“Follow your heart”. What a simple yet oddly popular phrase. When I was younger, that slogan was repeated everywhere—in school, in books, and on children’s television shows. Honestly, I never really understood what it meant. My heart didn’t really guide me all that well.
When I grew older, the phrase made even less sense to me. In my understanding, the heart was just this place from which crazy, irrational emotions flowed. Why would I want to allow my emotions to lead me?
Then people within the church began waging war on this slogan. I read books and listened to sermons that were all about having the self-control to overcome the feelings of your heart. Your heart is not to be trusted, I was taught. Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” Wow! Isn’t that the truth?
Well, I don’t think it’s the whole truth. There seems to be an aspect missing in these two extreme points of view.
The first thing we need to establish is that, no matter what, we are directed by our hearts. Luke 6:45 explains that “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks” (see also Matthew 12:34 and 15:18).
Some allow their hearts to lead them in whichever direction. Then there are some who repress their hearts to the point of unfeeling. Those who “follow their hearts” run the risk of not using truth, wisdom, and self-discipline to make good decisions in life as they are usually making decisions based on what they feel like doing. Those who repress their hearts, shut off natural emotions and replace them with reason. These individuals may have lives that look very self-disciplined, but the lack of feeling causes them to be dense and perhaps even uncaring and apathetic to others.
I was one of those emotionally repressed people. The thought that was communicated to me in my upbringing was that strong emotions—especially the negative ones—are unacceptable. If I was angry, it was unjustified and I needed to just have a good attitude instead. If I was sad, I had no one to validate my emotions, so I learned to hide. If I was hurt, no sympathy was shown towards me. Basically, emotions were not safe.
I took this lie that emotions are bad and unintentionally created an entire life philosophy around it. I appreciated the fact that I was very self-disciplined because I didn’t have those pesky feelings getting in my way, tempting me to make irrational decisions. If I set out to do something, I just did it. So not only was I completely out of touch with my heart, but I acted as though shutting out my heart was a great way to live.
It wasn’t until later that I realized the consequences of living this way. Ephesians 4:18-19b explains that those who don’t know the Lord “are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts” and that they had “lost all sensitivity”.
That is exactly the state I was in. I had lost sensitivity. The Bible calls this a calloused heart (Psalm 17:10, 73:7, 119:70; Acts 7:51). What I imagined was my heart covered in black tar that had slowly built up over the years. With every hurt, wound, and sin, I covered my heart up more and did not allow God to touch it. Ephesians 3:17 explains that Christ dwells in our hearts through faith, yet I had not prepared much of a dwelling for him.
I realized also that my relationship with God was very limited. I heard God’s voice through his Word, good books, music, and other people, but I was definitely struggling to hear him speaking quietly in my heart. If we were created to be in relationship with God and our hearts are our direct access to his heart, we would do well to allow him to heal the deep wounds that are causing our hearts to callous over.
Looking back, I can see the warning signs of a calloused heart. My repressed emotions could only be contained for so long until I exploded in anger. A friend recently told me that anger is a secondary emotion and, for me, that makes sense. I was repressing feelings of sadness, insecurity, fear, loneliness, and whatever else and covering it up with anger. For the most part, I appeared very calm and put-together, but I was experiencing inner turmoil that would erupt onto my family in the form of yelling.
Repressed emotions can manifest in a multitude of ways, including anger, depression, and anxiety, along with other mental and personality disorders. I know from experience that repressed emotions can also induce physical pain and illness.
It was my anger that finally clued me in that I had a problem that I could not fix. The anger that came out of me was not a willful choice I was making; it was the sin in me that I was unable to change. This was such a difficult realization for me, but it was absolutely freeing. I repented to God, I repented to my family, and I confessed to trustworthy friends, who all showed unconditional love and acceptance for me. This was the beginning of my healing journey.
I believe this healing process is what is referred to in Deuteronomy 30:6: “The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live” (see also Romans 2:29). When we give our hearts to God, he will begin a process of carefully revealing the sin and woundedness that has been hindering a life lived in freedom.
Healing usually doesn’t come all at once. God takes us on these journeys where He gently shows us these scars and then gives us a choice of what we’re going to do. Are we going to cover it up again and refuse God’s healing power or will we humble ourselves by repenting, forgiving, or releasing these things?
This process is by the power of God, but it definitely takes our willing involvement. It may at times be the most difficult thing you will have to do because it takes a continual humbling and reliance on God. You will be tempted to give up at times, but God is so faithful in each step you take. “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11). With each step of faith you take towards Him, He will show you more of Himself and more of His love.
Take another look at Deuteronomy 30:6: “The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.” Who is the one doing the circumcising? That’s right—God! And why does He do this? “So that you may love him with all you heart and with all your soul, and live.” This process is where LOVE and LIFE are found!
Psalm 16:7 says, “I will praise the Lord, who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me”. Isn’t that amazing? Our hearts instruct us! What I envision my heart to be is a satellite of direct communication with God. If my heart is covered up in sin, it’s difficult for me to feel connected to Him. When I open up my heart to Him, I begin to hear His voice and see His heart.
“For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). We are created in the image of God. We have parts of ourselves buried deep down inside us that God placed in there from the beginning. He has such a unique purpose for our lives, but we need to reestablish that heart connection with Him.
So, can our hearts be trusted? “Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:8). The answer is not a simple “yes” or “no”, but rather the answer is to purify your hearts to create a place where God can dwell.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2b). Give your heart to God. Trust Him with the process and He will uncover the gem within.