I have a dog who walks me. What this Dachshund lacks in size, he makes up for in the vigorous pursuit of the adventure ahead. Incapable of, or unwilling to, walk in a straight and narrow course, he pulls the long leash to its limits and winds up corkscrewed around mailboxes, trees, and my legs. In the park he will race off the trail toward grazing bucks who could wield their antlers to impale his tiny body with the ease of a swordsman. He seems particularly to enjoy discovering random piles of feces and busting a move thereon in an impressive twerking, breakdancing routine popular among canines. What his master deems frustrating, dangerous, ill-advised, and just plain gross, to the dog Justice seems quite natural. Justice is doing what dogs do. He is acting according to his canine nature. He is following his heart wherever it leads—even if it leads to rolling in a pile of dung.
I can’t be too hard on Justice, I suppose. To begin with, as much as we like to treat our pets like little people, they are and will always remains animals. And animals sometimes act in rather beastly ways, doing everything from rolling in poop to killing their own, even their offspring, at times. My Granddaddy, who raised Greyhounds, told me of an occasion when one of his dogs tried to jump over the kennel fence one night but his leg got caught in a stray wire. He hung suspended there, hurting and helpless, no doubt whining and whimpering in pain as the other dogs gathered round about him. By the time my grandfather discovered him the next morning, there wasn’t much left to be found. That dog’s body had been ripped to bloody shreds. Perhaps these dogs too were following their hearts, doing what dogs sometimes do, even if that meant baring their teeth, sinking them into a brother, and tearing him to pieces.
A short piece of advice, a mere three words, has so thoroughly permeated our culture that, if there is any adage that encapsulates the supposed “wisdom” of this age, it is this: follow your heart. Students are told to do this when choosing everything from careers to sexual orientation. This maxim pours out of the radio in song after song, regardless of whether your station is country, rock, or rap. We tell our friends this when they’re struggling to decide where to go to church, who to marry, whether or not to divorce, and just about any other situation in which significant, often life-changing decisions, must be made. Follow your heart, and all will be well. But will it?
In everyday life, doesn’t it make sense that we should scrutinize our leaders, analyze their counsel to us, and refuse to follow them if we perceive that they’re guiding us into harm’s way? Similarly, if I am to follow my heart, is it not reasonable to ask whether my heart is a wise, trustworthy guide who’s leading me down the right paths, or a wolf disguised as a seeing eye dog who’s shepherding me toward a feast in which I am the main dish? If we are to follow our heart, we better know what kind of heart we have.
I know what kind of heart I have. And, all too often, it has more in common with my dog Justice than the virtue after which he is named. Shall I follow my heart when it directs me to formulate a master plan of revenge against someone who’s stabbed me in the back or slung mud on my reputation? Shall I follow my heart when it escorts me to a liaison with a woman at work who showers me with affirmation and engages in “innocent” flirtation? Shall I follow my heart when, like my grandfather’s dogs, it entices me to adopt the pack mentality and turn on the weak, the fallen, the wounded? Shall I follow my heart when it inclines toward the easy instead of the right, the selfish instead of the sacrificial, the fun instead of the faithful? I know what kind of heart I have. And it is not to be trusted. In fact, what the divine Master of my heart deems frustrating, dangerous, ill-advised, and just plain gross, is very often that in which my heart delights the most. I may not roll in dung like my canine friends, but I’ve found plenty of other ways by which to soil my soul in the grime that my heart tries to convince me is gold.
So if we don’t follow our hearts, then what—or who—do we follow? If the question with which I’m struggling has its answer in the Word of God, then that is what we are called to follow. And we do so not simply because “that’s what the Bible says,” but because we are the children of God, baptized in his name, called to imitate him as those who bear the image and likeness of his Son. And “what the Bible says” describes what the life of divine imitation looks like. It is a life that frequently involves standing against cultural tides—standing for human life and dignity, standing against immoralities parading themselves as choices, and standing alongside all who suffer, even when they brought upon themselves the sufferings they now experience. We can only “follow our hearts” if those hearts are fully cleansed, claimed, and permeated with divine truth and love, which, unfortunately, never happens completely in this life. Instead, we follow our Lord, who in his word directs us down paths that are true, straight, and narrow, and lead to a life of self-giving love and service for all.
But the Bible doesn’t give us all the answers to the questions with which we struggle in life. God doesn’t tell you which individual you should woo and wed. The Bible never tells you which school you should attend or the career you should pursue. What to do then, when faced with questions about which the Scriptures give us no direct answers? Is it safe then to “follow your heart”? Why not, instead, follow your reason, the rational mind with which God has endowed you, instead of the heart that is a den teeming with emotions and desires, many of which guide you down self-destructive paths? Listen to the advice of older, more experienced family members and friends who know you, who have probably made mistakes that they can steer you clear of. And, above all, when making any decision, ask yourself if the direction you are leaning toward will serve you or your neighbor best. If the choice you are about to make is not prompted by love of God and love for your neighbor, but only by what makes you happy and self-satisfied, you can be certain it is the wrong one.
“Follow your heart”? No, rather, let us follow our Lord of love, who loves us enough to rescue us from ourselves, to forgive us when we follow our hearts down paths in which we become entwined in a myriad of sins, and to assure us that his heart is full to the brim with nothing but mercy and compassion for us, his beloved children.