Guard your heart.

by K.W. Leslie, 10 May

Proverbs 4.23.

Proverbs 4.23 NIV
Above all else, guard your heart,
for everything you do flows from it.

As a teenager I heard many a youth pastor quote this verse. Except they’d use the 1984 edition of the NIV, which goes, “Guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” Which I like much better than the update; it’s more poetic. Although the way I initially memorized it was the KJV’s “Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it [are] the issues of life.”

They quoted it ’cause they were encouraging us kids to be very, very careful about who or what we loved. ’Cause you know teenagers: Either you are one, or used to be one. And I’ll be blunt: Teens are so horny. The flood of new hormones in our systems, combined with how we’ve not yet learned to control our emotions, don’t help at all. I had all sorts of crushes on all sorts of girls and women, and stifled them as best I could. Of course, once two teenagers find they’re mutually attracted to one another, they seldom stifle anything, which is why so many of the kids in my youth group—good Christians or not—were fornicating like monkeys in the zoo. Precisely what parents and pastors fear. Hence all the sermons.

Of course “guard your heart” has other applications. Because teens are immature, they fall for anything. Not just for sexual temptations; they get sucked up into any ridiculous fad. Fr’instance my nephew is into vaping. It’s dumb, but so’s cigarettes, and I knew plenty of kids who got into cigarettes for the very same reason: They figured it was cool, all their friends did it, and they were so susceptible to peer pressure. At his age I liked to think I stood apart from the crowd, but even so, I got into all sorts of fads. And trouble. I was young and naïve, didn’t know any better, didn’t listen to the adults who did: I followed my heart every which way.

Hence adults kept returning to this verse, time and again. Or at least these three words: “Guard your heart.”

Don’t follow the crowd’s taste in music, clothes, cars, and especially misbehavior. Don’t fall in love with the wrong people, especially half-hearted Christians who might lead you away from Jesus—or worse, pagans. Don’t have sex, lest the girl get pregnant and wind up having an abortion (and since this was a conservative church, everyone pretended this never happened, even though I personally know five girls in my youth group whose pregnancies way-too-conveniently disappeared). Marry, but not yet—not till you’ve finished college, secured a good career, and made other caveats to Mammonism which Christians like to disguise as “good stewardship.” Basically anything which might derail your parents’ plans for your life: Just don’t.

Don’t get me wrong. Telling teenagers to get hold of their emotions is very good advice. Hard to follow, but still good advice. ’Cause teenagers—and for that matter most adults—don’t know how. They’ve never developed because kids suck the Spirit’s fruit of self-control, of gentleness, of learning the difference between love and desire. Hormones fuddle teenage minds way beyond reason. Even if the poor kids do learn some level of self-control in childhood, they’re going through an entirely new obstacle course. Adults who never learned self-control either, imagine the solution is to give kids lots of rules… as if that tactic ever worked on them. What teens, and really all of us, need is patience, kindness, guidance, and grace.

But since this article is part of my series on bible verses in context, you know I’m gonna point out that Solomon wasn’t writing about emotions.

The context.

Most folks tend to read Proverbs and most wisdom literature as individual verses which have no context. Not so. The people who collected them together did put them in some sort of order, and in order to get the best sense of ’em, we have to read the whole. It’s not hard to do. The problem is, it’s seldom done, ’cause people want proof texts so very badly.

The “guard your heart” verse appears as part of a unit which begins at verse 20, and arguably ends with the chapter—or possibly continues till 5.6. But I’ll keep it brief and stop at 4.27.

Proverbs 4.20-27 KWL
20 My son: Pay attention to my words. Stretch your ears.
21 Don’t turn your eyes aside. Keep them in the middle of your mind.
22 For my words are life to those who find them, health to all flesh.
23 Watch your mind from every guardpost, for life comes out of it.
24 Turn yourself away from a crooked mouth. Keep devious lips far from you.
25 Your eyes must look in front of you. Your eyelids mustn’t block your sight.
26 Clear a path for your feet. All your ways must be prepared.
27 Don’t veer to your right nor left. Turn your foot from evil.

