“Above all else guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” (Proverbs 4:23 NIV)
Sometime in high school, I underlined this verse in my Bible. Then to further distinguish it, I added a star and a heart in the margin around it. It’s a verse people often quote to teen girls as a reminder not to settle for less than Prince Charming. I’ve seen it scattered through the pages of Christian dating books, teen girls’ journals, lockers, and pinterest boards.
“Guard your heart.”
Time and again I’ve heard that advice given to girls to remind us to tread carefully in romance. And for a long time I believed myself that this was what this verse was all about. As a high schooler I underlined and starred this verse as a promise to myself that I would never let myself be hurt by a guy. Taking it a step further, I took it on myself to build up walls and fortresses and keep watch for any one who could come close to my heart.
Like most people, I thought of the heart as the center of emotion alone. I’d been led to believe that “guarding your heart” predominantly meant not flirting with anyone I didn’t intend to marry. Or maybe not talking about my feelings too much.
But then one day I looked at that verse in a new light and I realized that the state of my heart is not defined by the way I feel on a given day but rather by who I am at the deepest level. With a little digging I found that, in the original Hebrew, the word in this verse that we translate “heart” is really closer to our idea of the “inner man.” The heart is the part of us that encompasses our values, our world views, our prejudices, and our character, as well as our emotions. Our heart is what makes each of us utterly unique.
The heart is so important, not because it controls how we feel, but because it controls who we are, and who we are becoming. We all know how fragile this heart can be. A harsh word or a belittling comment can be all it takes to put us off the course of becoming who God intended us to be.
Which is why I am so glad that the responsibility for guarding my heart does not lie solely on me.
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)
When you trust God to guard your heart, it does not mean that you will never experience pain. You will still be let down by those you love and trust. You will still face rejection. But what it does mean is that you have a promise that when you are hurt or betrayed or rejected that He will protect what is most precious to Him- your heart. The very center of who you are.
I sometimes imagine what kind of person I would be if I was as fearful of compromising my values and my character as I am of being rejected. I wonder what kinds of people we would all be if we guarded our hearts against envy and discontent as vigilantly as we guarded ourselves from being hurt.
At the end of the day, I can’t prevent myself from being hurt. But I do have a choice in how I will react. I have a choice in what kind of person I will become.
Will I give in to my nature and reinforce the barricades around my heart or lash out against the one who let me down? Will I waste my time and emotional energy writing passive-aggressive facebook statuses? Or will I choose instead, in light of how much grace and forgiveness I have enjoyed, to forgive?
Will we spend our time thinking of all the things we don’t have and wallowing in self-pity? Or will we constantly thank God for what we do have?
Will we indulge in “harmless gossip” and stir up conflict? Or will we refuse to take part in anything that tears another person down?
These small, everyday choices are the things that will define the substance of your heart. A heart that will show through in every word and action, whether you are a person who holds onto envy, bitterness, and strife or a person who joyfully surrenders.
So let’s guard our hearts from greed, envy, selfishness, and anger. And let’s give our hearts to love, justice, and compassion.
“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:31-32 ESV)