I learned to give my heart to God and listen to it at an early age, so when billionaire Steve Jobs told 2005 graduates from Stanford to “Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition,” Job’s advice resonated with me. Since then, however, Jobs’ advice to graduates has come under attack by many. For those who equate ‘following one’s heart’ with ‘following one’s passion,’ critics of his advice assert that individuals should “listen” to their strengths — not their hearts — in order to succeed in this world. They argue that success is more likely if individuals focus on areas where they have the talent to excel, rather than pursuing less developed areas where their hearts may try to lead them. They contend that it is less likely that someone will quit something they do well, than if they pursue something that is a greater challenge. Perhaps a 2018 research article sums up critics’ arguments best when its authors conclude that following one’s heart may be bad advice: “Urging people to find their passion may lead them to put all their eggs in one basket but then to drop that basket when it becomes difficult to carry.” (O’Keefe, Paul; Dweck, Carol; and Walton, Gregory. “Implicit Theories of Interest: Finding Your Passion or Developing It?”, Psychological Science, 2018, Vol. 29 (10) 1653-1664.)
This criticism has arisen by some Christian authors in a spiritual sense as well. Some Christians have challenged the advice to follow one’s heart based on their belief that one’s heart cannot be trusted. In a recent article entitled “Why ‘Follow Your Passions’ Is Bad Advice for Graduates,” by Patricia Raybon (Christianity Today, June 2019), the author argues that our hearts “make horrible compasses.” Quoting author Jon Bloom, the article asserts: “‘The truth is, no one lies to us more than our own hearts. Unaided by Christ, adds Bloom, our hearts are ‘pathologically selfish’.” (Emphasis added.)
Both criticisms in a worldly and spiritual sense seem to hinge on whether the “heart” (including one’s “passions”) is believed to be inherent and relatively fixed throughout one’s lifetime or whether it can be developed and is capable of change. To the extent the heart is believed fixed “in stone” and not capable of change, then it’s perhaps understandable that people would give up trying to change it if challenged or the going gets rough. By contrast, if people believe their heart is capable of change, they are more likely to accept that growth can be difficult and more likely to persevere when obstacles or spiritual issues arise that suggest a change of heart is needed.
I fall into the latter category: I believe that although our hearts can reflect our sinful nature, they are not cast “in stone” and they are capable of change. I believe also that surrendering our hearts to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, transforms our hearts – and the direction they will lead us — positively.
God can change hearts for the better, despite the challenges we face when we try. Even when it is humanly impossible to do so, Christ teaches us that in God “all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26) If God has the power to harden a pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 9:12), would He not also have the power to soften ours?
Since our heart and passions reflect our relationship with God and the role He plays in our lives, it stands to reason that following one’s heart makes sense if God resides in it and rules over it. However, because we are sinful by nature, I agree with warnings that we should not follow our hearts “blindly.” We need to listen to it, yes, but follow it only when it will lead us closer to God or is consistent with His commandments. On the other hand, Scripture compels us to ignore the whispers of our heart only when it would lead us to sin or otherwise harm ourselves or others.
It’s unfortunate that people are so quick to discredit the heart as a compass we can use to understand God, our relationship with Him, and to facilitate His will. Although it’s true that a person’s heart can be “the most deceitful thing there is and desperately wicked”(Jeremiah 17:9), when a person’s heart is given to God, guided by Christ, enlightened through prayer, and it’s path is subordinate to God’s commandments, it may be one of the truest compasses we have available to us. If our objective is to follow Christ, with God’s grace, our heart can be cleansed by God and lead us in the language of the Holy Spirit in matters that cannot be understood by reason alone, such as matters of love, hope, forgiveness, and faith. These are matters often led by the heart, when practicality, reason, material gain, or fear might otherwise mislead us in another direction.
