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.
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.
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.