Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Above All Else

Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.

                        Proverbs 4.23 

Ours and Ours Alone

By the time he’s wrapping up Proverbs 4, Solomon’s already advanced more wisdom than most other books contain in their entirety. He pauses at verse 20 to warn against gliding over his thoughts: “My son, pay attention to what I say; listen closely to my words.” Don’t ignore them, he says. Keep them in your heart because they’re life and health. Mentioning the heart opens the door for some of the best advice ever offered about it. “Above all else, guard your heart,” he writes, “for it is the wellspring of life.”

Virtually everything else we possess—thoughts, emotions, and means—can be shared. But what we hold in our heart is ours and ours alone. The heart works like a private archive housing personal, unabridged versions of what we pass on to others. While we edit our conversations, feelings, and assets to present them to others in acceptable manners, all of what we think, feel, and own remains as-is in the depths of our heart. Only we know the entire story behind our beliefs and opinions. Our full range of passions can only be read in our hearts. And the true value of what we have—in total and by item—exclusively exists with us. We hide precious memories in our hearts and we bury horrible experiences there. Solomon counsels us to guard our hearts above all else for the obvious reason that leaving them open for anyone to meander through can jeopardize how well preserve our treasures and manage our miseries.

Inside and Out

The ancients viewed each individual as the sum of three parts: mind, soul, and heart. The mind generates conscious thought, operating as the articulator of abstract sensibilities. The soul expresses them emotionally. But mind and soul serve the impulses of the heart, as all thought and expression originate there. Consequently, the heart is also where motives reside. We might think of it this way: the mind considers “what,” the soul handles “how,” but “why” lives solely in the heart. Therefore, when Solomon tells us to guard our hearts as wellsprings of life, he’s not just talking about protecting their contents from reckless misuse. He also means we must closely monitor motives filtering into them, staying vigilant to what’s happening with our hearts, inside and out.

Without constant care, our hearts fall prey to every imaginable influence. Unhealthy motives seep into its walls before we know it. Exposing our hearts to cynicism, for example, introduces them to outside fears that drive destructive thoughts and behaviors. Lifting the shield against forces promoting excess triggers self-indulgence, addiction, promiscuity, greed, and various other gratifications that ultimately cost far more than we can afford. A heart subjected to idle gossip or malicious suggestions will acclimate to motives based on lies and suspicion. And so on. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6.21) Does it not follow that where our heart is—the company it keeps and environments it frequents—will inevitably decide what we treasure? “Guarding our hearts” includes its contents and its perimeter.

A Terrible Thing to Neglect

I’ve always admired the Negro College Fund’s tagline, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” In light of Solomon’s wisdom, believers should adopt a similar one: “A heart is a terrible thing to neglect.” So how do we avoid that? In verses 24-27, he offers a few vital tips. Resist perverse and corrupt conversation. Focus ahead. Choose only sure and firm paths. Swerve neither left nor right onto “alternative routes” that end in evil. While the contents of our hearts are ours and ours alone, they can’t be concealed.

First, God sees everything we hide there. According to 1 Samuel 16.7, “The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” When we’re misjudged, that’s an excellent promise—God knows what’s really going on and our confidence in that allows us to deflect baseless or skewed criticism. But when we attempt to present a false image of ourselves to Him, it’s smart to remember He looks into the depths of our being and knows the whole story. We’ll never fool Him and, as it turns out, we’ll seldom fool others. Jesus says, “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6.45) Sooner or later, we tell on ourselves. If we want to stand in good stead with our Maker and others, above all else we must guard our hearts.

We protect our hearts from those who might misuse its contents, motives that might lead us astray, and unhealthy influences.

(Tomorrow: Heavenly Places)

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