By Danielle Jones
“Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” NIV translation reads, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” Proverbs 4:23
Last week Jeff kicked off a four week sermon series we are calling Connected: living a life that is whole. When we think about the basics of how to live life as a Christian we look to the words of Christ to find direction and see that the core of how to live out our faith lies in the exhortation Christ gives us to love God and to love others.
It sounds pretty simple on paper yet we tend to overcomplicate this concept with our overly complicated lives. Many of us find ourselves overly stressed, overly busy, and overly committed. We have crazy lives that barely leave time for sleeping and eating let alone loving God and loving others. At the end of a day, week, month or even year- when we finally do slow down a bit- we can find ourselves looking at our lives and faith and feeling dissatisfied and disconnected.
Week one of our series focused on Matthew 11:28, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Jeff’s sermon made us aware that part of what leads to those feelings of being disconnected from God and others- are our burdens. Many of our burdens come from making decisions to go it alone or to go our own way.
We feverishly busy ourselves with all the world offers and before we know it we wonder why we are feeling overstressed and dissatisfied. Jesus offers to help us carry our heavy burdens by refocusing us on what really matters as we walk alongside him. And we find that when we partner with Christ and both allow him to share our burdens and allow him to lead us- rest arrives and we have a deeper connection with God.
This week our desire to live a connected and whole life finds direction in the book of proverbs as we are exhorted to guard our hearts.
There is a lot of heart talk in our world. All of us have at one time or another been told to follow our hearts but the idea of guarding our heart is a bit harder to define.
You may remember a few years back, contemporary sociologist and theologian Tony Campolo visited Colonial as part of one of our Guelich Lecture Series.
While here Dr. Campolo spoke of church, faith, resurrection and even of some of the places we, as Americans and Christians, have gone wrong in our quest to both live a full life and to live for God. One of those missteps he highlighted was around our relentless pursuit of happiness. This is not new to any of us- each one of us, more than we realize believe we deserve to be happy. We constantly look to messages that tell us if we work hard, do the right thing, and sprinkle a little faith in there along the way- we deserve happiness as a reward.
You may recall from your own American history studies that the idea of pursuing happiness is found in our own Declaration of Independence. The full sentence that contains this phrase is not only one of the most well-known sentences in American History but it has been one of the most influential sentences in America as well.
You may have even memorized this sentence without even realizing it- here it is in full “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
From the time our country was established, Americans have internalized this statement. The idea that we deserve to pursue happiness is in many ways- culturally written on our souls. Campolo tells the story of doing quite a bit of marriage counseling and often asking couples why they want a divorce.
He says, “They always tell me, “Well, you see, we just aren’t that happy anymore.”
Pursuing happiness and following your heart are closely linked in our culture. I think most people interchange these statements; to follow your heart means to pursue happiness and to pursue happiness means to follow your heart. But the truth is that following my heart to achieve happiness is a dangerous pursuit at best.
Dangerous because what makes me happy changes. Often. Sometimes even on a daily basis. I’ll give you a simple example. Think about a new exercise program. For a few weeks you decide – I am going to work out – every day – twice a day to kick start being healthy and getting in shape. It’s a great two weeks. I start running, I am feeling better. I am healthier and indeed, I am happier. I think to myself – I knew it, I knew that running would make me happier!
And then a friend calls and invites me to meet her at Sebastian Joes for ice cream- during the time I usually go running. And I go – after all, I haven’t seen this friend for quite a while. And I have a great time – and the ice cream is soooo good. And in that moment, I am very happy.
The next night I think about what I want to do – what would make me happy – and I weigh my options. I think to myself – I should run – but I kind of want more ice cream. I end up deciding on the ice cream – concluding that it would make me happier than the run.
