No one actually follows their heart. I know that sounds odd, given the prevalence of our cultural creed to "follow your heart." But if we think carefully about what the "heart" really is and how it functions, we will see that this creed doesn’t make sense, and why it ends up confusing and misleading people.
A few years ago, I wrote an article titled, “Don’t Follow Your Heart,” in which I argued that, considering the heart’s pathologically selfish orientation, it is not a leader we should want to follow.
Some readers objected, arguing that as Christians our hearts of stone have been replaced with new hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26), and therefore should be reliable to follow. I understand the point, though I believe it to be naïve. Romans 7 (and much of the New Testament) bears witness to — and my extensive personal experience and observation confirms — an active, deceptive sin nature still infecting the regenerate person, requiring us to remain wary and vigilant.
But in pursuing greater clarity, I'll push my argument one step further and say, No one follows their heart. Because God did not make the heart to work that way.
What Is “the Heart”?
What do people mean when they say, “Follow your heart”? I doubt most have thought carefully about it. Since it’s always wise to know who one’s leader is before we decide whether it’s wise and safe to follow, we must ask, what is this immaterial thing we call “the heart”?
Have you ever tried to concisely answer that question? It might seem manifestly obvious at first — until you try it and realize the water is deeper and trickier than you thought. Here’s my attempt: the heart is the biblical metaphor for the part of our inner being (soul) that is the source of our affections.
Affections are our strong inclinations toward or away from someone or something. We tend to call these inclinations “loves” or “hates.” Affections are the gauges in the soul that tell us how much or little we treasure persons or things.
So we can say the heart is our soul’s treasurer, because Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). And since God is the supreme treasure in existence, we are to have the greatest affections for him — we are to love him with all our hearts (Matthew 22:37).
Beware the Power of a Phrase
Our heart desires what it treasures. In other words, the heart is a “wanter.” So, when people say, “Follow your heart,” what they really mean is, “Pursue what you want.” But saying it this way casts a revealing light and blows away some of the dreamy, euphemistic haze from our cultural creed.
Words are powerful. They can cut through a tangled overgrowth and reveal glorious truth or devious lies. Or they can obfuscate and manipulate and deceive. “Follow your heart” and “pursue what you want” are good examples of what I mean.
“Follow your heart” has a noble, heroic, adventurous, courageous ring to it. And it seems to carry a weight of moral obligation, as if to deny it would be to betray ourselves. It sounds nearly sacred. If someone is on a quest to follow their heart, it feels almost like a violation to question whether they should.
But the phrase “pursue what you want” is more crass, and its inherent dangers are more readily apparent. When we hear it, we intuitively recognize the moral ambiguities in play and feel ambivalence due to the selfishness we know infects our motives. We might disagree on what wants should be pursued, but we are all agreed that not all wants should be pursued. We all know our hearts have plenty of wants that aren’t good for our hearts.
But more than that, “pursue what you want” clarifies who follows what. The key words in this phrase are “what” and “want.” Our “wants” follow the “what.” If our heart is our “wanter,” it follows “what” it wants. If our heart is our treasurer, it follows (or pursues) what it treasures. In other words, we don’t follow our treasurer; our treasurer tells us what treasure to follow.
You Never Follow Your Heart
This is why the phrase “follow your heart” is confusing and misleading. It’s sort of like saying follow your follower, or treasure your treasurer, or want your wanter.
The truth is that you never actually follow your heart. The heart is the part of you that follows what you want. That's why the Bible never instructs you to follow your heart. The Bible only instructs your heart to do what God designed it to do: to feel right affections. God tells your heart to treasure what is truly valuable (Matthew 13:44), to love what is right for the right reasons (Matthew 22:37–39), to trust what is true (Proverbs 3:5–6), and to hate what is evil (Psalm 97:10).
What you follow — what you pursue — is the object that stirs your heart’s affections. The exhortation “don’t follow your heart” bears repeating because I believe the enemy uses the cultural creed “follow your heart” to obscure the truth and manipulate people into deception.
“Follow your heart” is not benign. It’s a powerfully sounding, yet vague, impressionistic idea that sounds so close to being true that, if we aren’t careful, we will simply accept it at face value. And then it becomes a value that informs how we make our decisions and leads us down all sorts of selfish and destructive paths, all the while telling us that we’re simply and nobly being true to ourselves. If Satan can get us to keep our eyes on what we believe are our hearts' sacred dreams, he knows he can keep us blind to the real treasure.
But God doesn’t want our eyes on our hearts, because hearts aren’t designed to be followed. Hearts are designed to be led and directed (2 Thessalonians 3:5). God wants the eyes of our hearts enlightened to see the real treasure and pursue it (Ephesians 1:18). That’s why he tells us to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). God doesn’t want us to erroneously think we follow our hearts; he wants us to know we follow Jesus.