Why No One Can Guard Their Heart

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Love is about risk.
If we can control it and manage it and manufacture it,
then it’s something else,
but if it’s really love, really friendship,
it’s a little scary around the edges
Shauna Niequist

I fell head over heels in love with a boy in high school. Life was so beautiful. Love was so new and wonderful. In college, something changed. He pulled away, distanced himself, and the relationship ended. I felt hurt, confused, and very sad.

What made it worse was I had just helped bring together my then-best friend and the boy she loved. Why did she get her “happily ever after” when mine became broken dreams?

Or did it?

Give Your Heart?

“Have you ever given your heart to someone who didn’t love you back?” The back cover of Emotional Purity by Heather Paulsen asks readers the question while assuming an affirmative response is bad. Meaning, if you answer “Yes, I’ve loved someone who didn’t love me back,” it’s a bad thing.

There are far worse things than to love without being loved back. Do we not do this with a rebellious child? With a wayward friend? Why is this bad? Is this not what Christ did for us?

The back cover continues:  “If the relationship doesn’t work out, you’re left with scars on your heart…people may… consider themselves pure, but in reality they have given away pieces of their hearts that should be reserved for their future spouses.”

Is the heart like a pie which can be divided, parceled out, and become irrevocably damaged? How does one draw lines to distinguish what parts of our emotions and feelings belongs only to a future spouse? Are scars bad?

One point must be made immediately. To love and care for someone, to invest in someone, to give of yourself to the point where you are vulnerable to pain and hurt, is not bad or wrong. Whether the other person is a man, woman, or child, we give ourselves to everyone in our lives. To use the author’s vernacular, we give pieces of our hearts away. Does this mean we have less to give our future spouse?

To give of yourself to the point where you are vulnerable to pain and hurt, is not bad.

Scars are beautiful. We all have them. Even Jesus.

When we give our hearts to others, our love and ability to be close to another person does not diminish–it multiplies. How can a person have a whole heart to give to more than one individual? Because our hearts are not pies. They are a part of our spirit: vibrant, flexible, and ever-maturing and deepening. Just as our love multiplies, matures, deepens, and grows for our children and family, it can grow through the pain and joys of any relationship. If we let it.

We must be open to the pain as well as the joys. To put up a wall to protect oneself from the pain also keeps out the good. But this is what it means to guard one’s heart. Right?

Guard Your Heart?

As the introductory quote says, love is scary around the edges. Sometimes it’s just flat out terrifying. We can react in fear or we can react in a mature, wise manner. I believe that a mature response is not to guard ourselves or put up walls, but instead to open our hearts to all the tumult, danger, and heady joy that love–be it friendship, romantic, or familial–brings.

But doesn’t the Bible say to “guard our hearts”?

Let’s examine what Scripture says about guarding one’s heart. There are two primary passages which speak of this concept, and I have concluded neither refer to something like emotional purity.

Proverbs 4:23, which is most often cited in defense of emotional purity and originally appeared on the back cover of EP, says, “watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life.” The springs of life here refer to your spiritual life and well-being. The speaker in Proverbs is telling his son to be diligent in protecting his spiritual life, his relationship with God, from harm.

We should pursue emotional maturity in our relationships

Philippians tells us God’s peace will guard our hearts and minds (4:7). If we examine the entire chapter, we see this is possible when we do not worry and turn everything to God in prayer. We are to dwell on what is good and pure (4:8), instead of on our anxieties. This kind of guarding refers to God’s work as He guards or “keeps” our inner spiritual life and mind safe.

What does these passages have to do with emotional purity, that is, keeping your emotions from being entangled with any man (“saving your heart”) until marriage? Nothing I can see. Yet these verses, especially Proverbs 4:23, are used as the basis for the emotional purity theology.

Emotional Purity vs. Emotional Maturity

Instead of emotional purity, I posit that we should pursue emotional maturity in our relationships--whether romantic, platonic, or familial. Should we live in all purity, abstaining from even the appearance of evil? Of course. But when it comes to our emotions, I think a focus on maturity enables us to deepen our relationship with Christ instead of agonizing over the presence or absence of emotions that may or may not be in our control. It’s how we act that shows maturity, not always how we feel.

To love anyone–family, friends, or a man–involves risk. It will be painful. It’s worth it. I don’t regret loving my high school sweetheart any more than I could regret loving my son. Both taught me, matured me, and deepened my ability to love again and again, with the love of Christ.

