As the parents of young children, my wife and I are always on the lookout for ‘safe’ entertainment options: movies, books or music that the kids can enjoy without being hit by F-bombs, explosions or sexual innuendo. With a little research, and a little faith in the Netflix ‘Kids’ option, we can keep them fairly well protected. But we’ve come to realise that parental supervision needs to go deeper than online filters and G-ratings. In fact, the real danger might not be the stuff that hits you over the head. It might be the subtle messages that are embedded in our ‘safe’ entertainment options, the worldview that lies underneath everything and shapes how we think. And there’s one phrase that sums up the gospel according to Hollywood and captures our culture’s prevailing worldview: Follow Your Heart.
It seems like everywhere you look, someone is urging you to “follow your heart”. Film, TV, music, literature—you name it. “Go with your gut.” “Trust your intuition.” “Do what’s right for you.” “Pursue your dreams.” “Believe in yourself.” It all amounts to pretty much the same thing: “Follow your heart.” Anyone who faces an important decision can’t possibly go wrong, it seems, if only they’d just follow their heart.
I’m sure some people offer this advice because they just don’t know what else to say and they figure you can never go wrong with a banal platitude. But it’s deeper than that. Seen within the bigger picture, the unrelenting advice to “follow your heart” is part of our culture’s overarching perception of ‘the good life’: figure out what will make you happy, and pursue that. And whatever you do, don’t let anything or anyone (such as promises you’ve made, financial obligations, stuffy old institutions, your own anatomy, religious books, or logic) deter you.
Sociologist Robert Bellah calls this worldview ‘expressive individualism’, while Charles Taylor has coined the term ‘The age of authenticity’. In the age of authenticity, exercising absolute freedom to choose whatever you want (as long as it doesn’t impinge on someone else’s absolute freedom to choose whatever they want) is an authentic life. Choice, “irrespective of what it is a choice between”, becomes the supreme value. The extent to which you live this way—that is, the extent to which you “follow your heart”—is the extent to which you’ll live a good life. And children are not immune to absorbing this worldview. Nothing could be more Disney than to tell someone to follow their heart.
It’s a compelling and powerful vision for life. It’s the cultural air we breathe—always assumed, sometimes made explicit. And it’s beautifully captured in those three little words. Follow your heart.
The only downside is that it’s utterly terrible advice in every way.
In fact, it’s hard to imagine advice that’s more opposed to the Bible’s worldview, and therefore more damaging to people’s souls.
The Bible’s verdict on the human heart is—how can I put this?—not flattering. For example, “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” (Gen 6:5) “The hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead.” (Ecclesiastes 9:3)
Here’s how Jesus put it: “It is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” (Mark 7:20-23)
At this point, many people will object. They’ll object to such a horribly negative diagnosis of the human heart, and they’ll ask why the Bible’s diagnosis and the Bible’s commands should trump our personal perception of reality.
There could be a few responses. One response (which takes a while) is to explain why Christians treat the Bible as the authoritative word of God, rather than as one opinion among many. Another response would be to ask people to take a hypothetical step inside your worldview: if there is a God who made us—and if he knows us intimately, designed us to live a certain way, and cares deeply about us—wouldn’t it make sense to listen to him and to his analysis of our condition, rather than just listening to ourselves?
The simplest response might be to ask people to be honest with themselves. Ask them whether they really like everything that comes out of their heart. Ask whether they’d be happy for the thoughts of their hearts to be turned into a daily video diary for the whole world to see. The Bible’s diagnosis may be painful and confronting, but it’s true.
Following your heart will get you nowhere. Thankfully, Jesus offers us a better way. Jesus shows us how to lead our hearts.
Lead Your Heart
In the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns his followers about the dangers of pursuing earthly treasures and neglecting heavenly treasures: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” (Matt 6:19-20)
So there’s the command: lay up treasure in heaven, not on earth. But look closely at what Jesus says in the very next verse, and at how he connects this with the preceding instruction: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (v. 21)
Do you see what Jesus does? He does NOT give a command based around following our hearts. He does the opposite. He gives a command based around leading our hearts. ‘Here is where your heart needs to go—so take active steps to get your heart there. But don’t sit back and wait for your heart to tell you what to do. Take charge of your heart. Lead your heart.’
Jesus knows exactly where our hearts need to be (set on the things on heaven, not on the things of earth), and he gives us a method for getting our hearts right. Invest in the things of heaven and eternity, make that your priority and your focus, and your heart will follow. Lead your heart where it needs to go.
The God Who Changes Hearts
Thankfully, in God’s hands, even the deceitful and sick human heart is not a lost cause. God promised that, one day, he would transform his people at the deepest possible level: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” (Ezekiel 36:26-27) Wonderfully, in the death and resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of God’s Spirit, that day has now come. God’s saved people are part of a new covenant, one in which we are given new hearts. “Thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance.” (Romans 6:17)
And yet the deceitfulness and madness of the human heart remains. So we’re warned: “See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12). Knowing the lingering power of sin alongside the great salvation that is ours, we’re encouraged to actively lead our hearts in the right direction: “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” (Col 3:1-2) Just being a Christian doesn’t mean you can settle for following your heart; you need to keep leading your heart.
The advice to “follow your heart” is built on a worldview that trusts each individual to know what will make them happy and what will be in their own best interests. But that trust is misplaced. A sick, mad, evil heart is an untrustworthy guide in the search for a good life.
But thank God that he’s given us a better way. The biblical way is to forget about following our hearts. Instead, we should lead our hearts where they need to go. We should set our hearts where they need to be. Or, to put it another way, we should spend hardly any time listening to the little voice inside us and instead spend lots of time listening to the big, clear, trustworthy voice of God in the pages of the Bible. As we do that, his Spirit will transform our hearts so that, one step at a time, they become a little less taken with the things of this world and a little more fixed on the things of God.
Set your heart on things above. Lead your heart.
 Quoted in James K.A. Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), p. 85.