Keeping the Heart
by John Flavel
"Keep your heart with all diligence;
for out of it are the issues of life."
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.
The next season requiring diligence in keeping the heart—is the time of
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
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
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
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
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.