Of Keeping The Heart


Adapted from a Sermon by Philip Doddridge

Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life. Proverbs 4:23

No doubt every sincere Christian will easily agree with the blessed Apostle Paul, that he has not yet attained, neither is he already perfect. (Phil 3:12) And the greater progress any of us have made towards spiritual perfection, the more aware we are of how far we are from it. I would hope, therefore, that you will be ready to gladly hear some important advice, which I have this day to lay before you for your further help in this great pursuit.

Our Lord Jesus Christ has said, make the tree good, and the fruit will also be good. (Matt 12:23) So, Christians! If you want a healthy spiritual life, allow me to encourage you towards care over your own hearts.

Now, though in the highest sense, to make the tree good it is the work of Divine grace, nevertheless, where that is implanted in the soul there is still great need for care and watchfulness so that it will flourish and grow. To such a care we are very solemnly exhorted in those touching words of the text, Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.

It was the purpose of these sacred lessons of proverbs, as the inspired author expresses it, to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth. But the advice which he gives are of such a nature, that the oldest are not above needing them; and the neglect of them will be harmful, and even destructive to all. In an earlier verse he renews the exhortation to be attentive to his words, and incline your ear to his sayings; and he assures us they are life to those who find them, and healing to all their flesh, that is, that they have the most beneficial influence on our present and future happiness.

Now, in the front of these admonitions to which he demands so serious attention, we find, in the words of the text, as a very proper introduction to all the rest, and itself a highly important lesson, Keep your heart with all vigilance.

In opening it to you, this morning, I will endeavour

I. First, in the general, to show you what we are to understand by keeping the heart.

II. Second, to highlight the peculiar charge of doing it with all vigilance.

And, God willing, next week,

III. Thirdly, I will lay before you a variety of serious considerations to excite you to this care.

IV. And lastly will close with some advice, which, with God’s help may assist you in it.

I. And so, to begin, I would briefly show you what we are, in general, to understand by Keep your heart with all vigilance: and here we may more particularly consider the object of this care, the care itself, and the degree in which it is recommended.

1. Let us start by considering the object of this care: it is the heart.

Now by the heart we are to understand the soul, or the spiritual and intellectual part of our nature. In general, this is the sense in which Scripture uses the term. And so, when it is said in 1 Samuel, that the Lord gave Saul another heart: (1 Sam. 10:9) the meaning is, that his mind was elevated to more sublime views, and to a nobler disposition than before. So also with respect to king Jehoshaphat in 2 Chronicles, it is, His heart was courageous in the ways of the LORD; (2 Chr 17:6) that is, his mind was resolutely and zealously set upon them.

And as the heart is sometimes put for the soul itself, so at other times it is used for the principal faculties of it: the understanding, the conscience, the affections, and the will. Therefore the heart of the disciples is said to have been hardened, when their understanding was so dim that they did not understand the meaning of what our Lord expresses in very plain language. (Mark 8:17)

In Proverbs 16:9, it is said, The heart of man plans his way; that is, his thoughts form a variety of schemes.

It is put for the affections when David says in a Psalm, My heart became hot within me, (Psalm 39:3) that is, my passions were raised to great fervency. And Joel represents a flow of holy penitent affections in the expression of rending the heart (Joel 2:13); and again, our Lord says in Matthew, where your treasure is, there your heart will be also, (Matt 6:21) that is, your affections will be also.

At other times it is put for the will, so particularly in Ecclesiastes: Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man, that is, their resolutions, is fully set to do evil. (Ecc 8:11) So Barnabas and Paul exhorted their new converts, with resolute heart to remain true to the Lord, (Acts 11:23 NASB) that is, with a determined resolution of mind.

And, in addition, it sometimes represents the workings of conscience with respect to criminal actions. So it is said in 1 Samuel, David's heart struck him, because he had cut off a corner of Saul's rob. (1 Sam 24:5) It is the resolution of Job: my heart does not reproach me for any of my days. (Job 27:6) The agonies of conscience are expressed in Acts by being cut to the heart: (Acts 2:37) and the accusations of it, in 1 John, by our hearts condemning us. (1 John 3:20)

And so from these examples, of which there are many more, we see that the word heart is sometimes put for the rational soul, and sometimes for the most important of its faculties, that is, for understanding and thought, for passion, and will, and conscience.