To use words much more eloquent than mine, I defer to C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves:

There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. 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. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell…

We shall draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to Him; throwing away all defensive armor. If our hearts need to be broken, and if He chooses this as the way in which they should break, so be it.

“Simple” Relationships

In chapter two of Emotional Purity, the author says the way she kept from experiencing heartache was “simple.” She and the guy friend had a DTR. Because of this, he remained a brother and no heartache occurred. Simple.

It’s not simple. Just because a relationship has been determined to be “just friends” doesn’t mean neither person will develop an attraction or romantic feelings. If only life and relationships were simple and safe, with guaranteed results if proper steps are followed.

I once developed an attraction to a young man in my circle of friends. We were casual friends, but never spent time one-on-one or talked about anything too personal.

Still, I hoped one day he would notice me and ask me out. Then he asked out my friend. Cue disappointment. Yet I don’t regret caring about him. It was worth the risk of disappointment and we are still in a comfortable relationship as brother and sister. Note that I didn’t say we are “just friends.”

The whole concept of categorizing all relationships with the opposite sex into “just friends” or “the one” is unhealthy.

Let’s be crystal clear, “brotherhood and sisterhood” is not a synonym for “just friends.” This cheapens and limits the body of Christ. As the guiding principle of all of our interactions it is so much more. You do not start there and move onto “something more.” The something more, the something greater, is the brotherhood and sisterhood of all believers! We are given this greater default relationship as a gift of grace. How amazing is that!

Shame on us for reducing the brotherhood and sisterhood of all believers to something so much less, so trivial as some modern dating version of “just friends.” – Brian Kammerzelt

Closeness = heartache = bad

In the Introduction, the author of EP writes Christians are proponents of physical purity but not emotional purity. She then makes a statement which must be assumed true by the reader for the rest of the book to make sense. She writes: “I am seeing a pattern develop in male/female friendships–emotional closeness with no commitment–a pattern that always leads to heartache.”

Does being emotionally attached in a close friendship to a member of the opposite sex always, without fail, lead to heartache? Not at all! And even if this were true, who are we to try to avoid heartache? What if we were created to need each other as the family of God in a close and intimate way? Not just in marriage, but in the church at large?

Brian Kammerzelt writes,

[M]an was created as a social creature that needed to be in community with an equal and have intimate companionship. Within a community of Christ, among the brotherhood and sisterhood of all believers, no one need feel alone. The degree to which this is true in any given community should be the barometer for whether or not a Christ like community is being expressed.

If a group of Christians is not experiencing healthy, loving interactions, the answer is not to put up walls and guard themselves more, but to change their thinking about relationships.

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  1. Thank you for this thoughtful post, Natalie! You really hit the nail on the head.

    When I think about this issue, it seems like Christians swing to one extreme or another. On the one hand, I believe many Christians date too casually, and really do open up too much of their hearts to someone who has not committed anything to them. It is wise to think about how much you are opening yourself up to someone of the opposite gender.

    But if you react too strongly to that, you end up not taking any chances or thinking that the first person you grow close to like that has to be “the one.”

    I just don’t see how you can get close enough to someone to know if you should marry them without opening your heart to them. You simply cannot avoid the risk of a broken heart.

    A broken heart does heal with time, and it does not leave any less of your emotional self to give to a future spouse. However, a pattern of fearfully refusing to open your heart and share your emotions really could hurt a future marriage.

    It is indeed worth the risk!

  2. But… not ALL scars are beautiful. Some are ugly and could have been avoided if the situation had been dealt with properly- with wisdom, communication, prayer etc…
    There are some mistakes that God doesn’t want us to make. But if we do make those mistakes, God wants us to use them for good- to learn and grow from and to glorify Him.

    And then there are scars that are given to us through no fault of our own. They are scars that are forced upon use because of the choices of others…

    • I would agree with Anonymous. We must be very careful not confuse our categories by ever calling what is evil good. There is a big difference between something being good, and God working a situation out for good

      I agree with Natalie that love is the mandate of all believers. Yes, we should love everybody, but a romantic relationship includes much more. It is emotional attraction, infatuation, physical desire, and idolatry of that guy or girl that creates a “impure heart”.

      Love itself is pure (not that we ever practice it perfectly). And practicing love would lead to emotional maturity. However, that is not everything that a relationship involves. Its not a simple as “lets just love everybody, and then it will be their fault if we get hurt”.

      We are to love always, but also it is our responsibility to protect ourselves from impure attitudes and attractions that lead take away from this idea of “emotional purity”.

