What’s Wrong with Guarding your Heart?

30 September 2013, 06:00



Guard_Your_HeartI was raised in an ultra-Conservative Christian homeschool environment, during what I consider the heyday of the “guard your heart”/purity/courtship movement (90s and early 2000s). Needless to say, that teaching affected and continues to affect me deeply. What started out as a (presumably) well-intentioned effort by parents to prevent their children from experiencing pain, has instead damaged a whole generation of Christians.

For me, this teaching mostly came from ATI [the Advanced Training Institute]. Without ATI, I’m not sure I would have ever been more than vaguely aware of this teaching, as I doubt it’s something my parents would have otherwise espoused. The ATI families I was surrounded with, and the message I received at the annual ATI conferences, all worked together to teach and reinforce the idea that I must “guard my heart.”

Several months ago a friend of mine posted a link to an article that talked about how the Christian-culture obsession with “guarding your heart” has hindered a whole generation of Christians’ ability to love. The author’s point—which I identified with very strongly—was that closing down your heart to romantic love inevitably closes down your heart to other types of love as well. I’m not sure whether this is true from a psychological standpoint; all I know is that it is true in my experience, and in the experience of many of my peers.

About a month ago, I read another article on this topic and, although I generally agreed with the article, it brought up some things that made me really upset.

The first thing that upset me about this article is this quote:

“As a result [of the “guard your heart” teaching], smiling and waving at a guy friend became difficult, let alone having any meaningful conversation with a member of the opposite sex. My over-analytical mind reasoned that if I was friendly, guys might think I was interested. So I avoided men completely.”

What upset me about this quote is that the author’s experience was so different than mine. I was actually TOLD by the ATI culture I was raised in that being friendly would make guys think I was interested in them. And though I didn’t avoid them as a result, every interaction with guys from the time I first heard this teaching to even now (though it’s getting better) is tinged with the fear that they might think I’m flirting with them. For people raised under normal circumstances, flirting wouldn’t even exist. However, we were taught that flirting was evil and was robbing not only our future husband of pieces of our heart, but our male friends’ future wives of pieces of their heart. The effect of this teaching has made it nearly impossible for me to have friendships with the opposite sex and I constantly have to remind myself that talking to men is not inherently evil.

The second thing that upset me about this article was that it subtly brings to light the fact that the verse from which the phrase “guard your heart” is pulled is taken completely out of context by proponents of this view of male/female romantic relationships, something I had never realized before:

“The phrase stems from Proverbs 4:23, which instructs, ‘Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.’ Proverbs 4 sounds a beautiful call toward wisdom and away from evil and perversity. However, as a young woman, I essentially substituted the word ‘men’ for the word ‘evil.’”

The full context of that verse is this:

20 “My son, pay attention to what I say;
turn your ear to my words.
21 Do not let them out of your sight,
keep them within your heart;
22 for they are life to those who find them
and health to one’s whole body.
23 Above all else, guard your heart,
for everything you do flows from it.
24 Keep your mouth free of perversity;
keep corrupt talk far from your lips.
25 Let your eyes look straight ahead;
fix your gaze directly before you.
26 Give careful thought to the paths for your feet
and be steadfast in all your ways.
27 Do not turn to the right or the left;
keep your foot from evil.” (Proverbs 4:20-27, NIV)

It is obvious from the context that these verses are not referring in any way, shape, or form to relationships between men and women. And yet Proverbs 4:23 has been twisted by ATI and other fundamentalist Christians and organizations in such a way as to emotionally maim thousands of men and women who were raised with a courtship mentality.

What is even worse than this, is that “guarding your heart” against love goes against the very nature of God. Jesus said that the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love our neighbor (Matthew 22:37-39). Yet I and many of my peers were taught that loving others was wrong. That love, instead of being something to strive to have towards people, was something to guard against having for people.

I’m only just beginning to realize the consequences of this teaching in my own life, but what really upsets me is that I was sold a pack of lies. Or, to be more accurate, I was taught a pack of lies, and not knowing anything different, I believed it.