We go on,

2. To consider the care itself, which is described here as keeping.

And in order to better understand this, we should notice that the expression used in the original is a military phrase, and may probably mean setting a guard on a thing, as on a treasure that we do not want to lose, or on a person whom we believe to be likely to betray us; and, therefore, this should lead us to take the word heart in such a sense as is most suited to this idea.

It would seem then not to relate primarily to the understanding or to the will, though it surely does to some extent, but rather mainly to what is a kind of combination of both the thoughts and the passions. In this view we are urged to set a guard upon each of them, that we should not indulge to every wild and roving imagination, or to every impulse of our thoughts, but that love and hatred, desire and aversion, hope and fear, anger and shame, and all the other collection of emotions and thoughts should be held under control, that we should consider them as our servants, and take care so to guard them that they may not prove to be dangerous rebels.

And it is principally in this view that we will look at the passage: as expressing our obligations to govern our thoughts and to control our passions.

3. We go on to consider the degree of the care that is here represented; and it is expressed by keeping them with all vigilance. And in this we see both the seriousness and the steadiness of this care.

i) First, it may be intended to indicate to us that we ought to make it our serious care.

There is naturally in us a great tendency to neglect it, because what passes in our hearts is hidden from every eye but that of God, whom we are too ready to forget; though that eye upon us is infinitely more piercing than the united sight of the whole world of our fellow-creatures. Yet, because our reputation and circumstances are not so evidently affected by the workings of the mind as the external actions, we are generally too negligent about this. But the author of Proverbs seems to warn us that we should set ourselves to this task very diligently, urgently and indeed as the one thing needful, as something that we neglect at our great peril: and secondly,

ii) It may further relate to the constancy of that care.

It is not merely giving our hearts one serious reprimand or solemn charge, but it supposes a continued inspection; that, wherever we go and whatever we do, in our various attitudes, in our various circumstances, we still should maintain this universal duty, as a man guarding a treasure, or keeping a prisoner, may, by the negligence of a few moments, lose what he has been watching for months and years, so, sometimes, our hearts are ready to escape us, and, by a few days of slackness and indifference, we will lose more ground in religion than, it may be, we have gained in weeks and months. Let this, therefore, be a serious and constant care.

But from a general overview of the matter, let us move on to our second heading:

II. To highlight the peculiar charge of doing it with all vigilance.

And this we will do looking into some particular circumstances in which it should be our peculiar care to keep our hearts, and that with all vigilance.

I appeal to you, to bear with this word of exhortation, (Heb 13:22) and let me urge you that, as you ought always to maintain such a care, so you abound in it more and more, in these eight special circumstances:

1. when you draw near to God in the solemn duties of his worship,

2. when you find yourselves surrounded with a fulness of worldly enjoyments,

3. when God is afflicting you with trials,

4. when those around you make life difficult for you,

5. when you are in the hurry of worldly business,

6. when you are engaged in amusements and recreations,

7. when you fall into times of solitude and retirement;

8. and, lastly, when you find the heart attacked in a dangerous manner by any passion, irregular in its nature or degree.

It is my responsibility to urge these things upon your consciences; it is the work of God to make them effective. I would, gently yet solemnly, ask that you pay attention to them. May they, by the grace of God, be refreshing and useful to us all in the duty to govern our thoughts and to control our passions.

1. First then, Keep your heart with all vigilance, when you draw near to God in the solemn duties of his worship.

You have then to do with a God who searches the heart, and tests the minds of the children of men. His penetrating eye sees in a moment through the best disguise that hypocrisy can draw over an inattentive and unaffected mind. You know that he saw it in the people of Israel, and charges it to them as a most provoking crime: this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me. (Is 29:13) They sit before you as my people, and they hear what you say but they will not do it. (Ez 33:31)

If you are one who knows something of true religion, you know by your own experience how exceedingly resistant our hearts are in communion with God; how apt they are to twist like a deceitful bow. (Ps 78:57) If the whole of our thoughts during any act of worship were to be laid open before everyone’s eyes, how wild, how erratic, and even how shocking they would they appear!

Now and then there is a faint desire after you, O God! a weak motion of the soul towards you, and then by unaccountable rushes of thought, coming from we don’t know where, we are drawn from you; and, with the heart roving with the fool's eye even to the very ends of the earth, we feel a lack of pleasure in serving you; and are sadly aware of the failure and the barrenness of our devotions.

