“Man’s. . . wants are to be trusted. . . even when their gratification seems furthest off, the uneasiness they occasion is still the best guide of his life.”—William James, “The Will to Believe”
Listen to Your Heart
Whenever we are deliberating over a decision, it is not uncommon to hear a friend say, “You should listen to your heart.” Such a sentiment is not only common, but it has also been exalted to a sacrosanct place of moral authority in our culture. It is as if doing anything else would be a denial of your very self. And how could anyone do that? After all, a person must be true to who they are. Anything less would be inauthentic.
So what should we make of this?
What Is the Heart?
It may be worth asking what we are listening to if we’re listening to our heart. According to the Bible, the word heart is one among several terms (like soul, spirit, and conscience) that refers to our inner life. But the word heart goes beyond these others. It is used with more frequency and it is used with more subtlety.
On the one hand, the heart communicates the unity of everything we are within. All of our thoughts, plans, wants, feelings, and decisions are generated from this one point, which functions as the governing center of our inner life. On the other hand, the heart comprehends a trinity of the heart’s spiritual functions: the mind (what we know), the desires (what we love) and the will (what we choose). Thus, the word heart in Scripture uniquely captures both the unity and the complexity of our inward life. So “following your heart” is listening, as it were, to your thoughts, longings, and choices. You may say, “So what could be so bad with that?”
Why Not Listen to the Heart?
The problem is one that runs in the family. Actually it arises from the very beginning of the human family. Adam’s and Eve’s sin in the garden of Eden did not begin with the first bite. It began with the first errant thought. Their conclusion that what God said was bad to eat was instead good to eat was a serious sin. It was also delusional, rebellious, twisted, and ruinous for them and for all of their children. Ever since then the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve have suffered in their heart’s mind from evil thoughts (Gen. 6:5). Because of sin, our foolish hearts struggle with proud and selfish ideas. Even Christians, who are delivered from sin’s condemning power and reigning power, still struggle against residual sin. Self-indulgence and self-importance continue to dog every Christian so that we are often unclear about the true motives that lie under our thoughts. Jeremiah spoke of this, when he wrote:
The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it? (Jer. 17:9)
In other words, every Christian knows that there is a level of self-deception at work in our hearts. This is why the book of Proverbs warns, “Whoever trusts in his own mind [lit., heart] is a fool” (Prov. 28:26). It is not that we distrust our capacity to think or our ability to know the truth. It is that our self-awareness must humble us to acknowledge that we are not above being duped or tricked. It teaches us to look to God’s word to teach, rebuke, correct and train us (2 Tim. 3:16); and to go to God in prayer and genuinely ask the Spirit to shine the truth of the word on our hearts, so that it can expose our self-deception and illumine the right path.
A second complication has to do with the desires of the heart. Our desires are not like computer chips that emerge from a sterilized environment. They arise from a cauldron of mixed motives and longings. Our desires (or the “affections” as the Puritans called them) are the things we want and crave, or hunger and thirst for. They are rarely indifferent. They tend to grow in their strength. If they continue to increase for what is sinful, they develop into an idolatrous love. If this happens, then we will do anything for them. We will even lie to ourselves. Our thinking is often manipulated by desires that try to paint our motives in the most virtuous colors while masking the vanity and self-absorption that lies beneath.
Herein lies the significance of Christ’s statement, “Blessed are the pure in heart” (Matt. 5:8). Just as pure spring water is free from pollutants, so also is the pure heart. Christ calls his children to cultivate a heart that is undivided in its desires and instead is marked by a singular purpose to pursue Christ. Noble desires must be cultivated to thrive over lesser desires. Such work is impossible without God’s Spirit and God’s truth-bearing upon our hearts to purge sinful longings and inflame holy ones. We need God’s gracious work in our hearts to help us discern our motives with more clarity and honesty. Anyone interested in this does not simply “follow their heart.”
Last of all, the will of our heart is also engaged, if not embattled. We are often stubborn when we ought to be submissive, and we are weak when we ought to be strong. We may say yes when we should have said no—and vice versa. The truth of the matter is that so many of our decisions are not a test of our moral knowledge as much as they are of our moral fiber. We probably fall to sinful temptation less often due to weak understanding than we do to a weak will. Following our heart may mean that we hear the voice that steers us toward the easier path and not the ethical high road. It is true that the Spirit of God and the grace of God are at work in us “to will and to work” for our salvation (Phil. 2:13). But it is also true that we are prone to cave when we need more resolve and we tend to be bull-headed when we ought to be broken-hearted. If we merely “follow our heart” we may easily slide into the path of least resistance and refuse to take up the cross and follow Christ.
Why Not Listen to the Lord?
“Follow your heart” is the sort of sloganeering that can be used to excuse any juvenile impulse. It just may be the worst advice any Christian could receive, even if it’s offered with the best of intentions. Even though the mind, desires, and will of the Christian’s heart are already made new by the saving act of God’s grace we are still a people who are not yet perfected. We are grateful for the way that the Spirit of God directs us through the word of God, and is maturing us through the renewal of our minds (Rom. 12:2).
But you know yourself well enough to know that the last thing you ought to do is “lean on your own understanding,” when it is the more sure path “to trust in the Lord with all your heart” and “in all your ways acknowledge him” so that “he will make straight your paths” (Prov. 3:5–6). The next time you find yourself tempted to follow your heart, perhaps it would be wise to get on your knees and pray,
Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts! (Ps. 139:23)