Guard Your Heart, Part III: Fear vs. discretion

“Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal.”
C.S. Lewis, “The Four Loves

After graduating college, I lived with a couple of good friends. At the time, we all were single and planned to stay in town. Figuring we’d be living together for a few years, we got a kitten. He was tiny and energetic and pooped a lot, and we loved him.

But two weeks later, my roommates-probably-until-one-of-us-gets-married-someday got in a fight. A month later, they moved out.

Suddenly, my best friends weren’t speaking, I was struggling to remain neutral, my living arrangements were uncertain, and I was stuck litterbox-training a cat.

*  *  *

sol-shebaCentral to the narrative of Guard Your Heart is the myth that you can somehow get through life without struggle. If you follow a certain formula, you will have perfect relationships without pain or sin.

But relationships are risky. Not just romantic ones, but friendships, familial, roommates, business – all interactions with and investments in people involve the possibility, really the guarantee, of some pain. As C.S. Lewis said, “There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable.”

When evangelicalism instructs its daughters to Guard Their Hearts, it means well. It means to prevent mistakes. It means to protect from heartache and prepare for marriage. But somewhere along the way, GYH switches into overprotection and, overzealous, derails; and then it doesn’t prepare kids to have relationships so much as instruct them to not have relationships. It suggests the solution to pain is numbness (as if pain can’t lead to growth). It trumpets reactionary fear.

I believe GYH is rooted in many fears:

Fear of hookup culture. I came of age in the Joshua Harris era, in a community that touted Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Old Testament patriarchy, and Victorian ideals of courtship. I don’t think this stuff has to do with orthodoxy so much as a reaction against the modern West’s sexual permissiveness, Second Wave feminism, and divorce rates. Like the best alternative to hookup culture is arranged marriage, or otherwise keeping men and women in separate spheres unless and until two individuals wed.

Fear of the other gender. As I mentioned before, as a kid I thought boys were seriously a different species. See, GYH isn’t said in a vacuum; it’s presented as part of a larger narrative of male-female interactions and roles. And let me tell you, the story is often bleak: Cross-gender friendships are dangerous timebombs that will end in heartache and maybe orgies. Girls, who have no libido, will trade sex for love; boys, who have no feelings, will trade love for sex. Women should never meet with a pastor, because she’ll probably end up seducing him. Men are helpless sexbeasts who can be aroused by a woman’s collarbone, kneecap, or movement; so girls, cover up please or you’re making them sin. Men must always pursue, sometimes because God personally instructed them to do so; girls must passively wait for someone to respond to. There are so many stereotypes and inaccuracies here that create confusion, rather than clarity, for kids trying to navigate puberty, friendship, and dating.

– Fear of attraction. The desire for friendship and for intimacy is natural, healthy, and good. Attraction to someone, emotional or sexual, is natural, healthy, and good. At some point, evangelicalism got stuck on the idea that desire and lust are the same thing, and universally sinful. This idea leads to a whole lot of unnatural and unhealthy suppression.

– Fear of emotion. There is a general mistrust of feelings in evangelicalism, and I think it’s in play here. People proclaim “the heart is deceitfully wicked” like its a commandment to ignore all emotion. This is particularly emphasized with women, because you know, women are so feely! They’re always, like, crying at Hallmark advertisements and having PMS! If only they could just use their brains a little more. They obviously can’t be trusted to control their expectations, know what they want, or make wise decisions in relationships.

Obviously, no one wants to live out of fear. No one wants to scare their kids into locking up their emotions and avoiding the dreaded other sex. The purported goal is to help teens have realistic expectations, to advise against misplacing trust, to “steward” (rather than shelter) hearts, as a commenter put it.

There is a subtle but important distinction, however, between teaching discretion and instilling fear. There is a distinction between saying, “You should be careful who you invest yourself in” and “If you invest yourself, you’ll lose yourself.” When preaching GYH, nuance matters.

*  *  *
“Do not forsake [Wisdom], and she will guard you …
Do not enter the path of the wicked
And do not proceed in the way of evil men. …
Watch over your heart with all diligence,
For from it flow the springs of life.”
From Proverbs 4, NASB

I love Proverbs 4, especially the lovely word-pictures about Wisdom personified. This is a chapter of promise, a chapter of challenge: Pursue wisdom. Live with intentionality. Guard yourself from evil.

Notice the language here, though. Why do you “watch over your heart with all diligence”? Because “from it flow the springs of life.” The idea here is similar to 23:7, “For as he thinks within himself, so he is.” Translation? Whatever influences you indulge in, you will become. What you let inside determines who you are outside. You are what you metaphorically eat, you know, so gorge on wisdom and pass on wickedness. These are great words to live by.

