Of Engagements to and Directions in 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

On one occasion, when our Lord had finished giving such excellent practical advice to his disciples that, with regard to them, it might justly be said, that no one ever spoke like this man: he ends with this serious and solemn caution, If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. (John 13:17)

Those of us, who paid serious attention to what was being said with respect to the words of our verse last Sunday, cannot but know something of the nature of the duty prescribe by them.

We saw what we are to understand by the heart; and were told that it means the mind in general, and sometimes its particular faculties; and that here we are particularly to understand it of the thoughts and the passions.

In this sense the heart is to be kept as under a guard; implying by this that it is a kind of fortress, which, if it is not well manned and secured for us, may be seized by the enemy and turned against us, to our great danger, and, perhaps, in the end, to our ruin. And when it is said, that it is to be kept with all vigilance, it suggests that it ought to be guarded with a serious, with a religious, with a universal, and a constant care.

The exhortation was then illustrated by the mention of some circumstances in which it especially important; and we were solemnly charged upon our consciences, that we endeavour to keep the heart in the worship of God, in a prosperous condition; under the afflicting hand of God; under provocations from those around us; in the crowd of worldly business; at times of recreation; in intervals of solitude; and, lastly, when our minds are ruffled by any jarring event of life, and we realize that we are beginning to lose control of ourselves.

I would hope, on the whole, that you know these things: the Lord grant that you may be so happy as to do them. No one who pauses to give any thought about this can think it an unimportant topic; yet it is to be feared that it is given very little attention, and that there is so strong a reluctance in our corrupt nature to everything which is spiritually good, and especially to the religion of the heart, that, continuing from last week, in the third place, it is very necessary,

III. To urge some plain and awakening arguments to engage you to such a care.

Now the arguments which will be urged upon us this morning will be classed under two headings: some of them taken from the necessity, and others of them from the difficulty of the recommended duties: the one of them may engage us to see to it that this care is not entirely neglected, the other may stir us up to a zealous and a diligent carrying out of it, or, in the language of the text, may teach us to keep it with all vigilance.

1. And so to begin, consider how exceedingly important and necessary it is that we keep the heart.

It is true every believer must have some understanding of this: nevertheless there are two considerations which may help to deepen and establish it: First, it falls directly under the knowledge of God; and second, it has a very strong influence on our conduct in life. Now, in both these respects it will appear to be very important.

i) And so first, consider that the heart falls directly under the inspection of God, and therefore, that it must be very important to keep it.

It is in this respect that the eye of God is more penetrating than that of the wisest person on earth, and, as it seems, of every other created being. As for man, we know that he can judge only by what is external; and, on that ground, can only have an imperfect idea of what happens. But it is the voice of nature, as well as of Scripture, that God sees not as man sees. (1 Samuel 16:7) The LORD searches the heart and tests the mind. (Jer 17:10) He knows the very forming of the thought, the first beginnings, and all the continued progress of it.

He, therefore, speaks of it as his peculiar right, I the LORD search the heart and test the mind (Jer 17:10) of the children of men.

Consider carefully the weight of the argument, and what follows from it. How it evidently follows that he must require the religion of the heart. Even we are offended by heartless service when we discover it. To be sure, where there is an entire neglect of this care of the heart, there is no real respect for God, and not the least presence of true vital religion: so far as a neglect of the heart is prevalent it reveals a fatal flaw.

But, on the other hand, where there is this care to govern the thoughts, and to govern the passions, it is, as it were, a respect paid to the omniscience of God; and it is one of the most genuine evidences of sincere piety: the question is not so much what a man’s behaviour is as what is his heart.

Now, it is very true that there can be no real godliness, where the life is stained with habitual immoralities: that the religion of the immoral man is undoubtedly vain; and that the habitually wicked, who puts his hopes on anything, only plunges himself into additional guilt and worse ruin.

But it is also as true that all apparent regularity, and even sanctity in the conversation, if it comes from nothing but a respect to human applause, or to worldly advantages, is mere painted hypocrisy, and is completely worthless in God’s eyes: and however regular the man’s actions may be, if his heart is not right with God, he will, when weighed in the balance, be found wanting: for, as David expresses it, Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being. ( Ps 51:6)

And now I appeal to your own consciences, whether this is not an argument of the utmost importance. God sees the heart, and absolutely insists upon the care of it; and, consequently, if you entirely neglect that care, you have no interest in God, nor can you have any well grounded expectations from him.

