What 'Guarding Your Heart' Actually Means

Where we tend to go wrong with this oft-heard advice.

In my late teens, I poured through Christian self-help books about courting over dating, saving yourself for the one and, above all, guarding your heart. Fast forward to my freshman year of college when a nice Christian young man sat down next to me in the courtyard and continued to do so everyday.

Rocking myself to sleep with the mantra “Guard your heart,” I cautiously pursued relationship with him. But as things progressed, I calculated every feeling and hope and fiercely battled expectations because of an intense fear that the rug would be pulled out from underneath me. If I gave too much, I might be disappointed. So I lived in paralysis for the first year of our relationship.

It would prove difficult to count the number of times I’ve heard the “Guard your heart” lesson, whether in books, at conferences or in podcasts. Though the intent of the message is to provide practical steps to purity, it often becomes a simple, even legalistic, way of handling abstinence and obedience in our youth groups and Bible studies.

Perhaps the best way to guard our hearts is to abandon them to Jesus.

The phrase stems from Proverbs 4:23, which instructs, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” Proverbs 4 sounds a beautiful call toward wisdom and away from evil and perversity. However, as a young woman, I essentially substituted the word “men” for the word “evil.” As a result, smiling and waving at a guy friend became difficult, let alone having any meaningful conversation with a member of the opposite sex. My over-analytical mind reasoned that if I was friendly, guys might think I was interested. So I avoided men completely.

But refusing to show kindness to someone because he or she might get the wrong impression is hardly Christian behavior. Christ compels us to “love one another” (John 13:34-35). In fact, Jesus said we can know we belong to Him by the way we love one another (John 13:35). And, despite gender segregated Sunday school classrooms, both sexes are a part of the “one another” we are called to love as believers.

To clarify, I do believe Scripture calls us to shield ourselves from the presence of evil and darkness. We should look straight ahead and fix our gaze directly on our Savior (Proverbs 4:25), not allowing sin to creep into our vision, hearing and hearts. There is a major difference between guarding our hearts and giving them away without wisdom. But the “Guard your heart” message can only be carried to a certain extent. Yes, shield yourselves from evil, from the presence of perversity. However, the promise that if you “Guard your heart,” you will not be hurt and you will not mess up is a lie that could potentially affect marriages, where we are promised a measure of bruising and pain as “iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17). At what point do you cease guarding your heart from a potential mate?

In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis penned a lesson on the danger of holding one’s heart too tightly. He writes:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

Being afraid of wounds from other people might cause us to forfeit the capacity to love. The enemy would like nothing better than to carry Christians to the extreme of isolating ourselves from the world and chaining us with the fears of pain and exposure.

Being afraid of wounds from other people might cause us to forfeit the capacity to love.

Too often, we cling to the “Guard your heart” message because it becomes a means of defending ourselves from the possibility of hurt or mistakes. Furthermore, it can, on occasion, be a way of controlling our situations in the midst of fear instead of trusting God to protect us. There seems an inherent danger if guarding one’s heart means gripping it securely against the world. With fear as a motivator, this behavior may make us stingy with our empathy and love.

Later in my courtship, the idea of boundaries cropped up. Friends teased, “Leave room for Jesus,” or “Keep a Bible between you; and not an electronic version.” Despite our mutual love affair with rules, we sidled up to the edge of the line. And I began to realize that guidelines prove flexible. They can be pushed or even redrawn entirely. If I determine the rules, then I determine how much I care to obey God when He calls me to purity of heart, mind and body.

What came of realizing my own selfishness and legalism transformed everything. By drawing my own lines and telling God how our relationship ought to look, I foolishly denied God the prerogative which belongs to Him only. After my boyfriend and I realized drawing lines was relative and ineffective, we began to pray our hearts would belong to God first.

If we are simply seeking God, then we entrust Him with our fragile hearts. Putting faith foremost removes a reliance on rules. Christians are often very good rule-followers but poorer God-followers. Oswald Chambers writes about how believers should pursue the art of abandonment. Perhaps the best way to guard our hearts is to abandon them to Jesus. Because if we take the responsibility of guarding our own hearts, we might simply lock them up so they are never broken with compassion for others or hurt by the sinful people whom Christ asks us to allow into our hearts.

16 Comments

Beth Larter

9

Beth Larter commented…

I really appreciate this article. I actually struggled with and wrote something eerily similar a few months ago (http://forthosebelow.wordpress.com/2013/03/24/your-heart/). It's so cool to see God working to overturn these assumptions that so many young Christians are living with.

Maureen

13

Maureen commented…

Great article! I have always been confused by the "guard your heart" notion. Of course, like you, when I was younger I thought it meant avoiding men or at least keeping them at a distance. After some time God helped me realize that I was putting myself in the place of God in my life by believing that I could protect myself from getting hurt. Did I not trust God with my heart, pain and all? C.S. Lewis was so right - by not allowing ourselves to love others for fear of pain, something happens to our hearts that God never intended, I think.

I feel like churches and Christian culture in general complicates the relationship arena further by assuming that a couple is going to get married after they have been on one date and yet all the while encouraging us to guard our hearts. (Maybe this is just in my little area of Christianity, so if it's not like this in other places that's great.) No wonder I hear about dating frustrations from friends!

I think what it boils down to is that Christ has called us to love others. That does not mean that we have to fall in love with every member of the opposite sex tht crosses our path, but we do need to remember that love is a risk. It's risky to (wisely) give your heart to someone because they could turn around tomorrow and crush it. But ultimately God took that risk with us and the risk in loving is completely worth it. :)

Heather C

1

Heather C replied to Maureen's comment

You're not alone Maureen! it's definitely like that in my area, as well. I also feel like there is a huge pressure on young adults dating at my church (just in general). It's almost as if everyone has there eyes on them, waiting to see if they will get engaged.
It's great having a strong church community around couples to encourage them to chase Jesus and have a healthy relationship. At the same time, we can become legalistic when we create our own rules in relationships (as the article said).

Good stuff!

Alex Harmening

3

Alex Harmening replied to Heather C's comment

Thanks, Maureen. I totally agree that in my Christian subculture it's an unspoken expectation that all dating couples are going to get married. Perhaps this is unfair pressure to heap on ourselves and others. And yes, praise the Lord that he took that risk and loved us first.

William Walton

1

William Walton commented…

Great job illuminating malinvested "heart guarding". Pornography. Romantic Fantasy. Perhaps guarding would be better invested in these two areas, areas that tend to "affect" how men and women relate with each other. These two "evils" confront us daily through all avenues of communication, and present a more pressing danger affecting the heart when it comes to relationships. They are distorters of reality. Ultimate reality of course, is found only in the Light of our Creator.

Alex Harmening

3

Alex Harmening commented…

Yes, definitely. We do live in a fantasy culture where evil is predominant, and we do need to guard ourselves against it. Thank you for mentioning that.

Steve Cornell

150

Steve Cornell commented…

The pattern of God's work in relation to the heart is nicely ordered in Ezekiel 11 -

“I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God” (Ezekiel 11:19-20).

What a good word! God gives a new heart--- an undivided heart. He removes a heart of stone and gives a heart of flesh—a tender heart. He will see to it himself.

The pattern unfolds as follows:

1. Divine intervention: “I will give, put, remove, give…”
2. Life transformation: “Then they will follow.. and be careful to keep…”
3. Personal relationship: “They will be my people….I will be their God”

(From: http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2013/07/05/our-only-hope-and-those-who-r...)

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