[If you’re new, here’s the introduction to this series. This post is #2 of 5.]
There are multiple posts becoming viral that center around the Christian cliché of “guarding your heart” found in Proverbs 4:23. The usual frustration with this phrase is that Christians do a bad job of using the phrase that is found in Proverbs. The common complaints regarding this phrase is that it somehow only gets used in regards to dating or romance, that it’s used as a way to prevent never getting hurt or being vulnerable, that it’s over-used, or that it’s used out of context with the original passage from which it’s written.
The usual response to these frustrations looks like this:
Ultimately, these responses boil down to one of these: Just don’t use that phrase anymore. Just stop all the “guarding your heart” stuff. Just throw that confusing phrase out of Christian language. It hurts people. We need to open our hearts instead of locking them down.
PROBLEM 1: Some of these have come from a place of deep hurt, and I as I read the words of the experiences of these people, I truly empathize. I remember feeling burdened by the ever-looming command to guard my heart. However, I’d humbly suggest that overtly shutting yourself off from a portion of God’s Word (even if it was miscommunicated) is even more harmful to faith than unknowingly shutting yourself off from a potential mate.
PROBLEM 2: There is another general problem regarding Proverbs 4:23 that needs to be addressed. Most people don’t like it just because it’s a popular thing to say. I get that it’s over-used. But throwing that verse out of your Christian vocabulary just because you’re bored with it is idiotic. That passage is not even truly a cliché. Clichés are man-made, stereotypical phrases. And Proverbs 4:23 is Scripture. So it stays in our vocabulary. You and I don’t get to create a “new mantra” because we don’t feel like the Bible quite cut it. “I’m just really tired of hearing that” is poor argumentation for why the church shouldn’t use a phrase found in the Bible. Proverbs 4:23 is there. It’s not going anywhere. The Bible isn’t going to magically open up and have a new, blogger-friendly phrase written in that little white space. It’s timeless. It will say the same thing tomorrow as it did today. You and I will just have to get over that and deal with the Bible on its own terms.
In light of these problems, I’ve come up with some thoughts on “guarding your heart.”
1. WHEN SCRIPTURE COMMANDS SOMETHING, SCRIPTURE COMMANDS SOMETHING.
The biggest red flag that waves around in my mind when engage this subject is that Proverbs 4:23 is still in our Bibles, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. It’s a command.
Yes, I know that Proverbs is a different genre than that of a New Testament epistle. Yes, I know the Proverbs are to be taken as guidelines and not irreversible promises found elsewhere in Scripture. I get all of that. But if you want to talk about context, Proverbs is written by King Solomon, whose life experience is both wiser and more diverse than all of ours put together if we’re honest. If I were to heed anyone’s “guidelines” apart from Christ’s, it’s probably his.
On top of that, God tells us that all Scripture is profitable for our lives. Surely Proverbs 4:23 is still profitable for our lives, even if it’s been poorly applied in the past.
2. WHEN A BIBLICAL TERM IS CONFUSING, WE DON’T JUST REWORD IT.
You need to “open your heart” instead of “guard your heart.” This is the conclusion of some who have trouble with Proverbs 4:23. I’m all for opening up your heart and being vulnerable when certain passages of Scripture point us toward that. But this verse isn’t about vulnerability. I hate to be the bearer of obvious (but well-meaning) news, but if you go do a word study on the Hebrew term “guard against,” it’s never going to translate as “open up.” That’s simply not what that verse communicates. You don’t want people misunderstanding your purposefully-chosen words, right? Give the Bible the same respect you desire when you speak. Let it say what it says. To do any less is not only disrespectful, it’s academically irresponsible.
If you had a friend who thought “love thy neighbor” meant “go have sex with the guy next door,” you’d simply help that person come to a full understanding of what the Bible means when it says “love” and “neighbor.” You wouldn’t throw out the whole verse because there was momentary confusion about it.The response to confusing verses should be to further study them, not throw them out or reword them, as if we had that authority.
3. WHAT GUARDING YOUR HEART REALLY MEANS
Guarding the heart does not mean to avoid letting love or anyone inside it. Guarding your heart means to protect it from all that may steal your joy in God—sinful things like greed, lust, anger, bitterness, comparison, jealousy, deceit, hatred, sexual perversion or abuse, emotional manipulation, etc. We are guarding from sin, yes. But not just “sin.” We guard against anything that is unwise for us. This is Solomon’s point, as Jesus later confirms: From your heart flows your thoughts, words, and decisions. That means your heart holds a lot of power over the trajectory of your life. With something that precious, you want to make sure good things go in and bad things stay out, almost like a watchman does for his city.