Dree was raised in ATI from her birth until the age of 16. She is passionate about truth, language, and teaching and is currently pursuing an MA in English. She recently began re-examining the teachings she was raised with and is discovering just how freeing it is to get down to the basics of her faith—loving God and loving others.
All articles on this site reflect the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of other Recovering Grace contributors or the leadership of the site. Students who have survived Gothardism tend to end up at a wide variety of places on the spiritual and theological spectrum, thus the diversity of opinions expressed on this website reflects that. For our official statement of beliefs, click here.


  1. Shelly September 30, 2013 Reply

    Oh how I relate to this!!! And yes, it makes me angry. We were sold a pack of lies and it damaged so many relationships as a result. It makes me cringe when I think of how cold and distant I was to guys (even ones I liked) in order to avoid "appearance of evil". Thank you for writing and exposing this destructive teaching. I hate how ATI took a good concept like moral purity and twisted it into legalistic crap that was nothing like God intended.

  2. Anonymous September 30, 2013 Reply

    Elle, you've hit this issue right on the head! Jesus commands us to love...everyone. As a late teen, I found myself confused about the contrast between guarding your heart, and the philosophy that love increases when you use it. For instance, parental love isn't less for the 2nd child than the first. I decided then that I should love every human being as a human being regardless of sex. As I'm rethinking this now, over 10 years later, I wonder if the idea of guarding your heart is objectifying the other sex. After all, you view them in only one facet, as husbands and wives, not human beings.

    • Lauren S. October 1, 2013 Reply

      I agree that it is objectification. In fact, as I revisit the things ATI (and the rest of the conservative culture I was in) taught about sex & romance I find a startling resemblance between the spirit of what they teach and the "world" they were trying to avoid. In all their purity teachings they only succeeded in keeping us all objectified and unhealthily obsessed.

      • grateful October 2, 2013 Reply

        curious, can you elaborate on what you mean by objectified?

        • Lauren S. October 3, 2013

          I just googled the definition because I figured others had said it already better than I can. This is what I found, "What is sexual objectification? If objectification is the process of representing or treating a person like an object (a non-thinking thing that can be used however one likes), then sexual objectification is the process of representing or treating a person like a sex object, one that serves another’s sexual pleasure." (From the article Sexual Objectification part 1 on The Society Pages)

          Of course, the objectification of all of us through ATI was not for another's sexual pleasure, rather it was for another's sexual purity.

          The purity teachings treated us (and taught us to treat others) as though we were not first and foremost people, with rights, stories, character, personalities and worth, but rather as sexual bombs that would explode at the slightest hint of flame.

          I know that when I looked at a boy, I did not see a person, I saw an object. Not of sexual pleasure, but of sexual danger. Not that he might be a rapist, but that I might have a crush on him or him on me. In the purity culture, having a crush, giving a kiss and having sex were almost equally frowned on.

        • Heather October 4, 2013

          So it's a different kind of objectification. I completely agree. Anytime people are not seen as people, as Lauren said, but a tool or object to use, they are being objectified. The most common form of objectification is sexual, but that doesn't mean it's the only one. :) Hope that helps.

  3. Laura September 30, 2013 Reply

    I wasn't allowed to have friends that were guys at all. I have only sisters, so it was easier for my parents to enforce the "no boys" rules. I had a boyfriend anyway - when my parents found out, they forced me to break up with him. I was 20. My mom gave me many long lectures about "guarding my heart," and told me that I was like a treasure in a display case. By going behind their back to be friends with a guy (BTW, nothing "immoral" ever happened - we never even held hands or kissed!), I was getting out of the display case and how could they protect the precious treasure if I wouldn't stay in the case?

