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The Wholehearted Marriage: Fully Engaging Your Most Important Relationship

The Wholehearted Marriage: Fully Engaging Your Most Important Relationship

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by Greg Smalley

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The Wholehearted Marriage offers practical tools for helping couples keep a passionate connection with one another and understand the role their hearts play in their lives. Drs. Smalley and Stoever maintain that circumstances, such as busy lifestyles, differences between spouses, personal baggage, the loss of a loved one, childhood trauma, etc., trigger


The Wholehearted Marriage offers practical tools for helping couples keep a passionate connection with one another and understand the role their hearts play in their lives. Drs. Smalley and Stoever maintain that circumstances, such as busy lifestyles, differences between spouses, personal baggage, the loss of a loved one, childhood trauma, etc., trigger reactions that condition us to close up our hearts for protection, blocking the flow of love. A disengaged, protected heart makes it impossible to experience an intimate, connected marriage. As a result, couples drift apart, trying to find some version of contentment, or they give up altogether and look for love somewhere else.

Through their experiences in marriage counseling, Drs. Smalley and Stoever discovered that the commonly heard phrase "I don't love him/her anymore" is merely a camouflaged misunderstanding about what true love is and God's design for it. They affirm that love is more than just a feeling, and that to have true, lasting intimacy, couples need to learn to love wholeheartedly.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Heart 101

The "heart" refers to its position in the human being,
as the center or core to which every other component of the self owes its proper functioning.

— Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart

Oh, that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always, so that it might go well with them and their children forever!
— Deuteronomy 5:29


I (Greg) can't tell you how many times those two little words have come back to haunt me. Usually when people say "Trust me," what they really mean is "I have no idea what I'm talking about or what I'm getting us into, but this seems really fun, and I think we should do it anyway!"

Sadly, in this case the "it" referred to my marriage, and the "trust me" was spoken to convince my fiancée, Erin (my wife now of seventeen years), that our most recent argument wasn't foreshadowing a conflict-plagued future marriage.

On the contrary, I explained that we were going to have a "grrreeat" marriage. "Remember," I said, "I'm the son of worldrenowned marriage expert Dr. Gary Smalley. Certainly something has rubbed off during the twenty-three years I've spent under his roof! Besides, I'm almost halfway through my master's degree — in marriage and family counseling. And I'm out once a month speaking at marriage conferences with my dad. I think it's safe to say that I know a little more than the average guy on how to have a successful marriage!"

Can you believe after that impressive relational résumé, Erin still didn't seem persuaded?

"Trust me." I begged with my best pouty face.

Let me make this very simple: Erin was right and I was wrong. As a matter of fact, I was very wrong!

Once Erin and I were married, we managed our relational conflict poorly. It got so bad that two years into our marriage I was convinced that we were one more argument away from Erin's leaving.

And then the argument happened. We had gotten into this huge fight while I was driving. We were yelling at each other, and our argument had escalated to the point that I was so mad I had to get off the road. I pulled into a parking lot in front of a health club. We didn't consider the fact that our windows were down or what we must have looked like.

Erin was nine-and-a-half months pregnant with her big ol' tummy, and we were in the midst of spouting off horrible things to each other when a woman came out of the health club. Apparently someone had dropped a membership card on the ground near our car, and when the woman saw it she picked it up to hand to Erin, assuming it was hers.

Prior to the lady's arriving by the side of the car, Erin had given me a scathing comeback and told me that she was just about ready to get out of the car. So just then, I yelled at her, "Fine, just walk home!" Apparently this lady heard me. She took one look at my pregnant wife and, absolutely appalled at my inhumane statement, literally tried to help Erin out of the car. The woman tried to comfort Erin by saying, "It's okay. I'll help you get somewhere safe!"

If only I had kept a copy of my relational résumé in the car, I could have given it to the lady to help her realize that I wasn't a complete jerk.

