The image of a guard conjures up all sorts of thoughts from the fear-inducing protector of something precious to the impenetrable housing of something desirable. If we carry these ideas of what it means to guard through to our understanding of Proverbs 4:23 - "Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it" - then we can end up assuming that guarding our hearts means that we have to avoid every situation or person that could expose us to harm or impurity. (And it turns out almost everything can do that!)
The verse which is commonly used in the context of engaging in relationships with the opposite sex, is also interpreted by some as an instruction to shield their heart and themselves by avoiding entering into certain relationships or friendships that risk distracting them from becoming more like Christ. Taken to the extreme it can see people shut themselves off from romantic relationships, and friendships or interactions with those who don't share their faith or values.
But how can we engage with others in the way God wants us to if we act this way? How can we care for our neighbours if we're afraid of coming into contact with their differences? How can we learn to love as God intended if we're constantly putting up barriers between ourselves and potential partners? The reality is, we can't.
Our hearts are precious and they can also be extremely fragile and vulnerable to attacks so it does make perfect sense that we should seek to protect them. But this doesn't mean that we always have to actively sidestep coming close to those who may hurt us, or always avoid relationships that we know will expose us to different kinds of temptation.
Whether it's a friendship with someone from a different faith or a relationship with someone of the opposite sex, every relationship that we enter into tempts us in one way or another.
While Proverbs 4:23 contains a truth we need to hear and an instruction we need to follow, sometimes our emphasis on guarding our hearts can focus too much on what we refuse to let into our hearts instead of what we should fill our hearts with - God's word and wisdom. Faith thrives when God's word is in our hearts and it enables us to follow Christ's teachings without fearing that doing so will leave us heartbroken or damaged.
In Proverbs 4:4 we read: "Take hold of my words with all your heart; keep my commands, and you will live."
The best protection on offer comes from God through Christ. So instead of thinking that we have to enclose our hearts in an armour that creates distance between ourselves and others, we should think of embracing God and His words in our heart. If you're wondering how to do this, you can start by meditating on and memorising Bible passages. Listening to God's voice in your life and treasuring the words that He says to you is another way. You might find it helpful to make a note of each time you hear God's voice and what He says in a journal and refer back to it on a regular basis. Each of these practices can help you protect yourself without putting up barriers that prevent you from putting your faith into action and showing love - a vital way to demonstrate and develop a heart for Christ.