Has a well-meaning person ever told you to “guard your heart”? I can’t remember how often I’ve heard this sentiment in my life. In Christian culture, it’s a popular and widely accepted principle to live by. From a young age we’re taught Proverbs 4:23 which says, “Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life.”
Here’s the Problem:
There’s a subtle, yet toxic idea lurking in the axiom “guard your heart”. At some point, we made guarding our hearts about protecting ourselves from people, so we won’t experience injury, pain, and rejection.
When we guard our hearts against people, we refuse to be vulnerable with the most important people in our lives. No one fully knows who we are or how we struggle. We default to mistrust and can’t believe the best about anyone. Our friends and family have to continually work to earn our trust. We become judgmental and full of condemnation towards others, and our relationships are filled with disapproval and criticism. I could go on and on because the effects of this toxic idea are endless.
Here’s the truth: We are bound to experience what it means to live in a fatal, fallen, and unfair world. People will hurt, disappoint, and let us down. Our personal experiences will shape what it means to guard our hearts. Too often, we default to constructing emotional, intellectual, and spiritual walls within our minds, all with the purpose of protecting ourselves from pain.
This is one of our most destructive practices as believers and followers of Jesus. It negatively impacts our relationships and colors the way we see the world. It builds barriers between us, others, and even God. Sure, it shuts out the negative aspects of living in a broken world, but it also shuts out the life-giving freedom we can experience in genuine community. When we live in the practice of guarding our hearts against people, we end up lonely, isolated, and dysfunctional.
If guarding our hearts against people isn’t the point of Proverbs 4:23, what is the point?
The point is this: Guard your heart against sin.
When we guard our hearts against sin, we’re taking every thought captive and making it obedient to Jesus Christ. Through this practice, we experience life the way God intended it. We experience authentic community. We’re known at the soul level by others because we practice confession and vulnerability. We experience healthy relationships because we choose to trust others and seek reconciliation when there is division. We experience the fruit of the Spirit. Our hearts and minds become full of love, joy, peace, patience kindness, goodness, and self-control. We’re able to view others the way God sees them. In essence, we experience a full and abundant life that brings more of God’s kingdom to earth.
So, how do we change the destructive pattern of guarding our hearts against people?
First, we have to ask God to show us the walls we’ve built to protect ourselves from being wounded by people. He’ll show us unhealthy beliefs and habits we’ve adopted that hurt us. As we spend purposeful time in His presence, He will transform and heal us.
Second, we have to practice guarding our hearts against sin. Every day we have to be intentional in our battle against sin. We have to put on the armor of God from Ephesians 6. When we fail, we have to ask God to forgive us and we have to keep running the race God has set out for us.
Third, we have to open up to trusted voices—even if it’s uncomfortable and scary! We have to walk in vulnerability and victory. We can’t allow shame or pride to keep us from speaking up when we’ve been injured or when we’re struggling with sin. For some, that means seeking counseling (firstname.lastname@example.org), or for others, it means asking someone to be your accountability partner.
All of us have a choice. We can guard our hearts against people which leads to loneliness, isolation, and dysfunction or we can guard our hearts against sin which leads to the abundant life God wants for us. It’s your choice and it’s time to choose.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t have boundaries. We’ll encounter unhealthy and toxic people because we live in a broken world. Setting boundaries is a healthy and appropriate practice for all followers of Jesus, but we also have to practice appropriate vulnerability. If you want to grow in setting healthy boundaries, I recommend the book “Boundaries” by Dr. Henry Cloud.