Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life (Proverbs 4:23).

Once upon a time it was common for marriages to be arranged. You didn’t pick your sweetheart.  You didn’t decide whom to marry.  Your parents did it for you.  They might take your desires into account, but, then again, they might not. And once you got married, you were expected to stay married to the person your parents chose for you.

How would you like that?  It may not sound very appealing.

It’s not the way most of us go about finding a mate, is it?  We believe in freedom, personal choice, romance, love at first sight! We couldn’t possible let our parents get involved in choosing our marriage partner. We’re modern!  We’re advanced!  We depend on reliable, romantic things … like singles bars, classified ads, and dating services that match us with strangers!     The mere mention of arranged marriages produces dreadful visions of a sweet, lovely girl being forced by her parents to marry a mean, ugly bully who torments her the rest of her life.  But contrary to the stereotype, most parents loved their children and tried to arrange marriages that would be stable and happy.  Also, in setting up the match, the parents often gave their son or daughter a voice in whether to go ahead with the marriage.  A great many couples whose marriages were arranged in this way ended up enjoying happy, affectionate, lifelong marriages.

Meanwhile, what about us?  With all our freedom, there are fewer satisfying marriages and more divorces than at any other point in history.  Fewer people bother getting married at all.  More singles than ever drift along from relationship to relationship, vaguely wishing for stability and a lifelong commitment but not able to find any.

There are advantages to making our own decisions in the realm of romance, but there are also disadvantages.  At any rate, there’s no doubt that, for better or worse, we live in a society in which we have more freedom to follow our own feelings than ever before.  We can follow our feelings in choosing a mate, and we can follow our feelings in almost everything else related to romance and sexuality.

Freedom Unlimited

Let’s consider some changes that have produced this increased freedom.  Even after arranged marriages were no longer a common practice, sexuality among young people was often limited by the presence of parents.  There was a time when father and mother both worked close to home, and their children were usually with them.  Many lived on a farm, or had a building of which one part was a store and the other part was their home.  But then society changed in a way that first the father–and later the mother–got jobs in factories or offices away from home.

What does this have to do with sex?  Well, if you’re a teenager, it has a lot to do with it.  You have a lot more opportunities.  Studies have found that the most common setting for teenage sex is after school in the boy’s home, while both parents are away at work.  Teenage sex is nothing new, but back when mom or dad were almost always around, it wasn’t so easy to find opportunities, so it wasn’t so common.

And kids aren’t the only ones with more opportunities.  Now that most men and women work outside the home, they’re apart from each other, they spend a lot of time working with people of the opposite sex, and they have many more opportunities to strike up romantic relationships with someone besides their spouse.  Again, adultery is nothing new.  But there are more opportunities for adultery today than back in the days when husband and wife were usually together and spent little time working with others of the opposite sex.

There are also other changes that have given us more freedom to follow our hearts and our hormones.  Just think about modern transportation.  The availability of cars has had a huge effect on dating and teen sex.  Cars make it easy for kids to get away from home and parents and family.  Cars give teenagers the chance to be alone and do whatever it is they want to do.  The title of a recent book says it all: From Front Porch to Backseat.

Modern transportation has affected dating and teen sex, and it has also affected adult relationships and sexuality.  If you’re a person who spends a lot of time on the road, away from family and familiar surroundings, you have plenty of chances to watch dirty movies in motel rooms or to carry on out-of-town affairs where no one will ever know.

Our increasingly mobile society has had a big impact on marriages. Many people move to a new community every few years.  They get job transfers or new jobs that require them to relocate, or they move from one suburb to another as they climb the social ladder, or they just pick up and move so that they can make a new start. This happens much more often today than it did decades ago.  Moving isn’t necessarily bad, but it can weaken a family’s sense of stability and make it easier for people who already have troubled relationships to grow apart.  A geographical move makes it easier to make a relational move as well.  If you’ve always been part of the same community, you feel support–and pressure–from family and friends and colleagues and perhaps fellow church members to stay together.  But if you’re in a new place where not many people know you, the social pressure isn’t very strong, and you’re more likely to just follow your heart and move on to a new relationship if that’s what you feel like doing.

Another factor that gives more freedom is the availability of birth control.  In the past, even if morality alone wasn’t enough to persuade people not to be promiscuous, the fear of pregnancy was always there.  It didn’t stop everybody, but it was certainly a factor. But thanks to the pill and the condom, you don’t have to be moral anymore.  You just have to be careful. And if worse comes to worst, there’s always abortion.

Now add to all this the impact of modern media.  Network TV is constantly showing bodies that are almost naked.  Cable TV, movie theaters, video stores, and computer web sites offer plenty of chances to see bodies that are completely naked.  Once again, lust is nothing new, but some societies offer more opportunities to lust than others.  Before porn magazines, strip joints, TV, and personal computers came along, you might have been a lustful person, but there weren’t so many naked bodies to inflame your lust.  Now all you have to do is flip a page or flick a switch or click a mouse.

