I picked up a friend of ours at the airport on Tuesday night. We stayed up really late talking and on Wednesday I remembered why I don’t stay up late anymore. In college I could recover from late nights pretty well – no longer. Yet, it was worth it. There are those rare friends who, no matter how long since your last visit, you connect with on a deep level. A God-level. In the course of our conversation my friend recounted how once, in college I think, a mentor of his handed him a note that simply read, “Proverbs 4:23.” It didn’t have the verse written out, just the reference. After looking up the reference he found these words:
Above all else, guard your heart,
for everything you do flows from it.
Many years have passed and he has not forgotten that note. I think most of us could benefit from someone handing us a Proverbs 4:23 note. It’s such a short verse but it reveals the “thing within the thing” or the “task within the task” as one Franciscan monk put it. I’m afraid that many of us spend our lives trying to deal with our anger, or fear, or insecurities–the list could go on for a very long time. This is, perhaps, a task worth doing, but it is not the ultimate task. There is a “task within the task” which, in this case, means dealing your heart. This is the hardest task that any of us will ever do but if we do it, and if we are to live well we must, we will find that many of our problems are really just symptoms. Proverbs tells us that us that everything we do flow from our hearts. Jesus says that we will recognize people “by their fruit” (Matt. 7:20). If the heart is good the fruit will be good. If the heart is bad the fruit will be bad. Everything we do, good or bad, flows from our hearts.
But what does it mean to guard our hearts? It seems that many people have, out of fear, guarded their hearts from hurt. C. S. Lewis writes,
Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket–safe, dark, motionless, airless–it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation.
I suppose the real question, then, is: from what are we to guard our heart? Ultimately, we are to guard our hearts from becoming hard. There is a fence that must be put around the heart to be sure, but that fence must have a door. The problem with the Pharisees wasn’t that they insisted on guarding their hearts from sin, the problem was they insisted from guarding their hearts from everything. Their fence had no door. Jesus says, “Look, I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends” (Rev. 3:20). When the fence around our hearts has no door, the heart become petrified. Impenetrable.
The older I get the more difficult the task of guarding the heart seems. When you are young your heart is tender and trusting, but given time, sin and heartache have a way of making the fence strong and the door freeze. With all of the forces that seem bent on destroying the heart, what hope is there?
In Exodus 17 the Israelites are traveling through the desert and are angry with Moses because they are ‘dying of thirst’. God tells Moses to do an interesting thing,
Strike the rock, and water will come out of it…
Water came from a rock. Not naturally, of course, but by the power of God. Isn’t this the hope for all who’s hearts have become hard? God can strike our hard hearts and let life flow from them again. We aren’t very comfortable with the term strike, but Heschel reminds us, “God’s purpose is not to destroy but to purify…”. I pray that our hearts are tender, and if not, I pray that God will strike our hearts so that pure water can flow from them again.
What about the fence–what should the fence look like? Perhaps we can find the answer by not in a neat definition but through an old Celtic prayer:
Circle me, Lord.
Keep protection near
And danger afar.
Circle me, Lord
Keep hope within
Keep doubt without.
Circle me, Lord
Keep light near
And darkness afar.
Circle me, Lord
Keep peace within.
Keep evil out.