Looking into our hearts for direction can be spiritually hazardous. It is usually more helpful for us to direct our hearts to what is most valuable and delightful. Which is why I believe David counsels us, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4).
“Why shouldn’t I follow my heart? If I am a Christian — if God has caused me to be ‘born again’ and has given me ‘a new heart’ — isn’t my new heart trustworthy?”
Readers have raised some version of this objection when I’ve exhorted Christians, “Don’t follow your heart.” And the objection is warranted. After all, the Bible clearly teaches that in this era of the new covenant, God writes his law on our new hearts so that we willingly follow him (Jeremiah 31:31–34; Hebrews 8:8–12). This would seem to not merely imply, but even mandate, that Christians should follow their hearts.
But the Bible’s description of what a regenerated person actually experiences in this age reveals a more spiritually and psychologically complex picture — one that I believe gives Christians biblical warrant to cultivate a healthy suspicion of what they recognize as their hearts’ desires. So, while we may, and hopefully will, reach a point in our lives as Christians where it’s right, at times, to follow our hearts, allow me to make a brief case that the phrase actually undermines Christians as they labor and struggle to discern their various desires, and that Scripture itself discourages us from thinking this way.
How might we summarize the complex picture the Bible paints of the born-again experience in this already-not-yet age?
The New Testament explains that when the Spirit brings us from spiritual death to spiritual life (John 5:24; Romans 6:13), we enter a strange new reality. Our regenerated new self emerges, “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” And yet our “old self, which belongs to [our] former manner of life,” is still “corrupt through deceitful desires” (Ephesians 4:22–24). We are “born of the Spirit” (John 3:6) while still inhabiting the “flesh,” our “body of death” in which “nothing good dwells” (Romans 7:18, 24).
When Christians are born again, we enter into a lifelong internal war where “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Galatians 5:17). Stepping back and viewing these desires objectively, “the works of the flesh” that result from fleshly desires “are evident,” and so is “the fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:19–23). But Christians often struggle — on the ground, in real time — to discern the desires of the Spirit from the desires of the flesh.
This is why the New Testament Epistles are full of exhortations and corrections addressed to Christians. James tells his readers (and us at relevant times) that their “passions are at war within” them (James 4:1). Peter warns his readers (and us), “Do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance” (1 Peter 1:14). Paul describes this internal experience of warring passions as “wretched” (Romans 7:24). And he admonishes the Colossian Christians (and us) with strong language: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5).
Why did these apostles feel the need to speak this way to regenerated people? Because the hearts of these regenerated people were not yet fully free from the influence of their flesh, their old selves.