KEEPING THE HEART
John Flavel (d. 1691)
“Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life.” Proverbs 4:23. ‘My son, give me thine heart.” Proverbs 23:26.
The word “heart” is used in the scripture in a metaphorical way. In Romans 1:21 it is used to describe the understanding of a man. In psalm 119:11 it is used for the memory, and in 1 John 3:10 it is used for the conscience. But the heart more generally refers to the whole soul or inner man.
It is a very apt word for just as the whole body depends on the soundness of the biological heart, the everlasting state of a man depends upon the condition of his soul. And by “keeping the heart” the Scripture refers to the earnest and constant use of all possible means to keep the soul from sin and maintain its free communion with God.
Out of the heart, says the Scripture, are the issues of life – which means that the soul is the source and fountain of all vital actions. “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth evil things; for out of the abundance of his heart his mouth speaketh.” (Luke 6:45).
The keeping and proper management of the heart in all circumstances is therefore the greatest business of a Christian’s life. (This, of course, assumes that there has already been a work of grace which has set the heart right and given it a new spiritual bent and inclination, for as long as the heart is not set right by grace, no works can keep it right with God).
Man, with the fall, has become a disordered and rebellious creature, contesting with his Maker by self-sufficiency, self-love, self-will and self-seeking. His best understanding is clouded with
ignorance, his best intentions full of rebellion and stubbornness and his body rules him, the lower powers in him casting aside the control and direction of the higher faculties.
By new birth – the work of God – his disordered soul is set right so that self-sufficiency is replaced by faith, self-love by love for God, self-will by obedience to Him, and self-seeking by self-denial.
But while grace has greatly rectified the soul, yet sin often disorders it again. A renewed heart is like a musical instrument which, though perfectly tuned, is made out of tune by the smallest influence. Lay it down just a short while and it will need tuning again.
So to ‘keep the heart’ is to preserve the soul from sin and to maintain that spiritual inclination which fits it for a life of communication with God, and this includes the following activities:-
1. Frequent examination of the attitude of heart. There are some men and women who have lived forty or fifty years and have scarcely spent a single hour’s study of their own hearts all that while. Bankrupts never like to look into their account books, but sincere hearts will want to know whether they are going backwards or forwards. The psalmist said, “I commune with mine own heart,” (Psalm 77:6) and the heart can never be ‘kept’ unless its condition is faced up to and understood.
2. Keeping the heart also involves thoughts of deep personal humiliation for heart-sins and disorders; as Hezekiah practised when he humbled himself for the pride of his heart. (2 Chronicles 32:26).
The well-kept heart is like an eye. If even a small particle gets into it it won’t stop blinking until it has wept it out. And the upright heart cannot be at rest until it has poured out its complaints before the Lord.
3. Keeping the heart includes instant prayer for rectifying grace when sin has defiled it. God’s people must pray (as in Psalm 19:12) most earnestly when it comes to heart-sins.
4. Keeping the heart includes the imposing on ourselves of definite rules to help us walk more closely to God. Well composed
and sensible personal rules are, in many cases, of great value in guarding the heart against some particular sin. Thus in Job 31:1 we read, “I made a covenant with mine eyes.”
The Constant Watch
5. Keeping the heart includes a constant watchfulness, a ‘holy jealousy’ quick to react in preserving the soul from sinful deeds. If lusts and feelings break loose and passions are stirred, the soul must react and suppress them before they get to a height. Happy is the man who is always sensitive to danger, but he who hardens his heart will fall into calamity (Proverbs 28:14). The man who wants to ‘keep’ his heart must feed with caution, rejoice with caution, and pass the whole time of his sojourning here with his holy fear to keep the heart from sin.
6. Lastly, keeping the heart includes the realizing of God’s presence with us; remembering that the Lord is always there. This realisation has been found effective by God’s people to ‘awe’ them from sinning. Job did not let his heart yield to an impure, vain thought. What was it that enabled him to exercise such care? He tells us in Job 31:4, “Doth he not see my ways and count all my steps?”
“Walk before me,” said the Lord to Abraham, “and be thou perfect.” Just as parents prevent their children from misbehaving in church by sitting behind them, the heart of the lost man needs the consciousness of the eye of God to restrain sin.
The Hardest Work
Those are the ways by which earnest believers express the care they have of their souls, and such heart-work is the hardest work of any. To shuffle over religious duties with a loose and heedless spirit will cost little, but to set yourself before the Lord and change your straying, unprofitable thoughts into an earnest, consistent waiting upon God will cost you something.
To attain ability and fluency in prayer is easy, but to get your heart broken for sin even while you are confessing it; to be really humbled as you feel a sense of God’s infinite holiness – and to keep your heart in this sensitive disposition – will certainly cost you painful labour of the soul.
