When it comes to the Old Testament, many (if not most) Christians know that it’s important and part of Inspired Scripture…but aside from random stories about headliners like Moses, David or Abraham, or arguments over the length of the “days” in Genesis 1, the Old Testament doesn’t get much serious study time among most churchgoers.
This is especially true within youth groups and college ministry settings–where in a desire to be ‘relevant’ or ‘applicable’, the leaders often stick to Gospel stories and Paul’s letters. Seriously, how many studies on Ephesians or John do we need when most of us can’t even locate things like the Sinai Covenant, Davidic Messianic promise, or Babylonian exile in our Bibles (the very things upon which Jesus and Paul built their teachings around)?
On the rare occasion that a speaker does venture back into, say, the Bible’s Wisdom literature section (Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes…okay, let’s face it, we NEVER go to Ecclesiastes! It’s like the C-SPAN of the Bible. We know it’s there and that it’s probably important; but we’re sure not gonna sit through it!), it’s usually for the purpose of finding a quick one-liner to back up the message that we decided beforehand we want our audience to hear. Context, background and language concerns are often dismissed.
A catchy use of Scripture that is easy to remember and sticks with those we’re teaching for the rest of their lives–regardless of whether or not the message we used it to communicate is actually the message God originally intended it to communicate.
There are numerous examples of this phenomenon (the “train up a child” passage comes to mind…however, that one is actually the fault of Bible translators!), but the one I’ve heard more than all the others combined, particularly during my years in campus ministry (as both a student, and then later as I ministered to students) is Proverbs 4:23.
“Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.”
Proverbs 4:23 (NIV)
In my experience, ninety-nine percent of the time it’s ever been spoken, this passage has been brought up in the context of dating or romantic relationships.
“I really like her…but I can’t tell her how I really feel. After all, we’re supposed to ‘guard our hearts’.”
“He asked me out, and rather than flat-out reject him, I told him that I’m just dating Jesus right now and that I’m trying to guard my heart.”
“I know you kids want to go on dates and spend time with members of the opposite sex, but don’t do it; you’ll end up having sex! The Bible says to ‘guard your heart’! That means no kissing, no hand-holding, no falling in love. Guys, you gotta kiss dating goodbye! Girls, you gotta be a lady in waiting! Guard your heart!”
Okay, that last example was a bit of a caricature…but I bet I’m not the only one who feels like that summed up the overall attitude towards romance within evangelical campus ministries, particularly in the mid-90s! 🙂
And while I’m all for encouraging high school and college kids not to have sex (I am a 33 year old virgin myself after all), my problem with using Proverbs 4:23 in discussions of dating and romance is that it’s simply not about that when we read it in its original context with its original meaning…or rather, it’s about SO MUCH MORE than that!
In English, when we hear the word “heart” we often think of something like this…
Our mind immediately romanticizes the term to a certain degree (particularly when we’re discussing romance or relationships!) and we then subconsciously interpret guarding one’s “heart” as having to do with keeping one’s romantic emotions in check…or rejecting such emotions altogether due to their “fleshly” and “unspiritual” reputation in Christian circles (which a whole other discussion in and of itself !).
However, in Hebrew (which Proverbs 4:23 was originally written and Inspired by God in), the word “heart” does not have this as its primary meaning. The Hebrew word “leb” (pronounced with a “v” sound, rhyming with “save”) is much more holistic and “is often used of such things as personality and the intellect, memory, emotions, desires and will.” [Leland Ryken et al., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 368]. In fact, “heart” in Hebrew is the same word as “mind” (this is why I would argue that the distinction between “head-knowledge” and “heart-knowledge”, while popular among Christians, isn’t really a Biblical concept…but again, that’s a whole other issue!).
Biblically speaking, our “heart” is our whole “inner self”–who we are on the inside.
And our “inner self” gives rise to and governs the actions performed by our “outer self.”
Jesus Himself picked up on this concept on more than one occasion:
“Good people bring good things out of the good stored up in their heart, and evil people bring evil things out of the evil stored up in their heart. For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.”
-Luke 6:45 (NIV)
“But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.'”
-Matthew 15:18 (NIV)
“Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” [lit. “from their inner cavity/belly”]
-John 7:38 (NIV)
So, what we see when we look at the wider teaching of Scripture is that “guarding one’s heart” isn’t about dating…it’s about holiness.
It’s about looking inward and making sure that what is flowing out of us and into the world is the pure, living water of God.
It’s about being clean on the inside as well as the outside.
It’s about making sure that God is at the center of our life and that everything else is an outflowing of that one basic fact.