Come to terms with the fact that your hopes are in vain and that they have no foundation except in your own vain imaginations. It would be as rational to bring a well dressed corpse into the court of a prince, and place it before him at his table, or make it his chief minister of state, as to expect that God should favour a man whose heart is not in any form of service which he performs.

And as an entire neglect of this care of the heart is the ruin of all our everlasting hopes, so the partial neglect of it, even in one who, on the whole, is devoted to God, comes with very sad consequences. It no doubt must eclipse a man’s evidences for heaven: for the brightness of these is generally in proportion to the strength of grace which is, above all, apparent from how it grows; and there is nothing by which that growth more evidently appears than by the care of the heart.

Keeping the heart is also central to are being able to have communion with God, which is carried out in the heart, and which can never be maintained where the heart is neglected. The whole truth of the matter can be rested on this fact: let any experienced Christian testify whether he has not a thousand times more lively communion with God, the clearest views of his special favour, the brightest hopes of eternal glory, when he is most careful in looking to the heart; and all this naturally follows from the first point mentioned, which is God’s knowledge of the heart. In addition, in the second place,

ii) The importance of this care is highlighted, if we consider what a strong influence the heart has on our conduct in life.

This is the argument which Solomon urges in the text: from it flow the springs of life; that is, as it might also be translated, the outgoings, or the ways of the life. A man who is unconcerned about his heart is likely to fall into a great many pitfalls in life; while he that, on the other hand, is concerned about making the tree good will probably make the fruit good also; or, as in the ESV translation the original words may be translated springs, and so there may be an implied reference to a fountain, and the water coming from it.

Nor is this altogether inconsistent with the idea of its being a military phrase: for as in war peculiar care would be taken not only that the enemy should not seize a place where he would take possession of a fortress, but also any place where he would take control of some fountain, on which, perhaps, the supply of a city depended, so that by poisoning or diverting that stream, he might destroy the inhabitants; such care should be taken of the heart, and upon the same principles.

This is a thought which our Lord suggested in Matthew: For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, and so on. (Matt 15:19) And, on the other hand, from the heart, a good heart, pours out that wisdom and piety which add dignity and a glory to the man’s conversation and actions.

Such is the beautiful observation of Solomon: The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious; (Prov 16:23) that is, it provides him with ample matter of profitable topics of conversation; of conversation far more beneficial than that of the man who has merely filled his head with speculations, while his heart goes on unaffected.

Like a thorn that goes up into the hand of a drunkard is a proverb in the mouth of fools, (Prov 26:9) which, while he thinks he handles it cleverly, only pierces and wounds him. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, (Matt 12:35) and that not merely in his conversation, but in his actions too, which make him ready not only to every good word but to every good work also.

So that you see by this that, in all probability, as your hearts are, such will your lives be, decent and honourable, comfortable to yourselves, and useful to those around you. But, on the other hand, if no guard is put on the thoughts and the passions, it is a thousand to one that you will he hurried away into some extravagances of life; and, consequently, into the anxiety, shame, and fear, which are inseparably attached to a guilty conscience, and to those painful wounds which are given by it to the soul: not to mention all that numberless train of evils which are generally the result of neglecting such a government of ourselves.

Let but a wild imagination, an unrestrained appetite, a turbulent passion, take hold in the soul, and to where may a man be driven? or, rather, to where may he not be driven? The horse driver of old times, whose horses have forced the reins from his hands, and are running on at full speed down a deep precipice, does not seem to be in so dangerous a condition in comparison.

It is a thousand to one that neither the voice of reason nor conscience can be heard in that storm: no regard to reputation or usefulness in life, to interest in our friends, to present circumstances, or future hopes, will at all influence him who has neglected to keep his heart.

Whereas, on the other hand, where there is an appropriate care to keep the heart, the Christian appears like a wise and cautious pilot, who sits in the stern of his vessel, guiding the rudder with a steady hand, and deploying the sails in such a manner as to keep clear of every danger, and to gain even from those which seem the most contrary, to carry him on his voyage to glory.

You see the influence which the heart has upon the conduct of life; and this is a considerable argument for a care in keeping it. But it may, perhaps, be objected that though this connection is indeed probable, yet it may possibly be overcome, and a man by strong resolutions may change and correct what might otherwise have followed from his negligent behaviour. To address this, consider in the third place,

iii) That an appropriate care in keeping the heart does not only have very beneficial consequences, but is in itself something of great value.