The first chapters of Proverbs are Solomon’s instructions to his son. Which son, we don’t know. (We only know Rehoboam, at least, didn’t really listen.) Solomon was trying to instruct his boy about wisdom, a lifestyle he himself considered mighty important, and necessary for anyone who’s going to lead God’s people. 1Ki 3.9 It’s likewise useful for anyone who wants to understand God better, and develop our relationship with him.

Here, Solomon makes clear his son needs to put his fatherly advice in his mind. Yes, לֵבָב/leváv literally means “heart,” because ancient peoples believed the heart is the organ we use to think. (The brains, they figured, are only for cooling off the blood.) So whenever the bible refers to the heart, it actually doesn’t mean emotions. We think that’s what the ancients meant by heart, but it’s actually what the medievals meant. Whenever the ancients talked about emotion, they referred to your intestines—the origin of our saying, “I feel it in my guts.”

So in verses 20-21, Solomon instructed his son to take the wisdom Solomon was teaching him, pay close attention to it, and put it in the middle of his mind. Deep in your brain where it won’t get dislodged by emotion, nor pervasive contrary reasoning. Then, in verse 23, watch that wisdom from every מִ֭שְׁמָר/mišmár, every guard tower, as if it’s a treasure others intend to steal or destroy. ’Cause they will.

Nope, I’m not saying emotions aren’t part of it. In fact they’re the most likely thing to sway the safeguards we keep on our wisdom. I’ve made all manner of dumb decisions because I was angry, argumentative, partisan, lovesick, or envious. Really, pick any work of the flesh and you can find Christians who totally know what we oughta be doing, but don’t because we’re acting on our emotions. We don’t guard our minds from our emotions: We let ’em in to ransack the place. Sometimes we even claim those emotions are the Holy Spirit’s direction—because duh, we don’t know the difference.

So follow Solomon’s advice. Crack open Proverbs and get to reading. Pay attention to his words. Stretch your ears. Don’t turn your eyes aside. Keep them in the middle of your mind. Then guard that mind… for your life comes out of it.

Especially when it comes to out-of-context proof texts!

This being said, you do realize Christians don’t give a rip about context. I’ve taught for years about what “heart” meant to the ancients, and why all the popular interpretations about “hearts” in the bible really refer to thinking, not feeling. I’ve had loads of students respond, “Wow, I never knew that”—and double-check me, as they should, and find out it’s true. So they know how these verses oughta be properly interpreted.

But when it comes time to lecture teenagers about controlling their emotions, they revert right back to the same old pop-culture interpretations of “heart” everyone else uses. “Hey kids, you gotta guard your hearts! Don’t just fall for every good-looking kid you meet.”

Why do they do this? Because, of all the irony, they’re not following this very verse. They didn’t take the wisdom I taught ’em, put it in the middle of their minds, and put guards round it. When it came time to preach a message on self-control, they ditched the wisdom and went for the very same emotional appeal they grew up hearing. (As if it worked on them. And it might have! But it definitely doesn’t work on everyone.)

Thing is, how did you feel when you first found out “heart” doesn’t mean what your youth pastors claimed it did? Righteo: You felt misled. You lost a whole lot of respect for your youth pastors; you feel like you were being guided by under-equipped leaders who were barely out of childhood themselves. And if you realize many of these pastors were taught rightly in their seminaries, but ditched what they were taught in seminary, fell back on the mistruths they were taught in their own childhood, all because they figured it’d emotionally manipulate you better: Yep, now you really lost respect for them. Now think about those kids who are on the fence about following Jesus: Think when they find out what went down, they might use it as an excuse to quit Jesus altogether? They might. Many have.

Emotions are powerful things, so I get why Christians wanna appeal to them as often as we can. It’s easy to do and gets immediate results. But it can also frequently backfire. And like this verse says, they’re not where life comes from. That’d be the mind. You wanna change people’s minds. You particularly want the Holy Spirit to guide our minds—then for Christians to be directed by our Spirit-led minds. It’s the best way to grow and produce fruit.

So we gotta resist the temptation to ditch wisdom and preach out of context. Guard that heart.