A Guarded Heart

Last week, we learned about how our spiritual life exists much the same as the way that God has ordained our natural lives.  In our hearts, in the core of who we are, is where everything that we say, do, and think are derived.  This is much like the DNA in a cell’s nucleus, which God created within every living thing when He spoke at creation.  Within our hearts is located the program which our lives execute.
For this reason, we’re going to begin to learn the practical side of how to guard our hearts.
Proverbs 4:20-23
20 My son, pay attention to what I say; turn your ear to my words.
21 Do not let them out of your sight, keep them within your heart;
22 for they are life to those who find them and health to one’s whole body.
23 Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.
Much like last week, we’re going to take a look at a natural reality to better understand a spiritual reality.  This morning, we turn to a man that we can all learn quite a bit from, Nehemiah.  When we open to the book of Nehemiah, we find that most of Israel had been driven away from the promised land of God and scattered into exile all throughout Babylon around the year 444 BC.
One day, one of his brothers and some other guys were passing through the city where Nehemiah was serving as cupbearer to the king.  Nehemiah asked him about the remnant that survived the exile still living in Judah and about Jerusalem.
Nehemiah 1:3-11
3 They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.”
4 When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. 5 Then I said:
“Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, 6 let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. 7 We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.
8 “Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, 9 but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.’
10 “They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand. 11 Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favorin the presence of this man.”
I was cupbearer to the king.
Jerusalem is a very significant city to our faith.  It is this location that is central to God’s promised land to Israel and where God ordained that His temple be built, where He would be worshiped and sacrifices and offerings be brought to Him.  It is in Jerusalem where Jesus celebrated the last Passover meal with His disciples and nearby where He was crucified and resurrected.
When Nehemiah found out that the wall of Jerusalem was broken down and its gates burned down, he wept.  Why did this news cause him such pain?  He was forced from his homeland, separated from his family and friends, and his career was basically being a canary in a coal mine.  He drank the king’s wine before the king did to be sure that it wasn’t poisoned.  If Nehemiah became ill or died, then the king knew not to drink the wine and another person would be promoted into Nehemiah’s position.  This was his life and yet he did not weep over this.  However, when he learned that the walls around Jerusalem were broken down and its gates burned, he wept.
One thing that is brought to our attention immediately is that because these walls and gates were brought down, the people living there were living in great trouble and disgrace.  This is where we find our first spiritual parallel.  If we find ourselves constantly playing whack-a-mole in life where we’re simply dealing with one trouble after the next and if we have become a disgrace to those around us, these are red flag indicators that we’re failing at guarding our hearts.  The walls around our hearts are failing to do their job as are the gates in those walls.
Walls around and within a city serve very simple, but critical roles.  In the same way, the walls around and within our hearts need to be designed and built well enough to serve these same critical roles.
1. Clearly define boundaries
Walls outside the perimeter of a city clearly define where the city begins and ends.  The walls around our hearts need to do the same.  These walls are high, thick, and are built of solid metal, stone, or brick.  These walls aren’t designed to be easily changed or short lived.  Some walls built around ancient cities still exist thousands of years later today.  In the same way, our legacy should carry along these outside perimeter walls for generations.  These walls define hard stops of who we are and who we are not and should be built very carefully according to the blueprints of God’s word.
Walls inside a city are many.  Some of them are more decorative around personal yards to loosely define boundaries, but allow anyone inside of them.  Some of them are tall chain link with razor barbed wire along the top to protect valuable treasures.
The inside walls of our hearts are much the same.  There are some parts of my heart that are open and exposed for all of the world to know.  There are other walls such as the walls of my bedroom that are intimate that only myself and my spouse have access to.  There are walls such as a bathroom or prayer closet that only I close myself within alone.  There are other walls such as a living room that all of my family members and friends are welcome to enter at any time.  All of these walls are important and should be clearly defined in my life.
Many of these walls can be easily changed when a time for remodeling comes.  Within our hearts, these walls and boundaries can be changed as people gain or lose our trust and as our relationship changes with them and we grow closer or further from one another.
If I were to live in a home without walls, however, myself and my family would be disgraced for all of the world to see.  I would live in constant trouble as anyone could take anything from me that they would like and enter and do anything that they would like.  Our hearts should have these same clearly defined boundaries and levels of intimacy.
God’s creation is full of boundaries that keep a healthy balance that enables life to exist here on the earth in its many various forms.  If these boundaries were not present, then there would be chaos and death where there is currently order and life.  Natural disasters are often simplified to exactly this; a breach in these boundaries.  Whether it be wind swirling vertically instead of horizontally as in a tornado or tsunamis caused by an earthquake or flooding caused by sudden and extreme rainfall, these are all results of boundaries being breached.  These should set a strong example for us by God that we need to have strong and healthy boundaries in our lives as well!
2. Protection
The outer walls of a city were also frequently built to protect itself from natural threats such as flooding or wild animals.  These walls were designed so that when times of trouble pressed in around the city, those within the city would be kept safe often without even an awareness of the troubles around it.  This protection offered peace in the midst of trouble and threats, which reminds me of this scripture:
Philippians 4:6-7
6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
There of course, was often a more pressing form of protection that these walls provided, which was to:
3. Keep enemies out
Walls offer protection from my enemies that I do not even need to think about.  The outside perimeters of my heart should have such well built walls that I never even need think about them or be concerned about certain enemies.  Some things that try to enter my heart should simply be stopped cold in their tracks.  If they try to force their way through or over those outside perimeters, they get shot without any questions asked.  There are some things that simply never, ever have reason to be in my heart.
