The phrase “guard your heart” is often misunderstood in the Bible. So what does “guard your heart” actually mean?
The key Bible verse on guarding your heart is Proverbs 4:23 (NIV), “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” This is what we must do. But to accomplish this clear command to guard our hearts, we must first place Proverbs 4:23 in context.
To Guard Your Heart You Must Place Proverbs 4:23 in Context
Most times Proverbs 4:23 is quoted in isolation. Many times in Proverbs this is not a problem because there are verses in this book of the Bible that are meant to stand alone.
It seems to me, however, that Proverbs 4:23 is placed in a passage of Scripture where the surrounding Bible verses do form a context that flow together. Proverbs 4:20-27 state:
My son, be attentive to my words; incline your ear to my sayings. 21 Let them not escape from your sight; keep them within your heart. 22 For they are life to those who find them, and healing to all their flesh. 23 Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life. 24 Put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you. 25 Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you. 26 Ponder the path of your feet; then all your ways will be sure. 27 Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil.”
To Guard Your Heart You Must Fill It with God’s Word
Before Proverbs 4:23 there are some important Bible verses to help us gain context and thus find the meaning of “guard your heart.”
Keep hold of instruction; do not let go; guard her, for she is your life.” (Proverbs 4:13)
My son, be attentive to my words; incline your ear to my sayings. Let them not escape from your sight; keep them within your heart. For they are life to those who find them, and healing to all their flesh.” (Proverbs 4:20-22)
Here we can see that before Proverbs 4:23, the instruction to us is to not just guard our hearts but to guard the godly instructions within our hearts. Not only that, but we are told that God’s instruction “is your life” and “they are life to those who find them.”
A heart full of sin and foolishness does not have life flowing from it. Only when our hearts are full of his truth and love will life flow from our hearts. Therefore to guard our hearts according to the Bible, we must guard the truths and biblical instructions God has placed within our hearts through the Holy Spirit illuminating the Scriptures.
If we do not put the command to “guard your heart” in Proverbs 4:23 in the context of Proverbs 4 and in the context of the whole Bible, we will guard our hearts from receiving what we need from God. If you guard your heart before letting truth in and you don’t guard your heart to keep the truth in, you will be hurting yourself greatly.
When we have foolishness and lies in our hearts, our lives will be sinful, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good” (Psalms 14:1). The lies in the heart are what cause a fool to do abominable deeds. Psalm 119:9-11 says, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.”
So we can see that throughout Scripture, to guard one’s heart means you make sure you are careful to live according to God’s word. To guard your heart means you fill it with truth and then you make sure you guard that truth so you do not forget it or ignore it.
“Guard Your Heart” Means You Will Be Nourishing the New Nature and Starving the Old Nature So Your Behavior Will Be Righteous
Throughout the Bible we are taught that there is a direct connection between our hearts and our behavior. As we look at the Bible verses that follow Proverbs 4:23, we will see that if we guard our hearts we will also be guarding our actions:
Put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you. 25 Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you. 26 Ponder the path of your feet; then all your ways will be sure. 27 Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil.” (Proverbs 4:24-27)
In Proverbs 4:24 we are warned about guarding out speech. In Proverbs 4:25 we are warned to guard our eyes. In Proverbs 4:26 we are warned to use our minds wisely. And in Proverbs 4:27 we are told to guard the course of our lives by staying away from evil. All of these warnings come after Proverbs 4:23 where we are told to guard our hearts.
So in Proverbs 4:20-22 we are told to take God’s truth into our hearts. We are then told to guard our hearts which hold that truth which brings life in Proverbs 4:23. And finally we are told to then pay attention to the way we are living our lives in Proverbs 4:24-27. This is the natural flow all Christians must follow if they want to live for Christ.
We must start with God’s word and take it into our hearts so that we can then live lives that are glorifying to God. What is inside of us will determine what comes out of us. In other words, the health of our hearts will determine the health of our behavior. In Luke 6:45 Jesus said, “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.”
So what does it mean to guard your heart? It means you guard your identity in Christ. What is the heart in the Bible? Essential, the heart is the truest you. Your heart is the place where your identity is housed, “As in water face reflects face, so the heart of man reflects the man” (Proverbs 27:19). So to guard your heart you must guard your identity in Christ.
The Bible says Christians are new creations in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). We are no longer the old sinful nature but that nature still tries to take control of our bodies and lives:
“But that is not the way you learned Christ!— 21 assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, 22 to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires,23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:20-24)
Only when you guard your heart will be able to live for God. Only when you choose to throw off the old man and live from the new self will you be able to live for God in holiness.
“Guard Your Heart” Does Not Mean You Protect Yourself from Getting Hurt at All Cost. “Guard Your Heart” Means You Protect Your Heart From Sin at All Cost
In closing, we must also talk about what “guard your heart” does not mean in the Bible. Many times we use Proverbs 4:23 as a way of not loving others. Whenever you choose to love someone like Christ has loved you, there is always risk involved. You can’t have real love without risk. Whenever you allow yourself to be vulnerable with someone and whenever you genuinely begin to care about someone’s wellbeing, you will always be opening yourself up to the possibility of being hurt.
In his Desiring God article (Guard Your Heart, Don’t Suffocate It), Tyler Kenney makes an excellent point about Proverbs 4:23:
In its context, this verse suggests that keeping—or guarding—your heart means to retain wise words and resist wicked desires. But I’m afraid some people—ahem, me, too often—use it to justify being cowardly or cold instead of loving others, because we think that “guard your heart” means “don’t get hurt.”
When the Bible talks about guarding your heart in Proverbs 4:23, we can see that the surrounding verses make it clear that we are to guard our hearts from falling to sin. While guarding your heart from getting hurt is a part of guarding your heart from sin, for as we all know a wounded heart is more susceptible to temptation, the heart of Proverbs 4:23 is not about living for safety. The heart of this verse is that we live for holiness, guarding our hearts so that what flows out of our hearts is love and not hate.
In fact, to guard our hearts from love is really the opposite of what Proverbs 4:23 promotes. Guarding your heart from love is the opposite of what the entire Bible promotes. Of course we must love wisely, but to choose safety over love is anti-God. In his book, The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis explains this point profoundly:
Of all arguments against love none makes so strong an appeal to my nature as ‘Careful! This might lead you to suffering.’
To my nature, my temperament, yes. Not to my conscience. When I respond to that appeal I seem to myself to be a thousand miles away from Christ. If I am sure of anything I am sure that His teaching was never meant to confirm my [inborn] preference for safe investments and limited liabilities. . . .
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.”
So to guard our hearts does not mean we try to eliminate all risk from our lives. If we try to do that, we would be eliminating all love from out lives. When we guard our hearts, we will be careful not to sin and thus we will be able to love God and people better.