Guard Your Heart - Reflections on You Are What You Love

Photo by  Rachael Crowe

Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. - Proverbs 4:23

In 1989 Christian music artist Steve Green released a song called "Guard Your Heart." It soaked into my six-year-old mind like a harsh warning against almost everything in "the world." In fact, the song begins with children singing, "Oh be careful little eyes what you see," then becomes a plea for listeners to guard against allowing their eyes and hearts to become entangled in sinful romantic relationships. The music matches the emotional nature of the plea, and I remember feeling that whatever Green was singing about (which I didn't understand at that time), I needed to listen and guard my heart against this kind of "pleasure."

I hadn't thought of that song in decades until I opened James K. A. Smith's You Are What You Love and saw the words of Proverbs 4:23 written in the opening pages. I realized my association with that text was something akin to "Do not touch," "Do not look," "Do not listen." Was this really the message of Smith's book? 

Having finished the book, I now read this verse within a different framework. What I didn't hear in Green's song as a child, and in fact what was missing, was the truth that only in Christ is my heart at rest. Only in Christ can I truly find happiness. 

The idea of "preaching the gospel to ourselves" has become something of a catchphrase in the last decade or so. It's a life-giving habit. And, without using that phrase, Smith explains the reasons why we need that practice:

It is crucial for us to recognize that our ultimate loves, longings, desires, and cravings are *learned.* And because love is a habit, our hearts are calibrated through imitating exemplars and being immersed in practices that, over time, index our hearts to a certain end. We learn to love, then, not primarily by acquiring information about *what* we should love but rather through practices that form the habits of *how* we love. These sorts of practices are “pedagogies” of desire, not because they are like lectures that inform us, but because they are rituals that form and direct our affections.

Now here’s the crucial insight for Christian formation and discipleship: not only is this learning-by-practice the way our hearts are correctly calibrated, but it is also the way our loves and longings are misdirected and miscalibrated—not because our intellect has been hijacked by bad ideas but because our desires have been captivated by rival visions of flourishing. And that happens through practices, not propaganda. Our desires are caught more than they are taught. All kids of cultural rhythms and routines are, in fact, rituals that function as pedagogies of desire precisely because they tacitly and covertly train us to love a certain version of the kingdom, teach us to long for some rendition of the good life. These aren’t just things we do; they do something *to* us.
— You Are What You Love, Smith, pages 21-22.

If Smith is correct, then "preaching the gospel to ourselves" that involves only intellectual knowledge but doesn't reach the heart is not enough. And he proposes the way to reach the heart is actually through our habits--that our actions and rituals change us. 

"We can't recalibrate the heart from the top down, through merely informational measures," Smith writes." The orientation of the heart happens from the bottom up, through the formation of our habits of desires. Learning to love (God) takes practice."

It was this last line--"Learning to love God takes practice"--that struck the hardest blow to me in this book. In the ongoing debate about sanctification and how exactly we become more like Christ, we see the pendulum swing all over the spectrum. In some cases, as people experience freedom from the stronghold of legalism, it's tempting to throw out everything we associate with that former life and to then see anything related to "habits" or "work" or "doing" as legalistic. Because we formerly heard those words associated with salvation by works, we now have no place for them in our collective vocabulary. We chafe against anyone telling us we should read our Bibles or pray or go to church. Freedom in Christ can slowly become freedom from the habits God has given us for our good.

Instead, we tell one another all we need to do is know how much God loves us and we will want to obey. I have taught this message, and I think even in Eden we see the first sin partly as a result of Adam and Eve's doubt about God's love. If they had just understood that He wanted what was best for them, they wouldn't have fallen. But intellectual knowledge isn't enough.

I used to think that if I truly knew God’s love for me, I would want to obey Him. I heard a pastor once use an illustration about his child at a playground. He said that when he told his daughter it was time to leave, she might think he was mean and cruel and didn’t want what was best for her, and so she might say, “No.” But since she knew how much he loved her, she would come with him because she trusted that he was doing what was best out of love.

I appreciate the sentiment and the meaning here, but I also have children. And the metaphor breaks down when you tell me that my child will willingly leave the playground if she knows how much I love her. The truth is that I’m far more like my own children than I am like this pastor’s child. I can know intellectually that my Father loves me and is doing what is best for me. But at the same time, I’m looking around and everyone else’s Dad is letting them stay and play. 

This is what we see in Eve--she looks around and sees that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is "good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise," and so she eats. This is why we need God to redeem our desires, because intellectual knowledge doesn't automatically generate obedience. Rather, the liturgies or routines of our lives transform us into worshipers of something or someone, and much of the time this transformation is unconscious. We spend time at the mall and begin to worship material goods and the high we get from consumerism. We spend time on our phones and begin to worship ourselves, believing we are "the center of the universe." These habits, and hundreds more, change us without our even knowing it.

Ever since I first heard it, I've loved Thomas Chalmers' idea of "The expulsive power of a new affection"--the idea that our wrong loves are forced out by the presence of a stronger love. But if we can't tell people to develop habits that place us in a position of receiving this expulsive power, how can it work? 

Corrie Ten Boom’s father, Casper, was a watchmaker. Every week he would ride the train from Haarlem to Amsterdam to reset his watch by the official Naval Observatory clock. Then he would bring the time back home and set all his watches and clocks by the correct time. A week later he would go back again. Without modern technology, the time could get off track in as little as a few days, forcing him to recalibrate the following week, and the next, and the next.

Our time in the Word, in prayer, and in our worship gatherings is a chance to set our clocks to the right time, as it were. But these habits must be just that--repeated routines meant to reinforce their importance in our lives. We don't digest the Word, fall on our knees before our Father in prayer, or join with other believers in order to earn something; we do it because it's the way to guard our hearts against rival liturgies. It's the way to taste and see that the Lord is good. 

Smith's reasoning also frees us from seeing the spiritual disciplines as something to check off a list--daily duties with no real power. By framing them as liturgies, we see them as experiences meant to change us and counteract the world's liturgies in which we daily participate.

"Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it" (Prov. 4:23). As the book jacket says, "You are what you love. But you might not love what you think." Perhaps guarding our hearts involves encountering the Father through the face of Christ in the Word revealed to us by the Spirit, even as we pray for eyes to see how our hearts already chase after rival gods. Maybe it's less about what we shouldn't look at, and more about what we should. It's about immersing ourselves and our families in rhythms that remind us what life is truly about--what Jesus taught us to pray in Matthew 6:

Hallowed be your name,

Your kingdom come,

Your will be done,

On earth as it is in heaven.


You Are What You Love was the Reading Group selection for January. To join us for February and beyond, see this post or join the Facebook group here