However, life is often much more complex.  Even a city has needs that can only be satisfied by other cities.  We were designed by God for relationships with Him and with others.  A city will allow its enemies within its outside perimeter from time to time for various reasons.  That enemy, however, is given very specific constraints of where it can go, how long it can stay, and what it is allowed to gain access to within the city.  If that enemy defies these constraints, it is immediately escorted back outside of those outer perimeters of the city until it can be trusted once again to enter.
From these walls, watchmen could safely keep an eye and spot any enemy from a distance that might be storming in against it.  This gave the city time to prepare and defend itself against any attack.  We also need to be watchmen on the walls and not be taken by surprise or off guard by the enemy of our souls as he wages war against our hearts.  We should see the attack coming and be prepared to defend ourselves against it so that we can stand firmly and not be moved or shaken.
4. Keep good things in
Walls keep families, friends, and community together.  Walls provided a safe place to live and dwell together and to enjoy life together without the constant nagging and attack of the enemy.  Walls keep the bad choices of our enemies from flowing into our hearts to impact the good that is there.
5. Have gates
Walls need to have gates to allow people in and out.  This is true for both the outer perimeter wall as well as the inner walls.  All of these walls need to have gates and each of those gates should represent different access levels that certain people or things can or cannot go through.  A cow may be welcome to pass from field to field and even into my barn, but it is not welcome into my home.
It is these gates within our hearts that give us control over what is permitted in and out of our lives.
Psalm 119:9-11
9 How can a young person stay on the path of purity? By living according to your word.
10 I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands.
11 I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.
When we use God’s word to define for us what is good and what is not, what is allowed in and what must remain out, then life begins to become clear.  We can begin to understand what walls need to be built and what walls need to be torn down.  We begin to understand what gate we allow our enemy to come through and where we need to better secure those gates.  The confusion that we used to carry that would muddy our perspective and create many gray areas in our lives where there should be black and white begins to settle.
Philippians 4:4-8
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, brothers and sisters, 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.
As God’s word defines for me what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable, whatever is not can be brought to the surface and washed away.  The gates of my heart can be used to usher things that do align with this in and those things that do not align with this out.
As I plant the word of God in my heart and allow the Holy Spirit to work in the core of who I am, God’s presence will begin to fill my life and guide me in setting up walls and gates.  My desires will change and those things that used to have such a hold in my life that were destructive to me begin to wash away as God’s presence becomes stronger and stronger.
(Dark oil/water illustration)
This container represents our heart.
The dark fluid represents the pattern of the world.  It represents the sin that we are all born into and the core of who we are that needs reprogrammed.
The clear fluid represents God.  It represents His word, His promises, His presence, the Holy Spirit.  It is everything that we need to be changed at the core of who we are.
The first container represents an unguarded heart that has become hardened. (plastic wrap over the top)
Sure, this person still has some things in their lives that need to be transformed, but they view themselves as holy and pure enough.  They believe the clean parts of their lives to be evidence of the presence of God.  In reality, those clean parts in their lives stand as a museum of what God once did, but are simply their history together.  Those areas where God’s presence once so richly dwelt are now empty voids.  Once pure and life filled worship has become a religious tradition to remain looking holy and alive.  This hardened heart cannot clings to the experiences of the past and rejects any new encounters with the presence of God.  Although this life believes itself to have good boundaries in place to keep themselves from being polluted by the world, they have actually guarded their hearts to intensely that God cannot dwell with them nor continue His work in them.  Those areas of their lives that need to be transformed simply never change.
The second container represents an unguarded heart that has weak boundaries. (colored water)
This person is hungry for God’s presence and desires for Him to work in their lives, but also to continue in the ways of the world.  What ends up resulting is confusion and a lack of change.  Instead of being powerfully transformed into a new creation by the Holy Spirit, God’s word and presence becomes intertwined and smothered out by the flesh and the old person that we once were.  This person wants to do God’s will, but can’t find the power and strength to live it out. They are easily swayed toward God by Christian friends and away from God by worldly friends.
The third container represents a well guarded heart. (oil)
This person is hungry for God’s presence and desires for Him to work in their lives and is fully surrendered to Him.  They allow God to do His work and are willing to make whatever sacrifices and changes are necessary.  They allow God to define the walls and gates of their heart.  They become pure and holy as a work of God alone.  They are able to be in the world, but not of the world.  They are not only transformed themselves, but bring transformation into the lives of others wherever they go.  They are able to be like Jesus and befriend sinners without falling into sin.  They are so filled with the presence of God and hunger and thirst so much for Him that the things of this world cannot overcome them.  This person is what God desires us all to be, which begins by guarding our hearts and allowing God to reprogram the core of who we are by defining the walls and gates of our hearts.
Next week, we’re going to continue a look at Nehemiah as we learn together how to guard our hearts, how to build walls, how to tear down walls, and how to setup the gates of our lives.  God is about to do a radical work in each of our lives as we prepare for Him a place in our hearts for His presence and glory to dwell!