Keeping the Heart


Philippians 4:2-9

Text Comment

v.8

Verse 7 ended with the peace of God guarding our hearts and minds. But what God does in us and for us often requires our active participation. We have some responsibility for what goes on in our hearts and minds and Paul now turns to that. The Bible, as you know, is always alternating between the divine initiative and the human.

When Paul strings terms together as he does here, the inevitable question is whether each term bears a distinct meaning or whether Paul is adding one to another for effect. The commentaries distinguish between the terms as best they can, but there is plainly a fair measure of overlap. The difficulty of making precise distinctions is increased by the fact that five of the words in Paul’s list are not words he commonly uses and two of the eight qualities are mentioned only here in the NT. The terms taken together represent “those qualities which are good in themselves and beneficial to others.” [O’Brien, 503]

The sense of the present imperative that concludes v. 8 is, “Let your mind continually dwell on these things.”

v.9

Paul summarizes the ethical exhortations of the previous paragraph by saying that they are to live according to the teaching they have received from him and the example he set for them. In other words, the ethics of the previous verses are distinctively Christian. The thinking they are to do at the end of v. 8 is to lead to living, to practice. The virtues of v. 8 are not only to be pondered and reflected on, but practiced, and practiced in the context of the gospel and of faith in Christ.

In v. 7 the “peace of God” was the benefit to be gained from a life lived by prayer and thanksgiving. Here the presence of “the God of peace” is the blessing. We are reminded that the blessings of the gospel are all personal. They are not things that God dispenses, as it were; they are all the blessing of his own presence in the lives of his children. In any case, even in this list of duties, we have been reminded of the need to trust the Lord, as in v. 6. As everywhere else in Paul and in the Bible, the Christian life is the effulgence, the overflow of faith in Christ and love for him.

John Bunyan’s best known book is undoubtedly and deservedly his immortal allegory of the Christian life from its beginnings to its consummation in heaven, The Pilgrim’s Progress. There are other great books, Christian and non-Christian, but it is doubtful if there has been a better book or more influential in every good way than The Pilgrim’s Progress. But as many of you know, Bunyan told that same story, the story of salvation and Christian discipleship, with his own experience as a Christian serving as the basis of the story, two more times. His spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, is the same story as The Pilgrim’s Progress – at least the first part of that story – a point he demonstrates by the inclusions of several passages in the one work that are virtually indistinguishable from passages in the other. And then he tells the story of his own salvation and Christian experience one other time in a second allegory, The Holy War. Thomas Babbington Macaulay, the famous Lord Macaulay, prince of British historians, knew of what he was speaking when he wrote that had The Pilgrim’s Progress never been written, The Holy War would be the best allegory every written in the English language.

According to the style of 17th century literature, the full title of Bunyan’s other masterpiece was The Holy War made by Shaddai upon Diabolus, for the Regaining of the Metropolis of the World; or, the Losing and Taking Again of the Town of Mansoul. As a 17th century book-buyer, one never had to wonder what the book was about!

The Pilgrim’s Progress described the Christian life under the biblical image of a pilgrimage, a journey from this world to the next. The Holy War describes the same salvation and the same Christian life under the similarly biblical image of warfare. It is the military history of the soul, first as conquered and subjugated by Diabolus, the Devil of course, and then as it is recaptured by Prince Emmanuel and subsequently defended against continued assaults brought against it by its now deposed, infuriated, ex-master, Diabolus.

Bunyan begins his great work with a description of the town over which this great and lengthy battle is to be waged: the town of Mansoul. We read of its beauty, its situation, lying as it does between two worlds. We read of its five gates: Ear-gate, Eye-gate, Mouth-gate, Nose-gate, and Feel-gate. And then we read this:

“There was reared up in the midst of this town a most famous and stately palace. For strength, it might be called a castle; for pleasantness, a paradise; for largeness, a place so copious as to contain all the world. This palace the King Shaddai intended but for himself alone, and not another with him…”

In this picturesque and beautiful way Bunyan has described the human heart, not the physical organ that pumps blood, but the term in its ancient and approved use, and biblical usage as the intellectual, emotional, and volitional center of every human being. Our heart is our inner life; our active self-consciousness.

Alexander Whyte, in my mind John Bunyan’s definitive interpreter, said of this picture of the human heart, at the opening of The Holy War:

“Your heart is the best and greatest gift of God to you. It is the highest, greatest, strongest, and noblest power of your nature. It forms your whole life, be it what it will. All evil and all good come from your heart. Your heart alone has the key of life and death for you.” [Bunyan Characters, iii, 40]

The heart is the Bible’s favorite word for the seat of thinking, choosing, and feeling in a man or woman, boy or girl. It is the soul, the mind, the will, and the emotions all together. And the Bible says that our life comes out of this heart.

