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 diligence in keeping the heart—is the time of OUTWARD NEEDS.
Although at such times we should complain to God, not of God, (the throne of grace being erected for a "time of need,") yet when the waters of relief run low, and need begins to press—how prone are the best hearts to distrust the fountain! When the meal in the barrel and the oil in the cruse are almost spent, our faith and patience are almost spent also. It is now difficult to keep the proud and unbelieving heart in a holy quietude and sweet submission at the foot of God. It is an easy thing to talk of trusting God for daily bread, while we have a full barn or purse; but to say as the prophet, "Even though the fig trees have no blossoms, and there are no grapes on the vine; even though the olive crop fails, and the fields lie empty and barren; even though the flocks die in the fields, and the cattle barns are empty, yet I will rejoice in the Lord! I will be joyful in the God of my salvation. The Sovereign Lord is my strength! He will make me as surefooted as a deer and bring me safely over the mountains!" Habakkuk 3:17-19. Surely this is not easy.

Would you know then how a Christian may keep his heart from distrusting God, or repining against him, when outward needs are either felt or feared? The case deserves to be seriously considered, especially now, since it seems to be the design of Providence to empty the people of God of their creature fullness, and acquaint them with those difficulties to which hitherto they have been altogether strangers. To secure the heart from the dangers attending this condition, these considerations may, through the blessing of the Spirit, prove effectual:

1. If God reduces you to necessities, he therein deals no otherwise with you, than he has done with some of the holiest men who ever lived. Your condition is not singular; though you have hitherto been a stranger to need, other saints have been familiarly acquainted with it.

Hear what Paul says, not of himself only—but in the name of other saints reduced to like exigencies: "Even to the present hour, we both hunger and thirst and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwelling-place." To see such a man as Paul going up and down the world naked, and hungry, and homeless; one who was so far above you in grace and holiness; one who did more service for God in a day, than perhaps you have done in all your days—may well put an end to your repining!

Have you forgotten how much even a David has suffered? How great were his difficulties? "Give, I pray you", says he to Nabal, "whatever comes to your hand, to your servants, and to your son David." But why do I speak of these? Behold a greater than any of them, even the Son of God, who is the heir of all things, and by whom the worlds were made, sometimes would have been glad for anything, having nothing to eat. "And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry; and seeing a fig-tree afar off, leaving leaves, he came, if perhaps he might find anything thereon."

Hereby then God has set no mark of hatred upon you, neither can you infer lack of love—from lack of bread. When your repining heart puts the question, 'Was there ever sorrow like unto mine?' ask these worthies, and they will tell you that though they did not complain as you do—yet their condition was as necessitous as your is!

2. Since God leaves you not in this condition without a promise, you have no reason to repine or despond under it. That is a sad condition indeed to which no promise belongs. Calvin in his comment on Isaiah 9:1, explains in what sense the darkness of the captivity was not so great as that of the lesser incursions made by Tiglath Pileser. In the captivity, the city was destroyed and the temple burnt with fire: there was no comparison in the affliction—yet the darkness was not so great, because, says he, "there was a certain promise made in this case—but none in the other." It is better to be as low as hell with a promise, than to be in paradise without one. Even the darkness of hell itself would be no darkness comparatively at all, were there but a promise to enlighten it.

Now, God has left many sweet promises for the faith of his poor people to live upon in this condition, such as these: "O fear the Lord, you his saints, for there is no lack to those who fear him; the lions lack and suffer hunger—but those who fear the Lord shall not lack any good thing." "The eye of the Lord is upon the righteous—to keep them alive in famine." "No good thing will he withhold from those who walk uprightly." "He who spared not his own Son—but delivered him up for us all—how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?" "When the poor and the needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue fails for thirst—I the Lord will hear them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them." Here you see their extreme needs, water being put for their necessaries of life; and their certain relief, "I the Lord will hear them!" in which it is supposed that they cry unto him in their distress—and he hears their cry. Having therefore these promises, why should not your distrustful heart conclude like David's, "The Lord is my shepherd—I have everything I need!"

