The human body is an amazing creation, intricately designed to function like a well-oiled machine. Possibly no part of the human body is more amazing than the heart. The heart is designed to beat constantly without ever getting tired. It pumps blood throughout the entire body, with enough force to overcome gravity (ever notice how your blood keeps pumping to every part of your body even when you’re upside-down?). It runs on its own, regulating the rate at which it pumps without needing instructions from the brain. Every other part of the body is dependent upon the heart—when you have a problem with your heart, every other part of your body will have problems as well.
This is why one of the most common instructions we receive today is to take good care of our hearts. We are told to eat healthy and exercise because it helps to promote a healthy heart. Whether you follow that advice or not, you understand what is at stake—without a healthy heart, nothing else in your body can really be healthy.
In our passage this morning, the writer of Proverbs chapter 4 instructs us to guard our hearts. He was not talking about the organ that resides in our chest; he used the term “heart” to describe the core of our being—our values and motivations—the deepest part of who we are.
Why Should We Guard Our Hearts?
We are looking at Proverbs 4:20-27 this morning, where we read the words of a father giving advice to his son.
20 My child, pay attention to what I say. Listen carefully to my words. 21 Don’t lose sight of them. Let them penetrate deep into your heart, 22 for they bring life to those who find them, and healing to their whole body. 23 Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life. 24 Avoid all perverse talk; stay away from corrupt speech. 25 Look straight ahead, and fix your eyes on what lies before you. 26 Mark out a straight path for your feet; stay on the safe path. 27 Don’t get sidetracked; keep your feet from following evil (Proverbs 4:20-27, NLT)
The essence of this instruction is found in verse 23, where he says,
Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life
The writer tells his son that it is important to take care of matters of the heart, because the condition of your heart determines the direction of your life. This is the consistent teaching of scripture—as our hearts go, so do our actions. Later in Proverbs we read:
As a face is reflected in water, so the heart reflects the real person. (Proverbs 27:19, NLT)
And listen to what Jesus said about the heart in Luke 6:45,
A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. What you say flows from what is in your heart. (Luke 6:45, NLT)
Jesus states it pretty clearly—what is in our hearts determines how we act. Good things come out of a good heart, and bad things come out of a bad heart. He says that even what we say (and how and why we say it) is a reflection of what is in our hearts.
What is in our hearts is often revealed when we don’t have time to think about our response. Most of the time we can act the way we think we should, but when we’re surprised or simply reacting what’s in our hearts is what comes out. More often than not, we are shocked and saddened by what comes out of our hearts in those situations. Think about what comes out of you: when you stub your toe in the middle of the night, or when someone says something to you that hurts you deeply, or when you’re under a deadline. We try to excuse ourselves in those situations, saying, “That’s not who I really am!” but in truth, I think those situations most clearly reveal who we really are. We may not think these sinful outbursts are a big deal because they are few and far between, but over time what is in our hearts will slowly become our normal pattern of behavior—so we must be on guard.
If you’re like me, you immediately think of the negative things that come out of your heart, but positive things can come from a person’s heart as well. Have you ever met someone who is simply a joy to be around—who seems to just be joyful, no matter the situation? How about the person who seems to just have a peace about them—a peace that overflows into everyone around them? Or how about the person who is humble and takes a genuine interest in caring for and loving you? How about the person who sees the good things that no one else does; the person who encourages everyone around them? When you guard your heart and seek the Lord these are the kinds of traits that are cultivated in our hearts. There is joy and freedom in doing things God’s way, and when we set our hearts on Him and diligently protect them, we will be more joyful, fulfilled, and blessed by God. We experience life as God intended it to be.
This is why this father tells his son to guard his heart above all else. We guard all sorts of things in our lives. Though you may not lock your car or house in La Harpe, most of you will lock your car doors when you go to a bigger city because you want to guard what belongs to you. You guard your home by doing regular maintenance and repairs. You guard your money by trying to make wise investments and expenditures. You guard your family, standing up to anyone who might try to hurt them (physically or otherwise). We should guard those things, but this passage reminds us that more than anything else we might guard, we should guard our hearts. It should be our highest priority. If you keep your heart focused on the Lord, all these other things will fall into place, and so much more. If you don’t, you will begin to drift away from Him.
On Sunday mornings, we have three stringed instruments playing together, and we know that if any one of our instruments is out of tune, it will make everything sound “off”. We also know that just because we tuned our instruments last week, or even yesterday, or sometimes even a couple of hours before, it doesn’t mean they are still in tune. Instruments naturally drift out of tune over time, so we’ve learned that we need to be vigilant to keep them playing as they should.
