Keeping the Heart
by John Flavel
"Keep your heart with all diligence;
for out of it are the issues of life."
WHAT is keeping the heart?
To keep the heart, necessarily supposes a previous work
of regeneration, which has set the heart right, by giving it a new spiritual
inclination, for as long as the heart it not set right by grace as to
in habitual frame, no means can keep it right with God. Self is
the spring of the unrenewed heart, which biases and moves it in all its
designs and actions; and as long as it is so, it is impossible that any
external means should keep it with God.
Man, originally, was of one constant, uniform
frame of spirit, and held one straight and even course. Not one thought or
faculty was disordered: his mind had a perfect knowledge of the
requirements of God, his will a perfect compliance therewith; all his
appetites and powers stood in a most obedient subordination.
Man, by the apostasy, has become a most disordered
and rebellious creature, opposing his Maker, as the First Cause—by
self-dependence; as the Chief Good—by self-love; as the Highest Lord—by
self-will; and as the Last End—by self-seeking. Thus he is quite disordered,
and all his actions are irregular.
But by regeneration the disordered soul is set right;
this great change being, as the Scripture expresses it, the renovation of
the soul after the image of God—in which self-dependence is removed by
faith; self-love is removed by the love of God; self-will is removed by
subjection and obedience to the will of God; and self-seeking is removed by
self-denial. The darkened understanding is illuminated, the
refractory will sweetly subdued, the rebellious appetite
gradually conquered. Thus the soul which sin had universally depraved, is by
This being pre-supposed, it will not be difficult to
apprehend what it is to keep the heart, which is nothing but the constant
care and diligence of such a renewed man to preserve his soul in that holy
frame to which grace has raised it. For though grace has, in a great
measure, rectified the soul, and given it a habitual heavenly temper; yet
sin often actually discomposes it again; so that even a gracious heart is
like a musical instrument, which though it is exactly tuned, a small matter
brings it out of tune again. Yes, put it aside but a little while—and it
will need setting again before another lesson can be played upon it. If
gracious hearts are in a desirable frame in one duty, yet how dull, dead,
and disordered when they come to another duty! Therefore every duty needs a
particular preparation of the heart. "If you prepare your heart and stretch
out your hands toward him," etc. To keep the heart then, is carefully to
preserve it from sin, which disorders it; and maintain that spiritual frame
which fits it for a life of communion with God. This includes in it six
1. Frequent observation of the frame of the heart.
Carnal and formal persons take no heed to this; they cannot be brought
to confer with their own hearts: there are some people who have lived forty
or fifty years in the world, and have had scarcely one hour's discourse with
their own hearts. It is a hard thing to bring a man and himself together on
such business; but saints know those soliloquies to be very beneficial. The
heathen could say, "the soul is made wise by sitting still in quietness."
Though bankrupts care not to look into their accounts, yet upright
hearts will know whether they go backward or forward. "I commune with my own
heart," says David. The heart can never be kept—until its case be examined
2. It includes deep humiliation for heart evils and
disorders. Thus Hezekiah humbled himself for the pride of his
heart. Thus the people were ordered to spread forth their hands to God in
prayer, realizing the plague of their own hearts. Upon this account many an
upright heart has been laid low before God—'O what an heart have I!' Saints
have in their confession pointed at the heart—the pained place, 'Lord, here
is the wound!' It is with the heart well kept, as it is with the eye; if a
small dust gets into the eye it will never cease blinking and watering until
it has wept it out. Just so, the upright heart cannot be at rest until it
has wept out its troubles and poured out its complaints before the Lord.
3. It includes earnest supplication and instant prayer
for purifying and rectifying grace, when sin has defiled and disordered the
heart. "Cleanse me from secret faults" "Unite my heart to fear
your name." Saints have always many such petitions before the throne of
God's grace; this is the thing which is most pleaded by them with God. When
they are praying for outward mercies, perhaps their spirits may be more
remiss; but when it comes to the heart's case, they extend their spirits to
the utmost, fill their mouths with arguments, weep and make supplication: 'O
for a better heart! O for a heart to love God more; to hate sin more; to
walk more evenly with God. Lord! Do not deny me such a heart; whatever you
deny me! Give me a heart to fear you, to love and delight in you!' It is
observed of an eminent saint, that when he was confessing sin, he would
never give over confessing until he had felt some brokenness of heart for
that sin; and when praying for any spiritual mercy, would never give over
that suit until he had obtained some relish of that mercy.
