Heart Monitor
God Has an App for That – Part 3
Proverbs 4:23

If you have your Bible turn to Proverbs.  Chapter 4 is where we’re going to be focusing today.

I was reading about a series of tests this week where they try to evaluate how well a person can make decisions in a point of crisis when there is a sense of urgency.  A lot of the tests are really quite simplistic, not overly complicated.  For example, one test I was reading about involved bringing someone into a bathroom where a bathtub was quickly filling with water and the faucet was turned on in the bathtub.  And they were given three things.  They were given a teaspoon, a tablespoon, and a cup.  Those were the three options they had.  And they were told their job was to empty the tub of water as quickly as possible.  Now if you were in this scenario, which would you choose: a teaspoon, tablespoon, or cup?  Well, it seems obvious enough.  I mean, given the options available most people would grab the cup and frantically start bailing water out of the bathtub.  But there are a small percentage of people who, when presented with this situation, step back for a moment and think, and they turn the water off, and they unplug the drain.  And then they grab a cup, and they start bailing the water.

I think, for many of us, when our lives reach a point of crisis, when we feel that the water level is rising and we know that something needs to be done, what we tend to do is just grab what seems to be the best option available.  So we get a cup and we start frantically bailing water because we know something needs to be done and we want to do something. But is it the best thing?

So, a husband finds out that his wife is leaving him because he can’t control his temper. What does he do?  Well, he enrolls in an anger management class and he starts to take yoga. He’s got to do something so that is what he does.

A couple finds out that they’re having a really hard time making the minimum due payments on their credit cards.  Things are falling apart quickly financially.  What do they do? They’ve got to do something.  So, they go out and they buy a self-help book on money management and they decide they’re going to have a garage sale.

A man starts to have chest pains.  His eating and his stress have kind of caught up to him.  He knows he needs to do something, so what does he do?  Well, he goes on another diet and he gets a membership at the local gym.

Now none of these things in those scenarios…none of those things are bad.  In fact, they’re good and there is a place for them.  The challenge is when we focus on behavior and behavior modification it is like just grabbing a cup and start trying to dump the water out of the bathtub.  It might do some good in the short-term, but rarely does it bring about lasting change.  Instead, what we need to do is we need to turn off the water and unplug the drain.  

That is what Solomon is going to talk to us about here in Proverbs chapter 4.

Now before we kind of jump into this, what I would like you to do is to think about an area of your life right now that needs some attention.  What is something in your life right now that needs to be changed?  Is there an area where the water is rising and you know and you’ve known that you need to do something?  And maybe you…maybe it is an eating problem or an anger problem.  Maybe it is a pornography problem, or it is a gossip problem or it’s a spending problem.  Can you think of this?  Think of something in your life that needs some attention.

Now most of us—when we address that, when we think about, “Okay, well, what do I do about it?”—we want to make a list of behaviors that need to be changed.  So our focus is on behavior modification.  

Here is how we can define behavior modification: “It targets observable and measurable actions that bring about change.”  

We tend to think in those terms.  “What do I need to do?  What can I change right now, today, that will bring about lasting change in my life?”  So we focus on behavior modification.  That seems too obvious, right?  It is the cup, the teaspoon, and the tablespoon.  Of course, I’ve got to change my behavior.

However, what we’re going to see today, as we study Proverbs chapter 4, is that behavior modification is not the key to effective application.  We think the best way to apply these proverbs…many of which are behavior based…we think the best way to apply them is just by doing things differently.  But Solomon is going to point us back to the source.  He’s going to say, “Here is where the real problem is.”

So, in Proverbs chapter 4 look at verse 23.  We’re going to focus on a number of different words and phrases in this one verse.  Here is what it says: “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.”  

The 2011 NIV says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”  

Everything flows from it.  And Solomon is saying, “Look, there is this tendency to put your attention on your behavior, to just want to change the way you act, but all of those actions are coming out of your heart.”  