In his own inimitable and homely way, our Savior said the same thing. You know how he was so adept at taking illustrations from life, from the common store of everyone’s knowledge and experience. On one occasion – no doubt he was standing near an orchard or an olive grove – he said,

“Do you see the trees of the orchard? They can be either good or bad and you judge the tree eventually by the fruit that it bears. If it bears good fruit, it is a good tree; if it bears bad fruit, it is a bad tree. Now, have you ever thought that you and your life are remarkably like those trees? “For by their fruits you will know them.” You have a heart within you and it is like that tree in the orchard. As man planted that tree, God has given you a heart and you are going to be judged in eternity by what you have done with that heart because your heart determines the nature and the outcome of your life.” [Matt. 12:33-35; cf. Lloyd-Jones, The Heart of the Gospel, 58]

And in that homely way the Lord was only repeating the teaching of the ancient Scriptures. As we read in Proverbs 27:19: “As water reflects a face, so a man’s heart reflects the man.”

Abraham Kuyper defined the heart in this sense as “the mystic root of our existence, that point of consciousness in which life is still undivided.” [Cited in H. Van Til, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture, 38-39] He meant that the heart, the seat of your thoughts, your feelings, and your intentions, is the source of everything you eventually speak and do and if you could carry back your words and your deeds – what you do and what you do not do – if you could carry them back to their origin, you would find them all deep in your heart. You are most really what you are there. Your heart is your truest self. So, naturally the Bible often exhorts us to purify, to sanctify our hearts, to control them for Christ’s sake, to direct them and feed them and nurture them, because as the heart grows in godliness, the life must follow.

It is this principle that lies behind the Bible’s teaching that the Christian life cannot get started until the Lord, by his Holy Spirit, has changed the heart and made it new. This is what the Bible calls the new birth or the new creation. The old heart must be replaced by the new. And then the Christian life continues with the cultivation of the heart, what the old writers used to call a Christian man or woman’s “work indoors.”

Now it is just this keeping of the heart and nourishing of the heart and cultivating of the heart that Paul is talking about here in Phil. 4:8. He is only saying in different words and more specifically what the author of the opening chapters of Proverbs said when he wrote in 4:23: “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.”

And Paul is not simply encouraging us to keep our hearts, he is telling us how to do so. We are to devote our hearts – our thinking especially, as the end of v. 8 makes clear – but our feeling and our willing as well to do what is good and pleasing to God. As Paul says elsewhere, “Set your minds on things above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God,” and the result will be, as Paul says here in v. 9, that Christ will come down from his high throne and make his residence in your own poor, humble, and needy heart.

You must take care about what you think about, what you let your mind to dwell on. You have to take your mind off certain thoughts, certain daydreams, certain images, and place it on purpose on other thoughts, other dreams, and other images. You must, on purpose, think about certain kinds of things and not think about other kinds of things. Your heart, like wax, is susceptible to impressions and you need to take care and work hard to ensure that it is receiving the right kind of impressions and is being shaped by the right kind of influences and habits.

You can’t do this work by yourself, to be sure; God must help you, he must do his own work; but there is work for you to do and God does his work through your work.

What Paul gives us here then is a technique of spiritual life, a method for growing in godliness, and that method is the active, intentional control of one’s thoughts. Now the whole subject of spiritual technique is controversial in our day. There are some, in particular some in our own Reformed spiritual culture, who are very wary of sermons on technique; how-to sermons, if you will. They think that talking about “how to live the Christian life” invites moralism and eventually legalism. First our concentration is placed upon our own actions and methods as a way to grow in Christian godliness and then, however unwittingly, we fall into a way of thinking in which our relationship with God and Christ depends more upon how well we do this or do that than upon God’s grace and the work of the Holy Spirit. Then, before we know it, we are legalists, thinking that our relationship with God depends upon our own effort. No, these preachers warn us, our sermons should be about Christ and what he has done and what he now does for us and in us, not about what we are supposed to do.

The danger that they warn us against is real. There is no doubt about that. There are some very popular preachers in our land today who talk almost exclusively in their sermons about the techniques and methods of goodness, happiness, and fruitfulness. The pastor of an immense church, the largest in the country, and who reaches a still larger congregation through television, preaches exclusively upbeat messages telling people how to be happy, how to be successful, how to have positive relationships, and so on. “How-to” is the theme of his preaching. It is, in fact, barely Christian preaching. There is very little about God, about sin, about judgment, about the cross, about death and the resurrection, even very little about the law of God. These are sermons on psychological method or technique. And there are many such preachers today, thinking that people will come to hear them if they speak about how to have a happy marriage or how to manage their money or how to love their children or how to feel better about themselves.