    • Anonymous comments bother me…if you are willing to say something on a public forum, and believe in what you say, don’t be afraid to use your name. 🙂

  3. I’m so glad to see you tackling this subject – you have a unique perspective on this whole ball of wax that I think really needs to be heard. Yet again, the “formula” comes into play – if you abide by the formula, you don’t get hurt and everything is happily ever after. If you do get hurt, you weren’t following the formula, or you were following it wrong, or somehow you were to blame. It’s never the formula (which was created by people, not by God) that’s at fault, so anyone following it is in a no-win situation.

    Love is not a zero-sum game. I don’t love my second child less because I had a child before her. I don’t love my newer friends less than my old friends because I’ve known them a shorter period of time. LOVE IS NOT FINITE. And with regards to scars, I think we’re all stronger at the broken places. The lessons we learn may be hard, but they’re worth learning, rather than hiding behind a wall of man-made rules that separate us from the full range of human experiences and emotions in the interests of safety.

  4. Thank you for this post. It made some things clear with which I have been struggling recently. God bless.

  5. Thank you for sharing your heart and thoughts.

    I find it sad what some girls have confused emotional purity and having a mind that honors God. My mom always told me that God created us to be attracted to men, so the sin did not lie in attraction. The sin lied in what you did with the attraction. Lust is not loving someone.

    It is not loving God either to let your whole mind be consumed with this certain guy. To shut out everything else and softly begin to change some things that shouldn’t just for a guy to notice you.

    I do regret how much I liked a guy. We never had a relationship, but my life was taken over with day dreaming and hoping for him instead of trusting in the Lord.

    I don’t regret the attraction, but how I handled the attraction. God is faithful to teach me and I have committed to more faithful prayer regarding any other guys I’m attracted too.

    God made us women emotional, but we do have a responsibility to be careful in how we handle our emotions.

    Emotions are tricky things and I have not mastered them. I’m thankful for a God who loves and gives grace even when again and again I’m prone to day dream constantly about boys.

  6. Tough subject! Partly because it is so personal and we often have to walk through the fire ourselves to be refined. Good intentions and even a close walk with the Lord don’t necessarily exempt us.

    After about 4-5 years of loving a wonderful Christian brother with no signs of reciprocation (romantically), the Lord clearly said to me, “You do not need to be ashamed for having loved.”

    After the 6th year we did start courting and he later became my husband. But it was important for me to know that even if we weren’t meant to be together, I hadn’t wasted my life or compromised my future marriage because I had loved this guy. It seemed pointless and a waste to ME, but I had always been honest with God and for some reason He did not take those feelings away, even when it wasn’t the right time.

    However, loving someone doesn’t mean you have to go and do something. It is between you and the Lord. “Yes, I’ve loved someone who didn’t love me back.” Okay, but who knew about it, and how did you handle the situation?

    Also, we sometimes take on burdens that we aren’t meant to. Yes, we need to love our children and other family members, and the people in our church family. We don’t have a choice there. But if a member of the opposite sex doesn’t love us back, it isn’t our duty to keep heaping affection on them. We don’t have to turn ourselves into martyrs. He has his mother to bake him cookies and his men’s group to handle his prayer needs. No one asked us to bear this burden of caring for someone who may be another person’s future spouse. We must have boundaries.

  7. Natalie, great insights! In retrospect on my own life, as well as in response to your thoughts, I think that we need to remember that God calls us to sexual purity. That does include thoughts and emotions! Single or married, we DO need to control our thoughts and emotions—bringing them captive to Christ. But that is not the same as avoiding every emotional attatchment to the opposite sex. Again, thanks for the insightful article—-I will be sharing it with my sisters.

  8. This was soo on time! The scripture on guarding your heart when interpreted by most goes against the very nature of Jesus! I’m glad that you brought clarity to that scripture! Jesus was so open in His relationships to the point that He shared all that the Father shared with Him! I will point out that the intimate sharing was with friends and it was mutual. He did however extend unconditional love to ALL! Jesus extended love to all and when reciprocated, they entered into covenant with Him and reaped the benefits of friendship (total openess). I think it is important to grasp that principal so that we can bring balance and not just be so openly relational with everyone we meet. Like the scripture says, we should guard our hearts (our spiritual resevoir) for out of it flows the issues of life. Covenants in the form of friendships will most certainly effect your spiritual resevoir so we must make sure that we are “walking in agreement”.

  9. Oh my heart that C.S. Lewis quote. This is tricky territory, in a space where pain is inevitable but harm is not excused. I’m with you for healthy, mature relationships, and doing the work to figure out what those are.