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 will now point out those special seasons in the life of a Christian which require our utmost diligence in keeping the heart. Though (as was observed before) the duty is always binding, and there is no time or condition of life in which we may be excused from this work; yet there are some special seasons, and critical hours, requiring more than common vigilance over the heart.

1. The first season is the time of PROSPERITY, when Providence smiles upon us. Now, Christian, keep your heart with all diligence; for it will be very apt to grow secure, proud and earthly. "To see a man humble in prosperity," (says Bernard,) "is one of the greatest rarities in the world." Even a good Hezekiah could not hide a vain-glorious temper in his temptation; hence that caution to Israel: "The Lord your God will soon bring you into the land he swore to give your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is a land filled with large, prosperous cities that you did not build. The houses will be richly stocked with goods you did not produce. You will draw water from cisterns you did not dig, and you will eat from vineyards and olive trees you did not plant. When you have eaten your fill in this land, be careful not to forget the Lord, who rescued you from slavery in the land of Egypt. You must fear the Lord your God and serve him. You must not worship any of the gods of neighboring nations, for the Lord your God, who lives among you, is a jealous God. His anger will flare up against you and wipe you from the face of the earth." Deuteronomy 6:10-15. So indeed it happened: for "Jeshurun waxed fat and kicked."

How then may a Christian keep his heart from pride and carnal security, under the smiles of Providence and the confluence of creature comforts? There are several helps to secure the heart from the dangerous snares of prosperity.

1. Consider the dangerous ensnaring temptations attending a pleasant and prosperous condition. Few, very few of those who live in the pleasures of this world, escape everlasting perdition. "It in easier" (says Christ) "for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven." "Not many mighty, not many noble are called."

We have great reason to tremble, when the Scripture tells us in general that few shall be saved; much more when it tells us, that of that rank of which we are, but few shall be saved. When Joshua called all the tribes of Israel to cast lots for the discovery of Achan, doubtless Achan feared; when the tribe of Judah was taken, his fear increased; but when the family of the Zarhites was taken, it was time to tremble. So when the Scriptures come so near as to tell us that of such a class of men, very few shall escape—it is time to be alarmed. "I wonder" (says Chrysostom) "if any of the rulers are saved." O how many have been wheeled to hell in the chariots of earthly pleasures, while others have been whipped to heaven by the rod of affliction! How few, like the daughter of Tyre, come to Christ with a gift! How few among the rich entreat his favor!

2. It may keep one more humble and watchful in prosperity, to consider that among Christians many have been much the worse for prosperity. How good had it been for some of them, if they had never known prosperity! When they were in a low condition—how humble, spiritual and heavenly they were! But when advanced, what an apparent alteration has been upon their spirits! It was so with Israel; when they were in a low condition in the wilderness, then Israel was "holiness to the Lord." But when they came into Canaan and were richly fed, their language was, "We are lords, we will come no more unto you". Outward gains are ordinarily attended with inward losses; as in a low condition their civil employments were accustomed to have a savor of their religious duties, so in an exalted condition their duties commonly have a savor of the world. He, indeed, is rich in grace whose graces are not hindered by his riches. There are but few Jehoshaphats in the world, of whom it is said, "He had silver and gold in abundance, and he sought the Lord with all his heart." Will not this keep your heart humble in prosperity, to think how dearly many godly men have paid for their riches; that through them they have lost that which all the world cannot purchase?

3. Keep down your vain heart by this consideration; God values no man the more for these things. God values no man by outward excellencies, but by inward graces; they are the internal ornaments of the Spirit, which are of great price in God's sight. God despises all worldly glory, and accepts no man's person; "but in every nation, he who fears God and works righteousness is accepted of him." Indeed, if the judgment of God went by the same rule that man's does—then we might value ourselves by these things, and stand upon them. But so much every man is—as he is in the judgment of God. Does your heart yet swell, and will neither of the former considerations keep it humble?