Our hearts are a lot like stringed instruments. We can tune them up by being in church or being in Sunday School or reading and applying the Bible, but without regular tune-ups it doesn’t take long for our hearts to drift out of tune. And the longer we neglect tuning our hearts, the further they drift.
David is the perfect example of this. He was described throughout most of his life as a “man after God’s own heart.” The problem was that David began to drift. It started innocently enough: he happened to notice a woman bathing. A glance turned into a stare, that stare turned into a thought, that thought turned into a desire, and then that desire turned into an action—he had an adulterous relationship with a married woman. When she got pregnant, David ordered the murder of her husband.
David’s is a cautionary tale for each of us. How could the man after God’s heart end up committing adultery and murder? It’s simple—he allowed his heart to drift. He didn’t pay attention to his sinful thoughts, and they soon became sinful actions, and then it began to snowball out of control. We must be diligent in guarding our hearts, because if we don’t, we can drift far from the Lord into areas we never thought were possible.
How Do We Guard Our Hearts?
So the big question we need to answer is how do we guard our hearts? We’ve been focusing on verse 23 because that is kind of the thesis of this passage, but the rest of the passage really gives the prescription for how exactly to guard our hearts.
The first principle is in verses 20-22,
20 My child, pay attention to what I say. Listen carefully to my words. 21 Don’t lose sight of them. Let them penetrate deep into your heart, 22 for they bring life to those who find them, and healing to their whole body. (Proverbs 4:20-22, NLT)
He says that we must allow God’s instructions to penetrate our hearts. We often tell people to read the Bible, but we don’t always explain what that means. It’s more than merely reading for knowledge. It’s about reading for life-change. It is possible to be a Bible scholar and the winner of every Bible trivia competition, and yet be completely unchanged by what you have read. When we read the Bible, we need to read it expecting it to instruct and change us. Every time we open our Bibles, we need to ask the question, “What does God want me to learn and do from what I am reading?” We need to interact with the Bible as we read, asking questions like: How does this apply to me? What do I need to change in my life based on what this passage teaches? Is there some area of my life where I’m not living in obedience to what I am reading?
In the New Testament book of James, we see this concept explicitly.
22 But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves. 23 For if you listen to the word and don’t obey, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. 24 You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like. 25 But if you look carefully into the perfect law that sets you free, and if you do what it says and don’t forget what you heard, then God will bless you for doing it. (James 1:22-25, NLT)
God’s Word will change us if we will let it. When we study the Bible, we see the areas of our lives that need to change—the question is how do we respond? Do we do something about what God has shown us, or do we walk away unchanged? Every time we open God’s Word we must look for how He wants to change us and respond.
To guard our hearts we need to spend time studying God’s Word regularly. The more time we spend with God’s Word, the deeper it will penetrate our hearts. This is why it is imperative for us to have regular times of studying the Bible on our own, to regularly attend worship where we can have God’s Word proclaimed to us, and to be involved in a Sunday School class or Bible study where we study the Word with others. We cannot allow God’s instructions to penetrate our hearts if we don’t spend time studying them!
We see the second principle in verse 24,
Avoid all perverse talk; stay away from corrupt speech.
In other words, we must be careful who and what we allow to influence us. Whether we like to admit it or not, our environment has a profound influence on the way we think and act. To some degree or another, our hearts are like sponges—they absorb what is in the environment around us. Verse 24 tells us that we should stay away from those who talk perversely or speak corruptly. The reason for this is that we start to think and act like those with whom we spend the greatest amount of time. Have you ever noticed that there are some people who seem to bring out the critical, or gossipy, or arrogant side of you? Aren’t there also some people who bring out the positive and caring side of you? The people you spend time with impact the way you act, so seek to maximize the time you spend with those who bring out the best in you and to minimize the time you spend with those who bring out the worst.
It’s not just the company we keep, but it’s also what we read and watch and listen to that can affect our hearts. I hope you know how profoundly the music you listen to, the TV shows and movies you watch, the Web sites you visit, and the books you read impact the way you think and act. Even things that seem like good things can actually have a negative effect on us. I remember when I used to listen to a certain Christian radio show every day on my morning commute. Most mornings, the show was devoted to making listeners aware of and angry about some injustice or evil in our country. I eventually discovered that listening to this radio show made me an angry, adversarial person who was difficult to talk to and unwilling to listen to others. Once I stopped listening to this show each morning, my attitude (and my heart) began to improve.
We need to be careful who and what we allow to influence us. Our hearts are at stake.
The last principle is in verses 25-27,
25 Look straight ahead, and fix your eyes on what lies before you. 26 Mark out a straight path for your feet; stay on the safe path. 27 Don’t get sidetracked; keep your feet from following evil. (Proverbs 4:25-27, NLT)
These verses remind us to pay attention to where we are going. It doesn’t take long for us to start drifting, so we need to be diligent in keeping tabs on the condition of our hearts. How do we do that? I think we do it in a couple of different ways.
