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 second season in the life of a Christian, requiring more than common diligence to keep his heart, is the time of ADVERSITY. When Providence frowns upon you, and blasts your outward comforts—then look to your heart; keep it with all diligence from repining against God or fainting under his hand; for troubles, though sanctified, are troubles still. Jonah was a godly man, and yet how fretful was his heart under affliction! Job was the mirror of patience—yet how was his heart discomposed by trouble! You will find it hard to get a composed spirit under great afflictions. O the hurries and tumults which they occasion even in the best hearts! Let me show you, then, how a Christian under great afflictions may keep his heart from repining or desponding, under the hand of God. I will here offer several helps to keep the heart in this condition.

1. By these cross providences God is faithfully pursuing the great design of electing love upon the souls of his people, and orders all these afflictions as means sanctified to that end. Afflictions come not by chance—but by counsel. By the counsel of God, they are ordained as means of much spiritual good to saints. "By this shall the iniquity of Jacob be purged," etc. "But he disciplines us for our profit," etc. "All things work together for good," etc. afflictions are God's workmen upon our hearts, to pull down our pride and carnal; and being so, their nature is changed; they are turned into blessings and benefits! "It is good for me that I have been afflicted," says David. Surely then you have no reason to quarrel with God—but rather to wonder that he should concern himself so much in your good, as to use any means for accomplishing it. Paul could bless God if by any means he might attain the resurrection of the dead. "My brethren," says James, "count it all joy when you fall into diverse trials." ‘My Father is about a design of love upon my soul, and do I do well to be angry with him? All that he does, is in pursuance of, and in reference to some eternal, glorious ends upon my soul. It is my ignorance of God's design that makes me quarrel with him.' He says to you in this case, as he did to Peter, "What I do, you know not now—but you shall know hereafter."

2. Though God has reserved to himself a liberty of afflicting his people—yet he has tied up his own hands by promise never to take away his loving kindness from them. Can I contemplate this scripture with a repining, discontented spirit: "I will be his Father, and he shall be my son: if he commits iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of man, and with the stripes of the children of men: nevertheless my mercy shall not depart away from him." O my heart, my haughty heart! Do you do well to be discontent, when God has given you the whole tree, with all the clusters of comfort growing on it, because he allows the wind to blow down a few leaves? Christians have two kinds of goods, the goods of the throne and the goods of the footstool; immovables and moveables. If God has secured those, never let my heart be troubled at the loss of these: indeed, if he had cut off his love, or discovenanted my soul, I would have reason to be cast down; but this he has not done, nor can he do it.

3. It is of great efficacy to keep the heart from sinking under afflictions, to call to mind that your own Father has the ordering of them. Not a creature moves hand or tongue against you—but by his wise permission. Suppose the cup is bitter—yet it is the cup which your Father has given you! Can you suspect poison to be in it? Foolish man, put home the case to your own heart; can you give your child that which would ruin him? No! You would as soon hurt yourself as him. "If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children," how much more does God! The very consideration of his nature as a God of love, pity, and tender mercies; or of his relation to you as a father, husband, friend—may be security enough, if he had not spoken a word to quiet you in this case. And yet you have his word too, by the prophet Jeremiah: "I will do you no hurt." You lie too near his heart for him to hurt you. Nothing grieves him more than your groundless and unworthy suspicions of his wise and kind designs. Would it not grieve a faithful, tender-hearted physician, when he had studied the case of his patient, and prepared the most excellent medicines to save his life, to hear him cry out, 'O he has undone me! he has poisoned me!' because it pains him in the operation? O when will you be submissive?

4. God respects you as much in a low condition—as in a high condition; and therefore it need not so much trouble you to be made low; no, he manifests more of his love, grace and tenderness in the time of affliction—than in the time of prosperity. As God did not at first choose you because you were high, he will not now forsake you because you are low. Men may look shy upon you, and alter their respects as your condition is altered; when Providence has blasted your estate, your summer-friends may grow strange, fearing you may be troublesome to them. But will God do so? No! no! "I will never leave you nor forsake you" says he. If adversity and poverty could bar you from access to God, it would indeed be a deplorable condition: but, so far from this, you may go to him as freely as ever. "My God will hear me," says the church. Poor David, when stripped of all earthly comforts, could encourage himself in the Lord his God; and why not you? Suppose your husband or son had lost all at sea, and should come to you in rags; could you deny the relation, or refuse to entertain him? If you would not, much less will God. Why then are you so troubled? Though your condition is changed, your Father's love is not changed.

