When I was a single gal, I dated a number of men for a variety of reasons. For some, my reasons were well thought out and prayed over. For others, my reasons were foolish, and my motives were dubious.
In one instance, I hesitated when a young man began to pursue me. He was actively involved at church, but we were in very different stages of spiritual maturity and I lacked a peace about dating him. I dragged my feet in responding to his advances for quite awhile. Eventually a friend advised me to stop floundering and "just go for it." And so I did.
Less than a year later, our relationship went up in flames, leaving me broken and depressed. I wished I had listened to my instincts, and I wished I had followed the Spirit's leading, which had burdened me with a gnawing sense of caution both prior to and during the courtship. Although God used that relationship to grow me, the memory is marked by godly regret. God's redemption does not validate my foolishness.
Not all of my failed relationships were such a glaring mistake. Some were simply the result of mismatched souls. Those relationships were painful, but there was no one to blame, per se. Others were the clear result of foolishness, even sin. I deliberately ignored God's leading or rejected scriptural counsel, and as a result I suffered emotional fallout.
These latter bouts of personal folly came to mind after reading the popular post "I Stopped Guarding My Heart Ten Years Ago" in Prodigal Magazine. In it, Emily Maynard describes a childhood church culture that was nearly obsessed with counseling young women to "guard their hearts." She concludes that this teaching is a lie and produces only shame. Maynard writes:
At the root of any balanced, healthy, true relationship, at the heart of every heart, is vulnerability. And vulnerability can't exist when you are focused on living out a particular set of rules. The rules for "Guarding Your Heart" are both fear based and ambiguous and, as with most relationship rules, ultimately produce shame, not health. They breed shame because we can't live up to the ideal put for us: that we can be whole people while avoiding the potential for pain. Shame and vulnerability are antithetical concepts; they cannot coexist.
In contrast with this relational rigidity, Maynard chooses to be vulnerable in her relationships for the sake of authenticity. She vows never to withhold the word "love" whenever she feels it, and therefore embraces a fully alive existence in which her heart is completely "unguarded."
To be sure, many Christian women have experienced the culture Maynard describes. Somehow the teaching to guard one's heart gets translated into, "Deny your feelings" or "Don't have crushes" or "Don't go out on dates." Not surprisingly, the attempt to quash one's romantic feelings by pretending they don't exist usually results in failure.
I had never heard the phrase used in this way. To me, "guarding one's heart" has always been about wisdom in dating: Don't get too serious too fast, and don't give your heart to someone who has proved to be untrustworthy. This is a very different interpretation from, "Don't have feelings for any man who is not your future husband."
With that in mind, we cannot truly understand the phrase "guard your heart" unless we look to the verse from which it originates, Proverbs 4:23. Maynard mentioned this verse in passing, but it is essential to the conversation. This verse exhorts us to guard our hearts because one's heart "is the wellspring of life" (NIV); "from it flow the springs of life" (ESV). In other words, guarding my heart is not about sparing me pain in relationships, but tending to the health of my soul.
Put another way, an unguarded heart can lead to a poisoned spiritual wellspring, one that is tainted with bitterness or self-loathing. The repercussions of an unguarded heart are especially apparent in unhealthy parent-child relationships. A number of my female friends learned to guard their hearts from a parent after years of emotional abuse. Until they did so, they were wracked with shame and insecurity. Their wellsprings were not life giving, but toxic.
Unwise dating relationships can have a similar effect. When a woman gives her heart too freely to men who might abuse it, she endangers the wellspring of her soul. That is not to say that women should deny their romantic feelings or should refuse dates unless they are sure they will end in marriage. On the contrary, a first date is perfect for investigating whether a man is trustworthy. It is when a woman determines whether she can give her heart away some day in the future.
Maynard is right to criticize versions of "guard your heart" that shame women for having failed relationships or that promise a life without pain in dating. Proverbs 4:23 makes no such promise. What it does encourage is wisdom, caution, and discernment in how we handle our hearts. Although God allows pain in our lives as a teacher, he is no masochist. The entire Book of Proverbs communicates God's desire to spare us the pain and destruction of folly.
"Guard" your heart does not mean "lock it up and throw away the key." This verse does not promote emotional suppression. Instead, guarding your heart and tending to your soul—rather than indiscriminately putting your heart out there, blindly following your heart, or diving into intimate relationships without hesitation—is how you are able to love more freely and fully. Guarding your heart is not the antithesis of vulnerability; rather, it makes healthy, God-honoring vulnerability possible in the first place.