“ABOVE ALL ELSE, GUARD YOUR HEART, for it is the wellspring of life” (Proverbs 4:23).
(1) In contemporary Western symbolism, the heart is the seat of emotions: e.g., “I love you with all my heart.” But in the symbol-world of Scripture, the heart is the seat of the whole person. It is closer to what we mean by “mind,” though in English “mind” is perhaps a little too restrictively cerebral.
(2) So “guard your heart” means more than “be careful what, or whom, you love”—though it cannot easily mean less than that. It means something like, “Be careful what you treasure; be careful what you set your affections and thoughts on.”
(3) For the “heart,” in this usage, “is the wellspring of life.” It directs the rest of life. What you set your mind and emotions on determines where you go and what you do. It may easily pollute all of life. The imagery is perhaps all the clearer in this section of Proverbs because the ensuing verses mention other organs: “Put away perversity from your mouth; keep corrupt talk far from your lips. Let your eyes look straight ahead…. Make level paths for your feet” (Prov. 4:24-26, italics added). But above all, guard your heart, “for it is the wellspring of life.” It is the source of everything in a way that, say, the feet are not. Jesus picks up much the same imagery. “You brood of vipers,” he says to one group, “how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him” (Matt. 12:34-35, italics added). So guard your heart.
(4) Make this duty of paramount importance: “Above all else, guard your heart.” One can see why. If the heart is nothing other than the center of your entire personality, that is what must be preserved. If your religion is merely external, while your “heart” is a seething mass of self-interest, what good is the religion? If your heart is ardently pursuing peripheral things (not necessarily prurient things), then from a Christian perspective you soon come to be occupied with the merely peripheral. If what you dream of is possessing a certain thing, if what you pant for is a certain salary or reputation, that shapes your life. But if above all else you see it to be your duty to guard your heart, that resolve will translate itself into choices of what you read, how you pray, what you linger over. It will prompt self-examination and confession, repentance, and faith, and will transform the rest of your life.