And so it is that, while planted in the house of the Lord, under the coverings of his sanctuary, our souls are like the dying shrub of a thirsty desert. And so we see the weakness of our faith in Christ, of our love to God, of our charity to men, and of all those holy fruits which might be expected to grow up in those who have sat so long under such cultivation.

Well then! Let these thoughts excite us to keep our hearts in God’s service. Let us solemnly charge our hearts, when about to worship him, to all holy devotion and seriousness of spirit.

O my soul! You are approaching the most venerable and the most lovable Being; awaken, and wrestle with him, and you will get a blessing from the Lord, even righteousness and peace from the God of our salvation. But if it is all but a mere empty form, how will you escape the punishment reserved for deceivers?

In this way, just a few moments spent in holy recollection, before we come to worship, might be a great help throughout the whole course of it; and then, when actually engaged, keep your hearts with all vigilance; endeavour to keep them attentive to what passes. Be on your guard against those vain distractions of the soul that eat all the life and spirit of our devotion; and endeavour to keep them warm and lively.

Work hard to feel the deepest conviction of your guilt and misery, your most urgent need of mercy and grace, and the most grateful and thankful impressions for all of God’s goodness, and especially the riches of redeeming love.

And when you feel your hearts cold and unaffected, lift up a long sigh towards heaven, and say,

Sacred life-giving Holy Spirit, breathe upon my dead soul, it clings to the dust, give it life, O Lord, according to your word. (Ps 119:25)

If God enables you to keep your heart in this duty, surely it will be a token for good, and a means of both exciting you to, and assisting you in, the other duty we are next to consider.

2. In the second place, keep your heart with all vigilance, when surrounded with an abundance of worldly enjoyments.

It is the observation of an inspired writer that new wine takes away the heart. (Hos 4:11) There is something in prosperity which tends to intoxicate the mind; therefore be on your guard against it, and in these circumstances pay close attention to it. It is surely a most ungrateful thing that our hearts should be alienated from God by the very generosity of his gifts to us. Therefore be cautiously on your guard against it.

Endeavour to keep your hearts from a forgetfulness of God, according to the advice of Moses: when you eat and are full, then take care lest you forget the LORD. (Deut 6:11.12) Keep your heart from the secret workings of pride, as if all these favourable circumstances in life were the reward of your own superior wisdom or goodness.

Be careful not to be sacrificing and burning incense to your own fishing net; (Hab 1:16) and endeavour to keep your heart from an excessive confidence in those things. Be careful for fear that, with David, you say in your prosperity, you shall never be moved; (Ps 30:6) for if you do, you may reasonably expect that God will hide his face, and then you will be dismayed.

And, in addition, keep your heart not only from being entangled with the snares of prosperity, but, likewise, endeavour to keep in mind that God’s goodness is behind it all. This will add a wonderful quality to every enjoyment; a dignity and a pleasure to it; to think of it as coming from such a hand; and it will likewise tend to promote your zeal for God, and your care to increase all your spiritual possessions.

Be then often repeating to your own souls,

“All things are of God: Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. (James 1:17) This peaceful night, this cheerful day, this plentiful meal, this agreeable conversation, this successful endeavour, all this is from him. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits. (Ps 103:2) Let me love him; let me serve him for all this. May all the mercies of my life not bear witness against me, and at last draw down upon me judgments in proportion to the weight and number of them. They come from God; let them be returned to him.

3. Thirdly, keep your heart with all vigilance when God is afflicting you with trials.

It is the peculiar advice of Solomon that in the day of adversity we should consider: (Ecc 7:14) for consideration and a guard upon the heart is surely needed then. Christian, be on your guard against any temptation to rebellious opposition to the discipline of your Heavenly Father. Therefore speak to your souls with all seriousness:

O my soul! Remember that afflictions do not arise out of the dust; but there is the hand of God in them. Remember that they come from a Being infinitely holy and infinitely powerful, who cannot be condemned, cannot be resisted. They come from a Being infinitely wise and infinitely good, who cannot reasonably be complained of by any of his creatures.

And if you feel your corrupt nature taking hold, if you feel a discontented and impatient spirit begin to rise up, immediately oppose it: plead the perfections of God’s nature, plead the purposes of his love, plead the experience which you have already had of his mercy, plead the gracious promises which have to do with what is yet to come.