You see what I mean? If I base my choices on being happy, one week working out makes me happy; the next week ice cream makes me happy. I cannot simply follow my heart as a way of life because doing so leads to a life that becomes disconnected. Over time when I live letting my own happiness be my gauge of satisfaction I begin looking around to what everyone else seems to have that I don’t. I become self centered and I put the things of God on the back burner in pursuit of feeling good in the moment.
Campolo says that pursuing happiness or following your heart is not what we are called as Christians to do. He suggests that instead of pursuing happiness we, as followers of Christ, are called to pursue righteousness.
Guarding your heart cannot be confused with following your heart. In fact, figuring out how to guard your heart begins with defining what we are talking about when we refer to our hearts and leads us toward righteousness.
In western culture the heart is most often thought of as the place where our truest feelings reside. If I am going to the heart of the matter in our culture, I am uncovering the feelings I have about a certain topic, person or situation. In Hebrew culture and in scripture the understanding of heart is quite different.
First, and maybe surprisingly, the heart is a very important topic throughout scripture. In fact, the word heart is used over 950 times in scripture.
Here are some examples:
In the book of Mark, Jesus declared that we should love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. In Matthew, when describing the kingdom of God, Jesus revealed the things that come out of the heart are what defile a person, highlighting that our true intentions and character reside in the heart.
Jesus also taught that where your treasure is, there your heart will be also – reminding us that what we possess gives others a window into what is really on our hearts. And the apostle Paul prayed for the saints that “The eyes of their heart may be enlightened”.
We find similar instruction in the Old Testament where we are commanded to trust the Lord with all our heart and to hide God’s word in our hearts. The prophet Samuel revealed that God does not evaluate people by outward appearance, but He looks at the heart.
The heart, therefore is not simply where feelings reside – it is where faith resides, where decisions are made, where our true passions and desires are found, and it is a window into our soul. And to be connected to God we must embrace the full meaning of the heart so that we can guard it.
We become disconnected from God when we follow our heart instead of guarding our heart. To help guard our hearts we need to reclaim the biblical idea of heart and add back the truth that our heart encompasses our feelings, of course, but it equally holds our intellect and our actions as well.
This week, I ran across an article by a therapist named Dr. Christine Meinecke, who wrote a book called “Everyone marries the wrong person.” You can see why that title caught my eye. The subtitle fills in a bit of what she means “Turning a flawed relationship in to a fulfilling relationship”. The article that this author had written was called Bad Advice: Follow your heart.
In the article, Dr. Meinecke, writes that feelings are important and inevitable. We will have them. And they actually serve us by giving us cues as to what is going on around us and how things are affecting us. In every situation we find ourselves in, positive or negative feelings are immediately experienced. And in each situation we face we notice the intensity of our feelings and we even notice a sense of urgency to act on our feelings.
In her years of practiced, Dr, Meinecke has noticed that good decisions come when we hold our feelings alongside the information we have in our intellect and the actions we desire to take. As Christians it seems there is yet a fourth piece of the heart – the truths God has written on our hearts.
I had an experience 4th of July week with making a decision to either follow my heart or guard my heart. On Monday and Tuesday Brian and I were set for a great week ahead. We had invited some friends and family over for a 4th of July party in our backyard. After the party we were set to head up to a friend’s cabin for the weekend and then we were planning to be back in town in time for church on Sunday. We were so excited! The kids were looking forward to being by the lake, we were happy to have some time off, it was going to be a great long weekend.
On Tuesday afternoon that week we received the news that the power was out at our friend’s cabin and it was not going to come back on for at least a week which meant we were not going to the cabin. We were of course, disappointed but we thought we could do some fun things around town as a family. Except that when we woke up on Thursday morning, Brian was sick, the house was a mess, the kids had been up late the night before and our perfect summer weekend was going down the drain.
And I found myself sitting in our living room – mad. Mad that I had to clean our house, mad Brian was sick (even though he had no control over that) and mad that I had to take care of the girls by myself. I remember thinking to myself that I deserved a weekend “off”. I had earned some time off and a weekend away and here I was sitting in the middle of a disaster of a house with a sick husband and two little girls that were demanding my full attention.
