Keeping the Heart
by John Flavel
"Keep your heart with all diligence;
for out of it are the issues of life."
the depravity and corruption of man, that one is become as a wolf or a tiger
to another. And as men are naturally cruel and oppressive one to another, so
the wicked conspire to abuse and wrong the people of God. "The wicked
devours the man who is more righteous than he." Now when we are thus abused
and wronged, it is hard to keep the heart from revengeful motions; to make
it meekly and quietly commit the cause to Him that judges righteously; to
prevent the exercise of any sinful affection. The spirit that is in us lusts
to revenge; but it must not be so. We have choice helps in the Gospel to
keep our hearts from sinful motions against our enemies, and to sweeten our
embittered spirits. Do you ask how a Christian may keep his heart from
revengeful motions under the greatest injuries and abuses from men? I
reply—When you find your heart begin to be inflamed by revengeful feelings,
immediately reflect on the following things:
The next season which requires more than commons diligence to keep the
heart—is when we receive injuries and abuses from men.
1. Urge upon your heart the severe prohibitions of
revenge contained in the Word of God. However gratifying to your
corrupt propensities revenge may be, remember that it is forbidden. Hear the
word of God: "Say not, I will recompense evil." Say not, I will do so to him
as he has done to me. "Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for
God's wrath, for it is written—It is mine to avenge; I will repay, says the
Lord. On the contrary—If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty,
give him something to drink. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil
with good." It was an argument urged by the Christians to prove their
religion to be supernatural and pure—that it forbids revenge, which is so
agreeable to nature. Awe your heart, then, with the authority of God in the
Scriptures; and when carnal reason says, 'My enemy deserves to be hated!'
Let conscience reply, 'But does God deserve to be disobeyed?' 'Thus and thus
has he done, and so has he wronged me.' 'But what has God done that I should
wrong him? If my enemy dares boldly to break my peace, shall I be so wicked
as to break God's precept? If he fears not to wrong me, shall not I fear to
wrong God?' Thus let the fear of God restrain and calm your feelings.
2. Set before your eyes the most eminent patterns of
meekness and forgiveness, that you may feel the force of their example.
This is the way to cut off the common pleas of flesh and blood for
revenge, as thus, 'No man would bear such an affront!' Yes—others have borne
as bad, and worse ones! 'But I shall be reckoned a coward, a fool, if I pass
this by!' That is no concern to you, so long as you follow the examples of
the wisest and holiest of men. Never did anyone suffer more or greater
abuses from men than Jesus did, nor did anyone ever endure insult and
reproach and every kind of abuse in a more peaceful and forgiving manner.
When he was reviled—he reviled not again; when he suffered—he threatened
not; when his murderers crucified him—he asked the Father to forgive them.
Herein he has set us an example, that we should follow his steps. Thus his
apostles imitated him: "When we are cursed—we bless; when we are
persecuted—we endure it; when we are slandered—we answer kindly. Up to this
moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world."
I have often heard it reported of the holy Mr. Dod, that
when a man, enraged at his searching, convincing doctrine, assaulted him,
smote him on the face and dashed out two of his teeth; that meek servant of
Christ spit out the teeth and blood into his hand, and said, "See here, you
have knocked out two of my teeth, and that without any just provocation; but
on condition that I might do your soul good, I would give you permission to
knock out all the rest." Here was exemplified the excellency of the
Christian spirit. Strive then for this spirit, which constitutes the true
excellence of Christians. Do what others cannot do, keep this spirit in
exercise, and you will preserve peace in your own soul and gain the victory
over your enemies.
2. Consider the character of the person who has wronged
you. He is either a godly man or a wicked man. If he is a godly
man, there is light and tenderness in his conscience, which sooner or later
will bring him to a sense of the evil of what he has done. If he is a godly
man, Christ has forgiven him greater injuries than he has done to you; and
why should not you forgive him? Will Christ not upbraid him for any of his
wrongs—but frankly forgive them all; and will you take him by the throat for
some petty abuse which he has done to you?