    Now that I'm an adult - and divorced from the man that they did approve for me through courtship - the whole situation appears incredibly abusive. Sadly, I was brainwashed enough at the time that I didn't recognize abuse when I experienced it. :(

    • Lauren S. October 1, 2013 Reply

      Your mom's lecture would have made perfect sense to me back in the day, but now I just think, "How the heck did it ever sound desirable/normal/reasonable to live in a glass display case ON PURPOSE?"
      I'm sorry for what you've gone through.

  4. Heather September 30, 2013 Reply

    Hello Islam.. Oh wait...

    • esbee September 30, 2013 Reply

      Have you read where an Islamic cleric said women should not drive because it may damage their ovaries? I guess they are ok if they are just a passenger in the car. Legalism does not limit itself to just BG, the devil uses it in many ways and places and cultures.

  5. Heather September 30, 2013 Reply

    I am positive that most parents wanted to simply keep their children from going through boy/girlfriend after boy/girlfriend, and develop the bad habits that might come from that. This was an over-reaction to that problem. And the most absurd is the teaching that if you ever have romantic feelings for anyone other than the person you end up marrying, you have actually, literally committed adultery against your future spouse (that you haven't met yet, and aren't married to yet.)

    I understand that some people may fall in love with someone they can't or don't have, and never get over it, but even if that was the case, how would these teachings help that person work through it?
    God gave us feelings, and the capacity to love another in that particular, mysterious way, and because we live in a fallen world, this love doesn't always function the way it's supposed to.. and guess what? There's no one way to deal with this brokenness! No one formula that works for everyone.It may not even be in God's will for you to 'get over' loving a particular person, because He has a plan in motion for His ultimate glory, through that person and their situation.

    It's all bunk anyway, at least for me. I was boy crazy growing up, and dated one other guy besides my husband, and not ONE of those other guys I liked (or dated)have even the smallest place in my heart, aside from being memories, either pleasant or unpleasant.. They are a part of my (emotional) past, but they are not a part of who I am today. My heart fully belongs to my husband.

  6. […] https://www.recoveringgrace.org/2013/09/whats-wrong-with-guarding-your-heart/ […]

  7. Andrea September 30, 2013 Reply

    Turning off attraction is to turn off a feeling. But the thing about emotions, is that you can't isolate, and turn off one. When you turn one feeling off, you turn them all off. Our generation learned to live on the inside only. We learned to become shells. We turned off joy, pain, love; in order to control something we shouldn't have been held responsible to control, the actions and feelings of others. We knew how to make our faces smile at the right time. We knew how to give the right answers and feign joy, feign zeal for God. It was all in the name of making our parents look like they were raising the next wunder Christians.

  8. grateful September 30, 2013 Reply

    "moderation in all things, including moderation"

    Mark Twain

  9. Tara-Lee September 30, 2013 Reply

    I think that guarding your heart often ended up with people marrying somebody that they weren't suited to, or even marrying someone who turned out to be abusive because they weren't able to really get to know them (or know enough about the opposite gender and relationships in general to have good discernment) so a poor marriage was entered into. Then they feel trapped.

    If they really and truly value the sanctity of marriage, they would focus more on wisdom in choosing a marriage partner in the first place.

    • Heather October 1, 2013 Reply

      Unfortunately, you are completely right.

    • Shari October 2, 2013 Reply

      Yes, it seems the courtship rage of the 90's was a reaction to the pains of unbridled dating that our parents' generation experienced.

      Courtship might have started out as a noble idea, but it has backfired because the "high standard of courtship" stunted the emotional growth of countless young people. My generation (at least in the Christian/fundamental arena) was promised a fail-proof way to navigate the rough seas of transition to marriage. Instead, many of us are now dealing with the shrapnel of courtship: an inability to relate to society (especially in our interactions with the opposite gender), a fear of "giving away pieces of our heart", difficulty in knowing how to give and receive love (because it was so forbidden before), and wounds from relationships that were even "courtship approved."

      We were told that dating was preparation for divorce, yet I've known plenty of couples who dated and are still happily married many years later, as well as couples with happy courtship stories who are now tragically divorced.

