Thursday, December 22, 2011

On Guard! On Intimacy & the Guarding of the Heart

Liz Edrington is a Youth Minister at Christ Episcopal Church in Charlottesville, VA.

To guard, or not to guard… that is the question.  Or is it?

How has the idea of ‘guarding our hearts’ evolved?  We see the phrase used in Proverbs (4:23), but everyone has their own idea of what it means and how to use it.  From Joshua Harris’ ‘I Kissed Dating Goodbye’ to Elisabeth Elliot’s ‘Passion and Purity,’ there seems to be a pretty well developed idea that attempting to intentionally protect or withhold some part of yourself from another when seeking God with someone in a more romantic context is important.  However, the concept is often either hyper-spiritualized or made into law, and what may have been good wisdom becomes a confusing and abstract shackle.  

We don’t offer all of ourselves to someone who we have not committed to (and who has not committed to us) in marriage.  That’s just not a good idea.  And we see the painful and broken consequences of that all the time.  One person offers the other everything they know of themselves in an effort to draw another person unto them, or to get the other to stay in a relationship.  Deep intimacies are shared (be they emotional, physical, or spiritual) that are meant just for marriage, and the classic fire-in-the-fireplace metaphor spews uncontrollable flames which burn instead of warm and delight.

Recap: the fire-in-the-fireplace metaphor offers us a glimpse of God’s design for intimacy 
within marriage.  It is most often used to talk about sex; however, sex is just one of the potential damaging intimacies that can be shared outside of marriage.  And the sin that is in our hearts and minds (not simply our actions) runs much deeper than just having shared in that one act, so we must not neglect the other dynamics going on in romantic relationships which may be broken.

So, the idea with the metaphor is that a fire in a fireplace is a good thing.  It keeps you warm, you can enjoy it, it can cook food, etc.  It’s protected, it’s in its right place, and it is contained safely.  Similarly, sexual intimacy has been designed to be good, to be between husband and wife within the commitment of marriage.   Outside of marriage, the flames leap and burn, uncontained and damaging.  People are burned, scars are left.

However, this metaphor fails to recognize that sex within marriage can be a broken thing as well, and that marriage cannot protect both parties from burns.  It also fails to recognize that we believe in a God who can raise the dead, heal the worst of wounds, and redeem from ashes.  Marriage simply is the best place for sex, clearly, but we are not without vulnerability to sin even there.  We need Jesus in each place.

The same must be said for these other intimacies that are shared between people in romantic relationships.  They can be harmful, and scars can be deep.  But there is the greatest of hopes in the Living God who is moving and working all things together for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28).  There is a place for repentance when sin is discovered.  And there is much need for forgiveness- from the Lord who always offers it to us in Jesus, and from one another.  And there is wisdom to be gleaned from learning about the way sin looks in romantic relationships for you individually.   
‘Guarding your heart’ should not mean refraining from sharing honestly and vulnerably with one another.  It should not mean simply ‘not touching’ at any point of your relationship (as if that would protect us from sin).  It must entail a seeking of the Holy Spirit’s leading in each of your lives, and asking to be shown the places of weakness or brokenness which may become damaging. It might involve sharing in those places together, or it might not. The only thing I am 100% sure it should include is time spent by yourself and in community asking for God to reveal, lead, and help in these things.   He does give us some pretty great insight in Scripture.  Shared sexual intimacy is no joke- and we need to be walking with our kids in their questions.  

It is crazy to presume that our own experiences with these sorts of issues can provide a general recipe or roadmap for everyone else- which we must be incredibly cautious of as youth ministers.  Yes, we can learn from one another’s mistakes and God’s work there (and we should!), but we cannot provide a black and white rule book for engaging these sorts of things.   We get to provide a safe space, a relationship, for our kids to consider their questions and experiences and to seek the Word of God who is ever showing and reminding us of His good design for this world.  He uses it all to point us to Himself and to His Kingdom; so here’s to sharing in the hope of goodness, forgiveness, redemption, and celebration in God’s work- even in romantic relationships.


  1. What a great article. I hate the misuse of the term "guard your heart." I've seen it used worse in college ministry than youth ministry. The way I've seen it communicated is "avoid all intimacy and vulnerability. Eliminate emotional risk." The way it's used is really to suggest we can avoid getting hurt and disappointed, which is impossible.

    In context, "guard the heart" means to make sure your heart is operating in truth. If two students are fifteen years old and acting like they are married (doing holidays together, getting real physically intimate, exchanging passionate "I love you"'s) then they're not in truth. They are fifteen with no chance of getting married for several years- they're not operating in truth.

    At the same time, if we teach kids to avoid vulnerability and risk, they'll never have intimacy with God or man. And, no matter how hard people try, God redeems wounds.

    I think we need to teach kids to operate in truth and reality and to know that God can heal them when they get hurt.

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