The scriptures often talk about having a broken heart, but what does that mean? Does God want us to be sad? I believe that many of the problems we experience in understanding the ancient concepts contained in the scriptures is because we understand things in a modern way.
Words and their meanings change over time. Today, having a broken heart might mean something like the following:
A broken heart (or heartbreak) is a common metaphor used to describe the intense emotional pain or suffering one feels after losing a loved one, whether through death, divorce, breakup, physical separation, betrayal, or romantic rejection. (via Wikipedia, emphasis added)
In the profane world, a broken heart is an emotional response to unpleasant events surrounding other people. In the sacred world, a broken heart is a catalyst to wonderful things.
Here is an example of the phrase being used in the Old Testament:
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. (Pslams 51:17)
The English word “broken” is being used to describe a Hebrew word, shabar:
shabar – a primitive root; to burst (literally or figuratively):–break (down, off, in pieces, up), broken((-hearted)), bring to the birth, crush, destroy, hurt, quench, tear
I believe that Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary is the best dictionary for seeking an accurate definition for English words rooted in a Biblical context. Perhaps the translators of the King James Bible should have used the term “burst” instead. Here is what it means:
burst: 1. To fly or break open with force, or with sudden violence; to suffer a violent disruption. The peculiar force of this word is, in expressing a sudden rupture, with violence, or expansion, or both. Hence it is generally used to signify the sudden rupture of a thing by internal force, and a liberation from confinement; as, to burst from a prison; the heart bursts with grief. (Webster’s 1828 Dictionary of the English Language, emphasis added)
If we pull all of this together we could suggest that what God requires is a heart that has broken free from confinement. But what could confine a heart? What could cause a heart to break open with “sudden violence”? Noah Webster suggested an internal force, but what is this internal force? I know that these things are metaphors but what do they represent in real life?
What is the heart?
What is the heart? Is it feeling or emotion or the mind or all of those things? Ezekiel 28:6 mentions man’s heart and God’s heart in the same verse:
Therefore thus saith the Lord God; Because thou hast set thine heart as the heart of God;
Different Hebrew words are used when describing man’s heart and God’s heart in this verse. In the first instance referencing man, the word used is “lebab” which represents the physical heart and the refers to it as the “most interior organ” (Strong’s Hebrew Dictionary). When you think about it, the heart sits at probably the deepest point in the physical structure of man. It is from the heart that blood is pumped to the entire body and that blood carries everything needed to sustain life. Whatever is cut off from the heart dies.
As for God’s heart, a similar but different word is used, “leb” which is a form of “lebab” which also means “heart” but with metaphorical implications. This word seems to imply that it is “also used (figuratively) very widely for the feelings, the will, and even the intellect; likewise for the centre of anything“.
The heart represents the center of all things associated with man. We might even say that it represents the crux between the will of the flesh and the will of the spirit of man. Perhaps at the center of the “heart” is the spirit of man, that internal force that must rupture the will of the flesh that confines it.
King Benjamin described the will of the flesh as the “natural man”:
For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father. (Mosiah 3:19)
Jerusalem had a temple at its center, just like Nauvoo and Salt Lake City. The apostle Paul said that our bodies were temples (1 Corinthians 3:17) and Jesus said “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). If the heart represents the core of our feelings, will, and intellect, consider the dual nature of these attributes. Think of how ungodly feelings, a weak and fearful will and an unbridled intellect confine man.
When you break something, you permanently alter it; when you shatter something, it is never the same again. This is the point, constrained by ungodliness we don’t want to be the same. When our current heart is shattered, then God gives us a new one.
A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:26, emphasis added)
But how is this done?
Initiating the Break
Wrapped in a powerful and hardened cocoon of its own making, the caterpillar lies dormant and confined. The caterpillar is becoming something different and when it is ready, it forcefully tears open the veil that separates it from the world. Frail and weak, the newly liberated creature is still as blood pumps into its new wings and they stiffen in preparation for flight. We know how the butterfly does this, but how does man?
Are we ready to rupture our hearts and emerge as new creatures? What keeps us from emerging? Are we afraid of liberation and the thrill of flight? Are we comfortable with what we are? A cocoon may be a step toward progress or a tomb.
The rupture is fueled by the deepest desires of your soul; everything begins with desire and without it, there is nothing. We have many examples in scripture of hearts bursting forcefully and one of my favorite examples is that of King Lamoni’s father.
A friend pointed out to me recently that under the threat of death at the hands of Ammon, the father of King Lamoni offered half of his kingdom in exchange for his life.
Now the king, fearing he should lose his life, said: If thou wilt spare me I will grant unto thee whatsoever thou wilt ask, even to half of the kingdom. (Alma 20:23)
However, as he receives the gospel from Aaron, he asks:
What shall I do that I may have this eternal life of which thou hast spoken? Yea, what shall I do that I may be born of God, having this wicked spirit rooted out of my breast, and receive his Spirit, that I may be filled with joy, that I may not be cast off at the last day? Behold, said he, I will give up all that I possess, yea, I will forsake my kingdom, that I may receive this great joy. (Alma 22:15, emphasis added)
To save his soul, King Lamoni’s father was willing to give his entire kingdom; this time he held nothing back. Aaron told the king that all must do is bow down before God and call on his name.
And it came to pass that when Aaron had said these words, the king did bow down before the Lord, upon his knees; yea, even he did prostrate himself upon the earth, and cried mightily, saying: O God, Aaron hath told me that there is a God; and if there is a God, and if thou art God, wilt thou make thyself known unto me, and I will give away all my sins to know thee, and that I may be raised from the dead, and be saved at the last day. And now when the king had said these words, he was struck as if he were dead. (Alma 22:17,18)
The king realized that giving up material possessions meant nothing to the God who created them. The king understood that it was his sins that must be given up and he did so freely. He broke his heart, he ruptured his feelings, his will and his intellect in such a sudden and dramatic way that his whole body appeared broken, dead and dead he was; he died as to the natural man.
Like the motionless caterpillar, the king regained his strength and as a new man with a new heart he opened the way (Alma 23:1) for the gospel to be preached to all of his people. Entire cities and lands were converted (Alma 23:8-15) as this chain reaction set of by the broken heart of one man shattered the hearts of many and healed many lands.
What lies dormant at our core? What might we become if we would only rupture that which confines us? Why not shatter what binds us down to enjoy the warmth, strength and liberation of eternal bliss? What keeps us from doing so?
Jesus Christ said that if we loved him we would keep his commandments. Perhaps the most basic place to begin is there. Down this path, God’s love and wisdom are revealed by degree; obedience fosters revelation and trust which blossoms into love. We break our hearts out of love and the grace of Christ builds us a new heart after the image of his.
Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God. And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot. (Moroni 10:32–33)