To repress outward acts of sin and order your outward living in a commendable manner is no great achievement. Even unsaved people ruled by ordinary principles can do this. But to kill the root of corruption which is within, to set up and keep up control over your thoughts, and to have all things straight and orderly in the heart is not so easy.
A Continual Work
Keeping the heart is a work that is never finished until life is done. It means to the Christian what a serious leak meant to seamen of old. If they failed to man the pumps continually, the water would overwhelm and quickly sink them. It was no use their complaining that the work was hard and they were tired.
Similarly, in the life of the Christian there is no time or occasion when this work can be relaxed. You know how many days and nights of misery it cost David and Peter to relax the watch over their hearts for just a few minutes.
The Most Important Thing
Without this activity of ‘keeping’ the heart we are mere formalists in religion. “My son,” says the Lord, “give me thine heart.” And if this is not given Him, He pays no heed to whatever else you bring to Him. The work and value of what we do depends entirely on how much heart there is in it. He who performs religious duties without a heart – that is heedlessly – is no more accepted with God than he who performs them with a double heart, i.e. – hypocritically. (Isaiah 66:3).
The following things are all dependent on our sincerity and care in Â‘keeping the heart’:-
The honour of God. Heart-sins are very provoking evils to the Lord. It was for heart-sins God sent upon man the terrible judgment of the Flood (Genesis 6:5-7). From Jeremiah 4:14 it is seen that heart-sins God took special notice of when He gave up His own inheritance into the enemy’s hand.
For the very sin of thoughts God threw down the fallen angels from Heaven, and such is the vileness of heart-sins that the scripture even intimates the difficulty of pardon for them. (Acts 8:21). O, let us never treat heart-sins lightly, for by these God is highly wronged and provoked. Let every Christian, therefore, make it his work to keep his heart with great earnestness.
In addition, keeping the heart is so important from the point of view of our own joy and comfort, for he who neglects this is generally a great stranger to assurance. The Holy Spirit gives us this wonderful experience of assurance in two ways. Firstly, He produces in our souls that spiritual renewal, life, and understanding that we mentioned at the beginning. And to see and recognise these as we search our hearts is to see the operation of the Spirit. Secondly, the Spirit witnesses by irradiating the soul with light -shining upon His own work. In other words He first infuses the gyace, and then He opens the eye of the soul to see it!
But God does not usually indulge lazy and negligent souls with the comforts of assurance, for that would make Him seem to patronize indifference and carelessness. If a careless Christian does obtain a sense of assurance, it is impossible for him to keep it long, for the joy of our lives and the happiness of our souls rises and falls with our diligence in this work – keeping the heart.
Certain times in the life of a Christian call for particular effort in ‘keeping the heart’, for while there is never a time when we may relax this work, there are certain critical moments when considerable extra vigilance is needed.
Firstly we shall look at the time of prosperity, when good fortune smiles, and the heart is apt to grow secure, proud and earthly. How can a Christian keep his heart from pride and carnal security?
a. By remembering that very, very few of those who know the pleasure and prosperity of this world escape everlasting perdition. ”It is easier,” said Christ, “for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
b. By noting that prosperity has spoiled many believers. How much better it would have been for some Christians if they had never known prosperity! When they were low and humble – how spiritual they were, – but when they went up in the world things altered radically. Outward gains are usually accompanied by inward losses. The man whose graces are not hindered by his wealth is rich indeed. There are few like Jehoshaphat who “had silver and gold in abundance, and his heart was lifted up to follow God’s commands.” It helps to keep us humble just to remember how dearly godly men have had to pay for their prosperity.
c. A Christian helps to keep his heart from pride and carnal security by remembering that God values no one by outward excellencies but by inward graces. As a dying man once said, “I shall not appear before God as a doctor, but as a man.”
A Heavy Load
d. It also helps to keep in mind the clogging, impeding effect of earthly things upon a soul, however energetically it pursues the way to Heaven. They may not keep a ransomed soul out of Heaven on the last day, but they shut much of Heaven away from us in the meantime. If you are travelling to Heaven, look upon prosperity as a weary horse looks upon a heavy load.
e. A last humbling thought to keep the heart from pride and earthly security, is to note how some of the saints of old reacted to
wealth and comforts. What a shameful consideration this is – that while others have been melted down in humility and gratitude by the comforts of prosperity, we are so easily hardened and puffed up.
When God gave him great possessions, Jacob said, “I am not worthy of the least of all thy mercies.” When Hannah received her son she exclaimed, “My soul rejoiceth in the Lord,” and Mary also said, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, my spirit rejoiceth in God my Saviour”.
If earthly benefits do not produce such a humble, grateful response from our hearts, we have good cause to fear them as hindrances, rather than fruits of God’s goodness to us.
