Keeping the Heart: The Great Work of a Christian

Keeping the Heart: In Modern English

John Flavel (1627-1691) was a 17th-century Puritan minister and author. One of his books was titled, “A Saint Indeed, or The Great Work of a Christian in Keeping the Heart in the Several Conditions of Life.” Over the years, this long title has often been shortened to “Keeping the Heart.”

I recently finished a modern update of Keeping the Heart, and I want to provide a brief summary of some of Flavel’s Biblical teaching in this practical book on the Christian life.

What does keeping the heart mean?

So, what does it mean to “keep your heart?” The central verse for the book is found in Proverbs 4:23: “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.”

Although the heart can sometimes represent different aspects of our inner life, such as our feelings or thoughts, Flavel says that the heart here is the whole soul or inner being.

“Keeping the heart should be understood as the diligent and constant use and improvement of all holy means and duties to preserve the soul from sin and to maintain its sweet and free communion with God.”

Flavel, John. Keeping the Heart: In Modern English. Kindle Edition.

In one sense, keeping the heart is a daily activity that most modern Christians are already familiar with. It involves disciplines such as praying, searching out sin, repenting, meditating, and worshiping. However, it is also something that we almost universally struggle to do consistently throughout our lives. One of Flavel’s main goals is to stress just how important it is to keep our hearts in tune with God. It gives glory to God, adorns the Gospel, and results in a life of grace and power.

Our work but God’s power

Flavel is quick to point out that although we have a duty to keep our hearts, we are not sufficient in our own strength to do so. First, it requires that we have regenerated hearts through faith in Christ. But it also requires a humble dependence on God to give life and fruit to our times of prayer and worship:

“And whereas the expression (keep your heart) seems to place this work upon us, it does not imply a sufficiency or ability in ourselves to do it. We are as able to stop the sun in its course or make the rivers run backward, as to rule and order our hearts by our own skill and power. We may as well be our own saviors than to be our own keepers. And yet Solomon speaks accurately enough when he says, ‘keep your heart,’ because though the duty is ours, the power is God’s.”

FLAVEL, JOHN. KEEPING THE HEART: IN MODERN ENGLISH. KINDLE EDITION.

Seasons of life

The main part of the book looks at specific seasons of life where you have to pay special attention to keep the heart. These seasons, such as persecution or sickness, each have associated difficulties and temptations.

Flavel covers the following twelve seasons:

  • A Season of Prosperity
  • A Season of Adversity
  • A Season of Church Troubles
  • A Season of Fear
  • A Season of Need
  • A Season of Duty
  • A Season of Wrongs
  • A Season of Anger
  • A Season of Temptation
  • A Season of Doubt
  • A Season of Persecution
  • A Season of Sickness

He does an excellent job of applying the truths of Scripture to each of these seasons to show how we can guard and comfort our hearts. As with most Puritan writers, he often directs the reader to the Sovereignty of God combined with his great love for us.

If you scan the list above, you might be surprised that a “season of prosperity” is the first one covered. This is what I love about reading books by Christians from different time periods. The danger of prosperity is not a major focus in the Church today (and sometimes it is only presented as a blessing).

“Outward gains are ordinarily accompanied by inward losses. In a low condition, our daily lives are likely to take on the aroma of our duties; but in an exalted condition, our duties often take on the aroma of the world.”

FLAVEL, JOHN. KEEPING THE HEART: IN MODERN ENGLISH. KINDLE EDITION.

Pastoral care

One of the most encouraging things about this book is the way that Flavel speaks out of his own pastoral love for of the congregation that he leads. You can see this in the dedication at the beginning of the book where he explains how he came to write and publish it for the benefit of his flock. In that sense, we can be sure that these truths have not just been contemplated in a study, but they have been applied to the circumstances of life for people like you and me.

Keep your heart!

Although dead for centuries, I’d like to think that Flavel would praise God from Heaven if this little book encouraged you to keep your heart closer to God, both glorify Him and to live more victoriously in Christ.

Turn in upon yourselves, get into your prayer closets, and then resolve to dwell there. For too long, you have been strangers to this work, kept other vineyards, and trifled around the borders of Christianity. For too long, this world has detained you from your great work. Will you now resolve to look more to your hearts? Will you hurry and come out of the crowds of business and the clamors of the world to spend time with God more than you have done? Oh, that this would be the day you would resolve to do it!

FLAVEL, JOHN. KEEPING THE HEART: IN MODERN ENGLISH. KINDLE EDITION.
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