I'll never forget that woman's look of total disgust. That was the lowest point in my marriage. I was convinced in that moment that my wife and I were not going to make it. What had gone wrong? We'd been so in love with each other before we'd gotten married. Although we struggled like other couples that first year, I never thought we'd get to this point.

The good news is that Erin and I made it. Actually, we didn't just survive those early years, but we actually thrived.

You might be wondering how in the world we went from a strange woman trying to pry my pregnant wife out of the car to thriving. Sure, we did many of the traditional things like counseling, joining a marriage small group, and getting mentored by a healthy older couple, Dr. Gary and Carrie Oliver. But as I look back over the past seventeen years, one thing really stands out as the key.

To understand what changed our marriage, we must go back to what Christ called the greatest of all the commandments.


Most of us have heard the story of what happened one time when Jesus was engaged in a public debate with the Pharisees and Sadducees:
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?"
"The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these." (Mark 12:28-31)

The part I want to focus on is the word love. Here we are commanded to love God and to love others as we love ourselves. That's a lot of loving! But here's the thing: everything I thought I knew about love was wrong. Or at least there is one key part of love that I completely misunderstood. And unfortunately, Erin and I had to learn it the hard way.

The truth is that I thought I understood love. After all, it's one of the most commonly used words in our vocabulary. Think about how often we use the term love in our communication. We use love to express a great liking for someone ("I love my wife") or something ("I love peanut butter Cap'n Crunch"). We use love to communicate the pleasure we get from something ("I love cooking" and "I love golf"). We use love to convey a strong positive emotion of regard ("He loves his work").

We express our devotion through the word love ("The theater was her first love"). The word beloved means a person who is greatly loved or who is dear to the heart. Love can verbalize a deep feeling of sexual desire and attraction ("He is madly in love with her"). Love can represent the score of zero in tennis or squash ("It was 40-love"). There's even a song that sings about loving love ("I love loving you").

The Bible actually started this entire trend because the word love is used 697 times in the Bible.

Speaking of the Bible, there are some powerful verses about love. One of my favorites is 1 Corinthians 13:1:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Erin and I had this love passage read in our wedding ceremony:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)

Love truly makes the world go 'round!

All that to say that love is a very complicated word. No wonder I was confused about love.

At this point, you might be wondering exactly what was confusing. The answer is found in not what happened when Erin and I were doing well relationally, but during the times when we were hurt, angry, and frustrated with each other. You see, love is easy when things are going great. On the other hand, love can be tough when things are difficult between you and your spouse.

When Erin and I got married, I just assumed that we would always be "in love" with each other. I never thought things would be perfect, but I certainly didn't think I would have moments when I really didn't feel love toward Erin. If I were to be completely honest, that day in the car when we were fighting and the woman tried to help Erin out of the car, I didn't feel love toward her in that moment.

It's like the Righteous Brothers' song, "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'." There have been hours and even days when I'd lost that loving feeling — that I didn't feel any love toward Erin.

What was difficult about this is that I wasn't sure what it meant. Did the absence of the feeling of love mean that there was something wrong with me? Was it Erin? Perhaps the problem was with our marriage. Maybe we weren't supposed to be married, that Erin wasn't my soul mate, that there was some poor woman roaming the world looking for me, but I wasn't available.

Sounds crazy, huh? Listen to these stories about not feeling love that couples posted on the Internet.

