To thine own self be true. It’s one of the most venerable bits of cultural wisdom in our Western world. It’s short. It’s eloquent. It uses the word “thine.” It almost sounds like it could be from the Bible.

Except, of course, it’s not. The phrase is from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, advice from Polonius to his son Laertes as the young man is about to leave home. It’s worth noting that in the play, Polonius is a talkative old man who loves to spout clichéd platitudes. And his words don’t mean what modern audiences think they mean. He’s not urging his son to live with integrity, but to put self-interest above concern for others – to “look out for number one.”

Clearly, Shakespeare never meant this line to be taken as sage advice for the ages.

And yet that’s precisely how it’s turned out. Yanked from its original ironic context, the phrase has become a proverb expressing one of our culture’s most cherished values. Its sentiment is restated in popular songs and feel-good movies that tell us the most important thing in life is to “follow your heart.”

How sad, then, that this advice is so contrary to the teaching of Scripture.

Addressing the mind as well as the heart

On the surface, following one’s heart is an attractive emotional appeal aimed at, well, the heart itself. But speaking to the mind for a moment, what does it mean to follow your heart and be true to yourself? In less poetic language, merely this: Obey your feelings and desires and do whatever you want.

It comes with a few corollaries: Your feelings rule. They’re the ultimate authority for interpreting life, the universe and everything. They’re the final standard for deciding what’s right – for you. And they’ll never steer you wrong. If you must choose, your feelings should take priority over logic and reason, conscience and caution, good advice and social standards. Submit to your feelings and you’ll be happy and fulfilled. Resist them and you’ll be unhappy and living a lie.

In retrospect, maybe Polonius was saying the same thing all along. Pursue your dreams. Do whatever it takes to ensure your success, your happiness and your fulfillment. All other considerations are secondary, if not irrelevant.

At its core, the injunction to follow one’s heart rests on some massive – and mistaken – assumptions: People are essentially good. We’re capable of correctly discerning reality for ourselves, without any objective standards or divine authority. Consequently, our own hearts are the truest, most trustworthy guides for living our own best lives.

A less rosy portrait from the Scriptures

The authors of Scripture – and Jesus himself – beg to differ. They paint a far less pretty picture of the human heart, to say nothing of its trustworthiness to rule the human life:

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? 
(Jeremiah 17:9)

For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person (Mark 7:21-23).

Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life (Proverbs 4:23).

In other words, the consistent teaching of Scripture is that we’re to guard our hearts rather than follow them. We’re to rule our feelings, not let them rule us.

The heart is to be changed, not obeyed

The truth is that no one needs persuasion to follow their heart or be true to themselves. Everyone already does that. We all do what we want. And because we’re fallen creatures, what we want by nature is neither honouring to God nor good for us.

This is not to say every human desire is pure evil of the worst sort. God is still at work in his world, and his human creatures are all different. Some lives are marked by kindness and goodness, others by monstrous cruelty. But from birth and by choice, everyone pursues what they think will bring them satisfaction and significance, apart from God. In this sense, even the best as well as the worst people in history all followed their heart.

That’s why all of us need a new heart, a transformed heart that can only be created through the Gospel. We need our feelings reoriented, our desires reshaped to conform with God’s own. It’s a lifelong process, and it occurs as we come to trust Christ, to abide in him, to meditate on his beauty and perfections, to seek him in his Word and through prayer, and to obey his will for our lives.

Trevin Wax offers this helpful point-by-point summary that contrasts Christian teaching with the “follow your heart” philosophy of popular culture:

We are told, not to love ourselves first, but to focus on loving God and neighbour.

We are told we are born sinners and need rescue from our fallenness, not affirmation of it.

We are being remade in the image of God, so that the ever-deepening discovery of his grace and goodness to us is the defining marker of our life, not our own self-discovery.

We live according to the declaration of acceptance pronounced over us through faith, not according to our own self-acceptance and the desire to fall into the good graces of others.

Leaning forward isn’t celebrating yourself as you are now; it’s embracing the vision of who God is making you to be.

Our heart and our feelings – as well as our capacity to desire and dream – are all wonderful gifts from God, part of being made in his image. If we align them to the right object and assign them their proper role, then we’ll come to be truly happy and fulfilled. What’s more, we’ll be true to ourselves – the selves God created us to be.

Sources and further reading

Chris Nye, “Stop following your heart: How this common encouragement can lead us down the wrong paths,” Relevant Magazine, September 4, 2013.

Trevin Wax, “Being true to yourself is living a lie,” The Gospel Coalition, August 26, 2013.

To thine own self be true,” eNotes, accessed February 7, 2020. A brief analysis of the Shakespearean quote in context.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2020 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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