While all these changes were taking place, there have also been changes in government laws and public morality.  Laws against fornication and adultery are obsolete.  So are laws against obscenity.  Tough divorce laws have given way to no-fault divorce.  Some leaders wring their hands about broken families and fatherless children, but they’re not about to make any laws that inhibit romance or sex or that might involve censorship.  Meanwhile, out-of-wedlock pregnancy and divorce no longer carry the stigma they once did, and sexual aberrations of every sort are considered “alternative lifestyles.”

Now, those of us who care about stable families and strong morals could sit around wishing for “the good old days,” but the Bible says not to do that.  “Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ says Ecclesiastes 7:10.  “For it is not wise to ask such questions.”  I’m not sure we’re any worse (or better) than people were back in “the good old days.”  As I’ve said, teen sex and adultery and lust are nothing new.  We just have a lot more opportunities, and a lot fewer obstacles, than in the past.

Guard Your Heart

What it all boils down to is this: your relationships and sexual behavior depend on what’s in your heart more than ever before. There was a time when you might do the right thing, even if it wasn’t for all the right reasons.  But that time is past.  These days, if you don’t control your own behavior, and if you don’t guard your own heart, then nobody’s going to do it for you.

The Bible says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” (Proverbs 4:23).  We have more freedom than ever before to follow our hearts, thanks to many of the changes in society that we’ve been considering.  And that makes it more important than ever to guard our hearts.

I can’t help thinking of Woody Allen, the famous filmmaker. He had a long-time lover whom he never married, and then he developed a romantic attachment to his lover’s daughter, a girl less than half his age.  The relationship verged on incest, but Allen defended it by saying, “The heart wants what it wants.”  And these days, the heart can pretty much get what it wants.

Now, if you’re a person who can’t tell the difference between your heart and your hormones, you’re probably delighted to have so much freedom.  But if you care about strong, stable families or take the Word of God seriously, you might be distressed about having so much freedom.

In today’s society, you definitely have more freedom to follow your heart.  If you’re a single who decides not to have sex until you’re married, it won’t be because you are afraid of pregnancy or because you don’t have opportunities to indulge your hormones. If you’re married and are determined to remain faithful to your spouse for life, it won’t be because the government forced you to or because your parents and community pressured you to.  It will be because this is what you want in your heart.

It can be helpful to understand the changes that have occurred in society, and it may be valuable for community leaders and scholars to look for ways to strengthen the social fabric. But in the meantime, no matter what people do on the societal level, you and I need to deal with our own hearts.

The Bible recognizes that true love is a matter of the heart.  In the Bible’s marvelous love poem, the Song of Songs, a man tells his sweetheart, “You have stolen my heart” (4:9), and the woman says to him, “Place me like a seal over your heart” (8:6).  Like nearly everything else in life, your capacity for love and romance springs out of your heart.  In order for your love to be true, your heart must be true.  And so, in order to experience romantic love the way God intends it, you need the right kind of heart, and you need to guard your heart.

This means, above all, that you need a heart that’s right with God, a heart that’s full of Christ and devoted to him.  Love for others flows out of love for God.  Our biggest problem isn’t first of all social but spiritual.  All the social changes I’ve talked about wouldn’t lead to corrupt behavior if our hearts weren’t corrupt to begin with.  Jesus said, “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart” (Luke 7:45).  Our biggest problem isn’t that we have a new social setting but that we have the same old heart.  Our setting just gives more opportunity to follow that old, sinful heart.

Most of us still profess some high ideals, but our hearts are elsewhere.  An overwhelming majority claim to believe in God, and most of us still say that a one man/one woman, lifelong marriage is the ideal.  But why, if so many people believe in God, do they ignore him for all practical purposes?  And why, if they still see marriage as the ideal, do so few people abstain from sex before marriage, and so many end up getting divorced?  It’s a heart problem.  As Jesus said, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Mark 7:6).

All our God-talk is useless until Christ takes hold of our hearts.  And all our talk about marital ideals is useless until the Holy Spirit transforms our sentiments into commitments.

So let me ask you a few questions.  Have you given your heart to Jesus?  Have you trusted him as your Savior and accepted him as the one who directs your life?  Are you walking in step with the Spirit of Christ?  Only when your heart is full of Christ will you have a power in your heart that is strong enough to shape the rest of your life.  The Bible says that the heart is the wellspring of life, and Jesus is the water of life that you need to have bubbling up in your heart.

Once you belong to Jesus, he will change many things in your life, including your love life.  Jesus prompts you to new purity and new faithfulness that don’t depend on social custom but on spiritual vitality.

However, this doesn’t mean you can just relax, and purity will happen automatically.  You still need to guard your heart.  Until you reach heaven, there will always be some remnant of your old nature struggling against the new.  The Bible says, “For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature, so that you do not do what you want” (Galatians 5:17).  You don’t want to sin, and yet you do want to sin, all at the same time.  You want to honor God’s will for sex and marriage, but at the same time you feel powerful urges to do otherwise.

In that kind of situation, what does it mean to guard your heart?  First, guard your heart against confusion.  We’re surrounded by mixed signals about sexual morality. But God’s Word is crystal clear.  Sex is for marriage, and marriage is for life. Don’t let anyone tell you different.  Any other approach is wrong.  Sex is for marriage, and marriage is for life.  Stay focused on God’s will revealed in the Bible.  That’s the way to guard your heart against confusion about right and wrong.

