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

In the Hebrew mind, the heart was the control center and the condition of the heart determined how a person lived. The heart is what we are in reality, as opposed to what we sometimes appear to be or want others to perceive. The heart is where information is processed and decisions are made. This is where self-control begins—it begins with giving attention to our motivations and desires. What does it mean, therefore, to “watch over” my heart?

The word used here (natsar) means “to keep, preserve, guard.” This word is used often to describe God’s behavior. He keeps His word, He preserves His people, He prevents something from happening. In the same manner, the word is sometimes used in reference to people. The main idea is that of maintaining something—making sure the object, whatever it is, remains in the desired condition.

In our Proverb, the word translated “heart” (leb) means “the inner man, the mind, understanding, that part of a man where contemplation takes place.” This proverb tells us to preserve our mind and keep it free of contamination because it is the source of our actions and communications. If the mind is polluted, actions and communications will reveal it. If the mind is well-kept, on the other hand, actions and communications will show that, as well.

Self-control begins with how we think, what concepts we allow into our head, what thoughts we dwell on and so forth. This immediately points to the Word of God as essential to self-control. As sinful creatures, we need a sure source of morality and direction. Self-control is not just a matter of subduing ourselves at the moment when an angry outburst, for example, seems to come so readily. It is a matter of keeping our minds free of those ideas and beliefs from which anger springs by filling our minds with the holy Word of God.

Let’s consider two matters in which self-control is crucial:

When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise. (Pro. 10:19)

He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city. (Pro. 16:32)

In the first verse, the writer does not say “when there are many bad words…” but just “when there are many words…” So the person who is exercising self-control will be the one who, as the writer says, “restrains his lips.” Our tendency is to talk and to talk too much. Self-control manifests itself when we stop talking even though the issue hasn’t been entirely settled.

In the second verse, the writer states that control of anger is a more desirable quality than power. Self-control is viewed as a more useful asset in the eyes of God than tremendous strength, which implies it takes more to control anger than to unleash great physical power. In parallel fashion, the writer goes on to say that the ability to rule one’s spirit is to be valued more than the ability to capture a city.

Establishing self-control is one achievement that brings with it manifold blessings to ourselves and others. It is not easily done because our flesh resists any type of restraint. By nature, we are inclined to declare whatever is on our minds and expose whatever emotion happens to be rising up inside. Filling our hearts with the Word of God, however, is the only truly effective correction we have at our disposal.