For many the instruction to “guard your heart” means controlling your emotions, specifically in relation to the opposite sex. Others use it to emphasise resisting impurity. These applications tell us more about current evangelical preoccupations than what Proverbs 4:23 means by the heart and how we are to keep it. It is a much more difficult, comprehensive and urgent task than these specific counsels suggest.
It is certainly urgent and essential. John Flavel said that keeping our heart “is the most important business of a Christian’s life”. “It is the great work of a Christian, in which the very soul and life of religion consists, and without which all other duties are of no value with God”.
Andrew Gray spent considerable time explaining these matters. The following is extracted and updated from his three sermons on Proverbs 4:23.
What is Our Heart?
Our hearts are the most important aspect of our being. “Even if you gave Christ all your members, yet it would be considered nothing if you would not give Him your heart”. It is clear from what Gray says that our heart is not merely our thoughts or feelings. It includes our whole understanding, reason, memory, will, affections and conscience. It is the soul and all its faculties. It is every aspect of our inward and spiritual life.
But crucially the heart is by nature corrupt, deceitful and constantly departing from God.
Our hearts are exceedingly deceitful. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked, who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) Isaiah likewise speaks of a deceived heart which leads people aside (Isaiah 44:20). The heart of man is a deceitful thing, it will preach “peace, peace” when there is none. It will make us commit sin when there is not even any outward pleasure in it.
This is the great mystery of iniquity, that even our hearts will deceive our own hearts, and study to bring them to ruin. If your hearts were left one hour to yourselves to keep, you would commit more iniquity than you can imagine or dream of.
Our hearts are desperately wicked. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked, who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). If there were threatenings, commands, promises and convictions of sin, yet your heart will cause you to sin. If hell were put in your way, yet, for the pleasure of an idol, you would run to sin.
Our hearts love idols. That there is a cursed union between the heart and idols (Hosea 4:8 and 17). Three times we read in Ezekiel 24:3-5: “they have set up their idols in their hearts”. Keep your hearts with diligence lest this union be tolerated.
Our hearts are mad. There are many of our hearts that are exceedingly mad (Ecclesiastes 9:3) Certainly the hardness of our hearts shows that we do not keep our hearts.
Our hearts are divided. The fact that the heart is divided (Hosea 10:2) shows great necessity of keeping our hearts. If we were all well searched, it is to be feared that many of us would be found two-hearted. “A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways” (James 1:8). A man with two hearts has part of his heart going to God and part of his heart going to the devil.
Our hearts depart from God. “I am broken with their whorish hearts, which have departed from me (Ezekiel 9:6).
Our hearts are ignorant. By nature our hearts are exceedingly dull and ignorant in the ways of godliness (Ephesians 4:18).
Our hearts are unstable and changeable. We may compare the heart of a Christian (while here below) to Reuben: “unstable as water” which mars its excellence. While a Christian is here below he is like the moon: changeable and subject to many vicissitudes.
Why Should We Keep Our Heart?
This is something of eternal consequence. The reasons why are in Proverbs 4:23 “for out of it are the issues of life”. If you keep your heart, you shall have life; but if not, the issues of death will come from it.
It is a most excellent thing for a Christian to keep his heart. It is better to conquer that little thing of the heart, than it is for one to conquer a city (Proverbs 16:32).
It is something that is also very difficult and so must be done with “all diligence” or “all keeping”. There is such difficulty in keeping our hearts that we ought strongly to guard them. Adam kept his heart for only a short time and yet he could not keep it. This shows the difficulty of keeping it. Pray to God to keep your heart (Psalm 25:20; 1 Peter 4:9). Pray that prayer that Christ prayed when He was on the cross committing His Spirit into the hands of the Father (see Luke 24:36). O pray that prayer every day.
What is it to Keep Our Heart?
Keep Sight of Everything in Your Heart. Keeping our heart means that a Christian should observe the motions of his heart, and should not let his heart nor thoughts go astray, but should have a register of all their motions (Luke 21:34).
Keep Everything that Pertains to Your Heart. (a) Your thoughts; (b) Your eyes (Proverbs 4:25); (c) Your tongues (Proverbs 4:25); (d) Your feet, (e) Your ears.
Keep Everything Unclean Out of Your Heart (Proverbs 5:8; Deuteronomy 12:30).
Keep Restraints on Your Heart. Keep it so you may not commit iniquity. Bind these ropes on you to restrain yourselves: (a) the rope Christ’s love; (b) the rope of judgment – God will call you to a reckoning for all your wickedness; (c) the rope of God’s omniscience – all things are known to Him.
Keep Watch for Opportunities for Strengthening Grace in Your Heart. If you disregard them you are not keeping your heart.
Keep Your Heart in a Prayerful Condition. “Watch and pray” and “Pray without ceasing”.
Keep Your Heart in a Loving Condition. You ought to have your heart burning within you with love towards that glorious, infinite, and mysterious Jesus Christ.
Keep Your Heart in a Condition of Fearing Self. Fear the danger you are in if you are left to yourselves and your own strength.