Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” Proverbs 4:23
As much as I love these words from Proverbs 4:23, “guard you heart” is quickly becoming my least favorite advice in Christian circles. While I am sure it often comes from the mouths of well-meaning believers, I think the majority of us presume all the wrong things about what it means to follow this command. Too many times, we assume this verse suggests we should protect ourselves from getting hurt, but I don’t believe that’s what this scripture implies at all.
Here’s an example of how “guard your heart” could be ill-used: Imagine a young woman is asked to coffee by a male friend. He seems to be a nice guy, and she is interested, so she says yes. Later that day, just minutes before walking out the door to meet him, the girl’s mom smiles and whispers, “Remember to guard your heart, dear.” To the mother, this is simple advice spoken from love and a desire to protect her baby. But to the daughter, these words could easily be translated into, “Lock up your heart and throw away the key before this guy breaks your heart.” So the poor girl spends the entire evening in fear and doesn’t allow herself to truly get to know her pursuer.
The last time I heard Proverbs 4:23 used, it was in regards to dating, and it really got me thinking. Where exactly in this verse does it suggest we shield ourselves from potential hurt by putting up walls? What I found is that this Proverb is actually telling us to pursue wisdom by protecting our hearts from evil. Here’s some commentary from the ESV Study Bible, which brings to light a helpful interpretation for us:
This appeal consists primarily of imperatives that encourage the son to attend to wise instruction and guard wisdom’s presence in the heart by turning away from evil in speech and actions. That is because wisdom brings health and continues to sustain and secure the path of the one who does this.
The commands in vv. 20-21 all encourage internalizing wisdom. Heart in Proverbs regularly refers to the center of one’s inner life and orientation to God, from which a person does all thinking, feeling and choosing. Taking words of wisdom into the heart is vital, and wisdom’s presence in the heart is worth guarding because out of the heart flow all the thoughts and words and choices of a person’s life.”
Effectively guarding our hearts while dating
I’ll be honest, when Matt (my now husband) asked me to meet him for coffee for the first time, I was scared. I was dreadfully fearful of having my heart broken again. Yet, at the same time, I recognized that if I had absolutely any interest in falling in love with him at all, I was going to have to let go and be myself. I needed to be genuine and vulnerable, not put up walls and protect my heart with an impenetrable shield.
Now that doesn’t necessarily mean that I should have fallen blindly for Matt. As we got to know each other, I needed to keep myself in check by searching his heart, uncovering his intentions and asking for advice from mentors. These are all ways that I was able to keep wisdom. Fortunately, Matt followed up our coffee date by contacting me every day that followed and then asking me out on a formal date just a few weeks later. He picked me up, took me to dinner and made it crystal clear that he wanted to date me and pursue marriage with me. Had he not followed up casual coffee with clear actions and words, then it would have been my responsibility to close the door and move on. And the only way I could have ever determined his heart and intentions was to encourage his pursuit of me and open up to him in return. So I did. (As Jane Austen once wrote, “There are very few of us who have heart enough to be really in love without encouragement.”)
Guarding our hearts in marriage
Here’s another thing: If we choose to believe that guarding our hearts means avoiding pain, we shouldn’t ever consider getting married. I’ve only been married for about two years, but I can tell you that marriage is hard. It’s messy. Marriage is always between two sinners, which means that each party will at some point fail the other. If we believe that getting married is equivalent to signing up for an easy, romantic, carefree life, we’re better off staying single.
In reality, marriage was created by God to reflect Christ and his love for his bride, the church (Ephesians 5:22-33). This is a love that has no borders or boundaries. It’s a love that sacrifices and wants what’s best for the other person. How could we ever love like that if we are constantly guarding ourselves from hurt? Within marriage, we can properly guard our hearts by fighting the evils that aim to ensnare us and threaten our God-made covenants. We can guard our hearts by filling them with the Word of God and depending on him daily. And then, we ought to love our spouses with as much fervor as we possibly can.
Guarding our hearts is the whole point
As you can see, Proverbs 4:23 doesn’t directly address dating or marriage at all. Although we can take this verse and apply it to the topic of love, we should receive it as a general command to follow our entire lives. That’s because, as the commentary from the ESV bible suggests, keeping wisdom “brings health and continues to sustain and secure the path of the one who does this.” I believe that guarding the heart is the very core of who we are as believers. It’s the key to being saints who persevere until we reach eternity.