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John Flavel :: Sixth Season - How a Christian May Keep His Heart from Wandering in Duty

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A Saint Indeed by John Flavel

Twelve Particular Seasons, which Especially Call for this Diligence in Keeping the Heart

Sixth Season - How a Christian May Keep His Heart from Wandering in Duty

“The sixth season of expressing this diligence in keeping the heart, is the season of duty; when we draw nigh to God in public, private, or secret duties, then it is time to look to the heart, for the vanity of the heart seldom discovers itself more than at such times. How often doth the poor soul cry out, O Lord, how fain would I serve thee, but vain thoughts will not let me; I came to open my heart to thee, to delight my soul in communion with thee, but my corruptions have set upon me: Lord, call off these vain thoughts, and suffer them not to prostitute the soul, which is espoused to thee, before thy face.” The sixth case then is this:

Case 6. How the heart may be kept from distraction by vain thoughts, in the time of duty.

There is a two-fold distraction or wandering of the heart in duty: 1.) Voluntary and habitual. They set not their hearts aright, and their spirit was not steadfast with God, Psalms 78:8. This is the case of formalists, and it proceeds from the want of an holy bent and inclination of the heart to God; their hearts are under the power of their lusts, and therefore it is no wonder that they go after their lusts, even when they are about holy things, Ezekiel 33:31. 2.) Involuntary and lamented distractions, I find then a law, that when I would do good, evil is present with me; O wretched man that I amRomans 7:21, 24. This proceeds not from the want of a holy bent and aim, but from the weakness and imperfection of grace. And in this case the soul may make the like complaint against its own corruptions that Abijah did against Jeroboam, Yet Jeroboam the son of Nebat is risen up against his Lord, when Rehoboam was young and tender-hearted, and could not withstand him, and there are gathered unto him vain men, the children of Belial, 2 Chronicles 13:6-7. Grace hath a dominion, but lusts are mutinous and seditious during the infancy thereof. But it is not my business to shew you how these distractions come into the heart, but rather how to get and keep them out of the heart; in order whereto take these ten following helps.

Help 1. Sequester yourselves from all earthly employments, and set apart some time for solemn preparation to meet God in duty: you cannot come reeking hot out of the world into God’s presence, but you will find a tang of it in your duties: it is with the heart a few minutes since plunged in the world, now at the feet of God, just as with the sea after a storm, which still continues working, muddy and disquiet, though the wind be laid and storm over: thy heart must have some time to settle. There are few musicians that can take down a lute or viol, and play presently upon it, without some time to tune it; there are few Christians who can presently say, as Psalms 57:7, O God, my heart is fixed, it is fixed. O when thou goest to God in any duty, take thy heart aside, and say, O my soul, I am now addressing myself to the greatest work that ever a creature was employed about: I am going into the awful presence of God, about business of everlasting moment.

Oh my soul, leave trifling now, be composed, watchful, serious, this is no common work; it is God-work, soul-work, eternity-work. I am now going forth bearing seed, which will bring forth fruit to life or death in the world to come; pause a while upon thy sins, wants, troubles; steep thy thoughts a while in these before thou address thyself to duty. David first mused and then spake with his tongue, Psalms 39:3-4. So Psalms 45:1. My heart is inditing

Help 2. Having composed thy heart by previous meditation, presently set a guard upon thy senses: how often are poor Christians in danger of losing the eyes of their mind by those of their body; for this Job covenanted with his senses, Job 31:1, for this David prayed, Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity, and quicken thou me in thy way, Psalms 119:37. This may serve to expound that mystical Arabian proverb, which advises to shut the windows that the house may be light: It were excellent if you could say in your onsets upon duty, as an holy man once did, when he came off from duty: Claudimini occuli mei claudiminiBe shut, O mine eyes, be shut: for it is impossible you should ever see such beauty and glory in any creature, as I have now seen in God. You had need avoid all occasions of distraction from without, for be sure you will meet enough from within. Intention of spirit in the work of God, locks up the eye and ear against vanity. When Marcellus entered the gates of Syracuse, Archemides was so intent about his mathematical scheme, that he took no notice of the soldiers when they entered his very study with drawn swords; a fervent cannot be a vagrant heart.

Help 3. Beg of God a mortified fancy. A working fancy, saith one, how much soever it be extolled among men, is a great snare to the soul; except it work in fellowship with right reason, and a sanctified heart; the phantasy is a power of the soul placed between the senses and the understanding, it is that which first stirs itself in the soul, and by its motions the other powers are stirred; it is the common shop where thoughts are first forged and framed, and as this is, so are they; if imaginations be not first cast down, it is impossible that every thought of the heart should be brought into obedience to Christ, 2 Corinthians 10:5. This fancy is naturally the wildest and most untameable power in the soul. Some Christians (especially such as are of hot and dry constitutions) have much to do with it.

