Digging in Deeper: Proverbs 4:23

“Guard your heart above all else, for it is the source of life.” (CSB – Read the chapter)

One of my favorite illustrations of something Jesus said involves a tube of toothpaste. I look at the congregation and tell them people are like a tube of toothpaste. Then I ask them a question: What comes out when you squeeze a tube of toothpaste? After laughing nervously for a minute because they figure it’s a trick question (it’s not), I tell them: toothpaste. The next question is why? At this point, they’re really worried I’m going to pull something on them. Toothpaste comes out of a tube of toothpaste because that’s what’s in it. Now, sure, I’ve occasionally seen a magician make something like ketchup come out of a tube of toothpaste, but we all know that’s just a trick. If you were to go to the store and open all the tubes of toothpaste right out of their boxes, you would find nothing but toothpaste in them over and over and over again. Then, just to illustrate the point, I squeeze a tube of toothpaste all over a plate in front of them. The illustration is fun, but it helps make a point that Solomon makes right here in Proverbs. Let’s talk about it.

Now, in a woodenly literal sense, guarding your heart means eating well and exercising. It means avoiding unnecessary stress and anxiety. And these things are worth doing because if your ticker quits, so do you. But that’s not what Solomon was talking about here. Instead, he’s using the idea of the heart metaphorically to refer to that immaterial part of us where our thinking, feeling, and emotions all originate. Yet again, in strictly physical terms, we know this is the brain, but again, that’s not what Solomon is talking about. He’s getting here at that part of us from which everything that makes us us, flows.

And about this part of us, he says we should guard it. In fact, he says more than that. He says we should guard it “above all else.” That’s some pretty strong language. Put in the context of Proverbs as a whole, what Solomon means is that guarding our hearts is more important than anything else he has to say. In its more immediate context, Solomon is giving counsel to his son on how to walk the straight and narrow path that leads to life. The most important part of that journey is to guard our hearts.

This can be a tricky thing to do, though, because we can’t necessarily see what has access to our heart. It’s sometimes hard to know what we are putting into it. You can tell what’s in it, though, by what comes out of you when life has put the squeeze on you. Have you ever caught yourself reacting in a way that seemed to come completely out of left field? Someone said something or did something or you witnessed something and the first thing to come out of your mouth or to pop into your head shocked you. It may have even shocked the people around you because it was so ugly or angry or judgmental or what have you. And your first thought in situations like this is probably something along the lines of, “Where did that come from?” Yet the answer to that question is as clear as it could be. It came from inside of you. Why? Because it was inside of you. It had been there for perhaps a long time, just waiting for the right squeeze to force it out.

That, however, just raises another question: How did it get inside of you? Well, there are two answers to that question and neither of them are very comfortable. The first answer is that it was always inside of you because of sin. The brokenness of sin affects every part of our thinking and reasoning. In particular, apart from Christ, there is not a word that leaves our mouths or a thought that forms in our minds that is not affected by its taint. It could be that the reason you responded that way is simply because you’re a sinner acting out of your sin.

The second answer, though, is even less comfortable to consider. The reason that ugly thing was inside of you is because you put it there. Or, at least, you allowed it to be put there. Consider for a minute the kind of media content you consume on a regular basis. Is it uniformly edifying and supportive of your commitment to live out the life of Christ on a consistent basis? It may be, but if I were to make a bet on the matter, I wouldn’t want to wager a whole lot of money on it. My guess is that some of it…maybe a lot of it…is not terribly reflective of the character of Christ and the truths of the Christian worldview. Now, this doesn’t mean we should cut ourselves off from anything that isn’t explicitly Christian in its outlook. If we did that, there wouldn’t be a whole lot of media content left to consume, and most of it wouldn’t be very good. But when we allow in garbage that doesn’t comport with our professed worldview often enough, some of it is going to stick. Do that over a very long period of time, and all of a sudden, we’ve got a problem.

In this way, our spiritual hearts can get clogged just like our physical hearts. No one gets a clogged artery all at once. Instead, as we eat foods that aren’t the best for us, the fat and cholesterol flow through our blood vessels. Most of it flows right on through without an issue, but not all of it. A little bit of it sticks here and there. And once some of it has started to stick, over time, a little bit more will stick. Then a little bit more. Then, just a little bit more. And all of a sudden, we’re a heart attack waiting to happen because we can’t get proper blood flow throughout our body. Our hearts finally just give up.

So then, how do we guard our heart? By being relentlessly diligent about paying attention to what we allow access to it. We make sure we keep ourselves on a steady diet of truth in the Scriptures. We regularly cleanse our hearts with prayer and worship and confession. When we engage with some sort of media – and I should say there is some content we would be wise to simply avoid because there really isn’t anything redeeming to it – we always do so with awareness of what we’re doing. While there are filters like VidAngel that can take all the “bad” stuff out for us, filters like that can only do so much. More to the point, while they can cut out bad language or sensuality or violence in a particular show, they aren’t able to filter the worldview ideas being expressed. We’ve got to do that ourselves. That means always engaging through the lens of our Christian worldview. We must actively evaluate truth claims being made against the standard of Scripture. This isn’t always an easy thing to do because they’re not necessarily thrust right out in the open where we can see them. They are buried beneath loads of character and dialogue. That just means we have to listen harder.

Guarding our heart, though, must go beyond just what media content we might consume. We guard it as we engage with the people around us as well. We need to make sure our closest friends share our faith and encourage us in the direction of Christlikeness. This does not at all mean we can’t have non-Christian friends. Far from it! But we have to make sure in those important instances that we are the ones doing the influencing more so than being influenced. Being fully and faithfully engaged with a church community can help a great deal in this regard. The idea that bad company can corrupt good character is true. We have to guard our heart. But we are also called to engage unbelievers with the Gospel, something done best from out of the context of a relationship. So, we guard and go.

We need also here to take into account what’s going on inside our own heads. Are we giving our attention to things which are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, and morally excellent, or are we giving our primary attention to what is false, angry, corrupted, ugly, and dishonorable?

We do all of this and more because what comes out of us is determined by what is inside of us, and we want to make sure that only good things are coming out of us. None of this is easy, and it can get tiring after a while. But we press on because our goal is reflecting the image of Christ; it is to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. This is not just some hard slog that we have to make on our own, though. We have help in this. We have help from the Holy Spirit – God’s own Spirit – taking up residence inside of us when we give our allegiance to Christ. With His help empowering our diligence (alongside an equally committed community of faith), this really is a battle we can win. So, guard your heart. It is worth every bit of effort you can give it.

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