Keeping the Heart

by John Flavel

"Keep your heart with all diligence;
for out of it are the issues of life."
Proverbs 4:23

I now proceed to improve and APPLY the subject

You have seen that the keeping of the heart is the great work of a Christian, in which the very soul and life of true religion consists, and without which all other duties are of no value in the sight of God. Hence, to their consternation, I give a special warning to hypocrites and formal professors—that the pains and labors which they have undergone in religion are of no value, and will turn to no good account. Many splendid religious services have been performed by men, which God will utterly reject! They will not stand on record in order to an eternal acceptance, because the performers took no heed to keep their hearts with God. This is that fatal rock on which thousands of vain professors dash and ruin themselves eternally! They are exact about the externals of religion—but heedless of their hearts! O how many hours have some professors spent in hearing, praying, reading and conferring! And yet, as to the main end of piety, they might as well have sat still and done nothing—as the great work, I mean heart-work, was all the while neglected. Tell me, vain professor, when did you shed a tear for the deadness, hardness, unbelief or earthliness of your heart? And do you think your easy, heartless religion can save you? If so, you must invert Christ's words, and say, "Wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to life, and many there are who enter." Hear me, you self-deluding hypocrite; you who have put off God with heartless duties—you who have acted as if you had been worshiping an idol! You who could not search your heart, and regulate it, and exercise it in your performances; how will you abide the coming of the Lord? how will you hold up your head before him, when he shall say. "O you shamming, false-hearted man! How could you profess to worship me—without your heart? With what face could you so often tell me that you loved me, when you knew in your conscience that your heart was not with me?" O tremble to think what a fearful judgment it is to be given over to a heedless and careless heart, and then to have mere religious duties, instead of a rattle, to quiet and still the conscience!

I infer for their humiliation, that unless the people of God spend more time and pains about their hearts than they ordinarily do—they are never likely to do God much service, or to possess much comfort in this world. I may say of that Christian who is remiss and careless in keeping his heart, as Jacob said of Reuben, "you shall not excel." It grieves me to see how many Christians there are who live at a poor, low rate—both of service and comfort, and who go up and down dejected and complaining. But how can they expect it should be otherwise, while they live so carelessly? O how little of their time is spent in the closet, in searching, humbling, and quickening their hearts!

Christian, you say your heart is dead, and do you wonder that it is, so long as you do not nourish it with the fountain of life? If your body had been as starved as your soul has—that would have been dead too. And you may never expect that your heart will be in a better state—until you take more pains with it.

O Christians! I fear your zeal and strength have run in the wrong chapel; I fear that most of us may take up the Church's complaint: "They have made me the keeper of the vineyards—but my own vineyard have I not kept!" Two things have eaten up the time and strength of the professors of this generation, and sadly diverted them from heart-work.

First. Fruitless controversies, started by Satan, have greatly increased the neglect of our hearts. Satan's purpose in fruitless controversies, is to take us off from practical godliness, and to make us puzzle our heads—when we should be inspecting our hearts. How little have we regarded the observation: "It is a good thing that the heart be established with grace, and not with meats," (that is, with disputes and controversies about meats,) "which have not profited those who have been occupied therein." How much better it is to see men live exactly—than to hear them dispute with subtlety! These unfruitful questions, how have they rent the churches, wasted time and energy, and taken Christians off from their main business! Would it not have been better if the questions agitated among the people of God of late had been such as these: "How shall a man distinguish the special from the common operations of the Spirit? How may a soul discern its first backslidings from God? How may a backsliding Christian recover his first love? How may the heart be preserved from unseasonable thoughts in duty? How may a bosom-sin be discovered and mortified?" etc. Would not this course have tended more to the honor of true religion and the comfort of souls? I am ashamed that the professors of this generation are yet insensible of their folly. O that God would turn their disputes and contentions, into practical godliness!

Second. Worldly cares and encumbrances have greatly increased the neglect of our hearts. The heads and hearts of multitudes have been filled with such a crowd and noise of worldly business, that they have lamentably declined in their zeal, their love, their delight in God, and their heavenly, serious, and profitable way of conversing with men. How miserably have we entangled ourselves in this wilderness of trifles! Our discourses, our conferences, no, our very prayers are tinged with it! We have had so much to do without, that we have been able to do but little within. And how many precious opportunities have we thus lost? How many admonitions of the Spirit have passed over unfruitfully? How often has the Lord called to us, when our worldly thoughts have prevented us from hearing? But there certainly is a way to enjoy God even in our worldly employments. If we lose our views of him when engaged in our temporal affairs, the fault is our owns Alas! that Christians should stand at the door of eternity, having more soul-work upon their hands than their time is sufficient for—and yet be filling their heads and hearts with trifles!

I infer, lastly, for the awakening of all, that if the keeping of the heart be the great work of a Christian, then there are but few real Christians in the world. If everyone who has learned the dialect of Christianity, and who can talk like a saint; if everyone who has gifts and abilities, and who can preach, pray, or discourse like a Christian; in a word, if all such as associate with the people of God and partake of ordinances may pass for Christians—then indeed the number is great! But alas! how few can he found, if you judge them by this rule—how few are there who conscientiously keep their hearts, watch their thoughts and look scrupulously to their motives! Indeed there are few closet-men among professors. It is easier for men to be reconciled to any other duties in religion than to these. The profane part of the world will not so much as meddle with the outside of any pious duties, and least of all with these; and as to the hypocrite, though he may be very particular in externals—you can never persuade him to undertake this inward, this difficult work; this work, to which there is no inducement from human applause; this work, which would quickly unveil what the hypocrite cares not to know. So that by general consent, this heart-work is only done by a few pious ones—and I tremble to think how few!

If the keeping of the heart be so important a business; if such great advantages result from it; if so many valuable interests are wrapped up in it—then let me call upon the people of God everywhere to engage heartily in this work! O study your hearts, watch your hearts, keep your hearts! Away with fruitless controversies and all idle questions; away with empty names and vain shows; away with unprofitable discourse and bold censures of others—and turn in upon yourselves! O that this day, this hour, you would resolve upon doing so!

Reader, methinks I shall prevail with you. All that I beg for is this, that you would step aside oftener to talk with God and your own heart; that you would not allow every trifle to divert you; that you would keep a more true and faithful account of your thoughts and affections; that you would seriously demand of your own heart at least every evening—'O my heart, where have you been today, and what has engaged your thoughts?'