• “Guarding your heart” is not about dating…

“Guarding your heart” is not about dating…

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.

The result?

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.


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  1. Michael

    JM– First of all, I enjoy Ecclesiastes…and yes, I like the catchy sound bites it provides too! Great post…I enjoyed it!


    Comment by Michael on December 6, 2011 at 8:39 pm

  2. olatunde

    my brother,

    i appreciate and agree with you making the original intent of the passage clear. this is one of the things that i find extremely edifying in our friendship and brotherhood…the whole “iron sharpening iron.”

    having said that, i’d like to sharpen you as you have done with me and many others who have and will read this.

    i take issue with this part of the blog, especially and primarily in the context of “dating,”

    “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?”

    as you can see, i capitalized the main problem i see. God doesn’t consider everyone His “bride.” Yes, He loves us all, and thus to a certain extent He is vulnerable with all of us, allowing His heart to be broken by us all, bride or no bride. but that is true for us as humans as well. we are to love everyone, including and especially our enemies.

    at the same time, James used the term “adultery” to describe “friendship with the world.” it’s one thing to be hurt by someone on my job, a close friend, or even a close family member. but it is a whole different story with me and my wife. we are one flesh, one life, one on a level that is unique from any and every human relationship.

    so i disagree with what you are saying about “allowing your heart to be broken” in the dating context. the only place in human relationships where the kind of pain and rejection we can feel between a man and a woman is acceptable is between a husband and wife. i’m not even going into sex before marriage, but rather “sexuality” before marriage, meaning the sexual, emotional, and spiritual bond between a boyfriend and girlfriend that mimic marriage. the mimicry is what is dangerous, as we have discussed before, when i’ve called the boyfriend girlfriend relationship a “mini marriage.” it has all the essentials of marital commitment:

    1. an “engagement,” a period where the boy and girl are “just friends, but moving in a more serious direction.” this is called different things in different groups. some say “we’re just talking,” others have different terminology. but this phase has a certain exclusiveness to it.

    2. a “proposal.” the “will you be my boyfriend/girlfriend,” question. after this,

    3. the “consumation.” this, for christians, usually means the allowance of some level of physical affection that distinguishes the couple from being “just friends” to being “more than friends/boyfriend and girlfriend.”

    4. exclusivity. he is “her boyfriend,” and she is “his girlfriend,” and any breach of this is “cheating,” just as much as between husband and wife…without the legal ramifications, unless there are children.

    5. the possibility of “divorce” THIS IS THE MOST DANGEROUS THING IN THE MINI MARRIAGE. it is ASSUMED that a boyfriend and girlfriend can break up! there is no “until death does us part.” but wait! if this is the case, then why the intense heart ache when there IS a break up? and what are the grounds for breaking up? would these grounds be legitimate in marriage? in other words, the commitment of marriage is assumed in the boyfriend girlfriend relationship, YET NOT ASSUMED? this is where the whole “it’s complicated” thing comes in.

    i strongly feel that all of this “experimenting” done through dating can very well lead to a “divorce mindset.” marriage is not something that can be practiced, or tried out, or experimented with. once the commitment is made, it is until death. of course, because of the hardness of our hearts, divorce may unfortunately happen…but it should be dreaded like death, because it is a death.

    in summary, there is a vulnerability, an “allowing our heart to be broken” that is sacred and separate from any and every kind of vulnerability–the vulnerability of matrimony. not just in terms of sex, but in terms of the level of emotional commitment and investment that happens in “serious, more than ‘just friends’ relationships.” i don’t believe the analogy of God and His bride Israel/the church is equivalent to the dating relationship BECAUSE marriage IS a life long commitment, the kind of commitment that God expects of those who have faith in Him, verse the experimental nature of dating. we don’t “experiment” with being a disciple/bride of Christ. from the beginning of relationship with God and husbands/brides, there is the call to forsake all others. in dating, this is not so.


    jm Reply:


    I welcome your comments and was wanting to hear your take on this post precisely because you have always been a trusted “sharpener” in my life. I think you make valid points and I think much of the issue centers on what exactly one means by the term “dating”–which even among those who do embrace it has different meanings.

