FOLLOW your heart. That is an increasingly popular mantra that has taken root in postmodern culture. It evokes at once the freedom of being yourself, and the need to chart your own course in life. Ideas of the freedom of individual expression, the importance of feelings, and not letting anyone or even your own thoughts rule you lie behind the cult of following your heart.
The lyrics of a contemporary song express this notion quite well: “When darkness surrounds you/ And you lose your way/ You have your own compass/ That turns night to day/ And it’s even with you/ Before you depart/ Be still, hear it beating/
It’s leading you/ Follow your heart.”
Your feelings are considered as more natural than your thoughts. To follow your heart is therefore to be your natural self.
In a sense, the whole notion is based on a naturalism that is increasingly dominant in popular culture.
But is the human heart a good guide?
The Bible has some things to say about the matter, and the picture is not so good. “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). Some Bible translations describe the heart as “hopelessly sick”. If that is the condition of the heart, how then can the heart be a good guide? Is following the heart an ill-considered and foolhardy thing to do? Our Lord Himself said something about the sinful human heart. When the Pharisees and teachers of the Law of His day questioned Him about the lack of ritual observances among His disciples (who had not performed the prescribed ceremonial washing before eating food), Jesus pointed out their spiritual blindness. He declared that it is not our diet that pollutes us but our hearts. “For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.’ ” (Mk. 7:21-23).
Jesus told it as it is. The human heart is not a nice place, for it harbours all kinds of wickedness and sinfulness. Our postmodern culture has idealised this heart and is encouraging people to follow its desperate ways. If the mantra of modernity (taking off from the Enlightenment) is: “Follow your mind”, then the mantra of postmodernity is: “Follow your heart”. Is it safe to follow your heart?
Modernity placed the human mind and rationality on the pedestal and made it into an idol; and we have seen many disasters in history and personal lives that have resulted from that idolatrous act. Postmodernity is a reaction to it, but it has replaced the mind with the heart, thinking (or feeling) that the heart is a better candidate for the throne of human adoration.
Both mantras (follow your mind and follow your heart) have been judged by Jesus and found wanting. It is not the heart or mind that we are called to follow. Rather we are called to follow Jesus. The Lord met people and His simple invitation was: “Follow me” (e.g. Mt. 19:21). Jesus transcends our fallen hearts and minds and offers a way out of the prison of our own faulty thoughts, damaged emotions, misguided intuitions, and warped sense of direction.
WHEN we let Jesus lead us and become His followers, then our minds and hearts are set on a process of redemptive transformation. Our minds become renewed as they are schooled in the truths of God (Rom. 12:2), while our hearts are made new in the presence of God who forgives and loves us and creates in us new emotions and attitudes.
Our hearts become the dwelling place of Jesus and He gets to work in them to bring about transformation (Eph 3:17).
It may be argued that since our hearts have been made new through faith in Jesus, can we not now follow our redeemed hearts? The answer would still be no. Our hearts and minds, though being redeemed, are still work in progress. We all know this from experience, of how the contents of our minds and hearts are not always noble or praiseworthy. We can still make lots of mistakes, and sometimes the error can be grave.
This is perhaps why John tells us that our hearts can err by being too permissive (the greater problem in today’s permissive culture) or too harsh. “This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything” (1 Jn. 3:19-20).
The heart, even the redeemed heart, may not be a perfect judge, even of ourselves. How, then, can we uncritically follow our hearts?
The Lord is greater than our hearts, redeemed or unredeemed. That is why we ought to follow Jesus, NOT our hearts. We must learn to love Him with our whole heart, but we must follow Him and no other.
When we idealise the human mind or heart, we have created idols that will lead us astray. Even in church, we may have idealised the human mind (as when we are guilty of what Paul calls “inflated knowledge’’ in 1 Cor 8:1) and human heart (as when we love our own devotion to Christ rather than Christ Himself). This can be seen in the forms of useless and circuitous armchair or round-table religious discussions and debates, and mindless songs that deliriously worship our religious sentiments rather than God. Even in church there is a temptation to follow the mind or the heart, instead of following Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life (Jn. 14:6).
Our minds and hearts cannot show the way, but they can help us follow Jesus. We should not put the cart before the horse, so to speak, or to put the metaphor differently, we should not confuse the horse with its rider. Follow the horse, and you may end up in its favourite haunts, far away from the rider’s original intended destination. The mind and heart must be followers, and Jesus must be the One followed.
The next time someone tells you to follow your heart, tell them you’d rather follow Jesus.