Above all else guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life. Proverbs 4:23
If you have a beating heart, chances are your heart has taken a beating these last three months. In this age of outrage, divisiveness and social media trolling, we've all taken emotional hits from friends, family, church or work colleagues. Perhaps we've lashed out in retaliation and given as good as we've got? Many relationships have been strained or even severed in these polarizing times. Cancel culture seems to be winning. Because of this, most of us feel emotionally raw, or worse, numb. Our emotional health is at severe risk during these emotionally charged days.
I sat with a friend and mentor last night who had received particularly stinging critique from both ends of the political spectrum as he had tried to respond as a Christian leader to the COVID-19 crisis and the protests following the brutal death of George Floyd. From my point of view he had done so with great courage, empathy and wisdom but his critics didn't see it that way. While he spoke about a feeling of fatigue from the relentless waves of criticism, he was remarkably buoyant. In fact, while I had received less severe criticism than he, my heart was more raw than his. Perhaps it's because he had learned to guard his heart?
I find the above Proverb so helpful in this regard. It compares the heart to a well that is fed by an under-ground spring. This is a metaphor that Jesus spoke of twice in the Gospel of John when he talked about the Holy Spirit. "If anyone believes in me it will be like a spring of living water welling up from his heart to eternal life." (John 4:14) John's commentary on this statement was that Jesus was referring to the Holy Spirit who would be given when Jesus ascended to the Father. (John 7:39)
While the spring of the Holy Spirit is what imparts life to the heart of a believer, it is the believer who must take care of the well into which the spring flows. We must guard our hearts above all else, not allowing anyone to throw trash down the well so that the pure water gets bitter. Guarding our hearts is like putting a grill or a grate over the top of a well. The difference between a guarded heart and a hard heart, for me, is that a hard heart has got an iron-clad lid over the well. Nothing can get chucked in, but neither can anyone draw any life out of it. A guarded heart doesn't allow any trash in, but allows life to be drawn out of it, and because it is guarded, the water is pure, not bitter.
The Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians, "I pray that your love may abound in all knowledge and discernment." (Phil 4:11) That is as good a description of a guarded heart as I've heard: to love with discernment. In essence, I want to try and help us to discern whether we have unguarded hearts, hard hearts or guarded hearts. The more common terms for these heart postures may be co-dependence, independence and inter-dependence.
A. How do I know if I have an unguarded heart? (Co-dependence)
- I experience massive joy from people's encouragement and massive despair from their criticism.
- I will give of myself willingly but feel resentful if it is not met with praise or gratitude.
- I allow people's opinions of me, either positive or negative, to be the core shaper of my identity.
- I apologize just to keep the peace even if I don't think I've done anything wrong. The main thing is that we can maintain our relationship.
- I am extremely vulnerable with my emotions to anyone who will listen.
B. How do I know if my heart has become hard? (Independence)
- I view encouragement with suspicion and am very defensive if people critique me.
- I will only give of myself if there is something in it for me.
- I simply don't care what anyone says or thinks about me. God's opinion is the only one that matters.
- I never apologize or forgive. That is a sign of weakness. If you wrong me you're dead to me.
- I will never be vulnerable with my emotions in case people judge me or take advantage of me
C. How do I know if I am guarding my heart in healthy ways? (Inter-dependence)
- I am able to receive encouragement with sobriety and criticism without plunging into despair
- I have found a way to give of myself without being overly dependent on gratitude or praise
- I am attentive to the ways in which people experience me, but I am shaped most profoundly by what God says about me.
- I am willing to say sorry if I have wronged people. If I cannot see that I have sinned but that you feel sinned against, I am still able to own the fact that I have hurt you. I will be slow to reconcile if there is not true repentance and forgiveness in a relationship.
- I will be vulnerable with my emotions to trustworthy people who can help me to be more healthy.
More than ever now, we need the well of our hearts to be filled with the Spirit so that thirsty people can draw on the life of God in this wilderness season. But for this to happen we need to guard our hearts, engaging in healthy inter-dependence rather than unhealthy co-dependence or independence.
Which heart are you?