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SERMON L X XII.
THE KEEPING OF THE HEART A PRACTICABLE AND
KEEP thy heart with all diligence : for out of it are the issues of life.-Prov. iv. 23.
Since this divine precept enjoins a duty which ought to be universally understood, and universally practiced, I shall endeavor to set it in a clear and instructive light, by showing what it is to keep the heart, how it is to be kept, and why it is to be kept with all diligence.
1. We are to consider what the duty is which is required in the text: “ Keep thy heart.” This mode of expression plainly intimates that the heart needs to be kept; and the necessity of keeping it as plainly supposes that it is prone to go astray. To prevent it, therefore, from going wrong, is to keep it in the sense of the text. There is no possibility of restraining the heart from all exercises or emotions. As no man who opens his eyes in a clear day, can help perceiving the light, so no man who perceives any visible or invisible object, can help being pleased or displeased, or having some exercises of heart about it. The injunction in the text, therefore, does not require men to lay a total restraint upon their hearts and reduce themselves to stoic insensibility, but only to restrain all their free, voluntary affections from every thing improper and sinful. This implies two things.
1. To keep the heart from all improper objects. Amidst the innumerable objects which surround mankind, some ought to engage their affections at one time, and some at another. They always ought to keep their hearts from all those objects which are not connected with their present duty. But they are ex
tremely apt to let their hearts wander frorn proper to improper objects. How often does it happen on the Sabbath, that they allow the world and the things of the world to engage their affections, instead of fixing their whole hearts upon those religious and divine objects which are inseparably connected with the duties of the day. And when they are engaged in any duty, whether secular or spiritual, how often do their hearts insensibly wander with the fool's eyes to the ends of the earth, and dweil upon things with which their present duty has no connection nor concern. Men have always some duty to perform, and their hearts ought to be engaged in that duty and in nothing else. One thing, therefore, implied in keeping the heart, is to guard it against every object which has no proper connection with present duty. And another thing is,
2. To guard it against all improper affections. While the heart is placed upon proper objects, it may have very improper affections towards them; and this not only may be the case, but is extremely apt to be the case. Men are called to attend to worldly objects, but forbidden to exercise improper affections towards them. Men are called to attend to spiritual and divine objects, but forbidden to exercise improper affections towards them. But how often do they feel improperly towards the world and the things of the world, and towards God and the things of God. They should always keep their hearts from loving hateful objects, and from hating lovely objects. Though it be more difficult
, yet it is more important, to keep the heart from improper affections than from improper objects; but the precept in the text requires men to keep their hearts from both these evils. And so long as they do keep their hearts from both improper objects and improper affections, they completely fulfil their duty.
I proceed as proposed,
Since God requires men to keep their hearts at all times and under all circumstances, there must be some way in which they can perform this constant, necessary, and arduous duty. And what has been said in explaining the duty, naturally suggests the proper manner of performing it. The duty consists in restraining the heart from improper objects and improper affections. And to do this it is necessary,
1. That men should always attend to those objects only, with which they are properly concerned. While they are pursuing their secular affairs, they are properly concerned with secular objects. They cannot perform any worldly business without attending to it. The farmer must attend to his farm, the mechanic must attend to his trade, the attorney must attend VOL. V.
to the law, the preacher must attend to divinity, the statesman must attend to the affairs of state, and all men must attend to their religious and eternal concerns. While their attention is employed upon these and other proper objects, their hearts will be effectually restrained from wandering. The minds of men must be in perpetual exercise in the view of right or wrong objects. But so long as they attend to proper objects, they cannot attend to those which are impertinent or improper. Every man's mind would be perpetually fixed on one single object, were no other object presented to divert his attention. Were one object constantly impressed upon the mind, and but one, it would be as impossible for the mind to think of any other object, as to create a world. And the only reason why any one object which ever possessed our mind does not still possess it, is because other objects have crowded it out and taken its place. We know that an object of surprise will sometimes occupy the whole mind, by excluding all other objects, and throw it into a momentary distraction. The mind cannot be diverted from any object which seizes it, only by the intervention of some other object equally great, novel, or interesting. This we see daily verified in children. Let them be ever so much affected by any particular object, they may be easily composed by almost any thing new or strange. Hence the common use of those trifles, in turning the attention and the tide of affection in children. In this respect men and children are exactly alike. Let any man only attend to proper objects, and his heart will be completely restrained from wandering. The heart cannot move towards any object, without being led by the eye, or the ear, or the understanding, or the imagination, or some other natural faculty of the mind. The natural faculties, in this case, absolutely govern the heart; and it is for this reason that men are properly required to keep their hearts. They have natural power to keep their hearts from all improper objects, because they have natural power to fix them upon proper objects, or those