• I've been married for almost twenty years. For the last ten years we have been sleeping in separate rooms. My husband is not affectionate with me, he does not tell me he loves me or that I look nice or say anything endearing to me. He never was real affectionate in our marriage, but it's like we have our own separate lives now. I've already told my husband that I don't feel love for him anymore, but I am afraid I'll end up with nothing if I am the one who leaves.
• When I'm down, my wife is the only person I can be with and feel no aversion for. But I don't feel love for her. I know intellectually that I love her, but I can't feel it.
• My husband and I have been married less than one year. This weekend was a hard one for me. I think I cried every day. I'm just having such a hard time in our marriage right now. I'm just so discouraged. I get mad at my husband over nothing quite often. And I don't feel love for him a lot of the time, which burdens my heart with sorrow.
• I have been married for about nine months. My wife is relatively good looking and caring. However, for some reason I don't feel attracted to her, and I don't feel love for my wife either. Please help!
• I have been with my husband for fifteen years now. Though I am committed to this marriage and to my duties as a wife and mother, and I am not contemplating divorce, I don't feel love for him and don't feel physical desire for him. Frankly, I don't find him to be a lovable person. And because I feel so terribly overburdened with responsibilities of supplementing our income, housekeeping, and parenting, I have strong feelings of resentment that get in the way of any desire for intimacy with him. I can't bear to kiss him and kind of have to work up a mental fantasy to engage in physical intimacy. Is it possible to awaken feelings of love for him in my heart?
• I know this is a cruel thing to say, but I have lost all love for my wife. I appreciate that she is a very good mom to my children, but how do I break it to her so she will understand that her husband no longer loves her. This even hurts me to say it, but it's true. Should I continue to pretend I love her, as I did marry her twelve years ago and had two beautiful children with her? Should I wait till the kids grow older and then ask for a divorce? Should I stay or should I go? They say honesty and being open is key to successful marriages, but how can I do this without breaking her heart?
• I have now left my husband after forty years of marriage. I have steadily realized that I was living a lie, I didn't want to be around him, be near him, hear him tell me he loved me as I didn't know what to reply, I didn't love him. It ate away at me, making me ill and unhealthy and sad, and I knew I had to leave. I know I have done everything to try to make things right, but when love is gone, the purpose of your life vanishes. I am now looking for a new purpose after all these years, nearly a lifetime.
• My husband of twenty years had an affair. Since discovery two years ago we have made major changes in our lives (jobs, cities) in attempts for reconciliation. Some days I feel love for him, and other days the betrayal is too great to ever seemingly get past (today is one of those days). He, too, is putting forth great efforts toward our future together. I think I do still love him, but I also think the lies and betrayal have killed my ability to feel any type of love toward him.

What about you? Have there been times when you didn't feel love toward your spouse? I'm sure if you're honest that there have been moments or even seasons like this. Perhaps you feel that way right now.

When I experienced those lonely, empty feelings, the only thing I was certain about was that I needed to do something to bring back the love. I thought there was something I could do to rekindle or ignite the love I wasn't feeling.

However, this is where I went wrong. This is the part of love that I didn't understand. As a matter of fact, it is the most common question I hear from couples who come in for marriage counseling: "Can you help us feel in love again?" The question can take many forms:

• Is it possible to awaken feelings of love in my heart for my husband?
• Can you help me feel love again for my wife?
• How can I restore the love in my marriage again?
• Is it too late to rekindle our love?
• How can I bring healing and restoration of love and trust to my marriage?
• Can I ever love her again?
• Is it possible to rediscover the passion we once had for each other?
• Can you help me feel like something besides his roommate?

But in the end, they're all asking for the same miracle: help us find that lovin' feelin' again!

Erin and I were there too. I asked the counselor the same question: "I love her, but I'm not sure I'm 'in love' with her. Can you help?" I was so confused when we fought and doubted our love for each other, because the conflict was so painful. I remember putting so much pressure on myself to figure out how to generate love for Erin. Looking back, I wish someone had explained a very simple, relationship-changing concept to me. And it has everything to do with where love comes from.


In my work with couples when I hear the statement "I don't feel love for my spouse anymore," I just blow by it. What? you might be thinking, How can you simply let that go? Isn't not feeling in love with your spouse a huge problem?

It's not that I ignore the fact that someone does not feel love for his or her spouse. It's that I've come to recognize that I need to help this couple shift paradigms and look at their situation differently. Instead of discussing love, I usually ask them something that really gets them thinking. Where does love come from?