A second ‘dangerous’ season, when it requires special effort to keep heart, is the time of adversity, when outward comforts are blown away.
Jonah was a good man, and yet his heart was peevish when trials came. Job was the mirror of patience, yet his heart gave way in trouble. How can a Christian under great affliction keep his heart from discontentment and despondency? The following ‘helps’ are offered to keep your heart from giving way in times of pressure.
a. Remember that by these trials, God is faithfully carrying out His purpose for His people and He allows all affliction as a means of fulfilling his purpose. Troubles do not come by accident, but by the government of God, intended for the spiritual good of the saints. (Job 5:6, Eph. 1:11, Isa. 27:9, Hebrews 12:10).
Test of Faith
All things work together for good. Trials are God’s workmen upon our hearts, to pull down pride and carnal security. “It is good for me that I have been afflicted.” (Psalm 119:71).
Count it all joy, says James, when you meet with these various trials, for you know that the test of faith yields steadfastness. My Father is working out a plan upon my soul – can I be angry with Him?
b. Remember also that while God reserves the right to discipline His people, yet He has tied His own hands by a promise never to take from them His lovingkindness. I shall be his father, and he will be my son; if he commits iniquity I will chasten him with the earthly rod and with the trials of the children of men: nevertheless, my mercy shall never leave him. (2 Sam. 7:14). O my proud heart, which is discontented because, though God has given me the whole tree laden with fruits of comfort, He allows the wind to blow down a few leaves for my discipline!
c. It is a marvellous help when the heart is prone to sink under trials, to remember that no one can move hand or tongue against a child of God, except by His permission. What if the cup is a bitter cup? it is still the cup your Father has permitted. Can you really suspect that it is a poisoned cup? Would you give your child a poisoned cup? Of course not! Then “If you, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children” how much more does God! (Matt. 7:11).
Just to remember the character of God should be enough to put our hearts at rest that He is to us a Father, Friend, and a faithful, tenderhearted Physician.
d. A great help in time of trial is to weigh against the trial the spiritual blessings. What if, by the loss of outward comforts, God is preserving you from the ruining power of some temptation? Surely there is no reason to allow your heart to sink in despondency at the thought of your losses?
Must God be complained about, for casting overboard things which will sink you in the storm? For pulling down things which will give your great enemy the advantage over you in the hour of temptation?
e. Another great help is to consider this: that God, by the afflictions He allows to come upon you, may, after all, be accomplishing something you have long been praying for. Have you not frequently prayed to be kept from sin? Have you not long since been asking Him to kill your lusts and work in your heart so that you may find true happiness in Christ?
Well then – God may even now be fulfilling your desire. This is His way. He takes away the food and the fuel which keep your lusts going; He “hedges up your way with thorns” and takes the soft pillow of creature-comforts from under your head!
Are we now going to stretch our Father’s patience? If He delays in answering our prayers we doubt Him, – if He answers them in a way we didn’t expect, we resent it!
f. Yet another help in trouble is to remember that God is doing a work which if only we could see His plan, we would be thrilled about.
We are such ignorant creatures that we fail to see how the whole course of events is working to God’s design. Like the children of Israel in the wilderness, we are often “murmuring”, because we are led through the desert and exposed to hardship. But He is leading us, as He led them, to a place He has prepared.
If only you could see how the Lord has perfectly arranged the
whole scheme of your salvation and sanctification. By such and such a means shall you be sanctified. A given number of afflictions – no more – are appointed to you at any given time, and they shall work for your good. If you could only see the great symphony of influences upon your life conducted by the Lord, you would never want to choose any other pathway.
g. It also helps us to keep our souls through trial and trouble, to bear in mind that agitation and discontent does more damage than all the trials and troubles. Your bad attitude arms these afflictions with a sting. It is your discontent which makes the burden so heavy. It is your own impatience – like a stubborn child who will not respond to correction – which causes the Lord to increase the strokes.
If you could only lie meekly under the hand of God your condition would be much easier. Besides, agitation and discontent makes it very difficult for you to pray over your troubles, or take in the fact that God works all things together for good. Affliction is a pill which, when coated in patience and submission, may be easily swallowed, but discontent chews the pill and releases the bitter taste.
If God throws away one of your comforts, because He sees it would hurt your soul, need you throw your own peace out after it?
h. A final help in affliction, and one which always helps, is to compare the condition you are now in (however troubled) with the condition of unsaved souls-the very condition you deserve to be in.
O my soul! – is your condition as bad as the last? What would thousands of souls in hell give to change places with me!
Adapted from A Saint Indeed by John Flavel, first published in 1667, and re-published in this form in the Evangelical Times in 1969-70.