4. It includes the imposing of strong engagement upon
ourselves to walk more carefully with God, and avoid the occasions whereby
the heart may be induced to sin. Well advised and deliberate vows
are, in some cases, very useful to guard the heart against some special sin.
"I have made a covenant with my eyes," says Job. By this means holy men have
overawed their souls, and preserved themselves from defilement.
5. It includes a constant and holy jealousy over our onto
hearts. Quick-sighted self-jealousy is an excellent preservative
from sin. He who will keep his heart, must have the eyes of the soul awake
and open upon all the disorderly and tumultuous stirrings of his affections.
If the affections break loose, and the passions are stirred, the soul must
discover it, and suppress them before they get to a height. 'O my soul, do
you do well in this? My tumultuous thoughts and passions, where is your
commission?' Happy is the man that thus fears always. By this fear of the
Lord, it is that men depart from evil, shake off sloth, and preserve
themselves from iniquity. He who will keep his heart must eat and drink with
fear, rejoice with fear, and pass the whole time of his sojourning here in
holy fear. All this is little enough to keep the heart from sin.
6. It includes the realizing of God's presence with us,
and setting the Lord always before us. This the people have found
a powerful means of keeping their hearts upright, and awing them from sin.
When the eye of our faith is fixed upon the eye of God's omniscience, we
dare not let out our thoughts and affections to vanity. Holy Job dare not
allow his heart to yield to an impure, vain thought, and what was it that
moved him to so great circumspection? He tells us, "Does not He see my ways,
and count all my steps?"
In such particulars as these do gracious souls express
the care they have of their hearts. They are careful to prevent the breaking
loose of the corruptions in time of temptation; careful to preserve the
sweetness and comfort they have gotten from God in any duty. This is the
work, and of all works in religion it is the most difficult,
constant, and important work.
1. It is the HARDEST work. Heart-work is hard work
indeed. To shuffle over religious duties with a loose and heedless
spirit—will cost no great pains; but to set yourself before the Lord, and
tie up your loose and vain thoughts to a constant and serious attendance
upon him; this will cost you something. To attain a facility and dexterity
of language in prayer, and put your meaning into apt and decent expressions,
is easy; but to get your heart broken for sin, while you are confessing it;
melted with free grace while you are blessing God for it; to be really
ashamed and humbled though the apprehensions of God's infinite holiness, and
to keep your heart in this frame, not only in, but after duty—will surely
cost you some groans and pains of soul. To repress the outward acts of sin,
and compose the external part of your life in a laudable manner—is no great
matter; even carnal people, by the force of common principles, can do this.
But to kill the root of corruption within, to set and keep up a holy
government over your thought, to have all things lie straight and orderly in
the heart—this is not easy.
2. It is a CONSTANT work. The keeping of the heart
is a work that is never done until life is ended. There is no time or
condition in the life of a Christian which will allow an intermission of
this work. It is in keeping watch over our hearts, as it was in keeping up
Moses' hands while Israel and Amalek were fighting. No sooner do the hands
of Moses grow heavy and sink down, than Amalek prevails. Pausing the watch
over their own hearts for but a few minutes, cost David and Peter many a sad
day and night.
3. It is the most IMPORTANT business of a
Christian's life. Without this we are but formalists in religion: all our
professions, gifts and duties signify nothing. "My son, give me your
heart!" is God's request. God is pleased to call that a gift which is
indeed a debt; he will put this honor upon the creature, to receive
it from him in the way of a gift; but if this be not given him, he regards
not whatever else you bring to him. There is only so much of worth in what
we do for God—as there is of heart in it. Concerning the heart, God seems to
say, as Joseph of Benjamin, "If you bring not Benjamin with you, you shall
not see my face." Among the Heathen, when the beast was cut up for
sacrifice, the first thing the priest looked upon was the heart; and if that
was unsound and worthless the sacrifice was rejected. God rejects all duties
(however glorious in other respects) which are offered him without the
heart. He who performs duty without the heart, that is, heedlessly—is no
more accepted with God than he who performs it with a double heart, that is,
Thus I have briefly considered WHAT the keeping of
the heart supposes and imports. I proceed,
Secondly, To assign some reasons WHY Christians
must make this the great business of their lives.