Love is not about chemistry or magic. Love cannot be generated. My inability to create love for Erin was not a sign that something was wrong with me, that Erin was unlovable, that our marriage was broken, or that she wasn't my soul mate (I hate that term!). It was simply a function of the reality that, as humans, no love originates with us.

God is the author, creator, and generator of love. Love comes from God and God is love (see 1 John 4:7-8)! As a matter of fact, the only reason we can love at all is because He first poured His love into us (see 1 John 4:19). The point is, all that love we talk about, write about, and sing about — none of it comes from us. We do not generate a single drop of love. It all comes from God.

By design, here is how the process of love works. When we open our hearts to God, we receive His love. He then fills our hearts abundantly full of His love (see Romans 10:10). Once our hearts are full of God's love, we then open our hearts and share love with others. His love passes through me from God to others. When I wholeheartedly engage God and my spouse, the flow of love is full and complete. This is how we live out the Greatest Commandment.

The key is to understand that the ultimate source of love is God. We cannot even love God until He fills our hearts with His love. The condition for loving others is first to experience God's own love. Consider 1 John 4:7-19:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
We love because he first loved us.

The bottom line is that when people say they no longer feel love for their spouses, the problem isn't love. God is love, and His love is always available. God's love is like air — it's all around. You don't have to be Christian for God's love to flow through you. God's love flows through you when you open your heart.

If love isn't the issue, what's the real problem when people don't feel love toward each other? Let me explain by telling you about my daughter's first day of kindergarten.


I will never forget my daughter Taylor's first day of kindergarten. Erin and I stood on the corner of our street waving as Taylor's bus drove off with our little girl. Erin was weeping, and I had to get her into the house before the neighbors started to think I was doing something to her. (Remember, I have a history of people misunderstanding why Erin is crying!)

After school, Erin was away, so I got to welcome Taylor home from her first day by myself. I was standing on the front porch waiting for my precious daughter when I saw the bus pull up. I was so excited to hear all about her first day. When the bus finally stopped and all the kids jumped out, I was shocked by what I saw. It took a few seconds for it to sink in, but I finally focused on what it was — Taylor was holding hands with a boy!

I'm sure my jaw hit the floor, because I think I choked on a bug. I couldn't believe it. My little girl was holding hands with a boy. A boy!

Instead of reacting, I gave Taylor the benefit of the doubt. It must be a bus buddy, I reasoned.

But as the other kids dispersed, not only did Taylor keep holding this kid's hand, but now they were running up the sidewalk, right toward me. Before I had time to process this nightmare, Taylor yelled out, "Hi, Dad! This is Hank, and we're in love. And we're going to get married!"

And with that bit of good news, I think I started to gag. At least that's what it sounded like. After regaining my composure, and with the premarital couple standing before me, I thought I had to have a little bit of fun with them.

"So you guys are in love?" I asked.

"Uh huh."

"And you're going to get married?"

"Uh huh," they both said, nodding their heads.

"Being five and all," I said, holding back a smile, "where will you guys live?"

They looked at me, back to each other, and shrugged their shoulders, and then Taylor dragged Hank to the side of the porch so they could huddle up and discuss my question. I could barely make out what they were saying. Then in unison they turned, and Taylor said, "Dad, if it's okay with you and Mom, Hank and I would like to live out in the backyard, in the Little Tykes house" (one of those plastic houses for toddlers).

"Sure," I said, with a grin. "Mom will love having you so close. We can visit any time we want, like real in-laws do. Now, although you'll have a sweet place to live, you will need stuff to go into your house. I'd like to get you something special. We'll call it a housewarming gift. What kind of stuff will you need to survive our cold Missouri winters?"

Once again they looked at me, back to each other, and shrugged their shoulders, and this time they walked to the side of the porch together. As I watched them discuss their ideas, I thought that it wasn't a good sign when your five-year-old daughter and her fiancé problem solve better than you and your wife do, but that's a whole different book!

When they finished, my future son-in-law stepped up and said, "We decided that we need three things."

Wow, I thought, they've simplified their lives to three things.

