Leaders undoubtedly recognize the importance of keeping their hearts pure and healthy. Scripture is replete with admonitions that life and leadership flow from the heart. We believe in our hearts that God raised Jesus from the dead (Rom. 10:9). We love the Lord with all our hearts (Matt. 22:37). We serve the Lord from our hearts (Col. 3:23). Yet, the fall of man created heart problems for all of us. Our hearts are deceitful (Jer. 17:9), calloused (Matt. 13:5), the origin of all types of evil (Matt. 15:19-20), and unrepentant (Rom. 2:5). There are few Christian leaders who deny the centrality of the heart to what they are called to do. I’ve never met any leader who said, “I don’t think the heart is all that important. I’m just going to keep ignoring mine.” I am confident that we all desire to keep a pure heart before God.
However, we are in the midst of an epidemic of heart issues. Leaders are burning out and blowing up. We honor God with our lips on Sunday, but find that our hearts are far from Him on Monday. We too often find ourselves in the grips of cynicism and hopelessness. We are prayerless and thus powerless in the battle against temptation. While gaining the world, we are losing our souls. Why is this so? Why do we acknowledge the importance of the heart, while still neglecting our own hearts?
I believe the issue is that we don’t know how to truly gauge whether our hearts are healthy. Many of us are extremely talented at ignoring notifications on a daily basis. We can decline a call without taking our phone out of our pockets. We don’t open our messages, so we don’t accidentally send a read receipt. While it’s one thing to ignore notifications on our phone or computer, it’s another thing to ignore the notifications which come from our hearts. The heart’s signs are more subtle and easier to avoid. There are lots of socially acceptable ways to ignore our souls. We can work too much, go on a Netflix binge, waste time online, invest more energy into that hobby, add a service, build a building, or relaunch groups. The possibilities are endless.
Because we are so efficient at ignoring our souls, we often fail to recognize problems until it’s too late. We need better gauges to determine the health of our souls. I believe that we find these gauges in Solomon’s famous admonition: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it (Proverbs 4:21).” So far, the wisest man to live is tracking with what we have discussed to this point. Guard your heart, because EVERYTHING flows from it. Solomon’s proverb then spells out some gauges of the heart. He shows how we know if our heart has been guarded.
The first gauge of the heart is the words that you say.
Proverbs 4:24 – Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips.
The tongue is a great indicator of the condition of our hearts. The tongue is so powerful that you can break all ten commandments without moving an inch. How do you know if your heart is in trouble? What do you say when you are angry? What do you say about the opposite sex when your spouse isn’t around? What words do you use to describe those who hold a different political perspective than you do? Are you always critical? Always negative? Do you use your words on social media to bash and criticize? If so, the gauge on the dashboard of your life is flashing- there’s something wrong!
If you have a pure heart, your words should be pure. Jesus’s little brother, James, discusses the power of the tongue and reminds us that fresh water cannot come from a salty pond and that olives cannot come from a fig tree. So often, people claim to “not mean what they say.” In a moment of anger, they explode, then later say, “I didn’t mean it,” or, “That’s not how I really feel.” But eventually, you have to realize that evil words come from evil hearts, and pure words come from pure hearts.
The second gauge of the heart is your affections.
Proverbs 4:2 – Let your eyes look straight ahead; fix your gaze directly before you.
Solomon continues to show us what a guarded heart looks like. We know the condition of our hearts by the words of our mouths. And we know the condition of our hearts by our affections and passions. What are our eyes fixed on? Where is our gaze directed? What dominates our thoughts and demands our concentration? What do you think about when you first wake up? What is the last thought you have when your head hits the pillow?
We live in a world with countless things competing for our attention. It’s easy to set our eyes on the world around us with all of its problems and issues. It’s easy to fix our gaze on our circumstances and leadership challenges. But, we have been called to fix our eyes on Jesus. If Eve had kept looking straight ahead, she would’ve looked at God’s loving provision and not at the forbidden tree. If Lot’s wife had kept looking straight ahead, she would’ve gone down in the Bible as a recipient of God’s saving mercy instead of a pillar of salt. If David, as a young man up on top of his roof, had kept his eyes straight ahead, he wouldn’t have found himself guilty of adultery and murder.
“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).” The word “fix” comes from a Greek word that has the idea of concentrating your gaze. It means to look away from other things so that you can focus all your attention on one object. In a race, a coach will tell his runners, “When the gun sounds, start running as hard as you can. Don’t look back. Don’t look around. Keep your eyes on the finish line and keep on running.”
Is your attention fixed on Jesus, or are you more concerned about building a name for yourself? Has that hobby become an unhealthy obsession? Is your life dominated by a habit you can’t break? The things you are most passionate about give you honest feedback about the state of your heart.
The third gauge of the heart is your general direction in life.
Proverbs 4:26-27 – Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways. Do not turn to the right or the left; keep your foot from evil.
Which direction are you going? Every path leads somewhere. If you continue down the path you are on, what is the likely destination? Solomon tells us to give careful thought to our paths, to ponder our paths. Sometimes a significant amount of time goes by without us pondering our paths. We seem to just drift through life being carried along by circumstances that seem beyond our control. What direction have you been going for the last few years? Are you growing, or are you just getting older? Do you love Jesus and His Church more or less than you did this time last year? Lives and ministries are rarely blown up overnight. Instead, there is a long drift in the wrong direction.
If you are like me, this self-evaluation is revealing. My words, my passions, and my general direction indicate that it is not completely well with my soul. To address our heart issues, we need to go back to Solomon’s instruction that we “guard our hearts.” Other translations say, “keep your heart.” I think this presents two sides of the same coin. We must guard our hearts by pruning out the bad. And, we must keep our hearts by cultivating the good.
We must guard our hearts like a soldier guards the walls of a city. He keeps intruders out. He is vigilant against anything that will come against the city. We must stand guard against evil, and put a shield around our hearts. If the gauges of my words, affections, and actions indicate that my heart has been defiled, I must look at what I have allowed in. If I’m struggling with lust, I need to change what I watch on TV and what I click on online. If I’m struggling with bitterness, I need to guard against offense and gossip.
We must keep our hearts like a gardener keeps his garden. This “keeping of the garden” does involve some component of guarding, such as spraying pesticide and pulling weeds. However, there are also more positive components, such as planting, watering, tending. We are to protect our hearts from sin, and we are to cultivate our hearts to Christ’s likeness. We are to put to death our old nature, and we are to put on the new nature. We keep our hearts through prayer, devotion, worship, and other spiritual habits. If the gauges of your words, your affections, and your general direction are flashing, it’s time to guard and keep your heart. It’s not optional since everything flows from it.