Article May 4, 2015

What does "guard your heart" really mean in dating?

When you read most Christian dating books, one of the key pieces of counsel they provide is to “guard your heart.” They establish that guarding your heart is an essential component of correctly pursuing any dating relationship. The verse they generally appeal to is Proverbs 4:23, which says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” However, these generalized calls to guard your heart in the midst of dating fall short in three ways:

  1. They tell you to guard your heart, but they don’t tell you how.
  2. They tell you to guard your heart, but they don’t tell you why.
  3. They tell you to guard your heart, but they don’t tell you how long.

How do you guard your heart?

If you are supposed to guard your heart in dating, how do you do it? There is only one other verse in the Bible that uses the phrase “guard your heart.” That verse gives us the answer to the question of how to guard your heart in life and, particularly, in dating.

In Philippians 4:6-7, Paul says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Paul tells us that prayer is the pathway to guarding our hearts and minds with the peace of God. Peace comes as a comfort rooted in our trust in God that is expressed in the process of prayer. So, guarding your heart is the result of clear communication.

It begins with prayer to God (as Paul lays out in Philippians 4:6-7) and overflows into communication with the other person. In other words, the key to guarding your heart is to talk to God about the relationship before you talk to the other person about the relationship.

When do hearts become unguarded?

First, hearts become unguarded when you move too fast in the relationship–becoming too vulnerable too quickly. You must lay a foundation of friendship before building a house of intimacy.

Second, hearts become unguarded when you are not seeking God’s desires for the relationship. Instead of depending on your own understanding and priorities for the relationship, you must seek God’s heart.

Third, hearts become unguarded when there is poor communication about the relationship. This can include poor communication with God in prayer or poor communication with the other person in discussion. If you are too afraid to talk to either of them about an aspect of your relationship, then you probably shouldn’t be involved in it.

Why do you guard your heart?

To understand why you should guard your heart, you must understand what Israel would have understood Solomon to be saying in Proverbs 4:23. Most importantly, they did not understand this passage to have anything to do with Americanized dating.

While we view the heart as the seat of our emotions and our will, Israel understood the heart to be the center of the whole person—not just the source of emotions and will but also of wisdom and perspective. In essence, the heart referred to who you are as a person.

Solomon rightly realized that what you do flows from who you are. That’s why he instructs Israel to guard the heart (who you are) because the wellspring of life (what you do) flows from it. Therefore, it is essential for you to guard your heart in dating because what you do in a dating relationship flows from who you are in a dating relationship.

Most books on dating treat the idea of guarding your heart as if it merely involves protecting yourself from too much intimacy with someone of the opposite sex. But guarding your heart is so much more than this! It’s a call to protect your character in all that you do. Unless you catch this kind of vision for why you need to guard your heart, it will remain a legalistic, minimalistic endeavor in your life.

How long do you guard your heart?

Since most Christian dating books put such a premium on guarding your heart, the result is that it often leaves people paralyzed as a relationship develops. Instead of following God’s leadership in how much vulnerability to allow, they seek to set up rigid boundaries on emotional, physical and spiritual intimacy. Let’s be honest—people like rigid boundaries over seeking the Lord because it seems easier; that is, until you realize it doesn’t work.

Am I saying that building boundaries into a relationship in order to guard your heart is wrong? No. What I am saying is that these boundaries should flow from your relationship with God. Paul tells us in Philippians 4:6-7 that prayer, not boundaries, is the means of guarding your hearts. How you approach your relationship with God is going to directly impact how you approach your relationship in dating.

How long do you guard your heart? It depends on how you define guarding your heart. If we are talking about the type of guarding your heart implied by Christian dating books, then the answer is: guard every aspect of your relationship until God confirms it’s wise to move into deeper relational intimacy. (Obviously, the only go-ahead for physical intimacy is in the context of marriage.) In other words, it’s a progressive process. But if guarding your heart means protecting who you are so that you can influence what you do, then “How long?” is the wrong question. You should always be protecting your character. In other words, it’s a perpetual process.

Guarding your heart is one of the most important yet least understood facets of Christian dating. It can paralyze you, or it can liberate you. Guarding your heart is the key to saving yourself for your future spouse in a way that honors God.

Learn from Phillip Bethancourt and other speakers at the fourth annual ERLC National Conference on "Parenting: Christ-Centered Parenting in a Complex World" on August 24-26, 2017 in Nashville, TN.

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