Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life. -Proverbs 4:23
Guard your heart. I’m sure it was with good intention that Christian culture hijacked Proverbs 4:23 as a guideline for how to treat members of the opposite sex. We have used it to warn against overly-investing emotionally, letting our feelings carry us away, and ending up broken-hearted. After hearing this verse applied to unmarried guy/girl relationships, I put it in a box labeled “Christian Dating Guidelines” and, now that I’m married, I’ve put that box away on a far shelf out of sight. If Proverbs 4:23 is for Christian dating, I don’t need it anymore. But of course, this verse doesn’t belong in the box I put it in. It’s not a verse about dating. It’s not a verse about guy/girl relationships, though it can certainly apply. Guarding your heart is much more broadly applicable and important than that. Christian dating stole Proverbs 4:23, but we’re stealing it back.
In our culture, we equate the heart with emotions and as the source of our feelings (which is probably why this verse has been used as the Christian dating mantra). But the author and original audience of Proverbs understood the heart quite differently. In Hebrew culture, the heart was the control center of everything – our emotions, thoughts, intellect, will, and decision-making. Suddenly the last half of Proverbs 4:23 makes sense – “for it determines the course of your life.” Everything we do flows from the heart. Jesus echoes this same idea in Matthew 15:19 when he says, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander,” and in Matthew 12:34 he tells us, “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” The implications of guarding your heart are far more than just getting carried away with your emotions with a member of the opposite sex. As our heart goes, so we go. The importance of the heart then – in the Hebrew understanding of it – cannot be overstated.
If the “course of our life” is determined by our heart, we must diligently keep watch over what is influencing and shaping it. As a watchman keeps a lookout for threats in their territory, so we must keep alert and be on the lookout for threats towards our heart. Keeping watch over our hearts is intentional and deliberate. Take some time to consider different spheres of your life:
- How am I affected by the things I watch, read, and listen to? Take an inventory of what you watch on Netflix, what books or blogs you read, the music or podcasts you listen to, even the news (or amount of news) you watch and read. Do these pull your heart towards God or away from God?
- What impact do the people I spend time with have on me? Am I in the world but not of it? Am I in an unhealthy relationship with someone? Am I making time to develop true Christian community that spurs me on towards love and good deeds?
- Do the places I go affect my heart? Am I putting myself in situations that are damaging to me? Do I put myself in the midst of temptation, instead of fleeing from it?
- What areas am I struggling to submit to God’s will? What things in my life draw my heart away from God and obedience to Him?
- Am I experiencing the fruit of the Spirit in my life (love, joy, peace, etc.)? If not, what in my life is taking away from experiencing those?
I have the tendency to fear legalism and so I struggle to ask myself or others these hard questions, but if we go to the opposite extreme we will miss out on the blessing of obedience. We tend to mistake obedience for legalism instead of wisdom. The practical specifics of how to guard our hearts are innumerable and requires wisdom. In fact, I believe that if we seek and love wisdom, it will guard our heart and if we allow it to shape our hearts, then wisdom and obedience will flow out into every sphere of life. The author of Proverbs urges us to “seek [wisdom] like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures.” Where should we look for this treasure then? The riches of wisdom can be found in community, through prayer, and in Scripture.
- “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise…Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future” (Proverbs 13:20a, 19:20). We can seek wisdom by not only being in godly community, but by listening to and taking the advice of wise counsel. We don’t know everything, and we are blind to our own shortcomings and natural limitations, and so we must seek wisdom by listening and learning from other godly and wise people.
- “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5). Solomon, the author of Proverbs, prayed to God for wisdom, God answered his prayer, and he became renowned in the world for how wise he was. We too can seek wisdom by asking God for it, knowing that he will give generously.
- “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:7). We cannot find wisdom apart from God’s Word. Jesus tells us in his Sermon on the Mount that the wise man who builds his house on rock is the one “who hears” his words “and does them” (Matthew 7:24). To seek wisdom then we must first know the Scriptures and also obey them. As we seek wisdom in God’s Word and allow it to change our hearts, it will guard our hearts.
Ultimately, we guard our hearts by seeking true Wisdom – Jesus Christ himself. The Scriptures speak of Jesus as “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24), “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:2-3). Proverbs implored us to search for wisdom as hidden treasure, and that treasure is found in Jesus Christ. To know wisdom, we must know him. While going through the inventory above is wise, it is not just a checklist to complete; it must be done through our relationship to Christ. We bring our hearts – our emotions, our will, our thoughts, our decisions – to the One who can protect it best, from whom flow the springs of living water.