My early 20s – especially life after college – have brought along countless questions: What do I want to do? Where should I live? What is my calling? Where is God leading me to serve? How do I want to prioritize my time and resources? These questions have frustrated me and have led to self-criticism. I often want all the answers and I tend to look at the lack of these answers as a deficiency on my part.
I’ve read Proverbs 16:9 countless times before: “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps,” and I’ve always thought it casts a very negative light on the heart of man. The heart of man is deceitful. The heart of man plans out of greed/selfishness. Following one’s heart = danger. Following the Lord = safety. But what strikes me when reading this now is that God acknowledges our heart’s pattern of sub-consciously planning our paths the way we want them to be (He says that our hearts will try to lead us). But He also says that He will move in spite of our desires. He will establish our steps.
The world tells us to follow our hearts. When we think about this from a spiritual standpoint, we tell ourselves, “Don’t follow your heart.” This can be confusing, and it can be hard to reconcile our flawed thoughts and desires with God’s plans. Partly because of the way I was taught growing up, when I desire to do something, I often think heavily about it (and I’m often indecisive). Reading about God’s very complicated plans for people in the Bible (Abraham, Moses, Joseph) leads me to the conclusion that our feelings and desires are no indicator of truth and of God’s plan (for example: Moses didn’t want to speak out against Pharoah, but God’s plan was for him to do that). But when taken too far, this idea can hinder growth and lead to spiritual stagnancy, which we don’t want.
Interestingly though, Proverbs 16:9 holds true even in the most complicated of Bible events. I was reading this reflection on the verse, which highlights that people of the Bible planned in their heart – and did so with their own resources/judgment (based on guidance by spiritual leaders and by God). God then directed their steps and the the steps of people around them to bring this plan to fruition.
So yes, from a Biblical standpoint, it is clear that the desires of our hearts can be bad. Matthew 15:19 says, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts – murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.” But at the same time, God doesn’t always condemn the desires of our hearts: He says in Psalm 37:4, “Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Reading these verses reminds me that I shouldn’t necessarily follow my heart, but that I also shouldn’t condemn my heart’s desires – because it will inevitably make its own plans. What I should do is trust that regardless of these desires, if I take delight in the Lord and seek first His Kingdom, He will give me (and in the meantime, will mold) these desires.
I am learning to be more decisive and to be content in the knowledge that if I seek first and delight in God, He will establish my steps, though my heart may plan my own way. I pray that instead of focusing solely on the desires of my hearts – and criticizing these desires in the quest to attain perfection – I instead choose to focus on making my heart good ground for receiving His Word.