Keep Your Heart (2)
But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the LORD does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” 1 Samuel 16.7
Looking on our hearts
Strong souls require stout hearts, hearts strengthened with and kept for holy spiritual power and affections. The heart is the place to look in determining the state or condition of one’s faith –whether it be true or false, lively or feeble. The Lord Himself looks on the heart, to see what’s brewing there, to observe the bent or inclination of a person’s soul, what a person loves and desires, and to respond in ways appropriate to what He sees there – whether to reject the person, as He did with King Saul, or to receive and bless him, as He did with David.
The Lord looks on our hearts, so we should be looking on them as well, keeping a close watch on our affections and guarding against anything that might corrupt our heart, weaken our soul, and compromise our faith. The renewing of the heart depends on understanding the role of the heart in the soul, and of improving the right use of affections, in line with the teaching of God’s Word.
Jonathan Edwards wrote, “true religion consists, in a great measure, in vigorous and lively actings of the inclination and will of the soul, or the fervent exercises of the heart…” He elaborated this theme of his great work, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections by writing, “That religion which God requires, and will accept, does not consist in weak, dull, and lifeless wishes, raising us but a little above a state of indifference. God, in his word, greatly insists upon it, that we be in good earnest, fervent in spirit, and our hearts vigorously engaged in religion.”
Each believer has a duty to strengthen the heart for vigorous and fruitful engagement in our calling to the Kingdom and glory of God (1 Thess. 2.12). Without strong hearts, we won’t have strong souls (Ps. 119.32).
Jonathan Edwards wrote that vigorous Christian faith depends on maintaining proper affections. When we hear the word affection, we might think of a feeling of fondness for another person. We say that we have affection for our spouses, children, and friends, and we associate that feeling with a kind of pleasantness, warmth, and wellbeing.
But Edwards means much more than this. For him, the word affections includes every emotion, attitude, or sentiment which stirs from the depths of our souls and inclines us to act in particular ways and, thus, to be a particular kind of person. As he puts it, “The affections are no other, than the more vigorous and sensible exercise of the inclination and will of the soul.”
Don’t miss the key parts of that definition. First, affections are vigorous. That is, they have strength. They exert formative power. They can “affect” us, if you will, in many ways. They are the very “springs of motion” which vigorously exert themselves on every aspect of our lives. Every person’s heart bristles with affections. We cannot do without them. The challenge for the Christian in nurturing a strong soul is to make sure the right affections are rightly engaged toward right ends.
Second, affections are sensible. That is, not only do we feel them deeply, but they come to expression in sensible ways, that is, in ways that engage our senses and bodies in action, or “motion”, as Edwards puts it. Affections are not content merely to remain feelings in our hearts. The true nature of our affections – regardless of what we might insist we may feel – will be observed in the actions to which they move us. We may feel very loving toward someone, but if our actions do not demonstrate that love, then the true affection governing our hearts is something other than love, an affection leading to inaction or wrong action toward another. True love issues in action, as Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 13.
Finally, note that affections tend to create a specific condition in the soul, an inclination and will of the soul, so that whatever affections we harbor in our hearts bend or incline us to act in certain ways, according to the set of affections which are strongest within us. The affections, in other words, shape the nature of our character.
Affections, it is thus clear, are the heart of it all when it comes to understanding the content of our souls and the character of our faith. The more we learn about affections and how to nurture and engage them, the stronger our soul will be for obedience to Christ and His calling.
A powerful thing
Edwards was adamant about this: “If we be not in good earnest in religion, and our wills and inclinations be not strongly exercised, we are nothing. The things of religion are so great, that there can be no suitableness in the exercises of our hearts, to their nature and importance, unless they be lively and powerful.” He continued, “True religion is evermore a powerful thing; and the power of it appears, in the first place, in its exercises in the heart, its principal and original seat.”
We need our affections to be “lively and powerful” for the purposes of Christ and His Kingdom. This doesn’t just happen; we must work at it, achieving mastery of our affections by understanding and keeping our heart according to the teaching of God’s Word.
It should not be difficult to determine the condition of our faith at any given time. All we need to do is examine the ways our heart is vigorously inclined, what kind of fervor for God and His will we evidence, and how these affections have shaped the kind of people we are. God looks on our heart, and we must, too, or the heart, which is by nature deceitful and desperately wicked, will cause our affections to go awry and lead us into a faith that is more travesty than truth (Jer. 17.9; 2 Cor. 6.12).
And if what we find, upon examination, is not consistent with what the Scriptures teach, then we must apply more diligence to keeping our hearts, and to improving them in line with the heart of God and His Word.
1. Give some examples of how affections move us to action.
2. Why is it important to know that how we feel may not actually describe the true state of the affections of our heart? What validates affections true?
3. Because affections are so powerful in shaping who we are and how we act, we need to make sure we understand as much as possible about the heart and its operations. Explain.
Next steps – Preparation: In what kinds of ways – to what things and actions – is your heart “vigorously inclined”? What do you most desire? Long for? Think about with delight? Spend some time in prayer over these questions.
T. M. Moore
Your soul in the Kingdom of God
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.