Think of this: is there nothing honourable, is there nothing pleasant in the thoughts of being masters at home, of being in control of our own spirits? And, on the other hand, are not the indulgence in vain thoughts, and the wild excesses of passion, the source of all kinds of trouble, and in themselves evil, and harmful, apart from any consideration of their future consequences?

Would it not be a thousand times better that soldiers in a stronghold, by managing their weapons, should prevent the attacks of the enemy, than at last, after a long battle, that they should drive them back? Consider the serenity and the dignity of that soul, where the duties, which have been recommended, are regularly carried out! How peaceful, how rich, how noble it is!

The external accidents of life are not able to upset him. Such a man is like the wise centurion, who kept his soldiers in such effective subjection, that when he said to one man, Go,’ … he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes. (Matt 8:9) The rich talent of a rational nature is not given to him in vain, nor are the treasures of grace in vain lodged in his heart. He proves himself a good steward of the abundant grace of God; and with the five talents gains another five also. (Matt 25:16)

And if his enemies assail him, though an army should encamp against him, his heart is not afraid, (Ps 27:3) having this pleasing consciousness, that it has devoted itself to God; and that this has been its governing care, to maintain its integrity before him.

But the man that neglects to keep his heart, or, as Scripture expresses it, a man without self-control, (Ps 25:28) is a poor contemptible, miserable creature, with respect as much to the present scene of things as to what awaits him in the future. His soul is all full of disorder and confusion; and, with regard to internal disorders, it is like a mutinous army, where, it may be, the meanest and basest are in control: and, with regard to what can be seen, he is, as Solomon expresses it, like a city broken into and left without walls, (Prov 25:28) so that it may seem to lie at the mercy of every invader.

The Lord deliver us from such a sad state of affairs, which must certainly end in the dishonour of God, in the devaluing of religion, harm to those around us, and, eventually, in the great damage, if not the utter ruin of our own souls.

I hope, after all this, you are convinced of the importance of keeping the heart. And to enforce what has already been said, let me add a few words about how difficult it is to do this.

2. Consider this as a second argument to engage us in our care of keeping our heart with all vigilance: the great difficulty of the task.

And this will be abundantly evident if, on the one hand, we consider our own weakness and treachery; and, on the other, the various temptations and dangers to which we are exposed.

i) First, consider the weakness and treachery of the heart of man, and it will evidently appear that it is a difficult work which is recommended here. Solomon observes, that he that trusts it is a fool: (Prov 28:26) and honest reflection on our own experience will prove his abundantly.

The heart, as it originally came out of the hands of its Creator, was indeed noble and excellent. A temple, though built of clay, yet in some measure fit for the presence of the God that raised it. The understanding was quick and extensive, the judgment deep and wise, the affections calm and moderate, yet lively and active on proper objects and in a proper degree; and the conscience sat, like the viceroy of God, upon a peaceful throne, surveying all that passed with pleasure, and testifying, by its applause, the approval of that glorious being whose representative it was.

But now how as everything fallen to ruin. The soul, that has felt the power of renewing grace, feels most of all the weakness of nature. He emphatically complains that he is unstable as water: (Gen 49:4) that his thoughts are wild and roving, so that to govern them seems like trying to catch the wind: that his passions are unruly and rebellious; that his resolutions are faint and feeble, so that his treacherous heart too often turns back from God, like a deceitful bow; (Ps 78:57) and when he has the desire to do what is right, he does not have the ability to carry it out. (Rom 7:18)

When he reads in Scripture, that The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick, (Jer 17:9) he readily acknowledges that, in whatsoever sense it was at first intended, it is applicable to himself. He finds not only deceit, but a desperate wickedness within, which humbles him in the presence of God, abhorring what remains of the corrupt nature.

And though it is evident that not everyone has these feelings, yet experience will show, that where we most evidently see that they are not, there we have generally the most flagrant proofs that they ought to be.