3. But if a wicked man has injured or insulted you, truly
you have more reason to exercise pity than revenge toward him. He
is in a deluded and miserable state; a slave to sin and an enemy to
righteousness. If he should ever repent, he will be ready to make you
reparation; if he continues impenitent, there is a day coming when he will
be punished to the extent of his deserts. You need not study revenge, God
will execute vengeance upon him.
4. Remember that by revenge you can only gratify a sinful
passion, which by forgiveness you might conquer. Suppose that by
revenge you might destroy one enemy; yet, by exercising the Christian's
temper you might conquer three enemies at once—your own lust, Satan's
temptation, and your enemy's heart. If by revenge you should overcome your
enemy, the victory would be unhappy and inglorious, for in gaining it you
would be overcome by your own corruption; but by exercising a meek and
forgiving temper, you will always come off with honor and success. It must
be a very vile person indeed, upon which meekness and forgiveness will not
operate. That must be a flinty heart, which this fire will not melt. Thus
David gained such a victory over Saul his persecutor, that "Saul lifted up
his voice and wept, and he said to David, You are more righteous than I."
5. Seriously propose this question to your own heart:
'Have I got any good to my soul—by means of the wrongs and injuries which I
have received?' If they have done you no good, turn your revenge
upon yourself. You have reason to be filled with shame and sorrow that you
should have a heart which can deduce no good from such troubles; that your
temper should be so unlike that of Christ. The patience and meekness of
other Christians, have turned all the injuries offered to them to a good
account! Their souls have been animated to praise God, when they have been
loaded with reproaches from the world. "I thank my God." said Jerome, "that
I am worthy to be hated of the world." But if you have derived any benefit
from the reproaches and wrongs which you have received, if they have put you
upon examining your own heart, if they have made you more careful how you
conduct your life, if they have convinced you of the value of a sanctified
temper—will you not forgive them? Will you not forgive one who has been
instrumental of so much good to you? What though he meant it for evil? If
through the Divine blessing your happiness has been promoted by what he has
done—why should you even have a hard thought of him?
6. Consider by whom all your troubles are ordered.
This will be of great use to keep your heart from revenge; this
will quickly calm and sweeten your temper. When Shimei railed at David
and cursed him, the spirit of that godly man was not at all poisoned by
revenge; for when Abishai offered him, if he pleased, the head of Shimei;
the king said, "Let him curse, because the Lord has said unto him, Curse
David: who shall then say, Why have you done so?" It may be that God uses
him as his rod to chastise me, because by my sin I gave the enemies of God
occasion to blaspheme; and shall I be angry with the instrument? How
irrational were that! Thus Job was quieted; he did not rail and
meditate revenge upon the Chaldeans and Sabeans—but regarded God as the
orderer of his troubles, and said, "The Lord has taken away, blessed
be his name."
7. Consider how you are daily and hourly wronging
God—and you will not be so easily inflamed with revenge against those who
have wronged you. You are constantly affronting God—yet he does
not take vengeance on you—but bears with you and forgives; and will you rise
up and avenge yourself upon others? Reflect on this cutting rebuke: "O you
wicked and slothful servant! I forgave you all that debt because you asked
me; should you not also have compassion on your fellow-servant, even as I
had pity on you?" None should be so filled with forbearance and mercy to
such as wrong them—as those who have experienced the riches of mercy
themselves! The mercy of God to us—should melt our hearts into mercy
toward others. It is impossible that we should be cruel to others—unless
we forget how kind and compassionate God has been to us. And if kindness
cannot prevail in us, methinks fear should, "But if you do not forgive men
their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."
8. Let the consideration that the day of the Lord draws
near, restrain you from anticipating it by acts of revenge. Why
are you so hasty? Is not the Lord at hand to avenge all his abused servants?
"Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord's coming. You too, be patient
and stand firm, because the Lord's coming is near. Don't grumble against
each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the
door!" Vengeance belongs unto God, and will you wrong yourself so much as to
assume his work?