"All right, lay it on me."

Hank stood straight and looked me in the eyes. "We need the TV and the remote" (that only counted as one thing apparently), "a roll of toilet paper, and a box of Lucky Charms."

As I thought about Hank's request, I realized that it made perfect sense. As a guy, I could live six months off those three things alone. So I high-fived him and welcomed him to the family.

Over the next several weeks, it was very strange watching my little girl relate to Hank. Actually it was kind of creepy how they always seemed to be together, laughing and playing.

And then it happened.

As I returned home from work one evening, I found Taylor weeping in her room. I quickly discovered that Hank had broken up with her. The engagement was officially off!

After I silently looked up toward the heavens and gave thanks, I comforted my daughter. I'll never forget what she said. As my precious Taylor lay on my arm, she looked at me and cried, "Daddy, I loved him so much."

I'm not sure, but I may have gagged again.

"But he hurt me so bad. I hate him now, and I want him to die!"

In case you were wondering, she gets that from Erin's side of the family.

I've often thought about that moment and what Taylor said. Not so much because I fear for my own safety if she gets mad at me, but because it's the same thing I've watched so many couples go through.

Isn't it interesting that earlier that same day, Taylor was in love with Hank (whatever that might mean to a five-year-old girl)? But then once she was hurt, not only did she not love him anymore, she wanted him dead. What happened in those twelve hours? The answer is the same thing that happened to me and Erin in the middle of our difficult years. It's the same thing that happens to any couple that goes through marriage problems and no longer feels love toward each other. What happened to Taylor? One thing: her heart shut down toward Hank. That's it.


When someone doesn't feel love toward one's spouse, I assume that someone has the door to his or her heart closed for some reason or another. But the problem is that people want to make the issue about love. "I'm just not in love with her anymore."

Remember, we are not the creators of love. God is love. No love comes from us! We love because God first loved us. The real issue is never love, because God's love is always available. Unfortunately, most couples don't understand this. All you have to do is look at the things that people usually cite as reasons for divorce:

• We're not compatible.
• Our differences are killing us.
• He had an extramarital affair.
• She has too many unrealistic expectations.
• We fight and argue constantly.
• We have nothing in common.
• I can't stand his personality quirks.
• We rarely have sex.
• All he does is work.
• We have no money.
• I feel like I'm living with a roommate.
• I finally found my "soul mate."
• Her parents are driving me crazy.

Certainly these issues exacerbate things, but I assert that these are secondary problems. The real issue is that hearts have closed to each other. Let me say that again. In relationships, the real issue isn't love; the issue is the state of your heart — is it open or closed?

I find this in most every hurting couple I've worked with: they have shut down. They are completely disconnected from each other. People often use other words to describe a dead heart: detached, indifferent, numb, lifeless, heartless, alone, emotionally unavailable, or hard-hearted.

Do you feel that way? Do others accuse you of being this way? It's like what the Tin Woodman said in The Wizard of Oz:

It was a terrible thing to undergo, but during the year I stood there I had time to think that the greatest loss I had known was the loss of my heart. While I was in love I was the happiest man on earth; but no one can love who has not a heart, and so I am resolved to ask Oz to give me one.

Here is the real problem. When my heart shuts down to someone, especially to my spouse, then God's love is no longer flowing through me to her. This is why people say they don't feel "in love." If my heart is closed, then I have shut God's love out. This is what is actually happening when people do not feel love for their spouses. They have simply closed their hearts to their mates, for good reasons I'm sure.

Jesus said: "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning" (Matthew 19:8).

This idea has been extremely freeing to me. Instead of putting my efforts and energies into doing something we have zero ability to do (i.e., create love), I now focus on the condition of my heart: is it open or closed? Because if I have closed my heart to my spouse, then I have closed it to God as well. This is how we become the biggest barrier in living out the Greatest Commandment. When my heart is closed, I don't get filled up with God's love; therefore, I don't have anything to give out. I can't love God, myself, or others.