The man that trusts his own heart most is the one that most evidently appears to be deceived by it; just as the man that boasts most of his learning and his wisdom, most plainly shows his folly and his ignorance. In short, with regard to the spiritual war, a man has dangerous enemies in his own household. And we may say, concerning a corrupt heart, as Solomon does of an abandoned woman, many a victim has she laid low, and all her slain are a mighty throng.(Prov 7:26) Vainly confident in their own strength, they have rushed into dangers, immediately to sink under them. Like the thoughtless sea Captain, who, trusting to a gentle breeze and the calm sea, spreads his sails, while he leaves his compass behind him, and neglects the helm till the weather changes, and storms and shipwreck convince him of his folly. But the mention of storms and shipwrecks leads us to the second difficulty,

ii) That as the heart itself is weak and treacherous, so is it exposed to a variety of dangers, and because of this the keeping of it must be very difficult.

We live in the midst of an alluring world, and our vain and degenerate hearts are ready to be enflamed about a thousand worthless objects, or to wander after, and to be preoccupied with them. We live in the midst of sinners: they are all around us by day and by night; and surround us in all our ways: and let Satan but have your heart, he will leave your knees, your mouth, and even your hands for God. He knows at once its weakness and its importance; and devises his attacks on it in the cleverest ways.

He pays attention to you, when you are not paying attention to yourselves. He studies your temper while you yourselves neglect it; and he knows every avenue to this fortress by which it may most easily be approached; every weak place by which it may most successfully be assaulted.

It suits us, therefore, undoubtedly to look to ourselves, and to double our guard when the place is so weak, and the enemy at once so powerful and so subtle. The children of God are not exempted from his assaults; and he desires to have them, that he may sift them as wheat, (Luke 22:31) even when he knows that their Redeemer has prayed for them that they may not finally fail.

Full of restless and detestable malice, he finds a cursed kind of joy in battering this fort, which he knows that he will not be able to demolish, and in distressing the soul which God will not allow him finally to destroy. Do not sleep, therefore, while these enemies are awake, but in the words of the apostle, Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.. (Eph 6:10-20)

I would hope that you are now so far convinced of the importance of this care, as to be prepared to take in those directions for it, which I am to lay before you under the fourth general heading:

IV. Directions for keeping the heart.

1. The first is that if you want to keep your heart, endeavour by all means to know it.

When writing to the Corinthians, the apostle’s words can be viewed as a great complaint, and even of reproach: Examine yourselves, or, examine your own selves; (2 Cor 13:5) you who boast of your knowledge in other things with which you are enriched. You that, indeed, are puffed up with it, do you know your own selves? Are you strangers at home?

Endeavour to know human nature in general, its weakness and its corruption: it is a great lesson, and ignorance in it is the source of a thousand errors, in doctrine and in practice. And, above all, endeavour to know your own hearts. Study their character, study their state. Endeavour, in particular, to know your peculiar weakness, for that is your enemy’s strength; and observe the correspondence between that and your circumstances and your condition in life, that you may be suitably on your guard.

An officer, appointed to guard a fort against a mighty army, would undoubtedly be very careful in examining it; so should you be in studying and knowing your heart: and, with respect to this, remember what we have heard of the great deceitfulness of it, and the danger of being overcome by it.

2. Next, if you would keep your own heart, endeavour to impress your conscience with a sense of the importance of it; and to this end I can do no better than to urge you to remember what has been laid before you these past two Sundays , and preach it over to yourselves.

3. In the third place, if you desire to keep your own heart, solemnly sit as in the presence of God.

Accustom yourselves often to think of God, who searches the heart and tests the mind of men; and seriously consider that he is with you wherever you are and whatever you do. Remember those important words of the Psalmist, You hem me in, behind and before. (PS 139:5)

Say to yourself:

O, my soul! Will you daydream in his worship when he can see your hypocrisy? Will you offer to him merely the outward show of service when he whose eyes are like a flame of fire, can see through the thin deceit? Will you in his presence rebel under correction, or in his presence forget him while receiving and enjoying the fruits of his goodness?

Will you swell into severe and burning resentments against your offending brother in the presence of your heavenly Father; you, who has so often offended him, and by him has so often been forgiven, though he is armed with infinite power to punish every transgression with everlasting destruction?

Will you lose yourself in the businesses of this world, or in the pleasures of it, without paying attention to him, without whom your labour cannot be successful, without whom your recreation cannot be refreshing to you?

What though I am alone with respect to my fellow men, I am not alone, because my Father is with me; and his presence is more than the fullest stadium; his eye more than that of angels and men. Now, O my soul! Let me pay, as it were, respect to the God’s omniscience by my care in these circumstances of my behaviour.

