Keeping the Heart

by John Flavel

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

The next season requiring our utmost diligence to keep our hearts—is the time of danger, and public disturbance.
In such times the best hearts are too apt to be surprised by slavish fear. If Syria is confederate with Ephraim, how do the hearts of the house of David shake—even as the trees of the forest are shaken with the wind. When there are ominous signs in the heavens, or the distress of nations with perplexity, the sea and the waves roaring—then the hearts of men fail for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth. Even a Paul may sometimes complain of "fightings within, when there are fears without."

But, my brethren, these things ought not so to be; saints should be of a more elevated spirit; so was David when his heart was kept in a good frame: "The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?" Let none but the servants of sin, be the slaves of fear; let those who have delighted in evil, fear evil. Let not that which God has threatened as a judgment upon the wicked, ever seize upon the hearts of the righteous. "I will send faintness into their hearts in the land of their enemies, and the sound of a shaking leaf shall chase them." What poor spirited men are those, to fly at a shaking leaf! A leaf makes a pleasant, not a terrible noise; it makes indeed a kind of natural music: but to a guilty conscience even the whistling leaves are drums and trumpets!

"But God has not given us the spirit of fear—but of love and of a sound mind." A sound mind, as it stands there in opposition to fear, is an unwounded conscience not weakened by guilt: and this should make a man as bold as a lion. I know it cannot be said of a saint, as God said of leviathan, that he is made without fear; there is a natural fear in every man, and it is as impossible to remove it wholly, as to remove the body itself. Fear is perturbation of the mind, arising from the apprehension of approaching danger; and as long as dangers can approach us, we shall find some perturbations within us. It is not my purpose to commend to you a stoical apathy, nor yet to dissuade you from such a degree of cautionary preventive fear as may fit you for trouble and be serviceable to your soul. There is a provident fear that opens our eyes to foresee danger, and quickens us to a prudent and lawful use of means to prevent it: such was Jacob's fear, and such his prudence when expecting to meet his angry brother Esau. But it is the fear of distrust, from which I would dissuade you—that tyrannical passion which invades the heart in times of danger, distracts, weakens and unfits it for duty, drives men upon unlawful means, and brings a snare with it.

Now let us inquire how a Christian may keep his heart from distracting and tormenting fears in times of great and threatening dangers. There are several excellent rules for keeping the heart from sinful fear, when imminent dangers threaten us:

1. Look upon all creatures as in the hand of God, who manages them in all their motions—limiting, restraining and regulating them at his pleasure. Get this great truth well settled by faith in your heart—and it will guard you against slavish fears. The first chapter of Ezekiel contains an admirable picture of Providence: there you see the living creatures who move the wheels (that is, the great revolutions of things here below) coming unto Christ, who sits upon the throne, to receive new instructions from him. In Revelation 6, you read of white, black, and red horses—which are but the instruments God employs in executing judgments in the world—such as wars, pestilence, and death. When these horses are prancing and trampling up and down in the world, here is a consideration that may quiet our hearts—God has the reins in his hand! Wicked men are sometimes like mad horses, they would stamp the people of God under their feet—but the bridle of Providence is in their mouths! A lion at liberty is terrible to meet—but who is afraid of a lion in the keeper's hand?

2. Remember that this God in whose hand are all creatures, is your Father, and is much more tender of you—than you are, or can be, of yourself. "He who touches you, touches the apple of my eye." Let me ask the most timorous woman whether there is not a great difference between the sight of a drawn sword in the hand of a bloody ruffian, and of the same sword in the hand of her own tender husband? As great a difference there is between looking upon creatures by an eye of sense, and looking on them, as in the hand of your God, by an eye of faith. Isaiah, 54: 5, is here very appropriate: "Your Maker is your husband, the Lord Almighty is his name;" he is Lord of all the creatures. Who would be afraid to pass through an army, though all the soldiers should turn their swords and guns toward him, if the commander of that army were his friend or father?

A pious young man being at sea with many other passengers in a great storm, and they being half dead with fear, he only was observed to be very cheerful, as if he were but little concerned in that danger; one of them demanding the reason of his cheerfulness, "O," said he, "it is because the pilot of the ship is my Father!" Consider Christ first as the King and supreme Lord over the providential kingdom; and then as your head, husband and friend—and you will quickly say, "Return unto your rest, O my soul." This truth will make you cease trembling, and cause you to sing in the midst of danger, "The Lord is King of all the earth, sing praise with understanding." That is, 'Let everyone that has understanding of this heart-reviving and establishing doctrine of the dominion of our Father over all creatures, sing praise.'

