I’m taking a break from Twitter for Lent which means that during the week I have to find something else to do while standing in lines or to distract me while I’m supposed to be grading papers. So for me, Twitter during Lent is limited to Sundays, feast days. One of the first Tweets I saw this past Sunday made me laugh at its simple subversiveness and truth.
It was that noteworthy blonde-haired and bare-footed prophetess Roxette who anticipated what has become the common sentiment today. Listen to your heart. Listen to your heart, there’s nothing else you can do. Alas, the true geniuses are always ahead of their times.
In the neo-Romanticism of our postmodern life “follow your heart” has become the only secure path to the good life. It has reached the level of assumption, which is the level where even good ideas become mere phantoms that haunt us more than they shape us. It’s inconceivable for anyone to live her life not following her heart. And it’s shameful for anyone to dare shame another person for listening to her heart. After all, a person can never go wrong when following the natural inclinations, desires, and passions of her heart. Right? A person can never get lost if she is following her heart. Right? It’s safer to tune out the competing voices and the insights of institutions and individuals. “They don’t know me. They don’t know my life! There are no fellow-travelers on this road. Better to just listen to my heart. There’s nothing else I can do!”
Authenticity has become our greatest virtue and our cruelest master. Almost anything is allowed in the name of authentically being yourself. And while we are busy being our most authentic self, we are denied the only real opportunity for growth – which is to pursue a certain in-authenticity through struggle and change. “No” has always been the word that has saved civilizations and redeemed individual lives, and we’ve almost completely forgotten how to say it.
Where does this irrational confidence in the human heart come from? It certainly doesn’t come from history or experience. It is typical of egoism that the rule we make for ourselves would turn into a nightmare if it became a rule for others. There are few atrocities that have ever been committed that couldn’t be chalked up to someone just following their heart. And how many people in our experience have followed their heart right into a ditch?
With apologies to Roxette, scripture is not overly optimistic about the prospects of listening to the heart. Jeremiah 17:9 says “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” According to scripture, the heart is a deceiver. Our passions and desires are broken by the pervasiveness of sin. And for all of our talk about authenticity, we can’t even trust our hearts to give us reliable information about our true selves. A recent article in the Atlantic adds some data to back this up. Sixteen rigorous studies of thousands of people at work have shown that people’s coworkers are better than they are at recognizing how their personality will affect their job performance. It turns out that other people in our lives might actually know us better than our hearts, but “listen to the woman that you’ve shared a cubicle with for the last ten years” makes for a less catchy song title.
Listening to our hearts is bound to lead to disappointment because, frankly, our hearts suck. Admittedly, this isn’t the precise language that scripture uses. James 1 says that we are dragged away and enticed by our evil desires which give birth to sin and eventually death. Romans 1 says that our hearts have been darkened and seduce us away from our Creator to worship instead our sinful desires and created things.
It may be the motto of our American life, but following our every desire in the name of authenticity is literally making us sick. It’s easy to go to sex as an example here. Our hearts seem to shout the loudest in the area of sexual fulfillment. But what about following our hearts with the stuff that we purchase? Just consider the following numbers…
- The average American home contains three hundred thousand items.
- The average American house has almost tripled in size over the past fifty years.
- Of the world’s children, 3.1 percent live in America, but Americans purchase 40 percent of the toys sold worldwide.
- On average, American women have thirty outfits (that figure was nine in 1930).
- On average, American families spend 1,700 dollars a year on clothes and dispose of sixty-five pounds of clothing.
- There are more television sets than people in the average American home.
- Americans spend 1.2 trillion dollars annually on nonessential goods like jewelry, alcohol, candy, recreational vehicles, gambling, and more. That’s 11.2 percent of total consumer spending compared to only 4 percent in 1959.
These are numbers that would make the author of Ecclesiastes blush. Our society has afforded many of us the ability to deny ourselves virtually nothing. And none of it is working especially when you consider the following…
- Antidepressant use has increased almost 400 percent among all ages in the past two decades.
- The suicide rate among Americans 35 to 64 years of age increased 28.4 percent between 1999 and 2010.
- There has been a five-fold increase in teen depression over the past five decades. (numbers taken from A Practical Guide to Culture by John Stonestreet and Brett Kunkle)
The heart is not a trustworthy guide which is why scripture says emphatically that what we really need is not to listen to our hearts, but to have a transplantation of the heart – a fundamental change of the heart brought about by the work of God.
Ezek. 36:26 – 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.
Ezek: 11:19-21 – I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God. But as for those whose hearts are devoted to their vile images and detestable idols, I will bring down on their own heads what they have done, declares the Sovereign LORD.
Deut. 30:6 – The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.
What we need is not to “listen to our hearts.” What we need is to sing along with David: Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.