'But these promises imply conditions: if they were absolute, they would afford more satisfaction.' What are those tacit conditions of which you speak but these, that he will either supply or sanctify your needs; that you shall have so much as God sees fit for you? And does this trouble you? Would you have the mercy, whether sanctified or not? whether God sees it fit for you or not? The appetites of saints after earthly things would not be so ravenous as to seize greedily upon any enjoyment without regarding circumstances.

'But when needs press, and I see not whence supplies should come, my faith in the promise shakes, and I, like murmuring Israel, cry, "He gave bread, can he give water also?" O unbelieving heart! when did his promises fail? whoever trusted them and was ashamed? May not God upbraid you with your unreasonable infidelity, as in Jer. 2: 31, "Have I been a wilderness unto you?" Or as Christ said to his disciples, "Since I was with you—have you lacked anything?" Yes, may you not upbraid yourself; may you not say with good old Polycarp, "These many years I have served Christ—and found him a good Master!"

Indeed he may deny what your wantonness—but not what your need calls for. He will not regard the cry of your lusts, but he will not despise the cry of your faith: though he will not indulge your wanton appetites—yet he will not violate his own faithful promises. These promises are your best security for eternal life; and it is strange they should not satisfy you for daily bread. Remember the words of the Lord, and solace your heart with them amid all your needs. It is said of Epicurus, that in dreadful paroxysms of the colic he often refreshed himself by calling to mind his inventions in philosophy; and of Possodonius the philosopher, that in an acute disorder he solaced himself with discourses on moral virtue; and when distressed, he would say, "O pain, you do nothing; though you are a little troublesome, I will never confess you to be evil." If upon such grounds as these, they could support themselves under such racking pains, and even deluded their diseases by them; how much rather should the promises of God, and the sweet experiences which have gone along step by step with them, make you forget all your needs, and comfort you in every difficulty?

3. If it is bad now—it might have been worse. Has God denied you the comforts of this life? He might have denied you Christ, peace, and pardon also; and then your case would have been woeful indeed.

You know God has done so to millions. How many such wretched people may your eyes behold every day, who have no comfort in hand, nor yet in hope; who are miserable here, and will be so to eternity; who have a bitter cup, and nothing to sweeten it—no, not so much as any hope that it will be better. But it is not so with you! Though you are poor in this world—yet you are "rich in faith, and an heir of the kingdom which God has promised." Learn to set spiritual riches, over against temporal poverty. Balance all your present troubles, with your spiritual privileges. Indeed if God has denied your soul the robe of righteousness to clothe it, the hidden manna to feed it, the heavenly mansion to receive it—you might well be pensive! But the consideration that he has not, may administer comfort under any outward distress. When Luther began to be pressed by need, he said, "Let us be contented with our hard fare; for we feast upon Christ, the bread of life!" "Blessed be God (said Paul) who has abounded to us in all spiritual blessings."

4. Though this affliction is great, God has far greater afflictions, with which he chastises his dearly beloved ones. Should he remove this affliction—and inflict those afflictions, you would account your present state a very comfortable one, and bless God to be as you now are. Should God remove your present troubles, supply all your outward needs, give you the desire of your heart in creature-comforts—but hide his face from you, shoot his arrows into your soul, and cause the venom of them to drink up your spirit; should he leave you but a few days to the buffetings of Satan; should he hold your eyes but a few nights waking with horrors of conscience, tossing to and fro until the dawning of the day; should he lead you through the chambers of death, show you the visions of darkness, and make his terrors set themselves in array against you—then tell me if you would not think it a great mercy to be back again in your former necessitous condition, with peace of conscience; and account bread and water, with God's favor—a happy state? O then take heed of repining! Do not say that God deals harshly with you, lest you provoke him to convince you by greater afflictions—that he has worse rods than these for unsubmissive and froward children!

5. If it is bad now—it will be better shortly. Keep your heart by this consideration, 'The meal in the barrel is almost gone. Well, be it so, why should that trouble me, if I am almost beyond the need and use of these things?' The traveler has spent almost all his money; 'well,' says he, 'though my money is almost spent, my journey is almost finished too. I am near home, and shall soon be fully supplied.' If there are no candles in the house, it is a comfort to think that it is almost day, and then there will be no need of them. I am afraid, Christian, you misreckon when you think your provision is almost gone, and you have a great way to travel—many years to live and nothing to live upon—it may be not half so many as you suppose! In this be confident, if your provision is gone, either fresh supplies are coming, though you see not whence—or you are nearer your journey's end than you reckon yourself to be. Desponding soul, does it befit a man traveling upon the road to that heavenly city, and almost arrived there, within a few days' journey of his Father's house, where all his needs shall be supplied—to be so anxious about a little food, or drink, or clothes, which he fears he shall need along the way? It was nobly said by the forty martyrs when turned out naked in a frosty night to be starved to death, "The winter indeed is sharp and cold—but heaven is warm and comfortable! Here we shiver for cold—but Abraham's bosom will make amends for all."