You might think you’ve got an anger problem; you’ve got a heart problem.  You might think you have a spending problem; you’ve got a heart problem.  You might think you have an eating problem or a pornography problem or a gossip problem; you’ve got a heart problem.  And you can change your behaviors and it might bring about some temporary change.  It might last for a week or two weeks or maybe even a month.

And many of you have kind of been on this cycle, right?  For years you’ve tried to change your behavior and it hasn’t worked.  And you find yourself in the same situation and you’re exhausted because you’ve been trying to bail out water.  The problem is that the faucet is still running.  And just as quickly as you’re bailing it out, it’s filling back up again.  So, Solomon says it’s about the heart.

Now in Hebrew culture this was probably more easily understood because they saw people not as just being mind and body, which we tend to do in our Western culture.  It tends to be just physical and cognitive…is how we define a person.  They saw the heart as the core of the person.  Now even today when we talk about ourselves, how do we do it?  We don’t point to our heads.  We point right here (point to heart).  We speak of ourselves by pointing to our hearts.  The Hebrew word for heart literally would mean “the kernel of the nut.”  That is the word picture that would go with it.

So, if you read through the Book of Proverbs you will read the word heart more than seventy-five times, because it captures the whole and everything comes from it.  

Proverbs 27:19 says, “As a face is reflected in water, so the heart reflects the real person” (NLT).  

It’s our heart that defines us.  It is our heart that determines what we do and what we say and how we act.  And sometimes we say something, and we do something, and we don’t even know how it happens.  We don’t know where it came from.  We’re surprised at ourselves.  Or maybe the person you said it to will look at you and say, “Where did that come from?”  We’re not even sure.  Solomon would say, “I know where it came from.  It came from…it came from your heart.”  And we can address all the behaviors and we might make some temporary progress, but until we get to the heart there won’t be lasting change.

Think of it this way.  Imagine that you’re walking for a hike and you come upon this creek in the woods that is just heavily polluted.  And you decide, “I’m going to do something about this.”  You see trash along the banks and floating down the river, and there is this nasty film on the top.  And you just start to clean out the trash as quickly as you can.  You spend a few hours out there and you step back.  And where you’re at in the creek you can see that you’ve made a difference.  It looks a lot better.  And you determine right then and there, “I’m going to start coming back here every day until I get this cleaned up.”  But you come back the next day and there is just as much trash as there was before.  And the day after that…just as much trash.  And you work hard, frantically.  You’re exhausted every night when you go home, but when you return the next day, it doesn’t feel like you’ve made any progress.  Then you decide you’re going to walk upstream.  You hike upstream a couple miles, and you find the dump.  It turns out that this creek runs right through the dump.

Now you can spend a lot of time down creek pulling out the trash.  You can exhaust yourself and spend all kinds of energy getting that part of the creek clean.  But you know and I know that until you address the source of the problem, you’re really not doing any good at all. You really aren’t.  You might make a little bit of progress for that day, but until you address where it is flowing from, you’re going to continue to be in the same situation.  It will just be a cycle.

So Solomon says, “This is what the heart is for us.”  That sometimes this trash starts to show up in our life and we don’t know where that came from.  And it feels like we are working really hard…really heard…making an honest effort at getting rid of this stuff.  Then we wake up the next day and we do it all over again.  Why can’t we get ahead?  Solomon says it is because it’s flowing from your heart.  And because of that he says, “Above all else…”  Do you see that there in Proverbs 4?  “Above all else, guard your heart…” (v.23).  In other words, you make this your greatest priority.  You treat your heart like it is your most valuable asset.

The American Heart Association says that more than 121 million Americans have some kind of a heart disease, some king of cardiovascular disease.  That is about one in three Americans.  If you haven’t experienced this then you’ve probably known someone who has had a stroke, or they’ve had a heart attack.  They’ve had some heart problems.  And you know that once that happens it changes how they live, right?  I remember when a good friend of mine in Kansas City had a heart attack how it just…it changed his lifestyle.  Suddenly he became very careful about his diet.  He started to eat right.  He became much more physically active, and he started taking expensive medication.  He went to all kinds of time and all kinds of trouble and effort.  It really became the main focus…was his heart.