Second, guard your heart against despair.  When you’re a Christian and you sin sexually, you know how serious it is.  When you lust after pornography or use someone who isn’t your spouse for your own pleasure, you are disobeying your Father in heaven. You are offending Jesus Christ and grieving his Holy Spirit.  When it sinks in how seriously you’ve sinned, it’s tempting to think you’re lost and hopeless.  At that point, you need to guard your heart by reminding yourself of your position in Christ.  Your sinful nature has already been crucified with him, and you’ve already been raised to eternal life in him.  Your salvation depends on God’s mercy, not on your perfection.  So when your heart feels torn and divided, or when you’ve given in to temptation, throw yourself in God’s grace in Jesus Christ.  That’s the only way to guard your heart against despair.

Third, guard your heart against temptation.  You need the practical wisdom to recognize the situations are most tempting for you and then avoid them.  The Bible book of Proverbs makes this point repeatedly.  It takes the reality of God and his moral law as givens and then shows how to exercise good sense and sound judgment in everyday life.  A major emphasis in Proverbs is that we shouldn’t just resist sexual temptation.  We should avoid it altogether, wherever we can.  Proverbs 5:7 urges us, “Keep to a path far from [sexual temptation], do not go near.” That’s the best way to guard your heart against temptation.

Flee from Sexual Immorality

Don’t try to be a hero by putting yourself in a tempting situation to see if you’re strong enough to overcome the temptation.  Instead, says the Bible, “Flee from sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:18).  The best way to guard your heart from sexual immorality is to flee, to stay as far as you can from temptation.  Here are practical suggestions.

Avoid anything that tempts you to lust.  Maybe you don’t accept the Playboy philosophy, but you still find yourself looking at Playboy pictures.  Your conscience says, “Don’t do it,” but your old nature says something else.  Don’t feed your old nature; starve it.  Stay away from stores that sell dirty magazines.  Avoid places that rent pornographic videos.  Use filtering software on your computer that doesn’t allow access to filthy web sites.  Cancel any cable channel that shows filthy movies.  Don’t watch Baywatch babes or other TV programs like it.  Dump your swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated the moment it arrives.  Avoid anything that arouses lust.

Also, steer clear of situations where you’ll be tempted to got to bed with someone who isn’t your spouse.  If you’re young and single, you know the times and places and people who are most tempting for you.  Stay away from back seats, bedrooms, and all the other places you’d be free to follow your urges.  Avoid situations you can’t handle.

If you’re married and you meet someone at work who makes your heart go pitter-patter, guard your heart. Avoid working alone with that person.  Don’t work late hours or eat out with just the two of you.  I’ve mentioned how changes in the workplace offer increased opportunity for adultery.  That makes it all the more urgent to renew your devotion to God and your spouse and to set rules for yourself that help you protect that commitment.

Maybe you travel a lot and find yourself far from home and family in a place where nobody knows know you.  You could visit a bar and take somebody back to your room with you, and who would ever find out?  It’s also easy to spend your nights on the road in motels watching porn movies.

How can you guard your heart if you’re a frequent traveler? Well, I’m often on the road to speak at various events, and I try to avoid motels.  Whenever I can, I stay overnight with a family that’s willing to host me.  That gives me a chance to spend time with old friends or make new friends, and it helps me to avoid the temptations that many business travelers face.

But you might say, “Maybe that works for you, but most of us can’t find a family who will have us.”  Maybe not.  But here are a few things you might try.  First, if you must stay in a motel, try to steer clear of those that offer pornographic movies.  If they want to use sex to make money and corrupt people’s hearts, don’t reward them by giving them your money.  Stay in a place that puts principles ahead of profits.  Second, when you’re on the road, stay in touch with your family.  Take a picture of them with you when you travel.  Call them on the telephone when you’re gone.  Talk to your spouse and your kids. If you’re single, stay in touch with family or friends back home.

And if you move to a new area, make it a high priority to find a church, a community of believers to encourage you and hold you accountable.  This will help you grow in your relationship to God, and it will also help you grow in your relationship to other people. Within your church, find a fellow Christian or a small group you can trust to hear your struggles and help you without gossiping. Depend on God and on the people God puts in your life to keep you alert as you guard your heart. In a society in which many of us move so often, the fellowship of God’s people can provide much-needed stability and accountability.

If you’re married, be open and honest with your spouse about anything that causes you to stumble.  Don’t keep secrets from each other. Honesty and love between husband and wife is a powerful weapon against the temptations both face.

In short, once your heart is full of Christ and committed to his Word, be sure to use wisdom and common sense.  Starve your old sinful nature.  Give your new godly nature every opportunity to flourish.  “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.”


Lord God, thank you for the wonderful gift of love and marriage and sexuality.  Forgive our misuses of these precious gifts, for the sake of Jesus’ blood.  Purify our hearts by your Holy Spirit, and renew our commitment to live as the Bible teaches.  Grant us the practical wisdom to guard our hearts, even in changing times, that we may honor you and love each other as you command, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.