And so I was sitting and stewing and feeling sorry for myself when out of what seemed like nowhere God broke in. In the middle of that mess, God reminded me of the days when I prayed that I would meet someone and get married. He reminded me of all the days I prayed that I would have the chance to be a mom and have a home of my own. And there I was sitting in the midst of all those answered prayers and I was being absolutely selfish, self-centered and ungrateful.
My feelings were telling me that I deserved more. That I should have a life that was much better than this. My feelings that day made me want to throw in the towel on all those things; but when God reminded me of what was true, I was able to guard my heart.
I sat and I prayed prayers of thanksgiving for my husband, my home and my girls, and I reminded myself that sometimes things just simply don’t go as planned and some days just aren’t happy. I tried to recall the gifts God has given me and broaden my view to look at the big picture instead of the circumstances that were right in front of me.
And do you know – it worked? When I remembered what is true about who God is and about who I am in relation to God, my feelings were set in place and my attitude was adjusted. In fact I found that my heart was softened and the wellspring of life began to flow.
I have to say the weekend turned around. The house got cleaned up, the girls and I went to the beach several times to swim and stay cool, and after much rest Brian is feeling much better. And in the end we had a great weekend. Different than what I expected –but good. The kind of good that comes from doing what needs to be done, staying focused on the blessings in spite of the challenges, and guarding my heart.
This proverb today is calling out to each one of us. This proverb undoes what our culture tells us about the heart. Instead of following our heart to find happiness that comes up empty, we, as the people of God, are called to something else. We are called to put our faith in God into action by seeking to understand our hearts and to guard our hearts and when we do, righteousness follows.
Part of how we do that is to prioritize the task of guarding our hearts.
As I mentioned, scripture talks about the heart over 950 times which means it is obviously a topic that is important to God. And so it is important to stay connected to God by guarding your heart.
We already talked about the first way to guard our hearts – understand the whole heart – integrate feelings, intellect and actions and let God tie all three together. Second, we need to minimize the sin in our lives. The verses that follow the exhortation to guard our hearts in the book of proverbs speak of stopping perverse speech, looking straight ahead, and choosing good paths.
Part of guarding our hearts comes through our actions to live well for God. Some sin in our lives is easy to see: moral corruption, perverse behavior, and evil acts that harm others are easy to identify and clearly stand in the way of our relationship with God. Other sin can be a bit more difficult to discern and avoid: things like a lack of faith, unwillingness to forgive, materialism, pride and even false doctrine.
When we identify the sin in our lives we guard our hearts by protecting them from the things that draw us away from loving God and loving others.
The third way to guard your heart is to input the things of Christ. Do things like: Take time to read scripture, attend a Bible Study, serve someone, listen to God in the silence, journal- find ways to hear from and connect to God. Being a follower of Christ takes effort. Although God always initiates with us and lavishes grace upon us we are called to respond by initiating in return.
“Guard your heart for from it flows the wellspring of life.” Last week we learned that to live a connected and unfractured life we need to partner with Christ and to let him take the lead, which results in less weariness as our focus is reoriented toward God. This week we find that guarding our hearts means letting go of the pursuit of happiness to instead pursue righteousness. And as a result our lives become more connected to God because they are clear and uncluttered and not driven by feelings but are instead driven by the truth.
And so as we close, may the God who created you, redeemed you, and who calls you to new life be your center and fill your heart as you guard it and make space for him that you might live a life that is whole and connected.
Let us pray…God in the words of the psalmist we pray that you would indeed search our hearts, that you would test us and know our thoughts. And we pray that you would reveal to us the trash in our lives and give us the courage to remove it. We pray that we would not simply be led by our feelings but that we would instead use our intellect and our will as well. And we pray God that the result will be lives that are more and more connected to you- the source of true life from whom the wellspring flows. Amen.