Ungrateful creature that I am, shall I receive good at the hand of the Lord, and shall I not receive evil also? (Job 2:10) Will I foolishly turn my medicine into poison by reckless behavior? O my heart! I charge you, in the name of the God, Peace! be still!

And more than that we should be seeking to discover what God's Holy Spirit is working to teach us; to seek to understand why he is disciplining us, and to look inward to examine our souls, and to see in what instances those afflictions which, for the moment being not pleasant but painful, may afterwards yield to us the peaceful fruit of righteousness. (Heb 12:11)

4. In the fourth place, Keep your heart with all vigilance when those around you make life difficult for you.

These are very trying times; and the spirit that dwells in us very often falls more evidently into resentment than it does to envy; and so it is sure that the one who trusts his own heart in such circumstances acts very foolishly.

Pride will then rise to make the wrong done to us worse that it is by absurd notions of our own wisdom and goodness; and will be heightening every negligence into an injury, and every fault into a heavy crime; and then all this may lead to passionate speeches or to unkind words.

It may be that some hateful and malicious action may be the cursed effect of it: therefore keep your heart with all vigilance; do not be too sensitive to injuries; consider where you are: in a world of perverse and sinful creatures, where the very best are only sanctified in part, and have a great remainder of folly and corruption in their souls.

Do not expect that all their conduct will be perfectly wise and good. You will have a great deal to pardon in the very best and kindest of your friends; and if they behave wrongly, consider them in this as the objects of pity rather than of severe indignation.

Consider how you have behaved to your heavenly Father; in how many ten thousand more aggravated instances you have neglected, offended, and provoked him; and yet he is patient, he is forgiving.

O my soul! let me put on, as the elect of God, holy and beloved before him, a heart of long-suffering and meekness, of gentleness and goodness: these are the fruits of the Spirit. This was a disposition which Christ my Lord manifested in his sufferings; and which he recommended to others. Let me cultivate it more and more! Perhaps what I am ready to resent might be mere thoughtless negligence, and there might be no desire to injure in it: but if there was, let me in this show something of that wisdom which is from above; and if they meant it to hurt me, let me turn it into good, as I will certainly do if I make it the occasion of exercising and improving grace in my soul.

Lord! this rising resentment I sacrifice to you. Let all my indignation be against my soul and against sin: but as for my offending brother, do forgive him, and bless him, and help me to love him more and more for your sake;

5. Fifthly, Keep your heart with all vigilance when your hands are full of worldly business.

We walk in the midst of snares; and though it is our duty to attend to the business of our worldly calling, it is no easy matter to keep our souls disengaged from these things, and to live above the world while we are in it.

It is the excellent advice of our Lord himself, watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with … cares of this life. (Luke 21:32) Be careful that you do not become so fond of those things which are seen, and which are temporal, that you forget those which are unseen, and are eternal.

Be careful that a preoccupation to worldly advantages may never turn you out of the way of the strictest duty to God and integrity to your neighbor. Be often saying to yourselves,

O my soul! Remember this is not your rest. There is a great care of what I will eat, and what I will drink, and what I will put on. But there is also the kingdom of heaven to be sought out. May I be taught by Divine grace to seek it in the first place! There is the Lord Jesus Christ to be gained, who is the pearl of great price. May I be so wise a merchant as to purchase this, though with the loss of all that I have!

Be often urging your souls with the advice of the apostle: the appointed time has grown very short. (1 Cor 7:29) Say to yourselves:

O my heart! Do not set your heart on a transient thing, and love nothing with an unbounded affection that is not immortal as you yourself are, and immutable as your God. You do not own these things; do not think of them as your own. Consider them as a loan put into your hands by God; and as you are a steward, let it be your concern that you be found faithful. Devoting all to God, and improving all for him; may holiness to the Lord be written on my soul and on all my actions: on my merchandise and my gain, on my labour and my successes.

6. Next, Keep your heart with all vigilance when you are engaged in amusements and recreations.

Our kind and compassionate Father, who knows the weakness and frailty of our nature, indulges us in the liberty of relaxing our spirits with proper amusements at convenient times; and does not demand that they should always be hard at work: but most people are fond of these things to excess;

Now we should be very careful that we do not spend too much of our time in recreations; that we do not seek them merely for themselves, but in service to the duties of life; that we do not choose those which have any reputation of evil in them, such as may be a snare to others, and to our own souls; and that, whatever they be, we may not indulge in them to such an extend as to grow quite forgetful of God, and catch a dislike for the thoughts of serious piety.