Obviously, God will continue to love me and others — He doesn't need me to fulfill His purposes. But He wants me to be a part of the process. I receive so much when God uses me to love others: patience, kindness, encouragement, pride, politeness, selflessness, self-control, forgiveness, rejoicing with the truth, protection, trust, hope, and perseverance (see 1 Corinthians 13:4-7).

The good news is that we have a choice. We have control over our hearts. God created us with the capacity to choose. We can't always choose our relationships — we didn't choose our parents or our siblings or our children — but we can choose who we open our hearts to.

First and foremost, we get to choose if we want a relationship with Christ. "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me" (Revelation 3:20).

What "door" do you think He's knocking on? The door of your heart. You see, Christ is a gentleman. He doesn't break down the door of your heart. Instead, He knocks and then waits patiently. You choose who you open your heart to, and you choose when you close it down. No one shuts your heart down. People may do things that lead you to react to their actions by shutting down. But it's still your choice. That's great news. It's your choice.

If your heart is closed right now, let that be okay. I'm not trying to convince you to open your heart to anyone. If your heart is closed, we're sure it's closed for good reasons. I just want you to move forward understanding this truth. I want you to embrace what is really going on — your heart may be closed to some degree. In the end, if you desire intimacy with your spouse, it will require an open heart. This book can give you the tools to have a heart that is fully open and fully available to God and others, especially to your spouse.

Before we move on, let's define the heart.


Several years ago I asked hundreds of married couples to define the heart. Here are some of my favorite responses:

The heart is...

• The wellspring of life
• A reflection of the true self
• The core of a person
• The deep center of one's life
• The innermost part of the human personality
• Me
• The place we connect to God and others
• The essence of who we are
• The source of our real character

According to Dallas Willard, the heart is the executive center of a human life. The heart is where decisions and choices are made for the whole person.

My favorite definition of the heart is that it is the vital center of the real you.

Another way to look at the heart is through the analogy of the Holy of Holies. In the Holy Place of the tabernacle and the temple there was an inner room called the Holy of Holies, or the Most Holy Place. Judging from its name, we can see that it was a most sacred room, a place no ordinary person could enter. It was considered God's special dwelling place in the midst of His people.

Whoever entered into the Holy of Holies was coming into the very presence of God. In fact, anyone except the high priest who entered the Holy of Holies would die. Even the high priest, God's chosen mediator for His people, could pass through the veil and enter this sacred dwelling only once a year, on a prescribed day called the Day of Atonement.

Even then, the high priest had to make some meticulous preparations. He had to wash himself, put on special clothing, bring burning incense to let the smoke cover his eyes from a direct view of God, and bring blood with him to make atonement for sins. It has been said that the high priest had a rope tied around his ankle whenever he entered the Holy of Holies. If the high priest had not properly prepared according to divine instructions, God might kill him. With the rope tied to him and the other end of the rope leading outside the Holy of Holies, his body could be dragged out. How would you like a rope tied around your ankle as part of your regular work attire?

This is how sacred and precious the Holy of Holies was. Our hearts are just as sacred, just as precious. And yet do we treat our hearts like the Israelites treated the Holy of Holies? No. Many people ignore, reject, abandon, judge, abuse, and are careless with their hearts. Our hearts are the most valuable part of who we are.


My son, Garrison, understands how important his little heart is. And whenever I think about my son and his precious heart, I smile at what happened on our first father-son road trip.

When Garrison was four years old, I had the opportunity to speak to some college coaches at the Final Four basketball tournament. The games were being played in Indianapolis that year, which was only about a ten-hour drive from our home, so I thought it would be perfect for a road trip.

Garrison and I had an amazing time watching the games, buying souvenirs, and stuffing our faces with hot dogs and snacks. We even had a tornado touch down in downtown Indianapolis while we were there. It was a real guys' trip. To top off the perfect experience, Garrison gave me a big hug and said, "You're the best daddy in the whole wide world." I was in heaven!

