We guard the things we treasure — and so we ought — because where our treasure is, our heart will be also (Matt 6:21). Typically, our level of watchfulness corresponds to the value we place upon the treasure. Freedom, for example, is deeply treasured by Americans and demonstrated by our willingness to send our sons and daughters to risk their lives in order to maintain it. Take for instance a mother with her children; she can be gentle and docile, but if you try to harm or wrong one of her kids she transforms into the Incredible Hulk. We like to guard our sentimental treasures. The height to which I display valuables in my home directly correlates to the length of our young ones’ reach. Should we even mention the lengths which we are willing to go in order to guard our own self-interest? We treasure self, and our selfish desires are demonstrated by our willingness to tread upon others in order to be fulfilled. My fear is that we often endeavor to guard things we value most; things which God values least.
“Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov 4:23). For good or evil, the heart produces whatever attitudes, words, and actions you display. As the source from which our being flows, the heart should be guarded above all else. Solomon offers a word of warning and exhortation in this passage to help recalibrate our attention toward the importance of our heart.
May we not carelessly overlook the warning — “for from it flow the springs of life” — which is intended to heighten our urgency and diligence toward the task of keeping. The heart is critical because the heart is the source of issues that flow into life. The way you think in your heart genuinely reflects the type of person you are (Prov 23:7). The warning raises the priority of the heart to a position of primary focus, such that we recognize the source and grounding of our attitudes, actions, and words.
Everything we think, say, and do makes a statement about God. If everything we think, say, and do flows from our heart, then it follows that we must guard the affections of our heart toward God. We do not guard in static complacency, but in focused pursuit to grow in grace, knowledge, and affection toward Christ. Growing in the grace and affection of Christ guards the heart by emboldening desires toward the things of God and burgeoning hatred for worldly desires and fruit of the flesh it produces.
Thoughts in the heart flow out into actions. Our thinking is often deceived when we do not consider the future consequences flowing out from us. However, knowing, as this warning teaches, that thoughts in seed form in the heart flourish into ripened fruit, we will be more apt to guard our heart from enticing passions because the fruit produced will always represent the moral disposition of the embedded thought according to God’s accounting. As Proverbs 21:2 reminds us “every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the heart.”
Solomon’s exhortation is to guard the heart with all diligence. He says to guard, but to do it with all diligence or vigilance. It literally means guard with all guarding or keep with all keeping. The intensity of our focused guarding is commensurate to the value God places upon our heart.
In pursuit of obedience, after hearing Solomon’s command, we should be asking, “with what shall I guard my heart?” The context of the Proverb provides insight into what we utilize to guard our heart. Solomon teaches through repetition that his son be attentive to his instruction (Prov 4:1,10,13,20) and hold fast his commandments (4:4-6). These statements are reminiscent of Paul’s words to the Colossians to “Let the word of Christ dwell in your heart, richly;” or the way the writer of Hebrews encourages believers to “let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.” The Father has given us his instruction and commandments so that the gaze of our eyes and the tune of our ears are fixed because the true words from God are a fortress. The Word of God stands as the formidable two-way guard of your heart protecting the fragility of your tender and impressionable heart from enticing temptations without and restraining the fickle fleshly raging desires from within.
Means to guard
Much like the means of change presented by Paul in Ephesians 4 — put off and put on — Proverbs 4 has a similar pattern of instruction. There is a list of things to forsake (v2, 6), such as the path of the wicked (v14), and crooked speech or devious talk (v24). “Heart work,” as the Puritans liked to say, was to be as active in forsaking evil as pursuing righteous ways. We are to pursue hearing well (v1, 10, 20) by being attentive to the Father’s teaching (v2). Not limited to being a hearer only of the Word, we are to ponder or diligently discern as we walk the path of the righteous (v18, 26). Guarding the heart is no passive venture, but active in forsaking devious thoughts and ways while intentionally walking in the ways of God. As the Puritan John Flavel said, “The comfort of our souls much depends upon the keeping of our hearts; for he that is negligent in attending to his own heart, is, ordinarily, a great stranger to assurance, and the comforts following from it.”1
How do we keep the heart when…?
We are accustomed to doubt God when we fail. May you be encouraged that in every occasion for which you grieve over your sin it is not sufficient grounds for God to forsake you. Flavel said, “A guilty conscience is more terrified by imagined dangers, than a pure conscience is by real ones.” On these occasions we are tempted, as Adam and Eve, to hide in our own imagination from God when in reality we should be driven to him. “Whatever be the ground of one’s distress,” Flavel encouragingly noted, “it should drive him to, not from God.”2 The beauty for the believer in revisiting the sturdy truths of the gospel is that our conscience is sprinkled clean by the blood of Christ from all guilt, which sets our “heart above all fear.”3 Once we return in repentance and humility we may relish the great promises from Matthew 28:20, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age,” and Hebrews 13:5, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
The curse of sin has set the stage for darkness to be common — our bodies fail, our friends may be unfaithful, enemies attack, things fall apart, and news is often bad. Psalm 112:7 says, “He is not afraid of bad news; his heart is firm, trusting in the Lord.” We must confess, however, that bad news is often terrifying because we are not trusting firm in the Lord. Our heart is unguarded, like a city without walls, and bad news comes in to conquer. Work needs to be done to affix our heart (Col 3:1-2) and guard our mind (2 Cor 10:3-6) in the trustworthy Lord Jesus. We must rest in the providence of our God, because He appraises differently than our human minds (Isa 55:9). Listen to Flavel describe the beauty of God’s providential care: “Providence is like a curious piece of tapestry made of a thousand shreds, which, single, appear useless, but put together, they represent a beautiful history to the eye.”4
The troubles we face are real troubles, but the promises of God are real promises. In trusting his hand, he quiets the mind, he guards the heart, and he comforts the soul. William Cowper’s pen captures the reality of our troubles in relation to God’s providence. Guard your heart with these truths, for from it flow the springs of life.
God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill,
He treasures up his bright designs,
And works his sovereign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning Providence
He hides his smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding ev’ry hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.5
- John Flavel, Keeping the Heart, 29.
- Ibid., 94.
- Ibid., 62.
- Ibid., 46.
- William Cowper, Poems, “Light Shining in the Darkness,” (1837), 495.
Dr. Dale Johnson is the Executive Director-Elect of The Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC) and also Assistant Professor of Biblical Counseling and Chair of the Biblical Counseling Division at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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