The first way is by learning to listen to the Holy Spirit. That sounds scary and somewhat mystical, but the truth is that God resides inside every believer and He seeks to direct our lives. I hope that most of you have had the experience of that nagging feeling inside of you that you should do (or shouldn’t do) something. Many times that is the Holy Spirit prompting and leading us in the way we should go. We need to work at paying attention to what the Spirit is telling us to do and then doing it.
Here’s the problem, when we ignore the promptings of the Holy Spirit in our lives, it becomes easier to ignore them in the future. It’s like developing a callous on our hearts. We develop callouses when we keep pushing through things when our body tells us to stop. If you’ve ever tried to play a stringed instrument like the guitar, you’ve discovered it’s a very painful process. At the beginning, your fingers hurt from pressing on the strings. If you keep playing even though it hurts it will eventually begin to hurt less because your fingers develop callouses. Callouses on your fingers can be good, but callouses on the heart are never good.
The first time we refuse to listen to what the Holy Spirit is telling us, it is hard. We struggle and feel guilty. When we ignore that pain and push past it, we discover that the next time it is a lot easier to ignore the leadings of God. Over time we can become so calloused that we barely even hear what God is telling us anymore.
The remedy to that is to begin reversing the trend. Start asking God to lead you and then seek to go in the direction He leads you. In the same way that ignoring God makes it easier to ignore Him in the future, when we work at following God’s leading, it becomes easier to do the next time. So we need to practice listening to God’s Spirit.
Don’t misunderstand what I am saying, because it’s not the same advice you hear from the world. The world says, “Follow your heart!” What they mean is give in to whatever your current desire is. Following the leading of the Holy Spirit is different than giving in to your desires—sometimes it involves doing the opposite of what you desire. If you are unsure of whether the leading you feel is from God or if it’s your own selfish desires there is a simple test: is what you feel led to do (or not do) consistent with the teaching of Scripture? If not, it’s not the Holy Spirit who’s leading you. On the other hand, if you feel led to do something that is consistent with what the Bible says, do it! The more we follow the Spirit’s leading, the more He will change our hearts to be like Him.
The second thing is to do self-evaluation. Without self-evaluation, it is easy to assume that everything is great in our hearts. If we aren’t careful though, we can find ourselves down the same path as David—not realizing just how far we have drifted. So we need to learn to ask questions that get to what is really in our hearts.
- Am I being prideful? Am I more concerned with myself than with others?
- Am I harboring bitterness? Is there some hurt that I am holding on to that I should let go of? Is there someone I should forgive that I refuse to? Is there someone who makes my blood boil every time I see them? If so, what do I need to do to remedy that?
- Am I being dishonest? Do I accurately represent myself, the things I do, or the way I describe other people? Am I honest not only in what I say to others, but in what I say to myself?
- What thoughts am I allowing to take up residence in my mind? What kinds of things am I dwelling on? Am I entertaining lustful thoughts, greedy thoughts, jealous thoughts, or angry thoughts? If so, work at dwelling on thoughts that please God rather than these sinful thoughts—sinful thoughts become sinful actions.
- Am I really seeking to honor the Lord in my life, or am I simply going through the motions? Am I just “playing church” and giving lip-service to God, or am I really seeking to serve Him in the way I live my life?
- Is God truly first, or are there other things that are more important to me than He is? Look at how you spend your time, money, and energy and see if you can honestly say that He is first. If not, ask what you need to do to change your priorities.
It’s hard work, but it’s also important. If we will ask ourselves tough questions like this, we force ourselves to come face-to-face with what is really in our hearts. Once we know what is in our hearts, we can go about seeking to make the changes that are necessary before it is too late—before we have drifted too far from the Lord.
It seems like in America today everywhere you turn there are people talking about the importance of being heart healthy. They emphasize how important it is to eat the right kinds of foods and to exercise and be active. None of these things are easy, but we all understand the dire consequences in store for us if we don’t take care of our hearts.
The same thing that is true with our blood-pumping organ is true with the core of our being. Your heart determines the course of your life, so you should be careful to guard it. We cannot live our lives without paying attention to our hearts and hope that somehow we will live healthy and godly lives. It doesn’t work like that. The writer of Proverbs reminds us that the most important thing we can do is to guard our hearts. Guarding something is an active process, so we must be diligent in examining the condition of our hearts and taking corrective action when necessary. If we do, we will enjoy life the way God intended for us to live—healthy and full of joy. So let’s do the hard work of being heart-healthy.