And truly, the more spiritual the heart is, the more it is troubled about the vanity and wildness of it. O what a sad thing it is! that thy nobler soul must lackey up and down after a vain roving fancy, that such a beggar should ride on horseback, and such a prince run after it on foot; that it should call off the soul from attendance upon God, when it is most sweetly engaged in communion with him, to prosecute such vanities as it would start at before! Beg earnestly of God, that the power of sanctification may once come upon it. Some Christians have attained such a degree of sanctification of their fancies, that they have had much sweetness left upon their hearts by the spiritual working of it in the night season: when thy fancy is more mortified, thy thoughts will be more orderly and fixed.

Help 4. If thou wouldst keep thy heart from those vain excursions, realize to thyself by faith, the holy and awful presence of God in duties.

If the presence of a grave man will compose us to seriousness, how much more the presence of an holy God?—Thinkest thou, thy soul durst be so gay and light, if the sense of a divine eye were upon it? Remember the place where thou art, is the place of his feet, Isaiah 60:13. Act faith upon the Omnisciency of God. All the churches shall know that I am he that searches the heart, and trieth the reins: and I will give to every one of you according to your works, Revelation 2:23. All things are naked and open to the eyes of him with whom we have to do, Hebrews 4:13. Realize his infinite holiness; into what a serious composed frame did the sight of God in his holiness put the spirit of the prophet? Isaiah 6:5. Labour also to get upon thy heart due apprehensions of the greatness of God, such as Abraham had. I that am but dust and ashes have taken upon me to speak to God, Genesis 18:27. And lastly, remember the jealousy of God, how tender he is over his worship. And Moses said unto Aaron, This is that the Lord spake, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me, and before all the people I will be glorified, Leviticus 10:3.

“A man that is praying,” saith Bernard, “should behave himself as if he were entering into the court of heaven, where he sees the Lord upon his throne, surrounded with ten thousand of his angels and saints ministering unto him.” When thou comest from a duty in which thy heart hath been toying and wandering, thou mayest say, verily God was in this place, and I knew it not. Suppose all the impertinences and vanities, which have past through thine heart in a duty were written out, and interlined with thy petitions; couldst thou have the face to present it to God? Should thy tongue but utter all the thoughts of thy heart in prayer, would not men abhor thee? Why, thy thoughts are vocal to God, Psalms 139:2. If thou wert petitioning the king for thy life, would it not provoke him to see thee playing with thy band strings, or catching at every fly that lights upon thy clothes, whilst thou art speaking to him about such serious matters? O think seriously upon that scripture. God is greatly to be feared in the assemblies of his saints, and to be had in reverence of all that are round about him, Psalms 89:7. Why did God descend in thunderings and lightnings, and dark clouds upon Sinai? Exodus 19:16, 18. Why did the mountains smoke under him, the people quake and tremble round about him, yea Moses himself not exempted; but to teach the people that great truth, Let us have grace whereby we may serve Him acceptably, with reverence and godly fear, for our God is a consuming fire, Hebrews 12:28-29. Present God thus before thee, and thy vain heart will quickly be reduced to a more serious frame.

Help 5. Maintain a praying frame of heart in the intervals of duty; what is the reason our hearts are so dull, careless, and wandering, when we come to hear or pray, but because there have been such long intermissions in our communion with God; by reason whereof the heart is out of a praying frame? If that spiritual warmth, those holy impressions we carry from God in one duty, were but preserved to kindle another duty, it would be of marvellous advantage to keep the heart intent and serious with God.

To this purpose those intermediate ejaculations, betwixt stated and solemn duties, are of most sweet and excellent use; by these, one duty is, as it were, linked to another, and so the soul, as it were, wraps up itself in a chain of duties. That Christian seldom misses his mark in solemn duty, that shoots up many of these darts in the intervals of duty. It is an excellent commendation Christ bestows upon the spouse, Thy lips, O my spouse, drop as the honey-comb, Songs 4:11. Upon which text one gives this sweet note; the honey-comb drops actually but sometimes, but it always hangs full of sweet drops ready to fall: if our ejaculations were more, our lamentations upon this account would be fewer.

Help 6. Endeavor to engage and raise thy affections to God in duty, if thou wouldst have thy distractions cured.