    I wanted to address your specific 5th point. You said:
    there is no “until death does us part.” but wait! if this is the case, then why the intense heart ache when there IS a break up? and what are the grounds for breaking up? would these grounds be legitimate in marriage? in other words, the commitment of marriage is assumed in the boyfriend girlfriend relationship, YET NOT ASSUMED? this is where the whole “it’s complicated” thing comes in.

    I think the intense heartache comes when one person WAS envisioning permanence/marriage and the other does not. One person longs for such commitment with someone…who they find out does not long for the same with them. This is not always the case; I know many couples who spent time together and in the process of getting to know one another realized that they did not want to enter into a permanent marriage commitment with one another. They were able to end the relationship in a healthy way and looked on it as a good experience which better prepared them for finding the person they eventually ended up marrying. I myself have even experienced this on more than one occasion.

    Of course, this does not always happen. But to me it seems that when it doesn’t, it is because one (or both) people were dishonest, unclear, or in some other way uncommunicative of their true desires, expectations and purpose.

    I agree that dating has many pitfalls and dangers; and I also agree that many people date in a way that simulates marriage in every area but commitment…thus contributing to the divorce mentality that plagues our country (and, sadly, many within the Church as well!). So I don’t wish to defend such things. I just wanted to share the thoughts I had when I read the part quoted above, particularly as I reflect on my own “it’s complicated” incidents in the past. I agree that the analogy of God and His Bride is not a perfect fit in describing vulnerability between men and women who are in dating/romantic relationships. What I meant to express is that the God of the Bible is not an aloof God who “protects” Himself from hurt or disappointment in His relationship to humanity. He allows Himself to experience hurt, pain, rejection and heartbreak due to the sinful, irresponsible or unfaithful responses of those created in His image (such as we see in Genesis 6, or with Judas’ betrayal, for instance). So if God Himself opens His “heart” to the possibility of pain, why should we think we are to be immune to such things? Perhaps there is a better way to say what I am trying to say. If you or anyone reading this has suggestions of how to do so, I welcome them.

    Thanks for your insight, brother…as always.


    olatunde Reply:

    You’re welcome my brother.

    I feel you. I understand perfectly what you are saying. We’ve talked about this alot, so I feel like I know where your heart is and you know mine.

    On one hand, I feel that we are both completely on the same page in terms of TOTAL honesty, every step of the way in the dating relationship. If one person’s expectations have changed, or grown more intense, and that person doesn’t share the change, then inevitable pain is the result.

    But how can this be avoided? I am intense, and I personally couldn’t get into a relationship that wasn’t all or nothing. So for me, I couldn’t risk the “mini marriage” danger I always felt in dating. I am not imposing that on all believers, or even nonbelievers.

    We agree with the danger.

    And I feel that we agree on how the danger can be avoided: total honesty every step of the way. Perhaps for “personality types” like mine, dating should be avoided, and courtship should be the focus. For others who can handle what seems to be too transitory for me, dating and the lessons learned for marriage may not be dangerous.

    I personally do not believe the last sentence AT ALL. But that doesn’t make it true.

    I totally agree that we should open our hearts to the possibility of pain in the risk of loving God and others. Loving as God loves will bring this about in ALL of our relationships to a certaint extent.

    Yet I’ve always felt like the “boyfriend/girlfriend” relationship in it’s exclusivity was too much like marriage, and thus a set up for devastation if marriage didn’t occur. I don’t see how to avoid a bond between the man and woman, or at least for one of them. It is assumed that one or both of them is physically and emotionally attracted. The investment of time and vulnerability, combined with sexuality, seems like an emotional time bomb that God never intended.