The next morning, we started the ten-hour drive back to Northwest Arkansas. We had been in the car no more than five minutes when Garrison announced, "I have to go really bad."

"Can't you hold it?"

"I'm going to go in my pants if you don't stop!"

Since I had recently promised Erin that I would no longer stop on the side of the road so he could go, I shot back, "You're going to have to wait for a gas station."

Clearly Garrison had been praying and had had his quiet time that morning, because around the next corner we found a truck stop.

In the men's room there were four urinals, with truckers taking up two of the spots. Most women don't know that guys have several unspoken rules when using the urinals, with the most important one being "No Talking." Every guy knows this. It has been passed down from father to son for generations. But apparently I had somehow inadvertently broken the chain. Talk about a generational curse!

So there we were — me, Garrison, and the two truckers — when all of a sudden, Garrison shouts out, "Hey, Dad, look. I'm holding Jesus in my hand!"

I couldn't believe what I had just heard. There wasn't supposed to be any talking, much less blasphemous talk. I quickly looked up to the heavens and pleaded, "I swear I didn't teach him that. He's home all day with his mother!"

As the truckers laughed at my son (or maybe it was at me), I peered around the divider to silence any more wicked chitchat. It was then I noticed Garrison's "other" hand was over his heart.

"See, Dad, I'm holding Jesus."

And then it dawned on me. We had talked earlier about the fact that Jesus lives in our hearts. Praise the Lord! I wasn't a complete failure as a father, and Garrison wasn't going to be struck down by lightning.

I love that Garrison gets the importance of his little heart. Growing up, I never gave my heart a second thought. I was more interested in thinking my way through life. I had no idea how important the heart is. Here are just a few of many reasons why our hearts are extremely important:

God created an amazing organ within each of us. Weighing less than a pound, the human heart will beat about 2.5 billion times and pump 80 million gallons of blood in an average lifetime, a volume that is enough to fill more than three supertankers!

Our hearts are important to God so much so that He listed it first in the Greatest Commandment: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength." In this verse, God is describing the whole person (heart, soul, mind, and strength), but why did He reference the heart first? Coincidence? No way! God is not random in His dealings. He acts deliberately. His choices always have a purpose.

The heart is one of the most central themes in the Scripture. The word heart appears in no fewer than 926 references in the Bible. The Bible addresses the heart more than any other topic — more than how we think, more than belief or obedience, more than money, more than works or service, and even more than worship. Maybe God is trying to tell us something!

Our faith originates in our hearts (see Romans 10:9-10), and the heart is the dwelling place of the Lord (see Ephesians 3:17) — just ask Garrison!

The heart contains our deepest desires (Psalm 21:2; 2 Chronicles 1:11; Romans 1:24), and these desires of our hearts will be granted when we delight in the Lord (Psalm 37:4).

The heart is the connection point between two people (1 Peter 1:22).

It is the source of creativity and courage (Joshua 2:11; 5:1).

The heart contains wisdom (1 Kings 3:9-12; Ecclesiastes 8:5) and uses that wisdom to teach us (Psalm 16:7).

Our deepest secrets are held in our hearts (Psalm 44:21; Job 31:33). The heart is the source of a "hidden man" that produces qualities of character (1 Peter 3:4).

One of the most interesting truths about the heart is that it can reason (Ecclesiastes 7:25; Mark 2:8) and that it has "thoughts and attitudes" (Hebrews 4:12). Literally, our deepest thinking is done in the heart: "For as he thinks in his heart, so is he" (Proverbs 23:7 NKJV). This is why Jesus, knowing our thoughts, asked, "Why are you thinking these things in your hearts?" (Luke 5:22). Biomedical research done by neurocardiologist Dr. J. Andrew Armour has validated what the Bible has been saying for thousands of years. Dr. Armour found that the heart is not just a simple pump but a highly complex, selforganized information-processing center with its own functional "brain." Did you know that your heart has brain cells (neurons)? We have as many brain cells in our hearts as we do in the lower parts of our brains. At least forty thousand neurons exist in the heart. But the neurons in your heart are more than five thousand times more powerful! With each beat, the heart continuously communicates with the brain and body via the nervous system, hormonal system, bioelectromagnetic interactions, and other pathways.

