It’s advice we’ve all heard before.
You have to make a tough decision and go to friends for advice, and inevitably someone tells you something like “trust yourself,” “go with your gut” or, the one that pains me the most, “just follow your heart.”
The phrases vary, but the advice is the same. In moments of confusion, we encourage one another to just do whatever we really want to do.
The origin of the phrase “follow your heart” is unclear, but there is an overwhelming cultural sense that this is the thing we are to do when faced with difficult decisions. It is seemingly harmless and encouraging, but what is actually being communicated when this advice is given?
At the heart of every cliché there lies an assumption. Phrases move to become clichés when we use a phrase to the point of exhaustion. It doesn’t mean anything anymore.
We like to hear advice that sounds familiar because we think we can achieve it, but the reality is we don’t really know what these things even mean, or the action steps we are to take after hearing the advice. The vague nature of clichés helps us get out from under difficult truth that we actually need to obey, not just hear.
When someone tells us to “follow our heart,” it’s really not advice, but a vague encouragement to do whatever it is we wanted to do in the first place.
“Follow your heart” had very little weight for me until I recently re-read the prophet Jeremiah who, quite boldly, says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) Earlier he says, “Cursed is the man who trusts in man!”
These are big, bold statements that say some very plain things about these hearts of ours that we are being told to follow. The Bible has a very different opinion on our hearts. They are not our trusty guides, but a dishonest witnesses as to what life is actually all about.
The assumption behind most advice given is that we generally know what we are doing, that we have all of the resources within ourselves to understand what we must do in order to have a good life. But the problem is we don’t; that’s why we’re asking for advice in the first place.
So, after all of this asking and advice giving, we realize that our cultural encouragement to follow our heart really just puts us back to the place we started: lost.
Amidst our confusion, God might be (if He’s lucky) just one of many consultants we ask when seeking answers for how to live. The problem is, most of God’s wisdom only works when applied completely and not just in part.
“Guard your heart above all else,” says Solomon, “for it determines the course of your life” (Proverbs 4:23). God’s idea for your life is not that you would follow your heart, but that you would guard it.
Beware of letting your heart go, of following it wherever it might lead. All of us live from the place of the heart; it is where our understanding of the world sits.
The Bible tells a different story: We are not to be trusted, not even with ourselves. Joining the life of Jesus is not about being affirmed of every decision you make, but to be corrected in all of your ways, including your motives. New questions are asked, fresh and loving authority is in play—this is what it means to repent. God is our guide, our shepherd we follow at all cost, and we surrender this heart we want to follow to Him.
In our following of Jesus and out of our love for Him, that seat of understanding called, “the heart,” actually begins to change. Fresh desires come when we begin to love our Master, Jesus (Psalm 37:4). The truth about us that doesn’t change is this: We all do what we want. But what if what we wanted to do began to change? What if we began to want to do the same things God wanted us to do?
The only way to be convinced of the better ways of God is to begin to follow Him, to take His wisdom, His yoke of teaching. Let’s start with aggressively holding our hearts back when they want to be our guide. Jesus is our master, not our hearts.
When you are swooned by that boy, desperate for that career or captivated by that new Apple product, try and remember the device that is directing you from place to place might actually be broken. Be discerning: is this your heart or the Spirit of God?
Surrendering our life over to God begins with our hearts. We will never fully change until we say “no” to our heart’s leading and yes to that of our new, gentler master, Jesus Christ.
is a pastor, professor, and writer living in the Silicon Valley with his wife, Allison. His first book, Distant God, is available wherever books are sold. Connect with him on Twitter: @chrisnye