Now why give so much focus and attention and effort to the heart?  Because life…life flows from the heart.  Our heart pumps about 100,000 times a day.  It pumps about 2,000 gallons of blood through our body a day.  And so, we understand that the heart is where everything else comes from and we give that the appropriate attention.

Our tendency is to focus on the outside.  Our tendency is to put the focus on our behavior, but Solomon says it is coming from the inside.

Now I want us to think together about how we developed this behavior modification mentality.  I think for many of us we grew up in homes and we grew up in churches where all the focus was on behavior modification.  Do you think that’s true?  That what was rewarded and what was punished was behavior.  So, we kind of learned early on that if we’re going to be rewarded or if we’re going to be punished…you know, it all comes down to our behavior.  And if I’m disrespectful to my sister, then I’m going to be in time-out.  Now I might be disrespectful, you know, in my heart—right?—but I better not say it out loud because I’ll be in time-out.  If I’m disrespectful to my parents, I’m going to get my mouth washed out with soap.  So, I can think it in my heart all day long, but I better filter my behavior.  I better make sure that it doesn’t come out of my mouth.  I have to make sure it stays in my heart, because it’s going to be punished if it comes out.  And if I don’t do my chores, I’m not going to get my allowance.  So we grow up in this system that is all about behavior modification.

Now, obviously, behavior matters because it shows what is in the heart.  So it needs to be addressed, it needs to be rewarded, it needs to be punished.  But what has happened in many homes and many churches…the focus really isn’t on the heart at all.  It is all about behavior.  It is all about what people see and how you act while you’re out.  It’s all about the outside.

Then here is what happens, right?  A person grows up in a system like that—in a home or in a church where it is all about the rules and the “thou shall’s” and the “thou shalt not’s”—and then they go away to college.  Suddenly Mom and Dad aren’t around anymore.  The church they grew up in isn’t really a part of their life.  In other words, all the motivators to monitor their behavior really aren’t much of a factor.  And what do we see?  What have most of us experienced?  That what was in the heart begins to surface.  Because without the rewards, without the punishment, suddenly it just starts to come out.  We don’t need to monitor our behavior, and we start to see what was in the heart.

That is why the Bible would put such an emphasis in our homes on the heart…even in the Old Testament.  

Listen to what God says in Deuteronomy 6:6-7.  He says, “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your…”  What?  “…upon your hearts.  Impress them on your children.  Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”  

The focus is on the heart.  In other words, “Look, don’t just treat this as a list of rules.  Don’t just make your kids do these.  This isn’t just law that you’re getting, but rather this is to be impressed upon them.  It is to be written upon their hearts.  So, talk about them throughout the day.  Make this a part of your life.”  The focus is on the heart.

I don’t know how many times I’ve had, as a pastor, someone come up to me and they’ve told a story of something they’ve done, a mistake they’ve made, and while they’re telling the story I’ll think to myself, “How did that happen?”  I wonder, “How did that happen?”  But they will say to me…  I don’t even have to ask.  They’ll say, “I don’t know how this happened.”  They don’t know how it happened.  But something happens in their life and they have a forced realization that the water is beginning to overflow out of the tub.  They have to do something. But they don’t really know how it got to be like this.

So, a husband strikes his wife.  He never imagined that he would ever do something like that.  In fact, he promised himself, as he saw his dad treat his mom that way, that it would never happen to him.

A couple in high school breaks a promise to remain pure.  A man has an affair with his best friend’s wife.  How did it happen?  They don’t…they don’t really know.

A mom yells and cusses at her child, and she remembers, as a girl, promising herself, “I’m never…I’m never going to do that.  I’ll never talk to my kids the way my mom talked to me.”  And they wonder, “Well, how did it happen?”  Well, what was planted in the heart—sometimes through no fault of their own…  What was planted in the heart comes to the surface.  And they’re as surprised by it as anyone else.  They don’t really know how it happens, but it’s been a long time coming because their heart…their heart wasn’t guarded.