Sometimes the city watchman lets in those who are good for the city. Other times the watchman does not allow entrance for those who may hurt the city. The guarding is not in the avoiding of people or relationships altogether. The guarding is in the discerning of the person or relationship you’re letting in. A good guard can distinguish between the harmful and the helpful.
Now, nowhere does it say that we must guard our hearts from a relationship. However, sins like the ones mentioned above can sometimes show up in our lives through the vehicle of a bad relationship, so we must have discerning eye on which relationships are good for our faith and which ones stunt our faith.
3. YES, “GUARDING YOUR HEART” DOES NEEDS TO HAPPEN IN ROMANTIC RELATIONSHIPS
Why? Because that verse says to guard your heart, period. There’s no addendum that says “except for in relationships. In relationships, keep your heart wide open.” Not to mention, the author of this verse himself is the most flagrant example of the consequences that come along with neglecting to guard yourself. King Solomon had it all, remember? Almost all of his reign as king was prosperous, victorious, and uncommonly wise. Yet he crashed and burned at the very end, making horrible choices and jeopardizing the kingdom, eventually bringing it to ruin.
How, you say? Solomon’s heart was led astray by neglecting to guard himself from romantic partners that would stifle his love for God. That’s right, at the very end, he ruined it all by making stupid romantic decisions. While the women weren’t evil in and of themselves, they ended up being the vehicle used to turn the king’s heart away from God, which eventually deadened his life to God. Solomon’s story is the Bible’s quintessential warning that a solid faith and a whole heart can and will get derailed by romantic dating habits if we aren’t diligent. Of all people, Solomon knows what the human heart is capable of, and his advice is to guard ours with all our might. It’s not cliché advice; it’s logical advice. (Solomon’s story is here for further reading).
4. BUT GUARDING YOUR HEART ALSO NEEDS TO HAPPEN IN EVERY OTHER AREA, TOO.
This is where I totally agree with the anti-clichers. Why? Because that verse says to guard your heart, period. There’s no addendum that says “only in relationships does this apply. In the rest of life, don’t give a thought what your heart is up to.”
We have to protect against harmful influences in all issues of life, not just relationship issues.
I need my friends to ask me if I’m guarding against things that lead me astray. When I was dating, I got those questions a lot, and they were helpful. But now that I’m married, they’ve all but stopped, as if married people don’t end up with their hearts out of whack or something. I’m married and I’m saying my heart goes in all the wrong places on a daily basis. I still need people to help me guard against harmful paths.
The church has made this command in Scripture all about lust or relationships. But we need to guard from far more than that. We need to guard against fear, against condemnation, against superiority, against apathy, against unbelief. There’s so much more we we need to fighting in our daily lives, yet we’ve apportioned this Scripture to only the singles out there. It’s absurd.
5. EXPECT MISUSE OF THE BIBLE, AND GENTLY RESPOND
I know, this one sounds frustrating. But as we Christians move forward in our journey, we will undoubtedly make mistakes. People will misuse Scripture. Your friends may give you cliché advice. The counsel you receive may be a little off at times. You’ve probably looked back and seen times you’ve misunderstood a certain passage. We are humans. Give room for that. Give grace for that. The people who may have raised you in the “emotional chastity” model probably weren’t malicious. There were just misinformed.
When someone is caught in either a transgression or a misunderstanding, we are called to gently restore them to truth, not bash or berate. Christians are called to be a people of truth and accuracy, of course, but we are to be even more characterized by peace and grace, within our family of faith as well as the world around us. If someone is misusing the Bible with you, I’d first urge you to make sure you’ve fully studied the verse they are using, and if they are truly in error, respond honestly with a heart of gentility and a mission of reconciliation.
The wisest man in the world wrote that we should be diligent to make sure our heart is wholly God’s in every area of life. And he didn’t just write it down on equal level with other commands. He said “above all else.” The Bible doesn’t call Solomon’s command “emotional chastity” or “avoiding risks.” The Bible calls it wise according to all of Proverbs 4. This “guarding your heart” stuff doesn’t ever promise a pain-free life, but it helps create a discerning one if we’ll have it.
For 6 quick practicals on how to guard your heart, check out this follow-up post!