Whether you grew up in the church or spent the majority of your teen years in a youth group, you were probably told that your heart was “deceitful” (Jer. 17:9), but that you should “guard” it, because “everything you do flows from it” (Proverbs 4:23). I mostly heard it in relation to how to navigate the already confusing landscape of dating, particularly when I fell in love for the first time when I was only thirteen.
Yet that responsibility was also being imparted to me (in a non-religious way) before I walked through the sanctuary doors. I learned to subconsciously believe that being liked and accepted meant that I had to present myself in a certain way. That I shouldn’t allow anyone to see my complex or emotional side until we had known each other for a while. And if I wanted to be loved, I needed to put on a happy face.
I tried to act in a way that was safe and comfortable, but was put off by the concept of friendship (and perhaps more) becoming a revolving door that people would walk in and out of. It was a cycle of hoping, overanalyzing, and then closing myself off. Deep down, all I really want was to get to know others and be known, but I couldn’t tell the difference between what was healthy and unhealthy. I carried it with me from junior high through college, and even today I’m still shaking it off.
But it’s not just about what we learn from our upbringing; unfortunately, we live in a culture that constantly warns us against the dangers of taking risks and getting too close. From relationships to careers to fulfilling our lifelong dreams, it’s all about doing whatever we have to do in order to avoid pain.
Nearly everything these days is saturated in fear. In some respects it’s completely understandable, but when it comes to personal interaction, it’s getting kind of ridiculous. There’s no formula that guarantees love and acceptance after opening up to someone. And because we’re all flawed human beings here, we’re all going to get hurt at some point. But there’s a difference between pain that results from our own impulsive or bad decisions, and pain because we knew what we were getting into and the other person did not show up.
As my own convictions and beliefs have been reshaped through the years, I’m beginning to see that taking “guard your heart” so literally is actually more harmful than it is helpful. It gave me the false idea that I had more control in relationships, and that if I went about it so carefully, I could in turn make people care about me without taking too big of a chance. It led me to believe that I was responsible for others’ emotional reactions and making sure that they didn’t disappear as I peeled back the layers. I glorified self-protection, and eventually became self-reliant. What I thought would bring me closer to God actually took me away from Him, and I regret what I missed out on as a result.
On the contrary, I don’t propose blindly following feelings and emotions either: you can want something so desperately that you can’t stop thinking about it, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Treating your heart like a runaway train is just as dangerous as treating it like a caged animal that has to be under lock and key. If God created us with this thing that is essentially the center of our bodies and physically keeps us alive, then it can’t be all that terrible; it just needs a little guidance.
I’m entering into a new season, and one that involves a lot of vulnerability and taking leaps of faith. I don’t want to guard my heart anymore as much as I want to guide it. The process itself is for another post, but it really comes down to getting real with God about everything, and being grateful for new opportunities, regardless if they’re just for today or for a lifetime. It’s a matter of trusting Him completely, rather than relying on my own limited understanding of what’s happening at the moment (Proverbs 3:5-6). And it’s experiencing the peace that comes from gratitude and surrender, allowing that to act as a protector rather than trying to do it all myself (Phil. 4:6-8).
Discernment is important, but I refuse to resort to legalistic measures, hoping that God will somehow bless me if I follow some silly formula or outdated process. It’s entirely possible to proceed with caution and listen to your instincts while still enjoying the journey of exploring something new and putting yourself out there. When I don’t do that, I miss out on the joys of learning, growing, and perhaps even healing. Yes, that is the real tragedy in putting up walls; it’s a refusal to have faith that He is in the business of healing and miracles, even those that come from pain, suffering, and re-piecing a broken heart back together.
I’m not going to tell you to not get hurt, because a painless existence is not of God. The truth should set you free, but it shouldn’t hold you back and keep you hidden either. Pay attention, but remember that experiences are meant to be treasured, not dictated.
And remember this: You’re going to be OK.