Five Ways to Go from Head Knowledge to Heart Application

Sometimes you get to share with someone an idea that they’ve never heard before. And that idea absolutely revolutionizes the way they think about themselves or others — or even God himself. Watching someone “get it” for the first time is exhilarating. Seeing the fruit in their lives is deeply rewarding. However, it’s also pretty rare. In most cases, it’s not some brilliant insight that people need; it’s the practice of actually applying the fundamentals they already know.

How do we go from the instruction of Proverbs 3:5, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding,” to the personal affirmation of the writer of Psalms 56:3–4, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid”? In other words, how do we go from head knowledge to heart application? Here are five ways:

1. Have realistic expectations for the presence of both suffering and service in the Christian life.

The genuine application of God’s promises does not preclude the genuine experience of pain, fear, and sadness. There is no doubt that the gospel provides relief and rest from this fallen world (Romans 8), but there is just as little doubt that suffering exists as a part of God’s plan, not in spite of it (Romans 5:3–5). Too often we try to use the promises of God like a magic wand that can alleviate every hurt with a cursory read. When this approach fails, we blame ourselves (I do not deserve God’s goodness) or God (he isn’t actually good) or both.

But Paul is clear in both Romans 5 and 1 Thessalonians 4: Belief in God’s promises doesn’t shield us from pain but rather redeems it. The gospel tinges our pain with hope and thereby makes it more manageable, more purposeful — not nonexistent.

2. Even if it feels half-hearted at first, commit to daily prayer and Bible reading, as well as weekly participation in gathered worship.

The less we are in God’s word, the less the Bible will seem applicable to us. This reality seems like a no-brainer but like most appetites (food, sleep, recreation) our spiritual appetite can be dramatically affected by crisis. In the midst of pain, we’re tempted to ask the “Where is God in this?” question, but what we should ask is, “Where is my worship in this?” If we lose our appetite for the things of God, it should come as no surprise when we do not feel God’s presence in our lives. Regular scriptural intake and worship are every bit as vital as sleep, exercise, and diet (Matthew 4:4).

3. Find a piece of Scripture, memorize it, and meditate on it. When it feels like you’ve squeezed everything you can out of that one, find another and do it again.

Scripture memorization is vital. It is a forgotten art in the age of the search engine, but being able to recite one or more of God’s actual promises from his word rather than just some general Christian truth is crucial. The ability to instantaneously apply God’s truth helps us to conform our emotions to the shape of the cross rather than allowing them to bend us to the shape of the world.

4. Find a Christian hymn or song that resonates while accurately communicating God’s truth. Play it until you can sing it unaccompanied in your own head.

Music is incredibly powerful and helps us to regulate our emotions. In a 2013 study (Chanda & Levitin), researchers reported that when we begin to play a song in our own minds, we are using the area of our brain called the “moral reasoning center.” That doesn’t mean, if you listen to explicit material, you are doomed to commit those acts — we are not slaves to the music to which we listen. However, it can knit our hearts more closely to those actions and make them seem more acceptable.

The opposite is true as well. If we listen to music and are able to sing songs which reinforce the truths of Scripture, then we can find ourselves that much more resilient in troubling times, and God’s promises can feel that much more relevant to our hurting hearts. There is a reason, after all, that the largest book in the Bible (Psalms) is a book of songs. God didn’t need an MRI machine to know how your mind works.

5. Find some place to plug in and serve for God’s glory.

C.S. Lewis once said that as Christians we are not called to think less of ourselves but to think of ourselves less. Christ speaks similarly in Matthew 20. When we prioritize other people above ourselves it can help us to get out of the quicksand of our own self pity and help us to realize that we are not alone in our suffering. Also, as we try to lift up others by applying God’s promises to their lives, we often find ourselves being sustained. Therefore, when we purposefully serve, we talk about it being a greater ministry to us than to those that we served.

Applying God’s promises of grace and comfort to our hurting, fearful, or angry hearts is where the rubber meets the road for many Christians. While these five suggestions may not change you overnight from grieving to giddy, they might help you to more acutely feel the safety of God’s promises and the tenderness of his care.

(@RevJASquires) serves as pastor of counseling and congregational care at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina. He and his wife have five children.