When I was a teenager, I read a book called Undateable.
Undateable, written by Justin Lookado and Haley DiMarco, is a book written for young, Christian teens as a “down-to-earth” and “relatable” instruction guide for how to date smart.
Undateable scarred me for life.
Not only did this book make it clear that my being a shy teenager who actually did notice and like boys made me unattractive, unconfident, and relationship-obsessed, it also added to the pressure of “guarding my heart.”
“Guarding your heart” is a prevalent idea among many Christians. I found it to be directed mostly at young, apparently hapless people like myself, and coming from a much older, usually married source.
Here’s the basic idea behind guarding one’s heart:
To guard your heart means to protect yourself from deep, emotional wounds by keeping significant physical, emotional, or spiritual encounters with the opposite sex at arm’s length. Guarding your heart can end when you meet your spouse (an unclear process and equally unclear timeline). To not guard your heart is an act of weakness, immaturity, and desperation.
If the very premise of “guarding your heart” is to protect yourself from any connections that could one day hurt you, how then are we supposed to feel safe and confident forming meaningful relationships with people, even people we are romantically interested in?
On a surface level, I get it.
I get that adults who have been kids want new generations to not “give themselves away” so to speak, putting all their emotional energy or self-worth into a teenage relationship that most likely isn’t going to last. It makes sense to say, “Why risk getting your heart broken as a young person, when one may not have the life experience to deal with heart break in a healthy way?”
Really, that makes sense, and I believe there is utter truth to not handing one’s heart over to person after person in a serial effort to gain love, acceptance, or self-worth.
But the practicality of this sentiment is much more difficult to get behind, not to mention the very nature of the immense blessings that can accompany any tragedy in our lives, heartbreak included.
To guard our heart is to live in fear of romantic relationships. Relationships suddenly become risky vehicles quickly speeding us towards emotional fatalities, rather than the life-giving and character-building experiences they are meant to be.
Relationships are inherently built upon risk: we risk being hurt when we choose to share mutual vulnerability and trust with another flawed person. If our relationship mantra is one of protecting our hearts at all costs, we will become obsessed with a set of rules and regulations we believe are not only keeping us “safe” but also “holy.”
And if we do experience heartbreak we are left feeling confused and ashamed, riddled with guilt that we were weak enough to let love get the best of us.
Around the same time I read Undateable, my first high school boyfriend told me he loved me. This was the boy I had been dating for six months, the one who wrote me love letters and songs, the one who shared his heart and his friendship with me. Our companionship didn’t include much physicality other than kissing, and there were never proclamations of undying love or forever togetherness, but we shared life, school, stories, friendship, and romance. We were connected. We had a relationship.
And when it ended, I was heart broken. Not only had I lost someone I cared very deeply about, but I nursed a wound further pained by the shame of having my heart broken. Was I now a bad Christian? A weak, silly girl? Immature? Damaged?
Heartbreak is part of life, whether we are in numerous relationships or eternally single. To insulate ourselves from what might happen is to live a life in fear and guilt. We need only look to scripture to understand the reality of heartbreak in our lives:
“We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill out hearts with his love.” (Romans 5:3-5, NLT)
Pain is part of our development not only as followers of Christ, but as people of depth, character, and endurance. To have our heart broken, romantically or otherwise, is to become available to be made into the person we were created to be.