Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.
– Proverbs 4:23 (NIV)
We often talk about “guarding your heart,” especially when it comes to dating. But what does that even mean?
It’s one of the most important proverbs. In a book filled with hundreds of the wisest pieces of advice ever written, this is the only one to say “above all else.” In the original Hebrew, it basically means to guard it more than you guard anything else: more than your car, your house, or your family. More than you guard any of those things, guard your heart.
But how do you guard your heart?
For starters, it’s definitely not all about dating. It does include dating, but that would be just a small part of guarding your heart.
It’s also, perhaps obviously, not talking about the blood-pumping organ inside your chest. Although, notably, that is the most protected of all your vital organs; God designed us with a guarded heart.
What it does mean is what we normally talk about being in someone’s heart or coming from the heart: our desires, morals, or feelings. As the proverb says, everything you do—your whole life—flows from those things.
Guarding your heart means that you’re very careful what you let in it: what desires you feed, what you focus on, what thoughts or feelings you dwell on. You guard it like a knight guards a castle: letting allies in, keeping enemies out, and being very wary when you’re not sure the difference.
Because if your heart’s not doing well, you’re not doing well. Your relationships, your work, your words, your actions, are not going to go well for you. Everything you do flows from it.
Your heart functions on a standard garbage in, garbage out equation. Fill it with good things, and it will produce good things. Fill it with garbage, and it will produce garbage—and even start to seek out garbage. It develops an appetite for garbage.
For example: if you struggle with pornography (or have in the past), you’ll know that giving in and looking at pornography one time does not then make it easier to stop and turn away. It makes it more difficult, and makes your appetite for it that much stronger. And each time you go back, you desire just a little bit more: something more risqué, more taboo, more perverted. Your heart desires things that are worse and worse for you. This is why, to overcome a pornography addiction, you have to remove all access to it so that you stop feeding your heart that and increasing those desires.
Another example: after speaking at The Porch, it’s not unusual to have single women come up looking for help because they “only date losers,” or some variation of that. They’re always attracted to, and always end up dating, “losers”—guys who will take advantage of them, or hurt them, or break their hearts. In response, I ask them what might seem like a random question: What are your favorite TV shows and favorite songs? The answers will usually be shows and songs that portray or glorify that kind of dating with those kinds of guys.
It’s not a complicated math equation. You’ve trained your heart to pursue losers. You’ve put it on the scent of losers. You’ve basically gone to a university of how to date losers.
The same thing can apply to just about anything else you feed into your heart—good, bad, or indifferent. Your heart’s like a GPS device: whatever you program into it, that’s where it’s going to lead you. And if you’re not careful with it, you’ll end up somewhere you don’t want to be: addictions, harmful relationships, broken marriage, or even despair. In fact, most cases of depression I've seen exist because someone was not careful about what they fed their heart.
I know the world says to trust your heart. Follow your heart. Listen to your heart. But the Scripture doesn’t say to follow your heart; it says to inform your heart. Teach it what it should pursue.
How do you do that? The rest of Proverbs 4 gives us four things to consider:
Be careful what you talk about. Proverbs 4:24: “Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips.” What you talk about can feed your heart.
Be careful what you look at. Proverbs 4:25: “Let your eyes look straight ahead; fix your gaze directly before you.” What (or who) are you watching? Far too often we are entertained by the very things Christ died for. Some resources I’ve found that help me decide what would be healthy or unhealthy for me to watch: Plugged In and Kids in Mind.
Be careful where you go. Proverbs 4:26: “Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways.” Often, guarding your heart—and changing what you talk about and look at—requires changing where you hang out and who you hang out with. Changing your playground and playmates.
If something seems evil, stay far from it. Proverbs 4:27: “Do not turn to the right or the left; keep your foot from evil.” Now, something good or neutral can become evil when it becomes more important than God in our lives. Think watching the Cowboys: there’s nothing wrong with that, unless it becomes so important that a loss makes you angry or depressed all week.
In place of those things, feed your heart a healthy diet of the things of God. Read and memorize Scripture. Build deep relationships with other Christ-followers through community. Fellowship and have a blast with people who will encourage you to pursue the right things. Watch Seasons of Gray instead of 50 Shades of Grey.
The rest of your life will be determined by what you feed your heart. So feed it well.
(With help from Kevin McConaghy)