Keeping the Heart

A Puritan Takes Me to the Woodshed

One of my kids is an outstanding athlete. She was born ready to roll up her sleeves and conquer something—primarily, any kind of sport. From a young age, she out-swam, out-threw and out-scored with joy, rarely sizing up opponents or herself. With childhood freedom and joy, she competed—and with success.

As she has entered the teenage years, her commitment to her sport has only increased. She works hard at every practice and delights in every ounce of progress. Nowadays, she and her teammates check opponents’ rosters ahead of time to anticipate the other team’s attacks. A few years in, she still rides the heights of athleticism, but she’s often thwarted by a quieter player. Her greatest opponent these days isn’t wearing a different uniform; it’s her passionate—and prone to fouling—human heart.

Sometimes I marvel at all the things I can accomplish too—the physical and mental regimens I keep so faithfully. I never miss a workout, and I avoid junky food. I schedule things, order things, cook things, and organize things. I read smart things and research everything. I drive my kids to school, sports, doctors and dentists (but not enough, because they have cavities now). My habits look boring to teenagers, and they fall short of athletic glories, but a desperate voice insists, “if only others knew how overloaded I was, maybe they’d be impressed—she still manages to get it all done!”

Like my competitive daughter, though, I often fail to carry the same flame when it comes to matters of the heart. I often skip scripture reading when my schedule (see above) gets busy, so I’ll settle for an encouraging podcast while walking dogs—all good until my Bible sits undisturbed in the same position for two weeks. I respond to texts, emails and reach out for “important” conversations immediately but shrug off prayer for later—God understands the pressures of the modern world. Soon enough I bemoan my dejected or weary spirit, but duty calls— there’s no time to address such universal struggles todayYes, I keep up with this life’s growing demands, but I fail to guard my heart.

The external time crush isn’t my only challenge, though. A continual volley of thoughts invade with their unholy instincts. One moment I’m deeply regretting that stupid thing I did 20 years ago; the next moment, I’m fuming over a random remark from my husband, a messy pile of laundry, or the daily decline of civilization. Wandering my mind’s maze all day tanks my mood and smothers the steadying voice of truth. I pride myself in thinking deeply, but forget to take these rogue thoughts captive—the key to defending a quiet and orderly heart.

An old saint from the 1600’s, John Flavel, wrote On Keeping the Heart, a small treatise of Puritan encouragement and sound rebuke. Flavel calls heart-keeping “the one great business of the Christian’s life,” and my own struggles confirmed this to me. He wrote to a world of farmers and sailors, but since neither God’s word nor human nature have changed, his advice is just as timely in a generation of QR codes and Teslas.

Flavel writes about keeping the heart amidst life’s varying conditions—in times of prosperity, adversity, sickness, duty, or even “public distraction” as well as in times of doubting, spiritual darkness, and death. He covers the duties of our outer and inner worlds that may be hidden to others but are known well to God. Good times may be of particular danger in their sleep-inducing ease. Keeping the heart is a lifelong practice of submitting everything— inside and out—to the lordship of Christ.

If you’ve read any books by Puritan theologians, you will be familiar with the feeling that you’ve been lovingly warned that your ship is sinking. Even as they tenderly address every sort of sin, psychosis and pathology, they never shy away from confronting us with truth through a mix of scripture and 17th-century historical anecdotes. I find this refreshing in a world of woke preachers whose seeker-friendly and “relevant” sermons give a wide berth to truth, and therefore to any remedy as well.

Back to my own untidy heart, I found myself sheepishly putting things back in order this week. After months of busyness and unguarded thoughts had taken their toll, I was ready to stop wandering the old mental mazes and nursing the same old wounds. I missed deeply joyful rambles in green pastures, the happier way of walking with the Lord. I forced myself to sit down and be quiet and read my Bible—and I mean the print version, with its delicate pages, and not the digitally distracting online version.

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