Every romantic relationship I’ve had can only be considered a “relationship” in the most literal sense of the word: “a way in which two or more people are connected.” Though I’ve been single my whole life, there are various men who hold—perhaps unknowingly—slices of my heart that were given in an effort to move us out of the comfort of companionship and into the realm of romance. Without meaning to, I’ve mastered the art of the non-relationship, freely devoting myself to men I had hoped to date—though they never had the same intentions for me.
In high school, my mom bought me a necklace—a burnished silver chain with a tiny key dangling from it. My mother tends to look at life through what I like to call her “God Lens,” this infallibly accurate and horribly convicting moral compass that ascribes a holy tinge to most everything. More and more, I find myself as an adult peeking through her God Lens (it’s true, what they say, about turning into one’s parents), but as a child, I found the whole thing to be extremely annoying.
“I bought you this necklace so you’ll always remember to guard your heart,” she said as she placed the thing around my neck and fiddled with the fastener. Thankfully, she was standing behind me, so she couldn’t see me roll my eyes. Yeah, cool. Guard my heart, I thought. Got it.
Of course, it’s not uncommon for Christians to ascribe romantic undertones to the idea of guarding one’s heart. But have we misunderstood this oft-cited verse?
Even now, when I read Proverbs 4:23-26, I tend to associate guarding my heart with the choices I make (dropping an f-bomb when a textbook falls off the table and onto my foot; the movies I choose to watch) and the way in which those choices affect the state of my mind and the purity of my heart. It’s only in recent years that I have come to understand how guarding one’s heart can be beneficial in the context of relationships—or, in my case, the lack thereof.
See, because we’re human and impatient, and because it’s so hard to remember that God’s timing is perfect in the midst of a sometimes all-encompassing sense of loneliness, we become cavalier with our affections. We offer them up freely to men or women for whom you’re simply a convenience, an admirer, a non-entity. In my case, this usually leads to one of two outcomes: unrequited love, which never ends well, or a relationship defined as a “friendship” though both parties act as if they’re dating, both physically and emotionally.
The latter is what I’ve come to call a “non-relationship”—a relationship in which one party devotes themselves wholly, even though they do not receive the same courtesy in return. Many of us invest in non-relationships because we’re sure we can handle the emotional fallout, but the fact of the matter is these non-relationships vandalize our hearts in the very ways God warns against.
Giving one’s time and affection to someone who is not equally invested in the relationship is akin to a sugar rush. All of the attention feels great for a while until the inevitable crash. And when that moment comes, when the other person decides they’re over you, it leaves you drained and exhausted.
Seeking fulfillment in someone because it makes us feel temporarily good, wanted and adored creates a paradigm shift. Instead of finding solace in God’s unconditional love, we begin to fill our time with empty entanglements that damage us, whether we’re willing to admit it or not.
For a long time, I couldn’t acknowledge that spending time with men who would kiss me in private (but not in front of our friends) or who would hold my hand in the car (but not on a night out) didn’t take a toll on the health of my heart. But now I know it had both spiritual and emotional consequences. When the shiny veneer of almost-love melted away, I realized I was consistently left with the all-too-familiar feeling of “I’m not good enough.”
Guarding one’s heart might seem impossible in a society that lives on the non-relationship, but it is in that faithfulness to God’s command that we can find a consistent source of devotion—whether we’re dating someone or not.