5. What if by the loss of outward comforts, God preserves your soul from the ruining power of temptation? Surely then you have little cause to sink your heart by such sad thoughts. Do not earthly enjoyments make men shrink in times of trial? For the love of these, many have forsaken Christ in such an hour. The young ruler "went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions." If this is God's design, how ungrateful to murmur against him for it! We see mariners in a storm can throw over-board the most valuable goods to preserve their lives. We know it is usual for soldiers in a besieged city to destroy the finest buildings in which the enemy may take shelter; and no one doubts that it is wisely done. Those who have decayed limbs willingly stretch them out to be cut off, and not only thank—but pay the surgeon! Must God be murmured against for casting over that which would sink you in a storm; for pulling down that which would assist your enemy in the siege of temptation; for cutting off what would endanger your everlasting life? O, inconsiderate, ungrateful man! Are not these things for which you grieve, the very things that have ruined thousands of souls?

6. It would much support your heart under adversity, to consider that God by such humbling providences may be accomplishing that for which you have long prayed and waited. And should you be troubled at that? Say, Christian, have you not many prayers pending before God upon such accounts as these; that he would keep you from sin; that he would discover to you the emptiness of the creature; that he would mortify and kill your lusts; that your heart may never find rest in any enjoyment but Christ? By such humbling and impoverishing strokes, God may be fulfilling your desires! Would you be kept from sin? Lo, he has hedged up your way with thorns. Would you see the creature's vanity? Your affliction is a looking glass to reveal it; for the vanity of the creature is never so effectually and sensibly discovered, as in our own experience. Would you have your corruptions mortified? This is the way—to have the fuel removed which maintained them; for as prosperity begat and fed them, so adversity, when sanctified, is a means to kill them. Would you have your heart rest nowhere but in the bosom of God? What better method could Providence take to accomplish your desire, than pulling from under your head that soft pillow of creature delights on which you rested before? And yet you fret at this! Peevish child, how do you try your Father's patience! If he delays to answer your prayers, you are ready to say that he regards you not. If he does that which really answers the end of your prayers, though not in the way which you expect, you murmur against him for that! As if, instead of answering, he were crossing all your hopes and aims. Is this sincerity? Is it not enough that God is so gracious as to do what you desire: must you be so impudent as to expect him to do it in the way which you prescribe?

7. It may support your heart, to consider that in these troubles God is performing that work in which your soul would rejoice—if you did see the design of it. We are clouded with much ignorance, and are not able to discern how particular providences tend to the fulfillment of God's designs; and therefore, like Israel in the wilderness, are often murmuring, because Providence leads us about in a howling desert, where we are exposed to difficulties; though then he led them, and is now leading us, by the right way to a city of habitation. If you could but see how God in his secret counsel has exactly laid the whole plan of your salvation, even to the smallest means and circumstances; could you but discern the admirable harmony of divine dispensations, their mutual relations, together with the general respect they all have to the last end; had you liberty to make your own choice, you would, of all conditions in the world, choose that in which you now are! Providence is like a curious piece of tapestry made of a thousand shreds, which, single, appear useless—but put together, they represent a beautiful history to the eye. As God does all things according to the counsel of his own will, of course this is ordained at the best method to effect your salvation. Such a one has a proud heart—so many humbling providences appoint for him. Such a one has an earthly heart—so many impoverishing providences for him. Did you but see this, I need say no more to support the most dejected heart.

8. It would much conduce to the settlement of your heart, to consider that by fretting and discontent, you do yourself more injury than all your afflictions could do. Your own discontent is that which arms your troubles with a sting. You make your burden heavy—by struggling under it. Did you but lie quietly under the hand of God, your condition would be much more easy than it is. "Impatience in the sick, brings severity in the physician." This makes God afflict the more, as a father a stubborn child—who does not receive correction. Beside, it unfits the soul to pray over its troubles, or receive the sense of that good which God intends by them. Affliction is a pill, which, being wrapped up in patience and quiet submission, may be easily shallowed; but discontent chews the pill, and so embitters the soul. God throws away some comfort which he saw would hurt you—and you will throw away your peace after it? He shoots an arrow which sticks in your clothes, and was never intended to hurt—but only to drive you from sin; and you will thrust it deeper, to the piercing of your very heart, by despondency and discontent.

9. If your heart (like that of Rachel) still refuses to be comforted, then do one thing more: compare the condition you are now in, and with which you are so much dissatisfied, with the condition in which others are, and in which you deserve to be. "Others are roaring in flames, howling under the scourge of vengeance—and among them I deserve to be! O my soul, is this hell? Is my condition as bad as that of the damned? What would thousands now in hell give to exchange conditions with me!" I have read (says an author) that when the Duke of Conde had voluntarily subjected himself to the inconveniences of poverty, he was one day observed and pitied by a noble of Italy, who from tenderness wished him to be more careful of his person. The good duke answered, "Sir, be not troubled, and do not think that I suffer from need; for I send a harbinger before me, who makes ready my lodgings and takes care that I am royally entertained." The noble asked him who was his harbinger? He answered, "The knowledge of myself, and the consideration of what I deserve for my sins, which is eternal torment; when with this knowledge I arrive at my lodging, however unprovided I find it—methinks it is much better than I deserve. Why does the living man complain?" Thus the heart may be kept from desponding or repining under adversity.