      Why were we taught a formula instead of being pointed to a living Savior who could walk us through any relationship?

      • Heather October 2, 2013 Reply

        "Dating is practice for divorce!" Preached by those who dated and have yet to divorce. "Courtship is practice for marriage!" Preached by those who did not court at all, how can they possibly know that that's always the case?

        There is an assumption that the definition of dating is actually serial dating. Where neither person involved are looking for marriage, but just a good time. I couldn't hear anything more ridiculous, particularly in reference to Godly adults who seek a God fearing partner. I don't deny that some people do treat relationships this way, and that's bad all around, but folks don't seem to realize dating can be pretty much anything you want it to be, including a less strenuous form of courtship. I've dated two men in my entire life, one of which I'm married to. There were many young men I did not ever go out with, and in fact, handled myself in such a way that I was quite friendly, but never encouraging them to ask me out. I wanted to get to know them for who they were first, and I got to know plenty of them well enough to know whether or not a relationship was possible with them.

  10. Tangent October 1, 2013 Reply

    My daughters were in a girls' group called "Bright Arrows" a couple of years ago. One of the lessons was based on this idea of guarding your heart. The teacher had an object lesson: She had a large pink paper heart and as the heart's owner felt attracted to a young man, ahe tore off a piece of the heart and tossed it onto the floor. So it went until only a small scrap remained to present to her husband. The more I 've thought about that lesson, the more outrageous it appears. Such a false view of life and love.

    • Heather October 1, 2013 Reply

      I remember seeing and believing that message, Tangent. Completely false. Love/feelings/emotions, are not a one dimensional piece of paper.

    • JesusIsEnough February 6, 2014 Reply

      (Sorry I am late to this topic.)
      Reading these articles and comments has brought back many memories of preaching that I had heard growing up. Particularly on this topic. Oh the dangers of out of balance and un-scriptural teaching.
      Below is a a short video clip from Pastor Matt Chandler that has been a blessing to me and speaks to this very issue.

  11. Lauryl October 1, 2013 Reply

    By this reasoning, convents and monasteries would have produced the most awkward, self-absorbed, stunted people in the world, but it was quite the opposite. "Guard your heart" is mom-language for fleeing sexual temptation and involvement with the wrong people ("If you're not going to cook the roast, don't preheat the oven"). If keeping respectful distance ruined us for future relationships, the verse from 1 Cor. 7:1, "It is good for a man not to touch a woman," would not be in the same book as Song of Solomon.

    • Heather October 1, 2013 Reply

      Lauryl, that may very well be what 'guard your heart' means to you, but in ATI, it meant something completely different. And I'm not sure your point about convents and monasteries completely matches this situation, for one, nuns and monks generally do not come into habitual contact with one another (which produces temptation, or even natural, normal, proper attraction), also, generally most nuns and monks are genuinely called to celibacy, therefore the opposite gender may not mean so much to them in this sense. Furthermore, they do not ever anticipate marrying at all, therefore have not much need for learning how to have friendships and relationships with the opposite sex, the young people in ATI did/do anticipate one day marrying, so in a manner of speaking, this flaw was a stumbling block for many of them.

    • [email protected] October 2, 2013 Reply

      Lauryl, not trying to be rude, but even a brief study of European convents and monasteries especially prior to the reformation will show that what you described is exactly what was produced, "awkward, self-absorbed, stunted people." There was all kinds of perversion that came in SOME of the convents and monasteries because of false teaching. The kinds of things that turn your stomach just to read about them. Whenever a group of people decide that they can be more holy than the rest, that they can go beyond the saving blood of Christ and "do one better", then perversion of truth will result.

