For Latter-day Saints, the personal testimony of the veracity of the restoration of the gospel is perhaps one’s greatest possession. Despite the fact that personal revelation from God was the preferred method of acquiring spiritual truth by all prophets in the Old and New Testaments, it is commonly said by Anti-Mormons that Mormons fool themselves when they allow their hearts to become part of the process of acquiring truth and knowledge. A classic proof-text against this practice is found in Jeremiah 17:9:
9“The heart is more deceitful than all else
And is desperately sick;
Who can understand it?1
It is argued that according to the bible it is not wise to trust our hearts when seeking for spiritual guidance, because our hearts are deceitful and cannot be understood.
As is so often the case, this passage has been removed from its context by those who oppose the biblical doctrine of personal revelation. It is very useful to consider Jeremiah’s words in light of the circumstances under which they were said. His comments about the heart suddenly mean something entirely different when examined in both their immediate and general context.
Even reading the very next verse allows us to understand a little better what this passage means:
10“I, the LORD, search the heart,
I test the mind,
Even to give to each man according to his ways,
According to the results of his deeds.
In this verse God says that he “search[es]” the heart. If the heart is always so deceitful and untrustworthy, why does the LORD even bother to search it? “Search” implies that there is more to it than just a casual dismissal based on the belief that all hearts are deceitful and untrustworthy. After “search[ing]” the heart God makes a decision about what type of reward is merited. This very strongly implies that some hearts are wicked and some hearts are righteous. At the very least we can conclude that God does not agree with attitude towards our hearts that is taken by many Anti-Mormons. But we can place this passage even further into its context.
Verses 1-18 of this chapter are a sort of poem that Jeremiah has composed. The thrust of his message is a common biblical theme; those who trust in the Lord are blessed while those who do not trust in the LORD are in trouble. Jeremiah introduces the concept of the “heart” in verse 1:
1The sin of Judah is written down with an iron stylus;
With a diamond point it is engraved upon the tablet of their heart
And on the horns of their altars,
Jeremiah associates sin with the heart in this verse by suggesting that once committed, sins are “engraved” upon the heart. What about prior to the sin? Was the heart already sinful? Jeremiah doesn’t say. Furthermore, once a sin is “engraved” on the heart, does that render the heart as a useless tool for righteousness?
The imagery of the heart continues in verse 5:
5Thus says the LORD,
Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind
And makes flesh his strength,
And whose heart turns away from the LORD.
Jeremiah scolds those who place their trust in man and who turn their “hearts” away from the Lord! Presumably if an individual can turn his or her heart away from God, they can also turn it towards God. For Jeremiah, the heart is an important factor in our relationship to God. It is upon the heart that sin is written, and it is the heart that chooses to turn towards or away from God (which differs greatly from Calvinism). Why do anti-Mormon detractors deemphasize the place that the heart has in our commune with God, while Jeremiah places so much emphasis on the heart?
The wicked described in verse 5 are quickly contrasted with the righteous in verse 7:
7Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD
And whose trust is the LORD.
Thus by comparing verses 5 and 7 we see the dichotomy that Jeremiah is describing for us. There are those who trust in mankind, and those who trust in the LORD. There are those who rely on the flesh, and those who rely on the LORD. There are those who turn their hearts away from the LORD, and those who turn their hearts to the LORD.
The heart is useful in both realms, for both types of people. It is used for both sin and for righteousness. Jeremiah is a prophet, and as such one of his biggest responsibilities is to call the wicked to repentance. That is exactly what he does in verse 9, when he addresses the wicked and their hearts:
9“The heart is more deceitful than all else
And is desperately sick;
Who can understand it?
Jeremiah addresses the state of the hearts of the wicked in verse 9, but does not comment on the hearts of the righteous. The heart is a sort of double-edged sword, being applicable to both realms. Jeremiah builds his message around the differences between the righteous and the wicked, and then castigates the wicked in verse 9. Were we to follow Jeremiah’s pattern, we could very safely conclude that he feels the exact opposite about the hearts of the righteous as he does about the hearts of the wicked. Jeremiah does not point out the obvious for us, but he does leave another clue in verse 10 which was already discussed above. The Lord can “search” the heart and reward accordingly. This quite clearly suggests that the heart is sometimes sinful and sometimes righteous.
Further thoughts from Jeremiah
What else does Jeremiah believe about the heart? We learn more from him in chapter 20:
8For each time I speak, I cry aloud;
I proclaim violence and destruction,
Because for me the word of the LORD has resulted
In reproach and derision all day long.
9But if I say, “I will not remember Him
Or speak anymore in His name,”
Then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire
Shut up in my bones;
And I am weary of holding it in,
And I cannot endure it.
Jeremiah describes the effect of the things that he learns from the Lord as “burning fire” in his heart. How can critics maintain that Jeremiah views the heart as an untrustworthy receptacle of divine messages?
Some critics of LDS methodology suggests that in this passage Jeremiah is merely describing the zeal and passion he has for preaching the word of God. In this interpretation, the “burning fire” in Jeremiah’s heart is not an indication of truth from God, but is an emotional desire to teach God’s word. That begs the question as to where such a feeling originated; did it originate from God or from Jeremiah? One can be assured that it is from God, for that is how Jeremiah understands it. Jeremiah directly attributes the “burning fire” in his heart to the fact that the word of the Lord was shut up in his bones. Would that feeling have existed had it not been the true word of the Lord? That is doubtful, and Jeremiah doesn’t even consider the possibility.
After determining to no longer speak the words of truth, God, an exterior agent, encourages Jeremiah on by rekindling Jeremiah’s heart. Evangelical scholar A. R. Faussett agrees that the burning in Jeremiah’s heart was “the divine afflatus or impulse to speak.”2 Jeremiah’s burning in the bosom is similar to, if not precisely what, LDS claim to experience. We read the words of God, we have faith that they are true, and God energizes us with a “burning” that both gives us courage to do what is right (as it did for Jeremiah) and confirms the truthfulness of what we are learning (as it did for Jeremiah).
Jeremiah doesn’t stop there though, he continues to explain how the messages he receives in his heart from the LORD are indeed trustworthy and true:
10For I have heard the whispering of many,
”Terror on every side!
Denounce him; yes, let us denounce him!”
All my trusted friends,
Watching for my fall, say:
”Perhaps he will be deceived, so that we may prevail against him
And take our revenge on him.”
11But the LORD is with me like a dread champion;
Therefore my persecutors will stumble and not prevail
They will be utterly ashamed, because they have failed,
With an everlasting disgrace that will not be forgotten.
Jeremiah’s enemies believe that Jeremiah is foolish for trusting the messages he receives in his heart. These “friends” suggest that he is “deceived” and that his prophecies will not come true which event will expose him as a false prophet. The mighty prophet dismisses those challenges by confirming that the things he is learning from God and transmitting to the people are indeed true messages from God, and that they will be sorry and ashamed in a coming day for doubting his methodology, which was learned from God.
There is still much to be said about the role of the heart in our walk with God, and what exactly the scriptures mean when they talk about the “heart.” But this short essay should at least dispel the myth that Jeremiah believed the heart was an untrustworthy vessel not worthy of our attention. It is the very opposite, for Jeremiah was a defender of the doctrine of personal revelation, and our critics would do well to learn from his example.
1. All passages quoted herein are NASB.