Just as the engine must be cared for if a car is going to function well over the long haul, the heart must be cared for if we are going to flourish over the long haul. And just as the engine powers the vehicle, so the heart drives all that we do. The heart is the motivation headquarters, the central animating core of all our longings, fears, and actions.
Our fallen condition makes us perversely try to secure flourishing through the state of our circumstances rather than the state of our soul. But the wisest Christians know that the secret to a happy Christian life is cultivating and protecting the heart, whatever is happening all around us.
To that end the Puritan John Flavel (1627–1691) wrote his famous little treatise, Keeping the Heart (original title: A Saint Indeed; or, The Great Work of a Christian in Keeping the Heart in the Several Conditions of Life). It’s available in various editions, of which perhaps the most beautiful is produced by Christian Heritage, with a short introduction by J. I. Packer.
The lodestar text launching the book is Proverbs 4:23:
Keep your heart with all vigilance,
for from it flow the springs of life.
Adversities of Life
How does one obey Proverbs 4:23?
Flavel’s answer has never been bested in psychological penetration and biblical profundity. Flavel understands how our fallen hearts work, and his book is like a wise father putting his arm around us and gently helping us toward spiritual sanity.
After pressing home the all-controlling importance of the heart in spiritual vitality, Flavel wades into the backbone of the book: pastoral reflection on 12 different seasons of life in which we particularly need to “keep our hearts.”
- Persecution of the church
- Circumstantial needs
- Mistreatment from others
- Doubting and spiritual darkness
- Suffering for religion
- Nearing death
How the Heart Overcomes Fear
As an example of Flavel’s pastoral sensitivity and wisdom, consider how he handles the fourth season: times of danger. He understands with great tenderness how easily fearful we are (one of his books was A Practical Treatise of Fear, Wherein the Various Kinds, Uses, Causes, Effects, and Remedies Thereof Are Distinctly Opened and Prescribed), so his medicine isn’t fiery exhortation, pep talk, or castigation. Rather, wedding logic with love, he calmly does surgery on our hearts by enumerating 14 reasons Christians have to be unafraid.
The wisest Christians know that the secret to a happy Christian life is cultivating and protecting the heart, whatever is happening all around us.
He says, for example (in reason 2):
Remember that this God in whose hand are all creatures, is your Father, and is much more tender of you than you are, or can be, of yourself.
Reason 5 is arresting:
Consider solemnly, that though the things you fear should really happen, yet there is more evil in your own fear than in the things feared. . . . Fear is both a multiplying and a tormenting passion; it represents troubles as much greater than they are, and so tortures the soul much more than the suffering itself.
Reason 9 tunnels into our hearts with the care of a surgeon:
Get your conscience sprinkled with the blood of Christ from all guilt, and that will set your heart above all fear. It is guilt upon the conscience that softens and makes cowards of our spirits. . . . A guilty conscience is more terrified by imagined dangers, than a pure conscience is by real ones.
And that’s just three reasons of 14, all 14 of which reside under one of his 12 points! Flavel leaves us with no room to be in heart-haste (cf. Isa. 28:16).
Key to Books with Lasting Spiritual Significance
Digested slowly, with a posture of sincere openness to God, this book nurtures us back into communion with him more richly and joyously than just about anything being written today.
It can easily feel at first glance that a 400-year-old book will only marginally map on to my own 21st-century life. But there’s a reason we’re still reading Flavel four centuries later. The vital animating center of human personhood—the heart—hasn’t changed. Sure, some of the occasions for fear have changed. They feared shipwreck and the plague; we fear plane crashes and cancer. But the heart’s proclivity to drift quietly from settled trust in God and his goodness has not.
When God gives one of his servants unique diagnostic ability in unlocking how the human heart works, how it goes astray, and how we can get it back on track, we’re wise to listen.
And when God gives one of his servants unique diagnostic ability in unlocking how the human heart works, how it goes astray, and how we can get it back on track, we’re wise to listen. Flavel immersed himself in the Bible, shepherded his people through thick and thin, and spent a lifetime going ever deeper in communion with God.
In this little book he distills the secret of how he did this without growing cynical or torpedoing his life through disastrous sin.
Help for Our Hardest Task
Flavel opens the book this way:
The heart of man is his worst part before it is regenerated, and the best afterward; it is the seat of principles, and the foundation of actions. The eye of God is, and the eye of the Christian ought to be, principally fixed upon it. The greatest difficulty in conversion is to win the heart to God; and the greatest difficulty after conversion, is to keep the heart with God.
John Flavel coaches us in that greatest of difficulties as few others have across the centuries of church history.