A number of years ago one of our neighbors where we lived at the time had a large tree that during a storm fell and it landed on their house.  It did quite a bit of damage.  Nobody was hurt.  A few days after the tree fell, they had a crew out there kind of cleaning it up.  And I went back to just kind of see what was happening, and there was a guy there who was cutting the tree into more manageable pieces.  And I said to the guy, as he was cutting down the tree…I said, you know, “Tell me…tell me what happened.  Was it this huge storm that blew this tree down?  What happened?”  And the man said, “No, no, it wasn’t the storm.  You might think it was the storm, but it actually wasn’t the storm.”  He said, “What happened was…” and he showed me where the tree had been decaying for years from the inside out.  For years, really, the tree had been falling.

And sometimes we see this moment in our life where everything starts to overflow, or we see it in someone else’s life—perhaps a public figure or a celebrity of some kind—and we’re like, “Well, how did that happen?”  And we are tempted to think, “Well, it’s this one big storm and the tree fell over.  And man!  That is some storm.”  But in reality, more often than not, it was something that was in the heart, and after enough time what was in the heart came to the surface.

This is why Jesus put such a strong focus on the heart.  If you read through the Gospels, He, in some ways, is shockingly unconcerned with a lot of the behavior that He sees.  Instead, He, over and over again, goes straight to the heart.  We see this with the religious leaders.  The religious leaders had behavior modification down to an art.  They were experts in behavior, right?  But what does Jesus say in Matthew 15?  He says, “They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (v. 8).  And He has no patience for that.

Later on in that chapter He explains why the heart is so important, and He says, “Do you not yet understand that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and is eliminated?” (v. 17, NKJV).  The food you eat comes into your mouth and into your stomach and it’s eliminated.  But then He says, “But those things that come out of the mouth (That which you hear come out of the mouth, that which you see in people’s lives.) come from the heart, and they defile a man” (v. 18, NKJV).  He says, “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” (V. 19). 

So, we see these things—an evil thought, murder, adultery, fornication, lies—and we think, “Where did that come from?”  Jesus says, “Well, here is where it came from: it came out of the heart.  Everything flows out of the heart.”

So “above all else, guard…” (Proverbs 4:23).  This is another word to look at here—the word guard.  Really the best translation of that word (or the most literal translation) would be, “Guard diligently against the enemy.”  Because this word guard is used whenever there is an enemy.  That is the inference: that there is a hostile opposition.  There is a hostile attack just waiting.

So we oftentimes think of guarding our hearts in terms of, you know, when the attack comes.  But if you wait for the attack to come it’s too late.  Instead, we want to be proactive. We want to intentionally set up defenses and guards because it’s not a question of if.  It is going to come.

I was reading this week that one of the most guarded areas in the world is Fort Knox, where a significant amount of the nation’s gold supply is held, right?  It’s a two-story structure.  I was reading about this…surprisingly public information if you Google it.  There is quite a bit about it.  There is 16,500 cubic feet of granite used.  There is over 1400 tons of steel, 4,000 plus cubic yards of concrete.  The vault door weighs twenty tons.  No one person has the combination.  Various staff must dial in separate combinations known only to them.  There are four guard boxes surrounding the structure.  It is equipped with the latest in security technology.  Every precaution is taken.

Now why is that?  Well, it’s easy.  It’s because what is inside is just…it’s that valuable. What is inside is valuable, so they take every precaution.  And no one looks at it and thinks, “Well, that’s going a little overboard, don’t you think?  That’s an awful lot of trouble to go to ‘just in case.’”  Right?  But, no, it’s understood that what’s inside is valuable enough to justify extreme measures.

And I think, as you read through the Book of Proverbs, it would be easy enough to read through it and think, “Man!  Solomon is pretty hard core.  Just all of this counsel about watching out for this and listening for this and…  Why does he…?  Why does he go to such extremes?”  It’s because what is inside is that valuable.