And although Scripture cautions us about the sinful nature of our hearts, when we love God and accept Christ, our hearts carry God’s love within them. Because we are imperfect, we can still sin and be misled, but when we give our hearts over to God and are ruled by Him, our hearts do not remain the same: “And I will give you a new heart – I will give you new and right desires – and put a new spirit within you. I will take out your stony hearts of sin and give you new hearts of love.” (Ezekiel 36:26)
King David believed in God’s power to transform hearts. He wrote the following Psalm after he had been informed of God’s judgment against him because of his adultery and murder of his lover’s husband: “…And after you have punished me, give me back my joy again. Don’t keep looking at my sins — erase them from your sight. Create in me a new, clean heart, O God, filled with clean thoughts and right desires.” (Psalm 51:8-10)
So, despite all the recent warnings about listening to our hearts, I will continue to listen my heart as long as it continues to bring me closer to God. I will follow my passions as long as they continue to lead me in paths that better resemble Christ’s teachings. Whether that makes the most sense from a worldly perspective is not my primary concern. At least, that is my heart speaking, which I believe is speaking in a manner that pleases the Lord.
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4 thoughts on “Where the Heart Leads”
I’d been thinking about a similar thing recently, and really appreciate your perspective (and your heart) on the subject. It’s difficult to have any meaningful conversation about it because everyone has a different definition of “heart,” and even if we all could agree it’s such a fuzzy term anyway. If “following your heart” means doing something because you feel like it, without thinking about whether it’s at least consonant with your other primary goals, then yes, following your passion for playing the electric balalaika is stupid. (And, personally, I think at least some musical talent would be helpful in such a scenario, but that’s not a philosophical point, just a pragmatic one, because I would be miserable being bad at something.)
But if we’re talking about the deep desires of a mind that’s being continually renewed by God, ignoring our feelings because it doesn’t fit some narrow idea of what we “should” do or be, (or doesn’t fit with someone else’s idea of utility) is also completely idiotic. Feelings are an important part of cognition, and ignoring that because it doesn’t fit with our mechanistic shorthand is actually pretty impractical, considering how often it leads to bad predictions (about our behavior and happiness, and that of others etc).
Qualia, thank you for responding to my post and for sharing your insights. Of all the posts I’ve written in my spiritual journey, so far this has been the one that has given me most pause because my thoughts on it are still evolving. I believe you pinpoint the challenge with this topic: Semantics. I agree that people have different perspectives of what “following your heart” means, and I’ve concluded that people often aren’t really talking about the same thing when they talk or write about it. “Following your heart” is an elusive phrase, crafted by personal perspectives, experience, and faith — and often reflecting multi-dimensional contexts. I agree with you that often people use it to mean just doing something because you feel like it, and you were right to conclude that that is not what it means to me. By the way, I smiled at your mention of the electric balalaika. In the same way, I was never destined to be a concert pianist…
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Sure, I like interacting with people who are honest about where they are and what they’re thinking… and while I appreciate a finely honed piece of writing as much as anybody who is constantly surrounded by English teachers, insisting on that level of polish for everything is just pride (I’m not preaching at you, I’ve just recently come to that realization myself and I’m a compulsive over-explainer. So… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯)
Anyway, I agree completely, though if we don’t have an agenda, it’s clearly pretty easy to sketch out the semantics. (And, glad it made you smile, my career in interpretive dance was likewise doomed.)
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Qualia, I appreciate your frankness and candor, but not sure I understand your response completely. When you say “I’m not preaching at you,” that got my attention because usually when someone says that it’s because there is an element of truth in it? “Insisting on that level of polish for everything is just pride.” That’s where the fog rolled in. Am I doing that, do you think? Maybe so, but I’m not aware of it. I love to write and it’s fun for me to “polish” — lol, maybe I need to get out more. But maybe also I choose my words carefully because I have a desire to be understood and say exactly what I mean, and because I have gotten into trouble in the past when I was too hasty. Pride? Maybe, but more likely fear — that I’ll say something I didn’t intend. Not sure. Your feedback has given me something to think about. Thank you.