A dropping eye, and a melting heart, are seldom troubled as others upon this account: when the soul is intent upon any work, it gathers in its strength, and bends all the thoughts about it; and when it is deeply affected, it will be intent, the affections command the thoughts to go after them; deadness causes distraction, and distraction increases deadness: could you but look upon duties as the galleries of communion in which you walk with God, where your souls may be filled with those ravishing and matchless delights which are in his presence, your soul would not offer to stir from thence.

It is with the heart in duty, as it is with those that dig for golden ore; they try here and finding none, try there; and so go from place to place, till at last they hit upon the rich vein, and there they sit down. If thy heart could but once hit the rich vein in duty it would dwell and abide there with delight and constancy. O how love I thy law, it is my meditation day and night! Psalms 119:97. The soul could dwell day and night upon its knees, when once its delights, loves, and desires are engaged. What is the reason your hearts are so shuffling, especially in secret duties? why are you ready to be gone almost as soon as you are come into the presence of God, but because your affections are not engaged?

Help 7. Mourn over the matter to God, and call in assistance from heaven, when vain thoughts assault thy heart in duty.

When the messenger of Satan buffeted Paul by wicked injections, as is supposed, he goes to God and mourns over it before him, 2 Corinthians 12:8. Never slight wandering thoughts in duty as small matters; follow every vain thought with a deep sigh; turn thee to God with such words as these: Lord, I came hither to speak with thee, and here a busy devil and a vain heart conspiring together have set upon me. O my God! what an heart have I! Shall I never wait upon thee without distraction! when shall I enjoy an hour of free communion with thee? Help me, my God, this once; do but display thy glory before mine eyes, and my heart shall quickly be recovered: thou knowest I came hither to enjoy thee, and shall I go away without thee? See how the heart of thy poor child works towards thee, strives to get near thee, but cannot: my heart is aground; come thou north wind, blow south wind: O for a fresh gale now from thy Spirit, to set my affections afloat! couldest thou but thus affectionately bewail thy distractions to God, thou mightest obtain help and deliverance from them: He would say to Satan, and thine imperious lusts, as Ahasuerus said of Haman, what, will he force the queen before my face? Who are these, that set upon my child in my work and presence?

Help 8. Look upon the success and sweetness of thy duties, as very much depending upon the keeping of thy heart close with God in them.

These two things, the success and sweetness of duty, are as dear to a Christian as his two eyes; and both of these must necessarily be lost, if the heart be lost in duty. Surely God heareth not vanity, neither doth the Almighty regard it, Job 35:13. The promise is made to an heart engaged. Then shall ye seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your hearts. Jeremiah 29:13. Well, then, when thou findest thy heart under the power of deadness and distraction, say to thy soul, O what do I lose by a careless heart now! my praying times are the choicest parts, the golden spots of all my time: could I but get up this heart with God, I might now obtain such mercies as would be matter for a song to all eternity.

Help 9. Look upon it as a great discovery of the sincerity or hypocrisy of your hearts, according as you find them careful, or careless, in this matter.

Nothing will startle an upright heart more than this: what, Shall I give way to a customary wandering of heart from God? Shall the spot of the hypocrite appear upon my soul? They indeed can drudge on in the round of duty, never regarding the frames of their hearts, Ezekiel 33:31-32. but shall I do so? When men come into the presence chamber, and the King is not there, they bow to the empty chair. O never let me be satisfied with empty duties! never let me take my leave of a duty, until mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.

Help 10. Lastly, It will be of special use to keep thine heart with God in duties, to consider what influence all thy duties have into thy eternity.

These are your seed-times, and what you sow in your duties in this world, you must look to reap the fruit of it in another world, Galatians 6:7-8. If you sow to the flesh, of that you shall reap corruption; but if to the Spirit, life everlasting. O my soul, answer seriously, wouldst thou be willing to reap the fruit of vanity in the world to come? Darest thou say, when thy thoughts are roving to the ends of the earth in duty, when thou scarce mindest what thou sayest or hearest; now, Lord, I am sowing to the spirit; now I am providing and laying up for eternity, now I am seeking for glory, honor and immortality; now I am striving to enter in at the strait gate; now I am taking the kingdom of heaven by an holy violence? O such consideration as this should make the multitudes of vain thoughts that press in upon thy heart in duty, fly seven ways before it. And thus I have shewn you how to keep your hearts in the times of duty.

Fifth Season - How a Christian May Keep His Heart from Repining ← Prior Section
Seventh Season - How a Christian May Keep His Heart from Revengeful Motions Next Section →

The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.


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