Even in this chapter we get a hint into what he has in mind when he says, “Guard your heart.”  And we’ll see it as we read through the book together.  

But in verse 20 he talks about our ears.  Here is what he says: “My son, pay attention to what I say; turn your ear to my words.  Do not let them out of your sight, keep them within your heart…” (vv. 20-21).  

And if you read through the Book of Proverbs, you will read again and again where Solomon says, “Listen, listen, listen, listen.”  He says it over and over.  Why?  Because your ears are a pathway to your heart, and what you hear for good or what you hear for bad comes into your heart and eventually flows out of your life.

Now there is a tendency to think, “I don’t need to worry that much about what I hear. It’s not really…I’m not really doing anything.  And the music I listen to on the radio, the comedian that I listen to, the gossip that I listen to, the joking that I hear at the office—I’m not the one singing it.  I’m not the one saying it.  I’m not the one telling the jokes.  I’m not the one gossiping.  It’s just…I’m just listening.”  And there is a tendency to think, “I haven’t really done anything.”  But the Bible would say something is being done to us because our ears are a gateway to our hearts.

Then in verse 25 he speaks of the eyes and he says, “Let your eyes look straight ahead; fix your gaze directly before you.”  

Why?  Because what we see has a direct line to our heart—even more so than our ears.  We remember about 11% of what we hear.  We remember around…or can recall given the right triggers…about 80% of what we see.  It’s a gateway to our hearts.  So we protect our ears and we protect our eyes.

Again, there is this tendency when it comes to our eyes to think, “Well, I can watch this. I can look at this on this website.  I can read this book.  I’ve not really done anything.”  But the Bible would say that when we open that vault to our hearts and we let that in, that eventually what is in our heart flows out of our lives.  In one way or another, that trash makes its way downstream.  That is where it is coming from.

There is a cumulative effect to it as well, which I think makes it harder to spot.  That is to say, we just do this a little bit at a time.  And it doesn’t seem like a big deal at the time, but it adds up.  

It’s like you go to the doctor and you’ve gained twenty pounds since your last visit.  And the doctor says, “Well, you’ve gained twenty pounds since you were here last.  How did that happen?”  Now the doctor is not expecting like a date and time, right?  He’s not expecting you to say, “Well, everything was fine until yesterday and then I went to Danny’s Sports Spot buffet.  Twenty pounds.  Can you believe that?!”  No, he knows that it didn’t happen all at once, but something happened.  It might be hard to spot.  It might be hard for you to even identify.  You may not even be sure what happened, but something has happened in the last year.  You gained twenty pounds.  You changed something about—what?—about your diet.  Your intake of something changed.  And you might not notice it because it happened slowly, but that is building up.

Advertisers know this.  That is why they show us the same commercials over and over again: because they know there is a cumulative effect.  And if they can just keep planting that seed in our hearts, they know that eventually it will take root.  I mean, this explains why people buy Snuggies®.  Don’t you think?  I mean, when that commercial comes on the first time you think, “It’s a blanket with sleeves.  I don’t need one of those.”  You change the channel, and you keep going.  But after you see it enough times you find yourself thinking, “I could really use a Snuggie®.”  That is the cumulative effect of exposure.

There is even this law in psychology called “the law of exposure” that says our minds absorb and our lives reflect whatever we are exposed to the most.  And so, what we allow into our ears and what we allow into our eyes makes its way into our hearts.

The Journal of American Academy of Pediatrics cited the independent research recently that said that youth who view a significant amount of television with sexual content are twice as likely to be sexually active than those who watch little of such programming.  In their words, “This is the strongest evidence yet that the sexual content of television programs encourages adolescents to initiate sexual behavior and activities.  Rebecca Collins, the psychologist who headed the study, said in the release, ‘The impact of television viewing is so large that even a moderate shift in the sexual content of adolescent TV watching could have a substantial effect on their sexual behavior.’”

