do? My advice is to just take a healthy dose of whatever book of religious faith celebrates for you the spirit and the heart. Let it guide your faith, and resolve to act according to those tenets each day of the rest of your life.
Melanie discovered that she had heart failure in 2013. She spent the next 7 years learning how to live with the condition, and how to achieve balance and personal growth. Then in October 2020, she received a heart transplant. This blog is about her journey of the heart.