Two weeks ago, I outlined some of the reasons why the celibacy requirement for Latin Rite priests is an essential witness to the world. Within the article, I mentioned the cultural maxim “follow our heart” that is often the litmus test used for making decisions about certain aspects of our lives, especially in relationships. We hear it spoken in movies and in contemporary music. We read it in books and it is one of the most quoted suggestions in social media for decision making.
The problem for Catholics: this advice is directly opposed to how we are meant to make decisions. Our lives are not our own. We are not called to follow our own hearts, but rather, the Sacred Heart of Jesus. His will is the litmus test for all that we do. We are meant to conform our lives to His.
While telling someone to “follow their heart” may be well-meaning, it often betrays a sentimental—and even superficial—approach to how we are supposed to make decisions, support and love other people, and live as Christian disciples. There is nothing to ground this statement except that it typically means follow what “feels” good. This reduces decision making to the unruly passions and the whim of our emotions in a given situation.
Emotions & Decisions
Catholics should be opposed to this kind of thinking. Not just because our emotions are unreliable but also they can be moved by the Enemy in ways we may not be aware of, especially if we have not matured in our understanding of spiritual warfare.
Each one of us experiences a wide array of emotions on any given day. The vast majority of those emotional responses are outside of our control and there are times we have to wait for emotions to subside once they arise. We are also confronted with temptations—often heightened by our emotional response— which we are meant to fight against.
There will be times in our lives when we will be confronted with situations that feel good to us, but they are destructive, dangerous, and counter to our Baptismal promises in reality. This is most often the case in our relationships with other people. The maxim “follow your heart” is frequently used to justify relationships or sinful behaviors that are counter to God’s will for our lives.
This is not because God is a tyrant who seeks to keep us from our dreams. It is because we are made for the good, the true, and the beautiful. We are made to love and serve God.
Our ultimate end is to live in communion with the Most Holy Trinity in eternity along with the angels and saints. We cannot truly be happy—regardless of what our emotions or the Enemy may be telling us—unless we give ourselves fully over to God and learn to truly love others as Christ loves them.
Love Is Not Just an Emotion
To love is to seek out the good for the other person. This is the same with God, who is Love Itself. He seeks our good in every single moment of our lives. His desire is for us to be happy and we can only be happy if we live in conformity to our God-given human nature. We do this by following His Sacred Heart through the promptings of the Holy Spirit and the life of grace we are given through the Sacraments and prayer. W
e are not meant to follow the often capricious nature of our own hearts. We are meant to follow the will of God. God cannot will anything for us except our good. This is the essence of love. What we often think or feel as good is in fact bad for us or evil.
Seeking the Good
Love is not an emotion or a feeling—although our affection for someone is often accompanied by emotions. Love is a choice. It is a decision to choose what is best for the other person. God wants what is best for us and that means we have to trust Him and give everything over to Him, even our own desires and feelings on a matter. It requires us to let go of what our heart might be telling us in a given situation because the One who loves us and made us for Himself is the only One who can ultimately lead us to happiness.
The same is true in our relationships with other people. As Christian disciples, we are called to love one another as Christ loves us. This means that our relationships require a great deal of purification, sacrifice, and letting go of our own wants and desires. Love is self-emptying. It is a gradual dying to self in the image of Christ Crucified. The maxim “follow your heart” is the opposite of self-emptying. In fact, it is often selfishness wrapped up in sentimentality.
If we truly love another person, then we can only desire their good. We must choose what is going to lead them to their ultimate end, which is heaven. If our emotions are telling us to do something that is opposed to willing another’s ultimate good and we act on those emotions, then we are not truly loving the other person. We cannot love and will evil for another person at the same time. This includes those relationships where people think they are simply “following their hearts” but in reality they have chosen a path of emptiness and destruction, whether it is through an affair or any relationship that is opposed to God’s law or using immoral technologies such as contraception or In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) within a marriage or outside of one.
Charity is Costly
In our Fallen state, the demands of charity are high and costly. There will come times in our lives when we will have to do the very opposite of “follow your heart” as we battle against temptations that the Enemy throws at us.
The reality is that God tests us so that we can grow in true charity. Not the sentimental kind that is often a cheap counterfeit, but rather, true charity that fights hard to seek the good of the other despite our own personal feelings or struggles. God rewards us for choosing to follow Him over our own desires, especially when we do so out of charity.
Theology teaches that the increase of grace and charity in us is the result of meritorious works, that is, good works performed under the influence of charity. When one does good works “with his whole heart,” the merit acquired—always an increase of grace and of charity—is immediately given to him, and as a result, his spiritual life immediately grow in intensity.Fr. Gabriel of Saint Mary Magdalen, O.C.D., Divine Intimacy, pg 521.
Many of these “good works” are found in our sacrificing our own wants and desires in order to follow God. True charity grounded in Christ rather than our emotions and desires is what helps us to grow in holiness. It is in sacrificing our own desires for the good of the other or in order to love and serve God that we grow in charity. In fact, the reward of following God is to enter more deeply into the depths of His love and in turn be able to love others around us as we are meant to. This is freedom. We are not enslaved by our emotions or base desires, but instead, free to love others in Christ. We often seek that which is lower in our relationships without realizing that the love we have for others is heightened only when it is united to communion with Christ.
We are not meant to “follow our own hearts” and to live lives solely dependent on our good feelings. Often love comes with agony, pain, and suffering, but sacrifice makes it more beautiful, rich, and deep. It is in learning to sacrifice for others, in order to will their ultimate good, that we are conformed to Christ. We learn to love with His Sacred Heart and to seek His will over our own so that we can find the happiness that we are made for.
When we follow His plans for our lives and sacrifice what our own heart might be telling us, we become more like Christ. This is where happiness can be found in this life and in the next.
The Catholic response is “follow the will of God” only then can we truly love others and give ourselves completely over to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.