Follow Your Heart! Really? (part 1) Brad Jersak
There’s something about this bit of proverbial wisdom that sounds so right, so refreshing, so healing. To those who’ve shaken free of the restraints of religious moralism or experienced the bankruptcy of rationalism, the rediscovery of one’s heart is a thrilling find indeed. To uncover this precious gift from beneath a thousand layers of emotional limestone is, in a deep way, to be born again. And what a wonderful surprise to find out that perhaps the human heart is, at its core, not some monster to be destroyed, but a pearl to be reclaimed and cherished.
And so we hear this anthem, this slogan—Follow your heart!—from the impassioned lips of many an anointed guru or [self-] appointed prophet these days. Yet something about this popular phrase has given me pause.
Fifteen years ago, as my wife Eden was in prayer, these words came to her: “Eden, focus on me. Don’t look down. Keep your eyes on my face and keep stepping towards me.” Reflecting on those thoughts, she transposed it into this message:
“In the coming years, it will be critical to stay focused on my face and attuned to my voice. The days are coming when people will claim to speak for me but it won’t be my voice. They will say things that sound very good like, ‘Follow your heart.’ But it will be very important then to remember, ‘Follow ME.’”
Now those days have come. And rather than simply writing off the need to carefully attend to our hearts, I want to draw an important distinction in three parts and then explain each one:
- Do NOT simply follow your heart.
- LISTEN to your heart,
- Then FOLLOW Jesus.
To FOLLOW YOUR HEART generally means to listen to and obey whatever desires we perceive it to be generating. In this case, we act out our passions, taking the heart’s demands as the way to be truest to ourselves. That sounds very appealing and even ultra-spiritual when we assert that those desires were planted by God in the first place. It rings even more true to an ex-Calvinist who no longer buys into total depravity and actually values the heart that God gave you. To leave the ways of evangelical repression is to follow the heart. Or is it?
I don’t believe so. I see that as an over-reaction on two counts. First, even when I’ve been freed from religious self-contempt and given permission to value my heart, that does not mean that my heart is completely whole, or my desires entirely healthy or automatically godly. In fact, the more that I grow in love for my own heart, the more I notice those areas which are still tender or wounded, hardened or infected. Without judging my heart as bad, I certainly ought NOT follow or act on every murderous or covetous or selfish whim that is triggered there. To say that my heart actually may be essentially good rather than inherently wicked does NOT assume that it’s finally healthy enough or wise enough or free enough to be my guide. I.e. “Let your heart guide you” does not take into account the wounding, immaturity or bondage of even the most loving people OR how these factors can distort or pervert love into something less.
Second, even when we acknowledge that feelings themselves are not wrong, that does not mean that it is always wise, right or loving to act on them. In fact, when those feelings are so strong that I cannot cope with or without them and feel compelled to act them out, we call that an addiction or dysfunction. In other words, a mark of a healthy heart is to feel our passions deeply in all their rawness WITHOUT having to follow them into action. We neither repress them NOR act on them indiscriminately. Instead, we open them up in brutal honesty in the presence of God and allow Him to harness them into powerful currents of healthy passion and creativity.
To LISTEN TO YOUR HEART is to stop stuffing emotions down that we regard as inappropriate. It doesn’t work anyways. Such emotions, when repressed, will come out sideways in depression or rage, irrational behaviours or psychosomatic illness. Far better to invite every emotion, even the shady ones, to come to the Lord’s Table to be heard and interpreted in His presence. He asks me, “How do you feel?” True and honest confession is necessary but difficult if I don’t want to listen to the ugly feelings inside. But hiding them does us no good and only prolongs the journey into His likeness.
Moreover, He understands and can teach us what is the deeper desire, the true prayer, the earnest seeking that lays behind the apparently “bad” emotion. Recently, I was expressing honestly my embarrassing little “hit-list” of people I would like to kill. You see, in transparency before God, He wanted me to see the depths and violence of my unconfessed anger. To my surprise, my friend Lorie exhorted me to ask what the GOOD desire was in my murderous urges. It was only a minute or two of really listening WITH God to my heart before I saw my deeper God-shared passion to eradicate injustice and alleviate torment. That’s what I REALLY wanted—NOT that someone should die but that all should truly live. Initially, simply following my heart would have led to a lengthy prison term and the escalation of injustice. But listening to my heart with God then allows me to cry out to Him, “How then shall I live? What will you do? What can I do? Lead me!”
This brings me to our final point. In order to be truly free, truly healthy and truly loving, we must FOLLOW JESUS. My heart is okay, but it is NOT the Good Shepherd. My heart should be heard, but only the Holy Spirit guides us into all truth. My heart has such good things to offer, but it is NOT synonymous with the voice of the Father. We err dangerously when we conflate the voice of our heart’s desires and the voice of God. At first glance, they are easily confused but frequently opposed. We are prone to projecting the enticements of our ego or our idols into God’s mouth and are often deceived into convincing ourselves that our lusts were His idea. And yet even then, God is kinder and more attentive to the wayward heart than our accusing super-ego (or inner Pharisee). He says, “Come on, let’s hear it. You might as well be honest. Okay, I hear you. That’s quite a bizarre spin. But now … let me show you the way of life. Now, take up your Cross and follow me.”
Take up your Cross and follow me.
Jesus said that.
Our hearts, however lovely, never will.
Don’t follow your heart.
Listen to it, but follow Him.