“Follow your heart” is a familiar phrase — essentially a pop cultural creed — representing a belief that our heart is a kind of compass that will lead us to true happiness if we just have the courage to listen to it. As I’ve explained previously, I think this belief is both misleading and dangerous.
It’s misleading because “follow your heart” can sound like a sacred quest — as if not following your heart violates your truest self — when all it really means is “pursue what you desire.” And stated that way, we can all more clearly see what makes the phrase dangerous, since desires arising from remaining aspects of our fallen nature are “deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9) and can lead us into deep trouble.
I believe a much more helpful phrase for Christians is “direct your heart,” which is given us in Proverbs 23:19:
Hear, my son, and be wise,
and direct your heart in the way.
“We must direct our hearts toward the wisdom of humbly receiving instruction from God and others.”
Direct your heart. This more accurately captures the way Scripture as a whole instructs us to relate to our hearts, the part of our inner being that loves or hates, that treasures persons or things or despises them. According to the Bible, our hearts, when left unchecked, follow that love or hatred in all sorts of directions (Matthew 6:21, 24). Therefore, our hearts need to be directed away from following deceitful loves and treasures, and toward what is truly lovely and valuable.
New Heart with Old Problems
What can make directing our hearts confusing is that, in the present age, Christians live with what the Bible calls two “selves.” We have our regenerated “new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness,” and we have our “old self, which belongs to [our] former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires” (Ephesians 4:22–24).
We all know from experience that our affections “are at war within [us]” (James 4:1). The new self “delight[s] in the law of God,” while the old self “wag[es] war against [God’s] law” (Romans 7:22–23). So, because we experience both of these selves for now, the Bible generally encourages us to direct our hearts rather than follow our hearts. We direct our hearts away from the corrupt, destructive things that delight our old selves, and toward the pure, profoundly wonderful realities God has designed to delight our new selves.
So, if God wants us to direct our hearts, how do we do that? And where do we direct them?
Counsel for Directing Hearts
Proverbs 23, which gives us the phrase “direct your heart” (Proverbs 23:19), actually provides good (and practical) examples. The chapter is chock-full of a father’s wise, heart-directing counsel for his son. Let me entice you with some summary statements of the wisdom he encourages.
1. Direct your heart to acquire God’s wisdom.
The writer knows that “the way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice” (Proverbs 12:15). And God provides us with crucial relationships through which we receive such instruction. So, he exhorts us, his readers, to carefully listen to our parents (or parental figures, Proverbs 23:22–25), diligently seek out instruction from knowledgeable people (Proverbs 23:12), and lovingly impart knowledge to our children (when necessary, through needed discipline, Proverbs 23:13–14). We must direct our hearts toward the wisdom of humbly receiving instruction from God and others (Proverbs 1:7).
2. Direct your heart to discern dangerous people.
The world is filled with people whose hearts want things that will harm us if we’re not careful. Powerful people can use their status, influence, and wealth to compromise us if we don’t keep a clear head and exercise self-control (Proverbs 23:1–3). Calculating people can deceive us through initially appearing gracious, only to later reveal themselves as conniving (Proverbs 23:6–8). And overtly sinful people seem to prosper so much we are tempted to envy them (Proverbs 23:17–18), yet their end is destruction (see Psalm 73). We must direct our hearts (often through seeking good advice) to discern how power, manipulation, and sinful gain can lure us into danger.
3. Direct your heart to avoid and escape sinful snares.
Beware of falling in love with money. Don’t serve it (Luke 16:13), for it is an unsatisfying and ephemeral treasure, and will betray your devotion (Proverbs 23:4–5). Beware of using your power to take advantage of vulnerable people, for God will call you to account if you do (Proverbs 23:10–11). Beware of sexual temptation and don’t underestimate its power to tempt you to insanely pursue what will devastate your life and those around you (Proverbs 23:26–28). And beware of giving yourself over to life-controlling self-indulgence (Proverbs 23:19–21), and the enslavement of chemical addiction (Proverbs 23:29–35). We must direct our hearts to recognize the strong, seductive power these snares wield, and do whatever is necessary to escape them.
While the wisdom of this counsel is likely obvious to most of us (often through painful experience), God gives us even better counsel, counsel that clarifies this father’s advice to his son — and, in fact, makes it possible.
Follow the Good Treasure
The better counsel is captured in Psalm 37:4:
Delight yourself in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
“Our hearts need to be directed away from following deceitful loves, and toward what is truly lovely and valuable.”
This is both the promise and the increasing experience of the new self, the regenerated Christian. The more we delight in the Lord as our great Treasure — the more we see and savor all God is and promises to be for us in Jesus — the more we will grow to love “whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable” and excellent and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8). Loving him directs and purifies all our other loving.
Jesus gives us a picture of this transformation in Matthew 13:44:
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
When we are born again, we glimpse and desire the Treasure: God himself. And the more we see of him, the more we desire him and all he desires for us. And the more we grow to hate all that might rob us of that Treasure.
So, direct your heart. Most importantly, direct your heart to delight in the Lord. For if you do, God himself will give you the desires of your heart.