It seems that the heart is inextricably intertwined with our whole human nature — influencing and being influenced by everything we do! It operates something like a network of spiritual connections that senses every thought and every emotion, both external and internal, and will feed back its own desire and focus, influencing and controlling our behavior more than we realize.


For years I've been asking the men at my marriage seminars to raise their hands if they were brought up in homes where their dads or significant male role models taught how important their hearts are in life and in their relationships. Never have I had more than 2 to 3 percent of the men raise their hands.

I then ask the women to raise their hands if they were brought up in homes where their moms or significant female role models taught them not just about their hearts but showed them how to take great care of their hearts. Again, never more than 3 to 4 percent of the women raised their hands.

Our hearts are so important — it seems so simple and the evidence is all around — but somehow most of us have missed this truth. What's going on here? I think John Eldredge summed it up best in his excellent book Waking the Dead:

I find it almost hard to believe a case must be made that the heart is...well, at the heart of it all. Of life. Of each person. Of God. And of Christianity.
It is diabolical, despicable, and is downright evil. This bears the mark of the enemy. The enemy knows how vital the heart is, even if we do not, and all his forces are fixed upon its destruction. For if he can disable or deaden your heart, then he has effectively foiled the plan of God, which was to create a world where love reigns.
By taking out your heart, the enemy takes out you, and you are essential to the Story. Once you begin to see with the eyes of your heart, once you have begun to know it is true from the bottom of your heart, it will change everything. The story of your life is the story of the long and brutal assault on your heart by the one who knows what you and your marriage could be and fears it.


In order for intimacy and deep connection to occur, your heart must be open to God and others. You want to love your spouse the way Peter calls us to in 1 Peter 1:22: "Love one another deeply, from the heart." To that, you must discover why the door to your heart is closed. And, then, you must discover how to get your heart back open.

Take a moment right now to evaluate where your heart is in your marriage. Is it shut down completely? Is it fully open?

Wherever your heart is at this point in time, don't judge yourself, don't try to pry yourself open or remain oblivious any longer. Just let it be okay to be where you are today.

In the long term, though, your heart must be open if you want the wholehearted love God desires for you to have. Your heart is incredibly valuable, and our hope is that we can help you better understand how to keep your heart open and full of God's love so you can fully engage your heart in your marriage. This kind of love without restraint will lead to the deepest level of intimacy, deeper than most of us could ever imagine.

Remember, above all else, guard your heart, because it's the wellspring of life and relationships!

Next, let's explore how emotions are the voice of our hearts. The key is to give our hearts a voice by being aware of our emotions and then managing our emotions in healthy ways.

© 2009 by Greg Smalley

Meet the Author

Dr. Greg Smalley serves as Executive Director of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family. Prior to joining Focus, Smalley worked for the Center for Relationship Enrichment at John Brown University and as president of the National Institute of Marriage. He is the author of eleven books, including The DNA of Relationships, The DNA of Parent and Teen Relationships, and The Wholehearted Marriage. Greg lives in Colorado with his wife Erin and their four children.
Dr. Shawn Stoever currently serves as a senior director for the WinShape Foundation (a nonprofit ministry of Chick-fil-A), overseeing Marriage, Retreat, and Experiential Learning ministries. Prior to his role at WinShape, he served as the director of training for the Smalley Relationship Center in Branson, Missouri. Whether he's leading retreats, writing, or appearing on television and radio broadcasts, Shawn's humor, enthusiasm, and wisdom help him connect with his audience. Despite extensive schooling, Shawn says he really did not know anything about relationships until he met his wife Christina. They have four wonderful children: Taylor, Cade, Avery (with the Lord), and Cody.

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