Now we begin to see why Proverbs uses the image of a water spring when talking about the heart!
In the ancient world, particularly the world of the Ancient Near East, springs of water were of the utmost importance. They were literally a life-and-death issue! If you owned a spring, you guarded it with everything you had because it was, physically speaking, the source of your life (and the lives of your animals!). You protected it from becoming polluted, contaminated, or confiscated. If it stopped flowing, you died.
Thus, to liken one’s inner-self, one’s “heart”, to a spring was a striking image indeed; and one that was meant to be remembered and pondered. One’s “heart” gave rise to everything else that followed in one’s life.
Look at the Proverb in context now:
“My son, pay attention to what I say;
listen closely to my words.
Do not let them out of your sight,
keep them within your heart;
for they are life to those who find them
and health to a man’s whole body.
Above all else, guard your heart,
for it is the wellspring of life.
Put away perversity from your mouth;
keep corrupt talk far from your lips.
Let your eyes look straight ahead,
fix your gaze directly before you.
Make level paths for your feet
and take only ways that are firm.
Do not swerve to the right or the left;
keep your foot from evil.“
–Proverbs 4:20-27 (NIV)
The famous Methodist theologian of the 18th-19th century, Adam Clarke, made the following comments on this passage, which I think are fantastic:
Is not this a plain allusion to the arteries which carry the blood from the heart through the whole body, and to the utmost extremities? As long as the heart is capable of receiving and propelling the blood, so long life is continued. Now as the heart is the fountain whence all the streams of life proceed, care must be taken that the fountain be not stopped up nor injured. A double watch for its safety must be kept up. So in spiritual things: the heart is the seat of the Lord of life and glory; and the streams of spiritual life proceed from him to all the powers and faculties of the soul. Watch with all diligence, that this fountain be not sealed up, nor these streams of life be cut off. Therefore “put away from thee a froward mouth and perverse lips-and let thy eyes look straight on.” Or, in other words, look inward—look onward—look upward.
Adam Clarke, Clarke’s Commentary: Proverbs 4:23.
Guarding our hearts isn’t about avoiding romantic relationships or dating…it’s about ordering our lives in a way that aligns with the heart of God.
Does this mean that when it comes to issues of dating or relationships we should avoid being vulnerable or honest with our feelings, given how easy it is to be swept up in romance and thus do things that are…well…pretty stupid?
I would say no.
I believe “guarding our heart” often entails treating those around us in a way that honors God and honors them as people made in God’s image–even when it comes to romantic relationships.
“Guarding our heart” means we should speak truth and life rather than deceiving or misleading someone–no matter how pious a spin we put on such actions. It shouldn’t be used as an excuse for building an emotional wall around ourselves or approaching emotional/romantic situations in an aloof or detached manner.
Of course, as anyone who’s watched a friend or loved one make a poor choice in dating (or who’s made such choices themselves, regrettably) can attest, there may be times when romantic relationships hinder something God is doing in our lives. In such cases, “guarding our heart” might entail foregoing romantic entanglements. Likewise, there may be times when we are tempted to get involved with someone who we know is not a godly influence–someone who would “contaminate our spring.”
In these instances, “guarding our heart” would mean not dating them–but only because of the deeper and more significant purpose of keeping our life in line with what we know God is leading us to be and to do, not because we fear the possibility of emotional involvement and potential hurt. Fear is a poor motivator when it comes to personal relationships.
In fact, sometimes “guarding our heart” means being open to the possibility of emotional pain and vulnerability–even if it means experiencing the “heartbreak” of rejection.
Sometimes “guarding our heart” means allowing it to be broken.
Why do I say this? Because it’s what I see when I look at the God of the Bible, particularly in His relationship with His “bride” (Covenant Israel).
It’s what I see when that God came to dwell among us in Jesus, particularly in His relationship with His “bride” (New Covenant Israel).
If God Himself is willing to be vulnerable enough to allow His heart to be broken, why should we not be as well?
This is a scary concept, I admit–particularly for those of us who’ve experienced major wounds and heartache as a result of relationships we cherished not working out for whatever reason. It’s tempting to close off, shut down, or become so cynical that we end up “spiritualizing” our decision to live an emotionally detached life free from relationship risk.
I don’t believe this should characterize a child of God.
“Guarding our heart” doesn’t mean keeping it from getting broken…it means keeping it from getting corrupted.
May we truly “guard our hearts”, while at the same time being open to whatever it is God may have for us in terms of relationships with others, trusting that in the end, it is God Himself to whom we entrust our true emotional well-being.