I started running a couple of years ago. I mostly wanted to be able complete–and maybe compete in–the 2-mile race our small town holds each year for its annual community festival. (Why yes, I did get that gold T-shirt when I won the 40-something category. Thanks for asking.) I’ve kept running because it makes me feel good, lowers my blood pressure and cholesterol, and keeps my heart ticking.
Proverbs 4:23 says: “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” The Scriptures speak of the heart as the center of human being and willing. “Love the LORD your God with all your heart” (Deuteronomy 6:5). In the Bible, people “think” in their hearts (Psalm 10:6). No doubt some in the ancient world took the heart to literally be the thinking part of the human being. For example, the great philosopher Aristotle understood the brain, seemingly packed with compressed pink-gray coils, to be a cooling organ. But for the Bible, it’s not so much a statement of physiology as a claim about where our deepest spiritual center lies. As Henri Nouwen put it, the heart is “that secret place within us where our spirit, soul, and body come together in a unity of the self” (Spiritual Direction).
Our culture mostly tells us to follow our hearts. That counsel is just a platitude most of the time, though only because our hearts have gone feral and grown butterfly wings. A true heart, one being molded in the image of Christ, is a powerful thing, an engine of will that is steadfast and righteous and at peace with itself. Follow that heart anywhere, because to follow a heart like that is to follow Jesus.
But before we can follow our heart, we have to guard it. Certain forces of conformity and consumerism will douse our hearts with postmodern-grade solvent. There are powers that wish to make our hearts something malleable, something pink and soft as canned ham. The devil wants to devour us whole. “Resist him, steadfast in the faith” (1 Peter 5:8-9). This is why Paul speaks of faith as the “armor of light” (Romans 13:12). It’s the “breastplate of righteousness” and the “shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one” (Ephesians 6:14, 16). Those flaming arrows are the usual inside/outside suspects: temptation and doubt and fear and anxiety–check-boxes running the length of the seven deadly sins. To guard our hearts against these things is to place our trust in the living God.
Yet more insidious is despair, that boil-the-frog-slowly threat to faith, hope, and love. Too easily and often we find ourselves living desperately, hurried in fits and bored in starts as we do one thing after another. I confess it: I sometimes live like this. There are times when I only have an eye for the things undone and the things to do. In those chapters of my life, the present becomes nothing but a shivery spray-paint arrow pointing to tomorrow.
But the times I’ve lived most truly and well–and witnessed others doing the same–have been the times I have guarded my heart and lived from it. Those have been the moments when I have known who I am and claimed my vocations. I have discovered the little snatches of joy that come from doing the work God’s given me to do.
The daily catastrophe of sin means that people rarely learn to live fully. Yet by the grace of God our hearts can become the wellspring of good and abundant life. It can take a lifetime to learn to receive that grace. When we do, we have to carefully guard that grace in our hearts.