Apple cofounder, black-turtleneck enthusiast, and former Pixar chairman Steve Jobs once remarked, “There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
For most of human history, feelings could be embraced, resisted, ignored, celebrated, chastened, silenced, trained, or challenged. Our ancestors could do a whole lot with their emotions. The “freedom” of our day is far more limiting. You have one option when it comes to your heart—follow it.
The ‘freedom’ of our day is far more limiting. You have one option when it comes to your heart—follow it.
Under the trendy orthodoxy of expressive individualism, life is no longer about bringing our inner selves into the tempo and key of beauty, goodness, and truth. It’s about finding our own inner tune, marching to our own beat, and conducting those around us to play along with our anthems of autonomy.
The truth is, to answer Steve Jobs, there are plenty of good reasons not to follow your heart. Here are five.
1. Our hearts are too dull.
Validating our every feeling seems exhilarating—at first. But we end up trapped inside our own mental constructs. We become what David Foster Wallace called “lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.” Looking inside our hearts doesn’t give us limitless freedom but a bad case of claustrophobia.
Don’t get me wrong: I have no doubt your heart is fascinating. But compared with following the heart of God—the God whom Augustine described as an “infinite and unbounded ocean of being”—our hearts hold all the thrill of a mossy fishbowl.
2. Our hearts are too dithering.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously said you never step in the same river twice because it’s always flowing. Our hearts, too, are in constant flux. Some may be as turbulent as the Ganges in monsoon season, while others move like molasses on a cold day, but all human hearts are in motion.
Looking inside our hearts doesn’t give us limitless freedom but a bad case of claustrophobia.
What God says is true about you is infinitely more trustworthy than whatever your fallen feelings say from one moment to the next. If you don’t want to end up in a chronic identity crisis, don’t take your flowing feelings at their word—take God at his. His joyous verdict about you is trustworthy and solid as stone.
3. Our hearts are too divided.
The follow-your-heart dogma naively assumes our hearts are like choirs—each emotion harmonizing with all the others. In reality, the heart is less like a choir and more like a Guitar Center storefront in which 50 guitarists on 50 guitars and amps are all trying to outshred each other. In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis captures the point using the language of instinct:
Telling us to obey instinct is like telling us to obey “people.” People say different things: so do instincts. . . . Each instinct, if you listen to it, will claim to be gratified at the expense of all the rest.
Even Buddy Pine, the supervillain Syndrome from The Incredibles, gets the point. “You always say, ‘Be true to yourself,’” Pine complains to his former idol, Mr. Incredible, “but you never say which part of yourself to be true to!”
4. Our hearts are too depraved.
The call to cardiac obedience only makes sense if we follow French revolutionary Jean Jacques Rousseau in his dogma that “there is no original perversity in the human heart”; or Celine Dion in her statement, “If you do follow your heart, I don’t think you can go wrong”; or Joel Osteen in his teaching that the “heart is right.”
What God says is true about you is infinitely more trustworthy than whatever your fallen feelings say from one moment to the next.
The Bible, meanwhile, offers us a humbling dose of realism. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” said the Jewish prophet (Jer. 17:9). “The hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live,” said the Jewish philosopher (Eccl. 9:3). “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander,” said the Jewish Messiah (Matt. 15:19–20).
Proverbs 28:26 sums it up bluntly: “He who trusts in his own heart is a fool” (NASB).
5. Our hearts are too delusional.
One of the best-documented findings in social science is a phenomenon known as “self-serving bias.” As psychologist David Meyers documents, most Americans view themselves as more intelligent, more ethical, and less prejudiced than their neighbors and peers. A whopping 94 percent of college professors believe themselves superior to their average colleagues. One College Board survey asked 829,000 high school seniors to rate their ability to get along with others. Sure enough, 100 percent ranked themselves “above average.” It’s the science catching up with the Scriptures: “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes” (Prov. 21:2).
This self-serving bias explains why the call to follow our hearts doesn’t strike us as absurd as it actually is. But the evidence is stacked against us.
In a Yale University basement in 1961, Stanley Milgram found that a majority of everyday folks would be willing to jolt a stranger’s body with potentially lethal voltage (thankfully, the shock victims were actors and not actually fried alive). A decade later came the controversial Stanford prison experiment. Philip Zimbardo selected two dozen psychologically fit young men for a two-week study in a simulated prison environment. Within 24 hours, the “guards” sprayed “prisoners” with fire extinguishers, stripped them nude, removed their mattresses, and threw the unruly into solitary confinement. The following days brought so much brutality that authorities had to stop the experiment.
If you still doubt humanity’s capacity for inhumanity, attend a Black Friday sale at midnight after Thanksgiving. Human hearts can flip from gratitude to greed in milliseconds. Still not convinced? Watch an episode of Dance Moms. Or attend a church-sponsored Easter egg hunt. Or introspect for 15 honest seconds.
Friends, let’s become heretics against today’s trending cult of self-worship and expressive individualism. Don’t follow a dull, dithering, divided, depraved, and delusional heart. Follow God’s.