But the fact that some make too much of technique or method, even the fact that there is a danger in thinking about what we must do cannot blind us to the obvious fact that the Bible says a good deal about how to live the Christian life. Paul has already instructed us in death and resurrection; in Christ’s atonement and its consequences for our salvation. He has already reminded us in various ways of our summons to give answer to God’s law with lives of love and obedience. But with all of that behind us and before us, Paul then gives us some very practical instruction in what we must do, in what methods we should employ in order to overcome our sins and put on holiness in the fear of God and for the sake of Christ.

And after telling us to rejoice in the Lord and banish anxiety from our hearts with prayer and thanksgiving, he says that we must lay hands upon our thoughts, upon the motions of our hearts, and control what goes on inside us, what we think about, what we give our thoughts to.

And no serious minded Christian can possibly doubt the importance of Paul’s wisdom here. You remember C.S. Lewis’ comment, “No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good.” [Mere Christianity, 124] Well, in a similar way, no one realizes how inclined his heart and mind is to evil thoughts and to inane and frivolous and useless thoughts until he has tried very hard to fill his thinking up with what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy. Let a Christian try to do that and he or she will know immediately why he or she falls so far short of the godliness Christ has summoned his followers to. The heart, the heart that produces the life, still has a great deal of rottenness in it and still runs in deep ruts of sin..

There is no country so forbidding and so unpleasant as one’s own heart and that is why people spend so little conscious and intentional time there. They are daily and hourly in their hearts as observers and as participants, but much more rarely are they there as rulers bringing a subject into submission. Their hearts and minds run on with very little control or direction. What is there, what happens there, is to them simply a fact, not an effect of conscious effort and decisive management on their part. The effort, when it is made, so quickly discourages and it becomes immediately obvious that this will be very demanding, difficult, and wearying work. And so it is given up.

Verse 8 may sound simple enough. Anyone who has tried to obey Paul’s instructions here knows, however, that there is nothing simple about it. As John Flavel, the Puritan, put it in his great work on keeping the heart, “This work affords the Christian matter for labor, fear, and trembling to his dying day.” [Works, v, 425] The great work of the Christian life is to trust, love, and serve the Lord Jesus Christ. But the great technique or method by which that work is done is the application of our will to the thoughts of our hearts. And that is very hard work.

You know yourself how lightning fast our minds flit from one thought to another with seemingly no particular reason. We find ourselves thinking of something completely different than we were thinking a few moments before and can hardly begin to explain how we got from the one to the other. You set out to pray or come into this house to worship God and find in a few moments and without your intention that your thoughts are a thousand miles away. To do what Paul says here will require the application of our minds and the concentration of our wills hour after hour through a day.

And that work is made still more difficult by the fact that our thoughts are secret. It is so much easier to control our words and our actions, especially those spoken or done in public, because we know that we will be judged by others according to what they hear us say and see us do. Not so with our thoughts. No one will know whether we are thinking about what is true, noble, right, kind, and pure and so on. These thoughts lie hidden deep within us. A person can be standing in front of us and speaking to us and he or she will not know what we are thinking about even as we talk together. We can smile and be polite all the while thinking very unkind and ungenerous thoughts. Jesus and Paul and the entire Bible are right, of course, that the fruit of our thoughts will show up eventually in our speech and our actions – they will make us more or less godly, Christ-like, useful to God and others – but, for the time being, and to some degree forever our thoughts lie hidden from others. No one knows what is going on in our heads except God and ourselves. It is wise for us to remember, to require ourselves to face the fact that were our thoughts to be known to others, we would be utterly humiliated and our reputation would lie in tatters, impossible to restore.

Many of you are too young to remember the way the media made fun of then President Jimmy Carter when he admitted in an interview granted to Playboy that he still struggled with lust. Comics poked fun and journalists sneered, but, as any wise person understood, only because their thoughts are not open to inspection; only because the black hell-hole of their hearts was hidden from view. They could laugh at another’s lust because no one could see theirs. It is much, much harder, is it not, to control what other people can’t see.

And, then, the work is made harder still by the fact that it has to be done by ourselves alone. God has given us much help in the brotherhood of the Christian church. We could never be or do as much without the assistance and the encouragement of and the accountability provided by our brothers and sisters. But there are vastly important parts of the Christian life that on one else can do for you or even help you do. This work Paul is commanding us to do must be done, can only be done in the privacy of our own hearts.

