I was 12 when I took my first self defense class. But I’ve been protecting myself a lot longer than that; we come out of the womb with an aversion to pain.
Beyond learning to avoid situations that would bring physical pain, I protected everything I cared about from my favorite stickers, to my prized Michael Jordan basketball. Nothing was safe unless I carefully watched it.
So when my parents taught me to guard my heart, I caught on quickly.
Guard your heart, guard your heart, guard your heart. Not only have I been told that my whole life, but also I spent years drilling those three words into the middle and high school girls I discipled. But as my teens melted into my twenties, guarding my heart turned into imprisoning it.
What does it really mean to “guard your heart”? To protect your emotions, affections, and soul? I’ve been forced to reconsider my definition and my role in the process. I’ll tell you what it’s not.
It’s not kissing dating goodbye.
It’s not self-protecting.
And it’s not encasing your heart in lead so no one can get in to break it.
In fact, when I took this question to Scripture, I was surprised by the life-giving answer I found.
What “Guard” Really Means
Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life. (Proverbs 4:23)
While Proverbs 4:23 is the go-to verse about “guarding” your heart, could it be possible that it’s not all there is to the story?
It wasn’t until recently that I discovered “guard” doesn’t mean bar, seal, or coat in a shield of lead. In the Hebrew, “keep” (interchangeable with “guard”) literally means “to set a watchman over it” — but not just any watchman.
I’ve been driven by fear to guard my heart, scared of the consequences if I didn’t. So, instead of setting a watchman over it, I locked it up out of panic that it would escape. I feared that it would lead me to sin, and that I would be to blame for the prison break.
As I pored over Scripture, light bulbs were flipping on right and left; for nowhere in the Bible does God command us to keep or guard our hearts in our own strength. The Lord means for us to guard our hearts by filtering our emotions, desires, thoughts, and responses through his Word.
He is the watchman that protects our souls. And what’s his primary means of defense? The sword of Scripture.
The task is simple: We are commanded to keep ourselves in his Word, and he keeps our hearts.
…keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. (Jude 21)
This God—his way is perfect; the word of the Lord proves true; he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him. (Psalm 18:30)
How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. (Psalm 119:9)
He holds success in store for the upright, he is a shield to those whose walk is blameless, for he guards the course of the just and protects the way of his faithful ones. (Proverbs 2:7-8, NIV)
The Real Prisoner
“You have barbed wire around your heart.” That’s what my pastor has told me for years. Fear held my heart captive and I wouldn’t let anything in or out.
That’s why Proverbs 4 is so significant for those of us who are prone to keeping our emotions and heart on lockdown. It breathes peace into anxiety and tells us what the real prisoner should be.
My son, be attentive to my words;
incline your ear to my sayings.
Let them not escape from your sight;
keep them within your heart. (Proverbs 4:20-21, emphasis mine)
Why the command to keep these words of truth as prisoners in our hearts? Because, as the passage goes on to say, they are inmates that bring growth and the cure for our fear-drenched soul.
For they are life to those who find them,
and healing to all their flesh. (Proverbs 4:22, emphasis mine)
Are you like me, longing for life and healing? It’s found in the Word of Truth made flesh, the Lord Jesus who gives life and heals all wounds.
Are you like me, longing for protection and security? It’s found in the Lord Jesus who gives eternal protection and security to all those who are his (1 Peter 1:5).
The devil may hate me with all the vehemence of his malicious nature; but ‘love is strong as death,’ and the love of God in Christ is my everlasting safeguard. (Susannah Spurgeon)
We must remember that God’s way of guarding of our hearts may differ from our idea of how he will do so. We see in Scripture that God will not protect us from pain, hurt, or anything that will make us look more like Jesus (1 Peter 1:6-9). And he will not keep us from any circumstance or situation—no matter how brutal—that will lead us into a deeper knowledge of his heart.
The Lord, through his Word, is the guard, shield, and protector of our hearts. This doesn’t mean pain doesn’t come, but that when it does we can rest (and ultimately rejoice) because we know who has allowed it. This process, like everything else, goes back to either believing or disbelieving God’s character.
He who gave us a new heart can be trusted to protect it (Ezekiel 36:26).
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Our tender new hearts are not guaranteed protection from wounds; not even Jesus was kept from that. But they are guaranteed protection by a Savior who filters everything that comes to us through his nail-scarred hands that were pierced for our transgressions (Isaiah 53:5). What comes to us must first pass through him. Because he took our worst threat upon himself and saved our hearts from the wrath of God, we can trust him to continue keeping our hearts for eternity.
This truth speaks peace to the winds and waves of my storm-tossed mind and gives this fear-prone heart immediate rest.
If through a broken heart God can bring his purposes to pass in the world, then thank him for breaking your heart. (Oswald Chambers)
What does this mean for us? Consider the following questions as we seek the Lord for his Spirit’s help in aligning our lives with his Word.
- Are you actively setting the Word of God as a watchman over your soul by reading it and hearing it preached?
- Are you filtering your circumstances, decisions, thoughts, and responses through what God’s Word says?
- Do you prayerfully seek the Lord, trusting the One who gave you a new heart to protect it?
- Are you trying to guard your heart in your own strength, or acknowledging your weakness and trusting the all-sufficient One to be your defender?