But this instruction to guard your heart from evil is very different than to Guard Your Heart from intimacy. When we take a verse about shielding yourself from perversity and apply it to the context of romance, what is that communicating about relationships? What great wickedness are we protecting from: emotions? men? Am I evil, for being vulnerable? Am I sinning?

And so we come full circle. Back to emotional straightjackets, back to misplaced shame, back to fear.

*  *  *

“Jenny Lynn, I wish that I had your thin skin
I wish that I could let the love right in …
Cause freedom is a naked heart that always dares to give.”
Katie Herzig, “Jenny Lynn

I wonder if we might benefit from reframing this conversation. I wonder if we might benefit from recognizing the fears that often motivate GYH, from refreshing the heart of the message while dropping the baggage clogging it.

What if we said, instead, to invest in people. Give away pieces of yourself (you’ll still be whole). Give affection, give love, give trust, give a listening ear, give your story, give honesty, give time, give vulnerability. Not all of these things to everyone all the time. But don’t live in fear of pain. Relish community. Nourish friendships. Love humanity.

What if we said, instead, to set boundaries. Don’t lock up your heart, but acknowledge the importance of discretion and recognize your limits. Give yourself permission to say “no” or “not now” to people who want you to invest more of yourself than you want or think wise. Give yourself permission to step back if you’re needing to recharge emotionally. Give yourself permission to walk away if someone doesn’t respect you.

What if we said, instead, to trust your gut. You were given instincts and emotions for a reason. Feelings can’t be your only guiding force, of course, but neither can logic. Don’t dismiss your heart.

What if we said, instead, to seek wisdom. Listen to advice from parents, friends, and mentors on who to invest in, and when. Pray about your relationships, all of them. Watch for red flags.

There is a special excitement, there are peculiar hopes that come with romance. But I don’t know that the rules we should give for dating, or just cross-gender friendships, are all that drastically different from the guidelines we’d apply to any relationship. Your boyfriend can hurt you, sure, but so can your family betray you or your forever-friends fight. People are people; deal with them accordingly. Even when approached wisely, relationships can suck. You still may end up with a broken heart. You may end up with residual pain or disappointed expectations. You may end up with a pooping cat.

But that’s no reason not to love.

Part I: I guarded my heart, and I regret it
Part II: Emotional purity isn’t real

Meeting between the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon” by Piero della Francesca


  1. This series has been fantastic. Thank you so much for sharing your heart here. I’m forwarding it on!

  2. Rachael · · Reply

    Bravo. This really gets to the crux of the issue.

  3. jmellison · · Reply

    So good. But the whole section on “Fear of the other gender” was my favorite.

  4. Dan McDonald · · Reply

    A wonderful work of distinguishing between the usually good goals of “gyh” and the sad effects of the teaching and some good suggestions what to replace it with. The whole goal of the Christian life is the redemption of humanity. If a teaching leads to reducing our humanity there is something wrong with it. You have shared in this series a perspective that seeks to restore a creative humanity living in relationships with others. Thank-you.

  5. I agree – I think that GYH has become almost an obsession…but I think that in part it’s because no one has defined it. I grew up in the church and it took going to college to finally have someone give me a definition of guarding my heart. I think I got a different definition than you did, and I’d be interested in hearing what you think of it: there is nothing wrong with having a crush, dating, or getting married. The thing you are guarding your heart from is making these things the ultimate source of your life. Enjoying spending time with your guy friends: totally okay, and highly encouraged (we were repeatedly told that we couldn’t avoid boys just because we liked them. They were part of the kingdom of God and we need to be able to have relationships with them too, especially when we have crushes on them). Building your future on them and on the hope of there someday being something between you (such as planning your wedding, how many kids you’re going to have, etc): not okay, because you’re not trusting God with the future.

    What do you think?

    1. That is a very different definition than what I’ve heard before, Joy, but what a good message. I think there’s great value in emphasizing the humanity and worth of other people (even crushes!). I love the emphasis on not “making these things the ultimate source of your life,” balancing hopes for the future with faith and personal growth. Honestly, if this is how GYH was taught more often, I’d be all for it. I’d be interested to know if you’ve encountered this definition from more than one source?

  6. i stumbled upon this, and i am floored. i will be reading everything else that you have written. thank you, thank you, thank you for daring to be a different, intelligent, thoughtful voice in this conversation. i remember reading joshua harris’s book in the twelfth grade and feeling sick with guilt over how i’d had strong feelings for people i wouldn’t end up marrying. these ‘guard your heart’ blogs are truly gifts and i think Jesus wanted me to see them tonight. thank you.

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