Watch any romance movie, especially those of the happily-ever-after Hallmark genre, and somewhere along the way one of the central characters is sure to receive this well-worn advice: “Follow your heart.” Sounds great, right? This fits along with the ever-popular, “If it feels good, do it!”
But is this really good advice? Can we always trust our hearts – essentially, our emotions – for guiding us to wise, well-considered decisions? If we’re to believe what the Scriptures say, and I am among those who do, that’s not always a good idea.
Talking about the heart, as it frequently does, the Bible isn’t referring to that amazing pumping muscle that sends blood coursing through our veins non-stop, minute after minute, year after year. It speaks of the emotional dimension of the brain, where fickle feelings govern love, anger, envy, jealousy, and all manner of other emotional responses to our circumstances past, present and future.
I can remember a few times when my “heart” told me to quit my job because I was unhappy with how things were going. Random thoughts popped up: “You’re better than this!” “They don’t appreciate you!” “You don’t have to put up with this!” Fortunately, rather than letting the whims of my heart rule, I chose to follow reason and logic instead, and realized how foolish and unproductive quitting would have been. Because I didn’t “follow my heart,” things worked out far better than I could have anticipated.
Many marriages have ended because one or both spouses decided to follow their heart, causing irreparable damage to their families. And often leaving a trail of regret and remorse. It might have been because their mate didn’t meet their expectations, they somehow “fell out of love,” or found someone else more appealing. Regardless, the result was typically more “heart trouble” than they imagined.
One of the worst times to simply follow your heart is when considering a costly purchase, whether it’s a house, a car, or even a major appliance. Even if “it feels so right,” it’s advisable to give yourself a cooling off period, allowing time for your head to catch up with your heart and bring facts and level-headed thinking into the equation. Sometimes you’ll arrive at the same decision – but sometimes you won’t.
It's useful to consider some of the things God says about the heart and why it’s so unpredictable and unreliable. For instance, sometimes we can fool ourselves and fail to comprehend why we’re so set on doing – or not doing – something. “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).
The heart – our innermost emotions – serves as the seat for our motivations, the rationale for our thoughts and actions. We can justify what we intend to do, but according to the Scriptures, God is as concerned about why we’re doing something as He is about what we’re actually doing. This is a truth Proverbs states repeatedly:
“All a man’s ways seem right to him, but the Lord weighs the heart” (Proverbs 21:2).
“All a man’s ways seem innocent to him, but motives are weighed by the Lord” (Proverbs 4:23).
“The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but the Lord tests the heart” (Proverbs 17:3).
In reformed theology, one of the central principles is called “total depravity,” meaning everything we think and do is tainted by sin, just as a single drop of poison would taint a glass filled with our favorite beverage. So it’s wise to be wary of impulsive, emotion-based decisions. “Who can say, ‘I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin’?” (Proverbs 20:9).
Knowing the fallibility of our hearts and our motives, the Scriptures warn us to safeguard our attitudes and thinking, seeking to ward off words and actions we would later regret, sometimes bringing about devastating results. If we don’t fling open the door to temptation, it’s less likely we’ll succumb to the sins that follow. “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” (Proverbs 4:23).
What I’ve learned over the years is before determining to “follow my heart,” it’s best to pause first and pray about it, seeking to determine whether my heart is aligned with God’s will. As my life verses often remind me, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6).