“Guard your heart” is a popular phrase in Christianese right now. It is most often thrown around when talking about dating, and it’s often accompanied by talks of boundaries. These conversations can and do promote healing and growth in the areas of relationship and connection, but often, we take it a bit too literally.
What does it mean to guard your heart?
When someone tells you to “guard your heart,” the advice comes with the best of intentions. The advisor is encouraging you to exercise caution in whom you open yourself up to, and to maintain healthy boundaries in your relationships. While I cannot possibly take issue with either of these suggestions, the advice to guard your heart is a slippery slope. If we’re not careful, the idea of “guarding your heart” will produce a half-in, half-out approach to connection and relationship. It is easily used as a seemingly legitimate excuse to hold back our love for fear of being hurt. This is a me-centered reality that contradicts the love of Christ because we’re guarding our hearts as the the world tells us, not as God would tell us.
How does God love?
Do you recall an instance where Jesus held back loving someone for fear of being hurt? Neither do I. Jesus had great boundaries, yes, but He gave ALL regardless of whether or not we loved Him back. Praise God that His passionate, unconditional love for us is never dependent on our response! So why do we withhold love from each other in the name of guarding our hearts? The only reason we love is because God first loved us (1 John 4:19), and He made us in His image (Genesis 1:27). Does God ever ease into love? Does God take care to wade into the waters of love before diving in? No! God is never worried about being hurt, and since we’re made to love like He does, we shouldn’t be either. God never intended for us to live in fear — especially fear of love!
But what about Proverbs 4:23?
Proverbs 4:23 says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (NIV). We recognize the phrase “guard your heart” and automatically assume it suggests installing a privacy fence. While it is easy to jump to the conclusion that this verse instructs us to be careful with our love, this assumption is short sighted. Zoom out a bit and check out Proverbs 4:20-23. The form of the Greek word used for “heart” also represents the feelings, the will and the intellect; it’s a word that describes the center of something. In verses 20 and 21, the Lord urges us to listen to His words and keep them in our hearts (keep them at the center of our will, intellect and feelings), and in verse 22, He specifies that these words are life. Finally, in verse 23, He urges us to guard our hearts — as in, protect the place where His life-giving words are hidden. The Lord is urging us to protect our hearts, but not in the way we think. No reference to loving people, falling in love, or being hurt by others is found anywhere in this passage. This instruction to “guard your heart” is not justification for walking around with brick walls around our hearts; and it’s not an excuse for loving people only on a surface level.
What should guarding your heart really look like?
You don’t guard your heart; God does. Philippians 4:7 says “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (ESV). Guarding your heart is about knowing that no matter who hurts it, no one can ever take away God’s love for you. This is the benefit of belonging to Jesus, that He is your source of peace, hope, and joy. The father of lies tells you that unconditional love is a risk, but living in the freedom of Christ means that no experience, person, feeling, or event can ever diminish the love and peace you know in Christ. Love-related hurts may rattle you, but your foundation is unbreakable; thus, the door is open for loving people the way Christ did — with reckless abandon.
If you’re thinking that loving people like this sounds a bit extreme, you might be right. If you need a little more convincing, here it is in red: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34, ESV, emphasis mine). I know you’re afraid of rejection and heartbreak— we all are! Jesus was no stranger to these hurts. He had more than enough reason to suggest we hold back a little to protect ourselves, but He didn’t. He knew what we often overlook: You have nothing to lose by loving people fully because your innermost sense of security is found in the one thing no one can ever take from you.
The real risky business is the hesitation (or refusal) to love openly and fully. Guarding your heart as the world does puts you in a protective bubble. This may sound safe, but it comes with a steep price. From inside this bubble, you can only love people half-heartedly, and no one can fully love you. Friends, there is a better way. Let God’s peace guard your heart, and go put yourself out there! Not everyone will love you back, but that’s okay. God’s promise in Luke 6:38 assures us that what we give will be given back to us. Go love radically and you will find the love you’ve been seeking.