3. Urge upon your heart the express prohibitions of Christ in this case, and let your heart stand in awe of the violation of them. He has charged you not to fear: "When we shall hear of wars and commotions, see that you be not terrified." "In nothing be terrified by your adversaries." In Matthew 10, within the compass of six verses, our Savior commands us thrice "not to fear men." Does the voice of a man make you to tremble, and shall not the voice of God? If you are of such a timorous spirit, how is it that you fear not to disobey the commands of Jesus Christ? Methinks the command of Christ should have as much power to calm, as the voice of a poor worm to terrify your heart! "I, even I, am he who comforts you: who are you, that you should be afraid of a man that shall die, and of the son of man that shall be made as the grass, and forget the Lord your Maker?" We cannot fear creatures sinfully, until we have forgotten God. Did we remember what God is, and what he has said—we would not be of such feeble spirits. Bring yourself then to this reflection in times of danger: 'If I let into my heart the slavish fear of man, I must let out the reverential awe and fear of God; and dare I cast off the fear of the Almighty for the frowns of a man? Shall I lift up proud dust above the great God? Shall I run upon a certain sin, to shun a probable danger?' O keep your heart by this consideration!

4. Remember how much needless trouble your vain fears have brought upon you formerly. "And have feared continually because of the oppressor, as if he were ready to devour; and where is the fury of the oppressor?" He seemed ready to devour—yet you are not devoured. I have not brought upon you the thing that you feared; you have wasted your spirit, disordered your soul, and weakened your hands to no purpose: you might have all this while enjoyed your peace, and possessed your soul in patience. And here I cannot but observe a very wily strategy of Satan in managing a design against the soul by these vain fears. I call them vain, with reference to the frustration of them by Providence; but certainly they are not in vain as the end at which Satan aims in raising them; for herein he acts as soldiers do in the siege of a garrison, who to wear out the besieged by constant watchings, and thereby unfit them to make resistance when they storm it in earnest, every night rouse them with false alarms, which though they come to nothing, yet remarkably answer the ultimate design of the enemy. O when will you beware of Satan's devices?

5. Consider solemnly, that though the things you fear should really happen—yet there is more evil in your own fear—than in the things feared! And that, not only as the least evil of sin is worse than the greatest evil of suffering; but as this sinful fear has really more trouble in it than there is in that condition of which you are so much afraid! Fear is both a multiplying and a tormenting passion; it represents troubles as much greater than they are—and so tortures the soul much more than the suffering itself. So it was with Israel at the Red Sea; they cried out and were afraid, until they stepped into the water, and then a passage was opened through those waters which they thought would have drowned them. Thus it is with us; we, looking through the telescope of carnal fear upon the waters of trouble, the swellings of Jordan, cry out, 'O they are unfordable; we must perish in them!' But when we come into the midst of those floods indeed, we find the promise made good: "God will make a way to escape."

Thus it was with a blessed martyr; when he would make a trial by putting his finger to the candle, and found himself not able to endure that, he cried out, "What! Cannot I bear the burning of a finger? How then shall I be able to bear the burning of my whole body tomorrow?" But when that tomorrow came, he could go cheerfully into the flames with this scripture in his mouth: "Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name, you are mine; when you pass through the waters I will be with you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burnt."

6. Consult the many precious promises which are written for your support and comfort in all dangers. These are your refuges to which you may fly and be safe when the arrows of danger fly by night, and destruction wastes at noon-day. There are particular promises suited to particular cases and exigencies; there are also general promises reaching all cases and conditions. Such as these: "All things shall work together for good," etc. "It shall be well with those who fear the Lord," etc. Could you but believe the promises, your heart should be established. Could you but plead them with God as Jacob did, ("You said, I will surely do you good," &c.) they would relieve you in every distress.

7. Quiet your trembling heart by recording and consulting your past experiences of the care and faithfulness of God in former distresses. These experiences are food for your faith in a wilderness. By this David kept his heart in time of danger, and Paul his. It was answered by a saint, when one told him that his enemies waiting to take his life: "If God takes no care of me, how is it that I have escaped hitherto?" You may plead with God old experiences for new ones: for it is in pleading with God for new deliverances, as it is in pleading for new pardons. Mark how Moses pleads of that account with God. "Pardon, I beseech you, the iniquity of this people, as you have forgiven them from Egypt until now." He does not say as men do, 'Lord, this is the first fault, you have not been troubled before to sign their pardon.' But, 'Lord, because you have pardoned them so often—I beseech you pardon them once again.' So in new difficulties let the saint say, 'Lord, you have often heard, helped and saved, in former years; therefore now help again, for with you there is plenteous redemption, and your arm is not shortened.'