4. Consider how bitterly many dying people have bewailed their folly in setting their hearts upon these things, and have wished that they had never known them. How dreadful was the situation of Pope Quintus, who died crying out despairingly, "When I was in a low condition I had some hopes of salvation, when I was advanced to be a cardinal, I greatly doubted; but since I came to the popedom I have no hope at all." An author also tells us a real, but sad story of a rich oppressor, who had scraped up a great estate for his only son: when he came to die he called his son to him, and said, "Son, do you indeed love me?" The son answered that "Nature, besides his fatherly care, obliged him to that." "Then (said the father) express it by this: hold your finger in the candle as long as I am saying a prayer." The son attempted, but could not endure it. Upon that the father broke out into these expressions: "You can not suffer the burning of your finger for me; but to get this wealth I have hazarded my soul for you and must burn, body and soul, in hell, for your sake! Your pains would have been but for a moment, but mine will be unquenchable fire!"

5. The heart may be kept humble by considering of what a clogging nature earthly things are to a soul heartily engaged in the way to heaven. They shut out much of heaven from us at present, though they may not shut us out of heaven at last. If you consider yourself as a stranger in this world, traveling for heaven, you have then as much reason to be delighted with these things as a weary horse has to be pleased with a heavy burden. There was a serious truth in the atheistic scoff of Julian: when taking away the Christians' estates, he told them "it was to make them more fit for the kingdom of heaven."

6. Is your spirit still vain and lofty? Then urge upon it the consideration of that dreadful day of reckoning, wherein, according to our receipts of mercies—shall be our account for them. Methinks this should awe and humble the vainest heart that ever was in the bosom of a saint. Know for a certainty that the Lord records all the mercies that ever he gave you, from the beginning to the end of your life. 'Remember, O my people, from Acacia unto Gilgal,' etc. Yes, they are exactly numbered and recorded in order to an account; and your account will be suitable: "To whomever much is given, of him shall much be required." You are but a steward, and your Lord will come and take an account of you; and what a great account have you to make, who have much of this world in your hands! What swift witnesses will your mercies be against you, if this be the best fruit of them!

7. It is a very humbling reflection—that the mercies of God should work otherwise upon my spirit, than they used to do upon the spirits of others to whom they come as sanctified mercies from the love of God. Ah, Lord! What a sad consideration is this! Enough to lay me in the dust, when I consider:

(1.) That their mercies have greatly humbled them, the higher God has raised them, the lower they have laid themselves before him. Thus did Jacob when God had given him much substance. "And Jacob said, I am not worthy of the least of all your mercies, and all the truth which you have showed your servant." Thus also it was with holy David; when God had confirmed the promise to him, to build a house for him, and not reject him as he did Saul, he goes in before the Lord and says, "Who am I, and what is my father's house, that you have brought me hitherto?" So indeed God required. When Israel brought to him the first fruits of Canaan, they were to say, "A Syrian ready to perish was my father," etc. Do others raise God the higher for his raising them? And the more God raises me—the more shall I abuse him and exalt myself? O how wicked is such conduct as this!

(2.) Others have freely ascribed the glory of all their enjoyments to God, and magnified not themselves, but him, for their mercies. Thus says David, "Let your name be magnified and the house of your servant be established." He does not fly upon the mercy and suck out its sweetness, looking no further than his own comfort. No! He cares for no mercy, unless God is magnified in it. So when God had delivered him from all his enemies, he says, "The Lord is my strength and my rock, he has become my salvation." Saints of old did not put the crown upon their own heads as I do by my vanity.

(3.) The mercies of God have been melting mercies unto others, melting their souls in love to the God of their mercies. When Hannah received the mercy of a son, she said, "My soul rejoices in the Lord;" not in the mercy, but in the God of the mercy. So also Mary: "My soul does magnify the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior." The word signifies to make more room for God; their hearts were not contracted, but the more enlarged to God.

(4.) The mercies of God have been great restraints to keep others from sin. "Seeing you, our God, have given us such a deliverance as this, should we again break your commandments?" Ingenuous souls have felt the force of the obligations of love and mercy upon them.

(5.) The mercies of God to others have been as oil to the wheels of their obedience, and made them more fit for service. Now if mercies work contrarily upon my heart, what cause have I to be afraid that they come not to me in love! It is enough to damp the spirits of any saint—to see what sweet effects mercies have had upon others—and what bitter effects upon him!