All of this to say that however simple verse 8 may seem at first reading, Paul is telling us that we must do a very difficult and demanding work. And if the difficulty were not enough, every Christian in every time and place finds other reasons to slide over Paul’s exhortation here and pay little or no attention to the great apostle.

When I was a boy, many if not most American Bible-believing Christians went to movies never or rarely. They were regarded as a temptation to be avoided. That all or nothing approach was not wise. But I notice, as that blanket prohibition was first reacted to and then eventually completely overcome, Christians nowadays in large numbers, and Christian young adults especially, attend movies, every manner of movie, as if the Bible never warned us against courting temptation and as if Paul never said that we were to think about what is pure and noble and lovely. There are Christian journalists and analysts of culture who seem to think that almost any exposure to our radioactively unbelieving culture is sanctified by the prospect that such exposure enables us to speak to the culture with greater sympathy and understanding. But what of Paul’s warning, “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness,” or his reminder that “It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret?” Those, after all, are just the positive exhortation of Phil. 4:8 in a negative form. Do we really think our hearts are left unchanged, uninfluenced by the constant exposure to violence, to sensuality, and to the love of the world in so many of today’s movies?

Or consider this. I have been in several ways made aware recently of a new development in urban Christianity, especially among young adult believers. There is apparently among them a sense of being hip, a certain cachet that goes with using dirty words. It is a practice justified, I gather, in the name of realism, authenticity, and genuineness. It is the certification that one is not a hypocrite as a Christian when he cusses and swears. I’ve encountered the practice on several occasions and now heard about it as well.

But in a text very like our text this morning, this from Ephesians 5, did not the same apostle Paul tell us directly:

“But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity…because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.” [5:3-4]

That is to say, we are to think about true, right, pure, loving, and admirable things, not about vulgar, cheap, low, impure, and unkind things so that we will not speak vulgar, impure and unkind words. “All a man’s ways seem right to him,” we read in Proverbs 21:2, “but the Lord weighs the heart.” He judges you first and foremost by your heart, and if you are to be pure and true and just and godly and loving in God’s sight, you must be all those things inside, in your thoughts. If you are to take seriously God’s summons to you, and if you are to offer yourself in love and gratitude for his gifts to you – and his gift of his Son supremely – then you must show your gratitude there first, in your heart. The reason the heart matters, your control of your thoughts, is because it determines what you will say and do! It is true that you must give the Lord your life – your words and your deeds – but that only means it is the more important to give the Lord your heart because out of the heart flow the issues of life and out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The sin/word or deed will not, it will never appear in our lives if it is not first allowed in our hearts. All these pretensions, all of these reasons not to do what Paul tells us to do here, are simply a failure to take seriously the place of the heart in everything that matters in life, to God and to ourselves. As one commentator bluntly put it: “Nothing is more unsanctified than a double meaning, or a double purpose, however ‘pious’ the ‘fraud.’” [Moule, 114] It is a fraud, a deceit that we are committing against ourselves only, when we imagine that we are authentic or genuine or even hip, and not simply sinful when we allow in our heart what displeases and dishonors our God.

It is the hardest part of the Christian life – there can be no doubt about that – but it is hardest because it is most important, it matters the most, it wields the greatest influence for everything good and holy.

“Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask…”

“You will seek me and you will find me when you seek me with all your heart.”

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

So brothers and sisters, do what Paul here tells you to do. Take your thoughts in hand and place them where they belong, on those things and those things only that please God. When your thoughts run to the foolish, the impure, the unkind, rebuke them and lift them from such things and place them back on the true, the noble, the right, the pure, the lovely, the admirable, the excellent, and the praiseworthy. Do it as you rise in the morning and do it until you go to bed at night, do it until it has become your habit to think of the true, the noble, the right, the pure, the lovely, and so on.

Augustine wrote of his aspirations for his own life:

“To my fellow men a heart of love; to my friends a heart of loyalty; to my God a heart of flame; to myself a heart of steel.” [Cited in BOT 317 (Feb. 1990) 13]

John Calvin’s emblem was that of a flaming heart on an outstretched hand, bearing the motto:

“Cor meum tibi offero, Domine, prompte et sincere.”

“There was reared up in the midst of this town a most famous and stately palace. For strength, it might be called a castle; for pleasantness, a paradise; for largeness, a place so copious as to contain all the world. This palace the King Shaddai intended but for himself alone, and not another with him…”