8. Be well satisfied that you are in the way of your duty—and that will beget holy courage in times of danger. "Who will harm you—if you are a follower of that which is good?" Or if any dare attempt to harm you "you may boldly commit yourself to God in well-doing." It was this consideration that raised Luther's spirit above all fear: "In the cause of God (said he) I ever am, and ever shall be stout: herein I assume this title, 'I yield to none!'" A good cause will bear up a man's spirit. Hear the saying of a heathen, to the shame of cowardly Christians. When the emperor Vespasian had commanded Fluidus Priseus not to come to the senate, or if he did come, to speak nothing but what he would have him speak; the senator returned this noble answer, "that he was a senator, it was fit he should be at the senate; and if being there, he were required to give his advice, he would freely speak that which his conscience commanded him." The emperor threatening that then he would die; he answered, "Did I ever tell you that I was immortal? You do what you will—and I will do what I ought. It is in your power to put me to death unjustly, and in my power to die with constancy." Righteousness is a breastplate: let them tremble, whom danger finds out of the way of duty.

9. Get your conscience sprinkled with the blood of Christ from all guilt, and that will set your heart above all fear. It is guilt upon the conscience which softens and makes cowards people. "The righteous are as bold as a lion." It was guilt in Cain's conscience which made him cry, "everyone that finds me will slay me!" A guilty conscience is more terrified by imagined dangers, than a pure conscience is by real ones! A guilty sinner carries a witness against himself in his own bosom. It was guilty Herod cried out, "John Baptist has risen from the dead" A guilty conscience is the devil's anvil, on which he fabricates all those swords and spears with which the guilty sinner pierces himself. Guilt is to dangers—what fire is to gun-powder: a man need not fear to walk among many barrels of powder, if he has no fire about him.

10. Exercise holy trust in times of great distress. Make it your business to trust God with your life and comforts—and then your heart will be at rest about them. So did David, "At what time I am afraid I will trust in you:" that is, 'Lord, if at any time a storm arises, I will shelter from it under the covert of your wings.' Go to God by acts of faith and trust, and never doubt that he will secure you. "You will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you," says Isaiah. God is pleased when you come to him thus: 'Father, my life, my liberty and my estate are exposed, and I cannot secure them; O let me leave them in your hand!'

The poor leaves himself with God; and does his God fail him? No, you are the helper of the fatherless: that is, you are the helper of the destitute one, who has none to go to but God. This is a comforting passage, "He shall not be afraid of evil tidings; his heart is fixed, trusting in the Lord." He does not say, his ear shall be preserved from the report of evil things, he may hear as sad tidings as other men—but his heart shall be kept from the terror of those tidings; his heart is fixed.

11. Consult the honor of religion more, and your personal safety less. Do you think it is for the honor of religion, that Christians should be as timorous as hares, to startle at every sound? Will not this cause the world to think, that whatever you talk—yet your principles are no better than other men's? What mischief may the discovery of your fears before them do! It was nobly said by Nehemiah, "Should such a man as I flee?" Were it not better you should die, than that the world should be prejudiced against Christ by your fearful example? For alas! how apt is the world (who judge more by what they see in your practices—than by what they understand of your principles) to conclude from your timidity, that however much you commend faith and talk of assurance—yet you dare trust to those things no more than they, when it comes to the trial. O let not your fears lay such a stumbling-block before the blind world!

12. He who would secure his heart from fear, must first secure the eternal interest of his soul—in the hands of Jesus Christ. When this is done, you may say, 'Now, world—do your worst!' You will not be very solicitous about your vile body—when you are once assured it shall be well to all eternity with your precious soul. "Do not fear those (says Christ) who can kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do." The assured Christian may smile with contempt upon all his enemies, and say, 'Is this the worst that you can do?' What do you say, Christian? Are you assured that your soul is safe; that immediately upon your death—it shall be received by Christ into an everlasting habitation? If you be sure of that, never trouble yourself about the instrument and means of your death!

13. Learn to quench all slavish creature-fears, in the reverential fear of God. This is a cure by diversion. It is an exercise of Christian wisdom to turn those passions of the soul which most predominate, into spiritual channels. The Christian must turn natural anger into spiritual zeal, natural mirth into holy cheerfulness, and natural fear into a holy dread and awe of God. This method of cure Christ prescribes in the 10th chapter of Matthew; similar to which is Isaiah, 8:12,13, "Do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it." 'But how shall we help it?' "The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread." Natural fear may be allayed for the present by natural reason, or the removal of the occasion; but then it is like a candle blown out by a puff of breath, which is easily blown in again. But if the fear of God extinguishes it, then it is like a candle quenched in water, which cannot easily be rekindled.

14. Pour out to God in prayer—those fears which the devil and your own unbelief pour in upon you, in times of danger. Prayer is the best outlet to fear! Where is the Christian who cannot set his seal to this direction? I will give you the greatest example to encourage you to compliance, even the example of Jesus Christ. When the hour of his danger and death drew near, he went into the garden, separated from his disciples, and there wrestled mightily with God in prayer, even unto agony; in reference to which the apostle says, "who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications, with strong cries and tears, to him who was able to save from death, and was heard, because he feared." He was heard as to strength and support to carry him through it; though not as to deliverance, or exemption from it. O that these things may abide with you, and be reduced to practice in these evil days—and that many trembling believers may be established by them.