This is a caution important to all, but especially to young people. Be careful with all vigilance to keep your hearts in these circumstances. Be often saying,

O my soul! Let me stand as far as possible from the character of those who live without God in the world, and are lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God. Oh! let me remember that those who are Christ's have crucified the flesh with its affections and lusts; and that if any will follow him, he must learn to deny himself, and take up his cross. You are sent into the world, not merely to amuse yourself with its pleasures, but to carry out a work, to fight a combat, to run a race. Wake up and rise! all that is best in me. Let me be steadfast and immovable, and whatever relaxations this frail body needs, let them be so carried out and so regulated that they may be but like the time the reaper spends in sharpening his sickle, which, though it provides a little break from his work, yet tends, on the whole, to improve it. Think, O my soul! that the great and blessed God sees you when you sit down and when you rise up, and is acquainted with all your ways. (Psalm 139:2,3) Let no business, let no amusement lead you into a forgetfulness of him.

7. Keep your heart with all vigilance in times of solitude and retirement, whenever they occur: whether at regular times or as they come now and then.

When we gather for the worship of God, we have already been warned to be on our guard; and when we retire for reading or meditation, or to speak with our own souls, the thoughts are so exceedingly volatile that it is one of the most difficult things in the world to fix them: but we should work at it. Seriously think how much pleasure, how much advantage there may be at such times, if they were regularly taken advantage of; and how surely our communion with our own souls may serve to advance the blessed purposes of communion with God; and let it be our concern that it may do so.

And even in those times of solitude which occasionally arise in the course of life, do not let your time be lost. Remember that a wise and a good man always carries a treasure along with him in his memory and in his heart. Let it be our concern that we may bring out of it things new and old. As God has endowed us with the powers of reason, thought, and reflection, let us not satisfy ourselves with waking dreams when alone in a journey, or when alone at business; but endeavour to manage a conversation with ourselves in an agreeable and useful manner. The teaching of our text this morning is one of those of which Solomon says that, if diligently observed, When you walk, they will lead you; when you lie down, they will watch over you; and when you awake, they will talk with you. (Prov 6:22)

8. And lastly, Keep your heart with all vigilance when you find the heart attacked in a dangerous manner by any passion, irregular in its nature or degree.

Up until now we have been warned about those circumstances which might prove to be temptations, but now in addition, if you have been taken off guard at any time, and any improper passion has been inflamed, you must endeavour to extinguish it.

Think what combustible matter you carry in yourselves. Neglect your heart but a little in such circumstances, and all will be in flames. It is like riding a furious horse; a steady rein must always be kept over him. But if there is any hint that he is his preparing to run away, then all the rider’s strength and skill must be exerted, either to stop him short in his plans, or with some quick distraction to divert him from it; or he may be thrown down a precipice before he is aware, and never see his danger till it is too late.

And this applies not only to dangerous passions, but likewise to those that are sometimes accounted most friendly; which yet, by the excess and abuse of them, may lead to fatal consequences. Keep your hearts from an excessive fondness for any creature comfort.

Though you do not love the world too much, and though you are not fond of money or fond of fame, you may love a friend to such an excess that it may throw your whole soul into a sad disorder: when once you begin to find any creature grow, as it were, necessary to your happiness, then remember that it is high time to double your guard, for fear that you be found to provoke the Almighty to jealousy.

Then repeat this admonition to your own heart with the greatest solemnity:

O my soul! Now is the time for combat. If, by any feeble indulgence, your enemy has got the advantage against you, exert yourself as for your life in the strength of God. Remember your everlasting rest: remember the crown of glory, and remember for whom it is reserved. Let me always work to preserve an attitude suitable to one who has chosen his happiness in God, one who hopes that he is on his way to his heavenly presence.

It is very true that the difficulties and effort are very great, but the reward will be ample in the serenity of our own souls, the sense of God’s approval, and the hope of an eternal reward.

And it will be, God willing, the subject of next week’s sermon, to urge those important motives which may awaken us so to keep our heart, and to highlight advice which may help us in doing it.

May we, by the grace of God, Keep our heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.