Now there is a tendency for us to sometimes see parents or sometimes see families that are really strict about such things and think, “Well, they’re pretty legalistic.  My goodness! Being awfully protective.”  But doesn’t it make sense?  If our hearts are that valuable, then doesn’t it make sense—just as at Fort Knox—to go to great lengths, to great extremes to make sure that what is inside is guarded?

There are a few other things I just want to touch on to help us guard our hearts.  

I would talk to you about accountability.  That you need someone in your life that you are accountable to, a committed Christian of the same sex that knows what is going on in your heart.  Not just behavioral questions but they have an opportunity to see what is in your heart.  And I have friends in my life…and they can tell.  I pray with them and when we pray together, after the prayer time, they might say to me, “Everything okay?  You don’t quite seem yourself.”  Right?  Because they’re allowed to see into my heart.  So, we need some of that.

And I think prayer…I would also say prayer.  Have you noticed how difficult it is…how difficult it is to pray when your heart is unguarded?  When that vault door is open and you’re just allowing whatever to come into your ears, into your eyes, it’s difficult to pray.  The opposite is also true: that when you’re praying it’s much more difficult for those things to get in.  I would challenge you to pray.

I would also challenge you to continue to practice scripture meditation.  We’ve asked you, as we’ve gone through the Book of Proverbs, to read the corresponding proverb for whatever day of the month it is.  So, May 16th you read Proverbs 16.  As you meditate on God’s Word it begins to guard your heart.

Lastly, I would challenge you to practice holy thinking.  

The Bible says in Philippians 4…  Paul says, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (v. 8).

Now the challenge for us is that we are constantly Googling or surfing the net, or watching 24-hour news, or flipping through the channels, and we are inundated with stuff that does not qualify as noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, or excellent.  We need to be intentional to guard ourselves from too much of that, but to also give our mind and our thoughts to things that would qualify as praiseworthy and excellent, as admirable.

So listen.  I know the tendency is to put the attention on behavior modification.  “We’ve got changes that need to be made.  The water seems to be rising.  Tell me what I need to do.” And I slip into this in my preaching sometimes.  I’ll look at my sermon and I’ll think, “Okay, so I’ve just given them an action plan.  Here are the three things you need to do and if you just do these three things…”  No, it doesn’t work that way.  We can’t save ourselves.  It’s kind of the point.

The Old Testament, in some ways, all it is, is behavior modification.  Just laws…one law after another.  “Thou shall not, thou shall, thou shall not.”  You just go through lots of behavior modification.  The Law didn’t work.  All it did was show us that we had a heart problem and that heart problem needed to be addressed.

I watched a video on the internet recently of a cardiologist talking about an arteriogram. It’s a test that is done to find out where there is blockage.  So, they’ll inject a dye and they’ll take an X-ray.  The X-ray will show where the blockage is.  And they’ll put a stint through a patient’s leg, and they’ll open that up.  But he said what is challenging is oftentimes this test (the arteriogram) isn’t done because the symptoms don’t seem to be cardiovascular in nature.  The patient has back pain or can’t sleep very well or has anxiety—all kinds of things that don’t seem to be heart related.  So the patient will treat the systems.  The patient will want to medicate the symptoms, but in reality the problem is a heart issue.

Don’t leave here continuing to medicate the symptoms.  Let’s get to the heart of it. Understand we have a heart problem, and the only cure…the only cure is a heart transplant. That is the only thing that will work, and that is what God offers us through His Son Jesus Christ.

One of my favorite prophesies that foreshadows what Jesus would do comes in Ezekiel 36.  God promises, “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.  And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees…” (vv. 26-27).

That’s the invitation.  That’s the challenge.  Listen.  Don’t leave here with the same heart that you walked in here with.  Allow God to give you a new heart through Jesus Christ.  Allow His Spirit to fill you, to guard your hearts, and what is in the heart will overflow into our lives.

David Hall
First Church of Christ
May 16, 2021