  12. grateful October 1, 2013 Reply

    Honesty is the most important thing in marriage. My wife knows me like no one else does; she knows the real me. So, going into a dating/courtship relationship, if you are constantly putting on a show to meet other people's expectations or live up to some pre-ordained criteria, and that is not who you really are, things are doomed from the start. I had a fine courtship experience, I learned a lot about myself, grew in the Lord and developed a strong relationship with my in-laws. However, I was up-front with them and real, warts and all. If it is the Lord's will, He will make it happen. (isn't that the whole idea behind the courtship philosophy anyway)

    There is an element of truth about the ill effects giving your heart away time and time again and should be something to be cognizant of, but one should not be paranoid about it. Talking to some one does not = flirting. We are to keep our hearts with all diligence, as pointed out from Proverbs 4, and contextually, it is an element of lifestyle choices. However, this does not mean burying it (as a distorted teaching and application can lead to.)

  13. LJ October 1, 2013 Reply

    I am so thankful for this group and the open/honest manner in which matters like this are shared. Thank you, Elle, for sharing what a devastating impact the concept of guarding your heart had on you. It will help bring others to a place of healing and "recovering grace."

  14. Mercy October 2, 2013 Reply

    In my fundamental Baptist church, I remember hearing sermons against love! By that, the preachers meant to be against compromise, but I think it's extremely telling that they chose to rail against LOVE. (Have they never read the Bible? The entire summation of the law is love God and love others.) I also regularly heard sermons about the dangers of emotion and how feelings were suspect and dangerous. Our music was also very formal and stilted, and sermons were preached about how wrong it was to get emotional in our singing like "those Pentecostals." While I do believe in self-control and not being a slave to one's emotions, the preaching I heard went too far, much too far. And I do believe in the end it resulted in people who had a hard time loving others, even their own families.

    The extreme attempts to keep young people from experiencing heartache by avoiding romantic entanglements go too far, many times resulting in what C. S. Lewis describes here:

    "“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even 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. To love is to be vulnerable.”

    • "Haley" February 27, 2014 Reply

      This C.S. Lewis quote was part of what convicted me to stop "guarding my heart" in the ATI sense and to start actually being open to friendships with guys and to dating. I was a self-righteous girl who thought she deserved to be blessed because she had followed all the rules. I was entitled. I thought that somehow, with minimal interaction with guys, and an isolated life in my parents' house, God would reveal my future husband. Praise God that He humbled me and convicted me ... I saw that I was going to have to take some risks and to risk (gulp) not having the perfect formula story that I'd heard via ATI courtship testimonies for so many years. I had soooo looked forward to someday sharing my perfect testimony, if I'm honest. And now I'm so grateful that I stepped out of that box and stopped expecting God to conform to the ATI formula.

  15. Hurting October 7, 2013 Reply

    As a guy I can say young men have also suffered with struggles because of teachings on guarding your heart and emotional purity that has had a detrimental to young men. In our efforts to please our elders, leaders and the homeschool culture around us we often thought we did the right thing by limiting our time and conversations with girls. We taught we were doing the right, honorable thing, the noble thing, the gentlemanly thing; instead we were being jerks. Pressure was put on us by ours and ourselves not to "emotionally rape" our sisters in Christ; in response we treat our sisters in Christ like strangers, even enemies. My heart is heavy with what could have been beautifully relationships with fellow Christians that were ruined by teachings of IBLP and other Fundamentalists. I have caused girls pain by denying them decent friendship; girls have caused me pain by not knowing how to say "I know you're interested, but no." The teachings on guard your heart has wrecked hearts. One parting thought, how is courtship, the idea that you don't get into a serious relationship unless marriage in insured, better at protecting hearts than dating if it makes Christians cold to each other and causes marriages that don't work.

  16. K.W. Leslie October 9, 2013 Reply

    I blogged on this very subject last month. Similar experiences; I had a Fundamentalist upbringing myself. Same conclusion too, once you look at the context.

    Thanks to that upbringing, I've had to go through a lot of my old beliefs, including all the out-of-context interpretations of the scriptures, and learn what they truly mean. But be encouraged: God offers tons of grace to those of us who try to weed out old errors in our theology. He appreciates the effort.


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