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. Pingback : “Guarding your heart” the Purity movement | iamabeautifulthing

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