with which their duty is connected. This is plainly intimated by Solomon in the words succeeding the text. “Let thine eyes look right on, and let thine eye-lids look straight before thee. Ponder the path of thy feet; — turn not to the right hand nor to the left; remove thy foot from evil.” Let men direct their attention to proper objects, and their affections will infallibly follow their attention. The truth of this every one knows by his own experience. He never found his heart wandering, while his whole attention was engaged in some secular employment or religious duty. There is no danger of the heart's going astray, while the attention is entirely fixed upon those objects which ought to engage it. Men may always keep their hearts from all improper objects, by fixing their attention steadily upon proper ones. Though it does not always depend upon their choice' what objects shall be presented, and what ideas shall be suggested, by causes from without, yet it does always depend upon their choice, what objects or ideas they shall make the subjects of particular attention. And if they only avoid seeing, hearing, and thinking such things as they have no occasion to see, hear, and think, by fixing their whole attention upon those things which lie in the path of duty, they will effectually keep their hearts from all improper objects. This leads me to observe,
2. That men must pursue the same method to keep their hearts from improper affections, as from improper objects. To keep their hearts from improper objects, they must attend to good ones; and to keep their hearts from improper affections, they must exercise good ones. To keep the heart from every wrong feeling is more difficult, as well as more important, than to keep it from wrong objects. The heart of the sons of men is naturally full of evil
, and fully set in them to do evil. They are naturally disposed to exercise sinful affections towards all objects which strike their minds, or engage their attention. Let them be where they will, let them be engaged in what business they will, let them attempt what duties they will, their hearts are prone to go astray, and spoil all their exertions and performances. This evil propensity they ought to restrain, at all times and under all circumstances. But how can they perform this duty ? The answer is easy.
Let them exercise good affections. As proper objects will always exclude improper ones from the mind, so proper affections will always exclude improper ones from the heart. While men exercise such affections as God requires, they will not be troubled with such as he forbids; and while they keep their hearts in a holy frame, unholy affections cannot intrude or interrupt their virtuous and benevolent feelings. Love will exclude hatred, as well as hatred exclude love. Faith will exclude unbelief, as well as unbelief faith. Repentance will exclude impenitence, as well as impenitence repentance. Submission will exclude opposition, as well as opposition submission. Humility will exclude pride, as well as pride humility. In a word, any gracious exercise will exclude any sinful one; and it is only by the exercise of holiness that the heart can be kept from sin. Hence the propriety and importance of that command given to christians : “ Keep yourselves in the love of God.” By observing this divine precept, and living in the continual exercise of grace, they may keep their hearts from every sinful affection, in whatever situation they are placed, or with whatever objects they are surrounded. There is one and the same way for all men to keep their hearts from improper affections and improper objects. Let them only attend to proper objects, and exercise right affections, and they will never see, nor hear, nor think, nor speak, nor act wrong, while they are passing through the varying scenes of this present evil world. It is now necessary to show, as proposed,
III. The importance of men's keeping their hearts with the greatest care and constancy. This Solomon forcibly enjoins in the text. Keep thy heart with all diligence ; for out of it are the issues of life." The heart lies at the bottom of all human actions, and is the primary source of every thing that is worthy of praise or blame in mankind. All their goodness and all their badness proceeds from the heart, which entirely forms their moral character. And if they will only consider this inseparable connection between their hearts and lives, they must feel the great importance of keeping their hearts with all diligence. For,
1. While they neglect to keep their hearts, all their moral exercises will be sinful. There is no medium between their feeling right or wrong; and, of consequence, they must always exercise either holy, or unholy affections. The moment they neglect to keep their hearts in the love of God, or in the exercise of grace, some sinful affection will succeed, and continue, until they renew their watch, and revive their holy exercises. Those who totally neglect to keep their hearts, live in the continual exercise of selfish and sinful affections. Whether they love or hate, whether they hope or fear, whether they are vain or serious, the whole train of their affections is evil and only evil continually. The same is true of those who habitually keep their hearts, but occasionally neglect them. While they neglect to keep their hearts, whether the term be shorter or longer, all their moral exercises are selfish, and diametrically opposite to the law of love. Since God looketh on the heart, and not on the outward appearance, and requires truth in the inward parts, it is of great importance that men should keep their hearts with all diligence, and suppress all internal motions and affections which are unholy and sinful.
2. While men neglect to keep their hearts, all their thoughts will be sinful. “Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts.” “ As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” “ The thought of foolishness is sin.” All thoughts become sinful, when they are improperly approved or disapproved by the heart. The heart always does have some feeling towards all the thoughts which pass through the mind, whether they are suggested by the visible world, or by Satan, or by the Spirit of God. Though bare thoughts have no moral good or evil in themselves considered, yet in connection with the heart, they all acquire a good or bad moral quality. If