And finally, when fighting against inappropriate passions, when they have once been awakened, let us excite our souls to consider God as the spectator of the battle.

Fight, O my soul! As under the eye of that General by whom on another day the crown shall surely be set on your head.

Surely this thought of the presence of God, carried along with us through all the circumstances of life, would, through the help of his grace, be the death of our corruptions, and the life of our graces.

4. In the fourth place, if you would keep your hearts, be often calling them to an account.

I can only hope that we do not live without self-examination: may it be practised more and more. The advice I offer here is this: in the examination which we make of our conduct, we take our thoughts and hearts into account; not only what time I have spent in reading, in hearing, in prayer, in conversation, but what attitude have I had as I was doing these things: not only what business have I gone through, but what was the frame of my soul in this business. Was I entirely swallowed up with worldly cares, as if these had been my all, or were my eyes lifted up to heaven, and was one thing necessary (Luke 10:42) paid attention to? In this respect, let me urge you that you speak with your own hearts, if you want to keep them.

5. Next, if you want your heart be well kept, see to it that it is well furnished.

Lay hold of useful knowledge from the word of God, from observations of Providence, from conversation with others: these will provide you with matter for speaking with your own heart, which is so very important in the task of keeping of it. Endeavour especially to fill your heart with the knowledge of Christ. Meditate on the wonders of gospel grace. Speaking from his own experience, as a scholar, Doddridge affirms that all the moral and philosophical reflections which he had ever met with, where as nothing to him when compared with the advantages to be found from evangelical views of the grace of God in a Redeemer. These fix the thoughts, these regulate the passions, when God's love has been poured into our hearts; (Rom 5:5) when the love of a Redeemer constrains us.

6. In the sixth place, if you would keep your own heart, be often looking up to Him who made it.

I have been exhorting you to your duty, because the word of God says, Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin; (Heb 3:13) and the appeals have been made as to reasonable creatures, as to the necessity, the advantage, and the importance of it: but, apart from the influence of the grace of God, and the intervention of the Holy Spirit, I expect nothing to come from any of this.

Surely there is not a Christian in the world who is not deficient in this duty; and therefore let me entreat you to run to Him, who is strong, for strength. Go to God, morning by morning, and pour out your souls before him.

Lord! I see it, I am a weak, inconstant, treacherous creature. A deceiving heart has turned me aside again and again: I have broken my resolutions and my most solemn engagements: I have contradicted my most serious and most resolute schemes. Lord, help me! Lord! You hold me up, and I will be safe; and I see no other way of being so. Set a guard not only on my mouth, but on my heart, O merciful God!

To find our hearts taken off from a dependence upon ourselves and fixed upon God is a good sign in every part of our Christian life; and particularly in this which is now before us. May the Holy Spirit give power to these plain hints, and neither I nor you will ever be sorry that we have spent so long on this subject.

How often is the awakened Christian compelled to cry out with the apostle, Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Rom 7:24) And say,

O my God! how long will it be that I will be at such a distance from you, that my best thoughts of you are so cold, and those cold thoughts so frequently interrupted? How long will I go this sad round of mourning for the failings of my life, and of repeating them and mourning for them again? How long will this uneasy struggle continue, in which I am always exercised, and frequently overcome?

Why, take courage, Believer! the struggle will not be forever; indeed, it will not be very long. That God, who has already made sin a burden to you, will in a little while ease you of that burthen. He that has now formed you to a sense of holiness, will soon raise you to the perfection of it. Yes, Believer! you shall behold his face in righteousness, and shall be satisfied when you awake in his likeness. (Ps 17:15) And can you wish for a greater happiness than this, to be perfect with God? or can you hear of it and not wish for it?

And remember also that, when we come to heaven, those around us will be glorious and holy as ourselves. We will no longer behold insolent transgressors, and be grieved. We will not be grieved with the faults and infirmities of those whom we regard as our Christian friends; but will be surrounded with the spirits of the righteous made perfect.(Heb 12:23) We will see nothing to disapprove, nothing to blame; but, on the contrary, we will have continual reason to rejoice and triumph in the beauties of their characters, as well as in the glory of their external condition.

For such a gathering may God’s mercy now prepare us, through Jesus Christ our Lord!