In this great little book, Keeping the Heart, John Flavel (d. 1691) gives an exposition and application of Proverbs 4:23: “Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life.” After explaining how “keeping the heart” means fighting sin and staying close to the Lord, Flavel applies the text to specific seasons in the Christian life – seasons which require extra diligence in keeping the heart (for example, times of prosperity, need, danger, trial, temptation etc.).
Here’s an edited summary of Flavel’s instructions in keeping the heart during times of adversity, times when providence frowns upon us and troubles are intense.
1) Consider that in these adverse providences God is faithfully pursuing the great design of electing love upon the souls of his people, and he orders all these afflictions as means sanctified to that end. Afflictions come not by casualty or chance, but by God’s counsel (Is. 27:9, Heb. 12:10, Rom. 8:28).
2) Remember that though God has the liberty to afflict his people with fatherly discipline, he is bound to his covenantal oath and promise to never take away his loving kindness from them. Though does discipline us, he does not forsake us (2 Sam. 7:14).
3) In order to keep your heart, remember that your heavenly Father orders adversity. Not a creature moves hand or tongue against thee but by his permission. The cup may be bitter, but since the Father gave it to you, it is not filled with poison, but medicine.
4) Don’t forget that God loves you when you are at your best and when you are at your worst. He ordinarily manifests more of his love, grace, and tenderness in the time of affliction than in the time of prosperity. As God did not at first choose you because you were high, he will not now forsake you because you are low.
5) Ponder how God can remove your earthly comforts to keep your soul from temptation. Love of earthly comforts have made many forsake Christ. Just like seamen throw valuable goods overboard during a storm to save their lives, so God sometimes throws our worldly comforts overboard to save our lives during a storm, as it were.
6) To help keep your heart during adversity, consider the fact that humbling adversities are accomplishing that which you have prayed for a long time. If you have prayed for humility, detachment from the world, mortification of lusts, and if you have prayed that your heart might only find rest and enjoyment in Christ, remember that God brings adversity as a way to answer our prayers for these things.
7) Remember that in God’s secret counsel, these troubles and adversities are part of his sovereign plan for your life as his child. If we could only remember that God has decreed even the smallest things in our life, it would help us make it through adversity. 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.
8) Usually, during adversity, our fretting and discontentment hurt us more than the trial does. Affliction is a pill, which, being wrapped up in patience and quiet submission, may be easily swallowed; but discontent chews the pill, and so embitters the soul.
9) Never forget that you deserve to suffer far worse adversity than you are currently facing. We deserve eternal hell for our sins, but God in Christ is merciful, and the only pain his people have to suffer is nothing like hell – it is fatherly discipline that lasts only for a short time.
Again, I’ve summarized Flavel’s slightly more detailed explanations. Also, in case you were wondering, he used more Scripture in his application that I’ve given above. Though Flavel isn’t the easiest puritan to read, this book is short enough that it isn’t overwhelming. And in it there is some amazing, faith-strengthening, and biblically saturated encouragement to “keep your heart” through tough times in the Christian life. Highly recommended!
Here’s the full citation: John Flavel, Keeping the Heart (Ross-Shire: Christian Focus Publications, 2012), 41ff.