If there's one phrase I'd like to banish from all talk about (specifically Christian) male-female relationships, it's the perennial favorite of chastity speakers and I-Kissed-Dating-Goodbye advocates everywhere: "Guard your heart." I've grown to dislike this phrase, mostly because in my experience it leads to confusion (Am I guarding my heart? How do I know if I am? What I'm not guarding it enough? Will the Right Guy love me if I've already my heart to the Wrong Guy?), fear of getting crushes/falling in love, and often distracts us from what we ought to be doing: opening our hearts to Christ, in the knowledge that living in the Reality of his love is the one thing necessary.
But--you may protest--the Bible says we should guard our hearts! How could you want to banish it, Christina? I thought you liked the Bible!
Well, you're right about two things: 1) the phrase "guard your heart" does appear in the Bible and 2) I do love the Bible. What I don't love is Bible verses that are taken out of context, especially when they then become emptied of meaning through over-use and lack of real explanation. Before I go on my rant about what women should actually be concerned about in their relationships with men (and in life in general), head on over to Proverbs 4:23, and take a look at the context.
Note that this passage has NOTHING to do with women keeping their proverbial (ha) guard up in relationships with men. It has everything to do with guarding the deepest core of your being from sin and evil. While it is true that Scripture, being the Word of God, has infinite layers of meaning and we can always draw more wisdom from studying it and praying with it, I think we should avoid turning Bible verses into "catch phrases", especially when those catch phrases are confusing in and of themselves.
In addition to the above, I see three major problems with "guarding your heart" as it is typically understood:
1) It implies that you have complete control over who you have a crush on and/or who you fall in love with. The simple truth is that crushes and such are involuntary, which is part of what makes them so wonderful (at first) and/or so excruciating (if unrequited). Obviously, you can nurse a crush that you ought not nurse and you can hang on to a man who is bad for you , but the solution to those problems is to pay attention to reality (more on that later) and stop living in a fantasy.
2) Related to #1, the phrase also implies that by keeping your guard up, you'll somehow be able to avoid heartache. This is ridiculous, because we all know that no one can avoid heartache, even if it's just the pain of an unrequited crush. I'm sure many of you have read this reflection on love by CS Lewis before, but it bears repeating:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to 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. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.” (from The Four Loves)
3. Lastly, and probably worst of all, is the implication that if you are in a serious relationship with someone other than your husband, you will somehow be less prepared for marriage. I think we can all agree that it would be wonderful if our first love was also our last love (at least, that's what I always dreamed of as a girl), but that's rarely the case. Most of us will have at least one serious relationship before we meet the right man, and that's okay. As I learned with Paul, and even with my ex-boyfriend who treated me horribly, God can take those experiences and transform them with his grace. On the other hand, it seems obvious to me that our hearts were not made for serial monogamy (not to mention serial hook-ups, but I think we're probably all in agreement about that one), so it's not like we should go out of our way to have tons of serious relationships before we get married. But even if you have had several failed relationships (broken engagements included), that does NOT mean you're doomed to a loveless life because you didn't "guard your heart" enough. Christ has the power to heal all wounds and to turn all mourning into dancing, or He's not God. I hope those of you reading who feel like "damaged goods" or as if there's little of your heart left to give will take comfort, as I have, in The Lord's words to Hezekiah: “I have heard your prayer and seen your tears. I will heal you” (2 Kings 20:5).
I propose that we stop "guarding our hearts" and start paying attention to Reality.
Think about it. 99% of problems in life could be avoided and/or solved if we only followed this simple maxim. It is what all of Scripture and the Church's "rules" are based in. God is the author of Reality, so it follows that if we live according to what is real, what is true, instead of the ideas and plans and fantasies and illusions we have in our heads, we will be much happier. And this is especially true in the realm of dating and relationships with members of the opposite sex. Observe (note: the scenarios below are all based on personal experience):
-Boy gets your number at a party, but then adds you on FB. He "likes" a few of your status updates and photos, but never calls.
Reality: He's just not that into you.
-Boy wants to hang out all the time and talk about his feelings, but never actually asks you on a date or expresses any desire to commit to you.
Reality: He's just not that into you. Set up some good emotional boundaries, keep your conversations with him light, and don't hang out with him one-on-one.
-Boy flirts with you, asks you out, takes you out, and then you don't hear from him for two weeks.
Reality: He's just not that into you. Allow yourself to be disappointed, but don't fuel the fire by stalking him on FB or strategically showing up at his favorite coffee shop.
-Boy wants to hang out with you, calls you, texts you, etc even though he has a girlfriend.
Reality: He's not that into you AND he's not being faithful to his girlfriend. Not a good sign.
I think you get the point.
If you attempt, with God's grace, to stay rooted in reality in any of the above circumstances (which I know are all-too-common), you will be much happier and healthier. You won't end up telling a man who you shouldn't trust with your dry cleaning all of your deepest, darkest secrets. You won't end up obsessing over a guy (at least not for very long) who's just enjoyed flirting with you but is still in his cowboy phase and isn't relationship material at all. You won't end up chasing after a boy who is interested in another girl. At the very least, you won't do these things for long, because Reality will be too obvious for you to ignore.
Trust me: I lived in the Land of Denial when it came to boys (and lots of other aspects of my life) for the majority of my twenties. I practically invented I-Can-Change-Him and If-Things-Were-Different-He'd-Date-Me and Maybe-He's-Just-Shy and His-Relationship-With-Her-Is-Clearly-Going-Downhill-And-As-Soon-As-They-Break-Up-He'll-Want-To-Be-With-Me and He's-Probably-Just-Been-Really-Busy. Those are all lies that I told myself because I was convinced that I had to chase men if I wanted them to like me. The reality is (like my mom says) if a guy really likes you, wild horses will not be able to keep him away.
I've also wasted SO MUCH TIME obsessing about boys, dating, whether or not I was going to get married, and when it was going to happen, and why wasn't it happening, and oh my gosh I'm going to be alone FOREVER that I missed out on so much of the joy of living the beautiful life God has given me. And you know what? All those years, Jesus had just been waiting for me to enter into the only relationship that would make any friendship, dating relationship, or marriage beautiful: my relationship with Him. When I finally let go of my desire for control and trusted Him with everything, it became clear that falling in love with Jesus makes Reality so much easier to see, embrace, and live. Loving Jesus also helped me to see men as brothers in Christ, as opposed to looking at them purely as a means to an end (marriage). That was HUGE.
All of that being said, I propose that we Christian women adopt a new mantra when it comes to life in general, and relationships with men in particular: pay attention to reality. God, and his plan for us, is not in the clouds, not in the fantasies and illusions we like to dream up, he is in the Reality of our day-to-day lives. It is through concrete experience that He most often speaks to us, and it is when we are faithful to what is true about Reality that we are most free and most fully ourselves.
So, don't worry about guarding your heart. As long as you stay close to Jesus, living the life He has given you to live, He'll take care of your heart. He'll also take care of your vocation--so you don't need to worry about that either. All you have to do is beg for the grace to stay rooted in Reality, because that is where Christ shows us His face. He will give you that grace. And when you do inevitably fall for the wrong guy, He will give you the grace to heal and work through it.
With that in mind, dear readers, go forth to live your life in the knowledge that Christ is waiting to heal, strengthen, lead, guide, and love you, as soon as you say the word. Live with your heart open to the myriad of ways he wishes to make himself known today, and pray for the grace to trust that He has your future in His very capable hands. I'll be praying for you, too.