    Again, I feel you, and I believe you feel me. If two people are willing to take what I feel is an extreme emotional risk, and if they are COMPLETELY honest EACH AND EVERY STEP OF THE WAY, then it’s possible for a friendship to remain even if the relationship doesn’t lead to marriage. I am very skeptical of that last sentence! I am not friends with ANY of my previous “girlfriends.” Each relationship got way too intense. Yet again, I know I am an intense person, and I expected each of those relationships to end in marriage because I was looking for a wife, not a date, not a girlfriend. For someone like me, dating may be a very bad idea.

    The Spirit has to be clearly leading in all of this, where things aren’t spelled out in scripture due to a difference in our culture and biblical culture. We know we shouldn’t have sex outside of marriage, or do anything that tempts us towards this end. We know we shouldn’t make promises we don’t keep, defrauding one another. We know that we should edify each other in the knowledge and likeness of God. If dating brings two people closer to God and makes them more like Christ, then it clearly is a good thing, even if the two have to part ways. But can they part ways as “dating partners,” yet remain friends as brother and sister in Christ? I am very doubtful of this. VERY!! I am not “friends” with ANY of my “ex-girlfriends.” But that’s me. I was looking for a wife in each relationship, so I was all or nothing the whole time. Pain was inevitable for me if the relationship didn’t end in marriage. I am not making myself out to be the standard.


    jm Reply:

    I totally understand this, man. I agree wholeheartedly with your last paragraph and I think that much of the drama in many Christian romantic relationships comes from people having differing expectations or convictions regarding what such relationships should look like. Our experiences color our outlook in places where Scripture leaves room for differing approaches, and I think nowhere is this more true than in romantic relationships.

    I think you’re also right on when talking about the emotional pain being a result of emotional intensity that goes unfulfilled or is rejected. In general, it seems that the more intense a romantic relationship, the less likely (or wise!) it is for exes to remain friends. I’ll give some examples for readers from my own experience. In the past few years I experienced dating relationships where there was some initial attraction which led to spending time together and intentionally pursuing a romantic relationship, albeit carefully. At a certain point I realized that this was not who I was going to spend my life with. So we talked and I said that I didn’t want to continue in the relationship as it was going because I felt that there was nothing more than friendship at best for us long term. Lo and behold, she had been feeling the same way. Because we talked about it and honestly expressed our feelings, we were able to part ways, romantically speaking, yet remain friends. Not best buddies who spent time together daily, but still genuine friends who cared about the other and even kept an eye out for potential future relationships for each other. This has been the case in a few of my other attempts at relationships as well. With some there was a natural period of awkwardness after the relationship ended, when we had to become reacquainted with being “just friends”, but since we hadn’t allowed things to get too intense too fast, we were able to keep a healthy friendship to a certain degree.

    Of course (and you know this situation better than anyone else on the planet!), I have experienced deep devastation at the loss of other relationships and have NOT been able to remain friends as a result–not because I wish the person any harm or vice versa…but because the intensity of the feelings that developed were too much to ever be able to return to “just friends” (particularly since she is now married!). And they shouldn’t be expected to. In fact, it was the choosing to remain “good friends” even though there were deeper feelings present that led to so much of the hurt that we eventually experienced. So I definitely see where you’re coming from regarding the dangers of intense dating relationships. I think that the deeper the affection and emotional vulnerability, the deeper the heartache if that relationship ends.

    Because of this, I think it is wise to be somewhat cautious and not allow our emotions/affections to go unchecked without an accompanying intention to commit permanently; but I don’t think we should approach potential romantic relationships with a sense of fear-driven woundedness (which I know you are not at all advocating) that causes us to close ourselves off to what (or who) God may have in store for our good. But this is not what “guard your heart” is talking about…or if it applies, it does so only insofar as doing so is part of the larger “guarding” of our whole inner selves that the passage is primarily speaking of.

    But I agree that there is no cookie-cutter approach that applies to everyone equally. If there were, I think we’d find it explicitly laid out, or even mentioned, in Scripture.

    Good thoughts my friend…and fellow Christian samurai.


    Comment by olatunde on December 6, 2011 at 11:57 pm

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