Forget About Following Your Heart

We need an external moral guidance system:

As we know, most folks in the world, and far too many Christians, seem to think the best life advice we can run with is to just ‘follow your heart’. It is as if whatever your feelings or mood or inclination at the time is telling you, you should just go for it. It is as if this is some sort of perfect internal guidance system and guide for life.

No Christian however who actually knows his Bible could ever fall for that kind of nonsense. He would instantly cast his mind back to passages such as Jeremiah 17:9:

The heart is deceitful above all things,
    and desperately sick;
    who can understand it?

The sinfulness of the human heart is further clearly expressed in Isaiah 64:6:

We have all become like one who is unclean,
    and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.
We all fade like a leaf,
    and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.

Trusting in our own sinful and selfish hearts is the last thing we should be doing. Yes, when we become Christians we have the Spirit of God at work within us, creating a new heart, as the psalmist prayed about in Psalm 51:10, and as the prophet foretold in Jeremiah 31:33.

But the ‘old man’ still resides in the believer, and we need great care in not letting our heart – however we understand that to be – be our sole guide. It is the unchanging Word of God that should guide us in all things, not fleeting emotions or whatever mood we happen to be in.

Since I am again reading in the book of Numbers, what I came across today clearly spells all this out. In Num. 15:37-41 there is a brief section about ‘tassels on garments.’ It says this:

The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner. And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the Lord, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I am the Lord your God.”

Verse 39b makes this point perfectly clear: the people were told “not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after.” There is another warning about the ‘just follow your heart’ error. And the passage also offered very practical advice as well: the tassels were there to help a group of forgetful people to better remember to follow God and obey his commands.

We could use similar advice today. Maybe not tassels, but some such thing – maybe even carrying a small cross in your pocket, so when you reach for your keys, you are reminded of your call to love and obey your Lord. And of course, New Testament believers have other visible symbols to remind us of things, such as the Lord’s Supper.

Let me offer some extended commentary on this passage in Numbers by Iain Duguid. He writes:

The key to understanding the tassels lies in the location of the tassels and the single blue thread that each one contained. In the ancient world, the hem of someone’s garment was regarded as an extension of the person. We read in 1 Samuel that David crept up on King Saul while he was relieving himself in a cave and cut off the hem of Saul’s cloak (24:4). Afterward he was remorseful over what he had done. Why? Was it merely that he had spoiled Saul’s clothes? On the contrary, it was a much more symbolic act than that: in cutting the hem of his garment, he had effectively assaulted Saul himself because the hem was part of his identity (v. 6). In some ancient cultures, a man could divorce his wife by cutting off the hem of her robe, symbolically turning her loose, while in others an imprint of the hem served as a personal signature. Putting the tassels on the hem of the robe was thus not merely a matter of decoration. In that location, that tassels expressed something fundamental about the Israelites’ identity.

He goes on to look at contemporary matters of clothing and identity, such as fans wearing the colours and clothing of their favourite sporting teams. He continues:

The key element within each of these tassels was also a color, a single violet thread. Violet dye was phenomenally expensive in the ancient world since it came from tiny sea snails that had to be harvested by hand, each of which only produced a single drop of dye. The color violet therefore came to symbolize wealth and nobility in society at large. Even more significantly, violet was the most sacred color in the tabernacle (see the discussion on 4:6, 7). The single violet thread in the midst of the tassel thus symbolized Israel’s identity as a royal priesthood. Requiring a single thread made it an affordable badge for everyone to wear, even the poorest members of society. All the Israelites would be reminded by their tassels to live according to the sanctity and nobility of their calling.


In particular, the tassels served as a reminder of two things. In the first place, they reminded the Israelites who they were by God’s overwhelming grace. They were the people of the Lord, the people he had redeemed from Egypt. He had redeemed them so that they might have an ongoing relationship with him: neither the power of Egypt nor their stubborn, defiant rebellion could compromise that purpose (v. 41). Secondly, though, it reminded the Israelites of the obligations that went with their calling. They were redeemed from Egypt to be a holy nation and a royal priesthood. God brought them out of bondage so that they might obey his commands and be consecrated to their God, instead of going after the lusts of their own hearts and eyes (vv. 39, 40).


In some ways, with this combined emphasis on their privilege and responsibility, the requirement to wear the tassels sums up the thrust of the whole chapter. God redeemed Israel by his grace for relationship with him; yet that did not now leave them free to do whatever they wanted to do. Such “freedom” would actually merely be a different kind of bondage, prostituting themselves to their own lusts (v. 39). A relationship with God by grace does not eliminate the need for obedience but rather forms the foundation for it. The God who commands us is the same God who first delivered us from bondage; so we know that his purposes in commanding us are good. In fact, he delivered us from our former bondage to sin so we could experience the true freedom that comes as we obey his commandments and law. His law turns out to be the path to true liberty.

If our hearts were such reliable gauges of what is right and what is true, there would be no need for such remembrance devices. But because we are all fallen, and so quickly forget the Lord, we need daily reminding of who he is and where we stand with him. This is still true of believers as well.

Following your heart, or ‘the voice within,’ can lead to disaster. We need something much more trustworthy and unchanging to put our hopes in. God and his Word serve us well here. Often they will conflict greatly with the inclinations of our hearts and the particular moods we happen to be in.

So forget about following your heart – follow Scripture instead.

BTW, a social media friend has a new book out on all this: Don’t Follow Your Heart: Boldly Breaking the Ten Commandments of Self-Worship by Thaddeus J. Williams (Zondervan, 2023). I do not have the book yet, but when I do, I hope to write a review, so stay tuned.

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