'But,' says the desponding soul, 'I may die for lack.' Who ever did so? When were the righteous forsaken? If indeed it is so—your journey is ended—and you will be fully supplied!

'But I am not sure of that; were I sure of heaven, it would be another matter.' Are you not sure of that? Then you have other matters to trouble yourself about than these; methinks these should be the least of all your cares. I do not field that souls perplexed about the lack of Christ, pardon of sin, &c., are usually very solicitous about these things. He who seriously puts such questions as these, 'What shall I do to be saved? how shall I know my sin is pardoned?' does not trouble himself with, "What shall I eat, what shall I drink, or with what shall I be clothed?"

6. Does it befit the children of such a Father, to distrust his all-sufficiency, or repine at any of his dispensations? Is it good to question his care and love, upon every new exigency? Say, have you not formerly been ashamed of this? Has not your Father's seasonable provision for you in former difficulties put you to the blush, and made you resolve never more to question his love and care? And yet will you again renew your unworthy suspicions of him? Hypocritical child! Reason thus with yourself: "If I perish for lack of what is good and needful for me, it must be either because my Father knows not my needs—or has nothing with which to supply them—or cares not what becomes of me. Which of these shall I charge upon him? Not the first—for my Father knows what I have need of. Not the second—for the earth is the Lords and the fatness thereof, his name is God All-sufficient. Not the last—for as a Father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear him; the Lord is exceeding pitiful and of tender mercy; he hears the young ravens when they cry—and will he not hear me? Consider, says Christ, the birds of the air; not the birds at the door, which are fed every day by band—but the birds of the air which have none to provide for them. Does he feed and clothe his enemies—and will he forget his children? he heard even the cry of Ishmael in distress. O my unbelieving heart, do you yet doubt?

7. Your poverty is not your sin—but your affliction. If you have not by sinful means brought it upon yourself, and if it be but an affliction—it may the more easily be borne. It is hard indeed to bear an affliction coming upon us—as the fruit and punishment of sin. When men are under trouble upon that account; they say, 'O if it were but a simple affliction, coming from the hand of God by way of trial, I could bear it; but I have brought it upon myself by sin—it comes as the punishment of my sin—the marks of God's displeasure are upon it—it is the guilt within which troubles and galls, more than the affliction without.' But it is not so here; therefore you have no reason to be cast down under it.

'But though there is no sting of guilt—yet this condition does not lack other stings; as, for instance, the discredit of religion. I cannot comply with my engagements in the world, and thereby religion is likely to suffer.' It is well you have a heart to discharge every duty; yet if God disables you by providence, it is no discredit to your profession that you do not do, that which you cannot do, so long as it is your desire and endeavor to do what you can and ought to do. And in this case God's will is—that mercy and forbearance be exercised toward you.

'But it grieves me to behold the necessities of others, whom I was accustomed to relieve and refresh—but now cannot.' If you cannot, it ceases to be your duty, and God accepts the drawing out of your soul to the hungry in compassion and desire to help them, though you cannot draw forth a full purse to relieve and supply them.

'But I find such a condition full of temptations, a great hindrance in the way to heaven.' Every condition in the world has its hindrances and attending temptations; and were you in a prosperous condition, you might there meet with more temptations and fewer advantages than you now have. For though poverty as well as prosperity has its temptations—yet I am confident prosperity has not those advantages that poverty has. Here you have an opportunity to discover the sincerity of your love to God, when you can live upon him, find enough in him, and constantly follow him—even when all external inducements and motives fail.

Thus I have shown you how to keep your heart from the temptations and dangers attending a low condition in the world. When need oppresses and the heart begins to sink—then improve, and bless God for these helps to keep it.