Are you familiar with Proverbs 4:23? This verse is most often quoted from the KJV, and reads as follows: "Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life." It is probably one of the most misused verses in the Bible.
Now you might be wondering, how is this verse misused? Well, let's consider that there are two reasons to "guard" something. We will either guard something in order to protect that object from others. But we will also guard something in order to protect others from that object. Which do you think is a more Biblical perspective on guarding the heart? Let me give you two illustrations.
#1: Imagine you are in a museum. You notice an exhibit that features a beautiful sculpture. It is very old and appears very fragile. Other exhibits are openly displayed, but this particular sculpture is so fragile it is encased in glass. Furthermore, the area surrounding the glass is roped off so that no one can even attempt to tap on the glass.
#2: Now imagine you are at the zoo. You notice an exhibit that features some ferocious tigers. The tigers are chained so that they cannot get too close to the bars of the cage. Furthermore, the area surrounding the cage is blocked off so that no one can get closer than six feet from the cage.
Most people interpret Proverbs 4:23 in terms of Scenario #1. The idea is to guard one's heart so that you can avoid having to suffer a broken one. Not only is this a misapplication of the scripture by taking it out of context, it is also completely antithetical to Biblical Christianity. We are not to protect ourselves by building walls around our hearts. We are called to love others, and that involves giving our hearts and lives away. Yet most people quote Proverbs 4:23 keeping in mind Scenario #1, which portrays the heart as being fragile, delicate, and easily broken. Like the sculpture in the museum, it must be protected at all costs from the outside influences that can pollute its "purity."
But the Bible describes the human heart differently. The Bible portrays the human heart as being very dangerous. The Bible says the heart as the most deceitful thing there is (Jeremiah 17:9). It is "desperately wicked" (NKJV) if not downright "sick" (NASB). We must guard our hearts, not because they are fragile, but because they have the power to destroy others. Jesus said "For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders" (Matthew 15:19). No wonder we are advised in Proverbs 4:23 to keep it under close watch!
The context of Proverbs 4 shows that we must constantly feed the heart a diet of wisdom or it will turn into a monster. Psalm 119:11 states, "Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee," (KJV). The Word of God is the muzzle that silences the rabid pitbull inside each of us. If we want to protect others, we need to keep our hearts on the leash of God's Word so that no one gets hurt.
Bridges (2001) looks at this verse from the opposite angle. The heart does need to be protected, not from people, but from sin. In any case, the conclusion is the same: "If we do not know our weak points, Satan is well aware of them . . . the question arises, can I guard my own heart? Certainly not. This is God's work, although it is carried out through the agency of man. Resist the evil world, even in its most plausible forms. This will be a confict until the end of our lives," (p. 39). We are not to guard our hearts from getting "hurt." Rather, we are to guard our hearts so they do not run after the things of this world and in turn cause us to sin against others, God included. MacArthur (1997) writes: "The heart is the depository of all wisdom and the source of whatever affects speech (v. 24), sight (v. 25), and conduct (vv. 26, 27)" (p. 882).
This is especially important in relationships between men and women. We have the absolute power to destroy one another if we do not guard our hearts. It reminds me of two friends of mine, whom I'll call Gina and Steve. Steve began to pursue Gina very aggressively. But Gina was not sure if she was interested. So in an effort to guard her heart (and not defraud Steve), she told Steve she wasn't going to return the sentiments unless she knew she really liked him, and not just the attention he was giving her. She knew Steve had been betrayed badly in a past relationship and she wanted to protect him from her own wickedness. Gina held Steve at bay for a while so she could pray and fast over the situation. Only when she was absolutely sure she could return Steve's feelings honestly did she begin to verbally express her attraction for him.
But as soon as Gina became interested, Steve cooled off. He had said things to make her feel as though he really liked her, but once she returned the feelings, he stopped talking to her. When Gina confronted Steve about his behavior, he responded, "Gina, I'm sorry if I mislead you. I guess I just liked the pursuit. I hope in the future you guard your heart more."
Even though Steve had misused the verse, it turned out to be good advice, because Gina wanted to lash out at him. Not only did she feel cheated and deceived, she now had to bear the burden of fear: how can she ever trust the next man who tells her "God put you on my heart?" Words were exchanged and an argument ensued. Steve became very agitated. As Gina sensed his anger escalating, she remembered something she had read: "Anger is often a man's response to feeling disrespected . . . if he's angry at something you've said or done . . . there is a good chance he is feeling the pain or humiliation of your disrespect" (Feldhahn, 2004, p.25). Immediately, Gina yanked the choke chain on her heart and began to apologize to Steve. Yes, he had hurt her. But she knew the only way to stop the cycle of sin was to take control of her own actions and guard her sick, desperately wicked heart before it took another bite out of Steve. Proverbs 15:1 tells us, "A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger." As soon as Gina began to protect Steve from her own wickedness, he did not feel so attacked. As a result, he was able to check himself and guard his heart too.
Perhaps the worst thing about misusing Proverbs 4:23 is that it promotes selfishness. When we are constantly "guarding our hearts" in the sense that most people interpret it, we are focusing on ourselves. When we become preoccupied with "looking out for number one," we have no energy left to serve others. But when we guard our hearts as the Bible really instructs us to do, we take the focus off ourselves and are free to look out for the well-being of others.
The Bible asks, "What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you?" (James 4:1). Our sinful desires are what fuel the heart. This is what we need to guard others from. Gina desired to be right and have the last word. Steve desired to be released from any personal responsibility in the matter. When we are in these types of situations, we may not feel that we are deliberately in sin, but because our hearts are sick, depraved, and desperately wicked, they need to be restrained and muzzled before they do some real damage.
The next time someone advises you to "guard your heart," implying that you need to protect yourself, remember that the Bible teaches you do need to "guard your heart," but in an effort to protect others from you.
Bridges, C. (2001). Proverbs. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
Feldhahn, S. (2004). For women only: What you need to know about the inner lives of men. Atlanta, GA: Multnomah.
MacArthur, J. (1997). The MacArthur study bible. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.