I’m just back from my first week away as part of my sabbatical. I’m really thankful to people for their prayers- I’ve had a deeply refreshing week in the Brecon Beacons. As you know, it has been a baking hot week. I spent early mornings and late evenings in the spot above with books in hand before retreating to the shade of the cottage for the heat of the day. I should probably also acknowledge that a nearby pub provided a cricket watching hour each day as well!
Across the week I listened to many of the talks from this year’s Evangelical Ministry Assembly. You can find them here. For Woody Road members who haven’t heard enough on 1 Peter, Vaughan’s talks are particularly helpful in exploring the attitudes that are necessary in the midst of opposition. In particular his first talk was really useful- to persevere will need a robust theology of suffering but also a deep grasp of the privileges that are ours in salvation so that we may be sorrowful yet rejoicing.
Perhaps the highlight of the week for me was reading the Puritan John Flavel in his work Keeping the Heart. You can get it as a free download here. It is based around the verse from Proverbs 4 that I mentioned in my last post about the reason for a sabbatical- Above all else guard your heart for it is the wellspring of life. As such reading Flavel’s book felt like a useful way to start my time away.
The strength of Flavel’s work is simply that you can’t read it without realising that this is an important issue. In so doing he picks up the language of “Above all” from the verse. He writes these words, “The keeping and right managing of the heart in every condition is the great business of a Christian’s life.” His great fear is becoming a formalist- one who, for instance, attends church but has no sense of the love of God or fear of God in the heart.
Essentially for Flavel the heart is the inner man- it is the “seat of principles and the fountain of actions.” All that we do flows from the heart- to use another analogy it is the “womb of all actions.” This is in line with what the Lord Jesus says about speech- it is out of the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks. Flavel lists six reasons as to why guarding the heart is so important- a right heart will enable the person to glorify God, will show the sincerity of their faith, will lead to beautiful conversation, will bring us comfort, will enable us to serve effectively and will keep us stable in the midst of temptation. I think that is right- I’m conscious that I am most happy and serve most effectively when my heart is flowing Godwards rather than being divided.
The bulk of the book concerns how to keep one’s heart in the midst of a variety of circumstances. This being a Puritan book, it is painstakingly detailed as Flavel deals with keeping the heart in prosperity, poverty, when angry, when discouraged, when doubting that one is saved (this section was really good) and in a number of other instances. I’ve tried to make a mental note to return to those sections when appropriate in my own life or when preaching on a subject.
At the end of the book Flavel has directions as to how to apply this practically. He stresses the importance of spending time in the Word of God (and I am conscious that a week of being in the Word without the immediacy of a sermon to write has done my heart a lot of good), taking heed lest the multiplicity of earthly business means neglecting the “above all” business of Proverbs 4 and being careful not to loose the liveliness and sweetness of communion with God. I am conscious that a number will read this and wonder how they can find the time and would protest that, unlike me, they don’t get a nice week in the Brecon Beacons to read the Bible. I can understand that. But I suppose Flavel simply wants to flag this as an issue- of the various things that we think about does the state of our heart feature?
There is no earthly end to this work- “Keeping the heart is such a work as is never done till life is done.” At times we will be frustrated with the slowness of progress which Flavel attributes to God’s wisdom in keeping us dependent on His grace rather than thinking we have achieves perfection. Nevertheless the day will come “when your thoughts shall be everlastingly, ravishingly and delightfully entertained and exercised upon the supreme goodness and infinite excellency of God.”
Are there any weaknesses? I would have loved more on the state in which our heart is to be kept. What is the goal here? Presumably it is a heart that is secure in the grace and Fatherly care of God, fears Him and His displeasure and delights in Him more than anything in the world. It is from this sort of heart that life and blessing springs to others. Reading the book did me good- and was a helpful reminder of the importance of guarding me heart when I return to work rather than simply being swept away by all that needs to be done.
The role of the heart when it comes to work was also a theme of the other book that I finished this week- Every Good Endeavour by Tim Keller. It seeks to apply the truths of the Gospel to the realm of work. I mainly read it to do some thinking on how we can support people in work as a church and also for a Sunday evening sermon series on work coming up in the autumn. There is much to commend the book- as it talks through the goodness of work from creation but also the inevitable pain and frustration that work brings because of the Fall. However, I found the last few chapters most helpful. Much of our pain in work comes from the fact that it has become idolatrous- and that we have sought to find our meaning in, for instance, other people’s approval of our work. I think I’ve often struggled with that. But the Gospel- which brings us the acceptance and approval of God by grace- frees us from that. “The Christian worker (as in a Christian who works)…who has experienced God’s grace, is free to honour God, love neighbours and serve the common good through work.” Again- good work flows from a good heart that is secure in God’s grace.
Those who know me well know that I love sport. It was a fantastic thing to see Andy Murray win Wimbledon. And yet I have been reminded again in the past week that the deepest inner joy is to be found in meditating on the wonderful grace of God. That is the key to life.