Deep down, I remain an English student. Little is it known, but the Latin genus Englishus studentus derives from a phrase, roughly translated as “one who has never done a hard day’s work”. Yet, personally, I’ve definitely accumulated at least a day’s hard work in my life so far! One afternoon springs readily to mind. Last summer, while leading an outreach team in Ballymena, my co-ordinator and I decided to carve a footpath from weeds. Armed with two shovels, a strimmer, some bin-bags, two wheel-barrows and a giant rake, we quickly fell to arms. Determined, as Thorin Oakenshield, to reclaim this footpath, and restore it to its former glory! What followed, however, was nothing short of disastrous. The sun scorched the earth, and rocks ever-increasingly multiplied. We fought valiantly, but as our phones declared “dinner!”, we retreated, carrying hundreds of bags of soil, rock and dirt. That, I believe, counts as hard work!
But, English author John Flavel went beyond man’s outer work, and considered the extent to which we labour in the depths of our hearts. In fact, in his work Keeping the Heart, Flavel argues that his Christian contemporaries have all but neglected heart-work. Flavel argues this in the midst of the Puritan movement, in which many church leaders and pastors argued persuasively for greater moral purity and personal piety in the lives of professing Christians. So, if Flavel argues this in one of the most vibrant periods of theological reflection, how much more does this indicting statement apply to us today?
Indeed, one could make a compelling case which likens our hearts to the tomb at the beginning of the classic Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Despite the greatest treasure – the word of Christ, which dwells in us richly (Colossians 3:16) – shining in the deep, our hearts are mostly untended, untamed and full of traps, pitfalls, poison arrows and giant, man-crushing, boulders. If we do look to our hearts, it’s a superficial glance. I’m writing to myself here. I know, too well, the impact of residual sin left unchecked; all it takes is the slightest movement, and suddenly it all comes crashing down.
Through Scripture, Flavel argues for a remedy. Rather than being casual visitors, we must intimately know our hearts. With courage, boldness and total reliance on God, we must become raiders of our lost hearts.
To this end, Flavel takes Proverbs 4:23 as the central beam in the biblical doctrine of keeping the heart. Keeping the Heart is essentially a lengthy exposition of Proverbs 4:23: “Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life”. Therefore, the heart is at centre of “sound” (Titus 2:1) –healthy – Christian living.
But, why does Flavel deem the heart to be so important? In his introduction, he asserts that the heart is the most vital organ in conversion: “the heart of man is his worst part before it is regenerated…[but it is] the best afterward”. And, of course, Proverbs 4:23 establishes the heart as “the seat of principles, and the foundation of actions” within a man. Flavel’s logic is simple: the vital transformation which marks the beginning of re-creation, renewal and redemption – true Christian life – occurs in the heart, therefore the daily outworking of salvation through continual sanctification must, too, impact the heart. So, the greatest difficulty for any Christian, post-conversion, is “to keep heart with God”. In fact, it is in keeping the heart that the Christian feels the very “force and stress of [true, Biblical] religion”.
Of course, if we’re reading critically, we might baulk at Flavel’s emphasis on our role. “Surely”, we legitimately assert, “such an imbalance must lead to legalism, not Biblical Christianity!”. From this, we may assume that Flavel’s emphasis on the individual begins his argument on very false premises: if a depraved humanity could change their hearts, by their own disciplined works, they could therefore change their spiritual condition before God, independent of His grace. Flavel, however, powerfully responds to this criticism: we are to “keep the heart, because the duty is ours, though the power is God’s”. The surfing-addict knows that it is his duty to catch every wave; yet, not for one moment does he fail to acknowledge that the immense power is the sea’s. We, too, set out to raid our hearts, knowing that we only do so by the grace and might of our Triune God. The very idea of keeping the heart is necessarily tied to a “previous work of regeneration”. Therefore, the power at work within us depends entirely upon the Spirit’s groaning, Christ’s interceding and the Father’s willing.
We must ask, “what does it mean ‘to keep the heart?’”. Flavel outlines this work in six ways:
- know your heart
- humble yourself
- confess sin immediately
- remove yourself from internal and external grounds for temptation
- be jealous for your heart
- set the glorification of the Lord before the indulgence of self
This is a hard, constant and supremely vital work. And yet, it highlights the all-surpassing grace of God; not only is keeping the heart a grace-driven work, but “God graciously regards and depicts the receiving of our hearts as a gift, when in fact it as a debt”.
And, of course, keeping our hearts is one of our most, if not the most, supremely important tasks. When we neglect our hearts we rob God of His glory. For a neglected heart marks us as insincere, hypocritical and ineffective ambassadors for Christ. Therefore, the Christian must be diligent. Indeed, Flavel helpfully spends the bulk of his book outlining various seasons in the Christian life which require our diligence: from prosperity to want, from cultural apathy to persecution, and finally death. What gives Flavel’s seventeenth-century work uniqueness in our culture is the lack of a “self-help” mentality. Rather than authoring a comprehensive “fifteen step plan to build a better you”, Flavel reflects on a variety of situations and offers first principles to consider in each season; often, these rebuke the creeping pride lurking in our hearts. These are words more designed to be considered, meditated on, and prayed through than blindly followed.
Therefore, inevitability Keeping the Heart is most helpful at its most challenging. It forced me to reconsider how seriously I serve God, how seriously I discipline and maintain my heart and how seriously I regard sin. Throughout, Flavel highlights that the Scriptures leave us no wiggle room for an untended heart. The practical biblical guidelines refrain from dipping into our often clichéd and hackneyed expressions, and therefore contain solid first principles for enduring and repenting in the diverse aspects of life. In a rush-driven culture, Flavel urges us to stop and seriously engage with ourselves. We must do more than superficially consider our hearts; we must raid them, in God’s immense power and guidance through Scripture.
Keeping the Heart is an incredibly useful, and increasingly vital, book. It urges the reader to daily consider and examine their heart; to repent, trust and long for the superior pleasure of a heart which , most of all, desires to bring glory to God.
All citations in this essay are found in Keeping the Heart (Christian Focus). It’s only £2.99!