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ON THE GOVERNMENT OF THE HEART,
PROVERBS, iv. 23. *
Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.
AMONG the many wise counsels given by this inspired writer, there is none which deserves greater regard than that contained in the text. Its importance, however, is too seldom perceived by the generality of men. They are apt to consider the regulation of external conduct as the chief object of religion. If they can act their part with decency, and maintain a fair character, they conceive their duty to be fulfilled. What passes in the mean time within their mind, they suppose to be of no great
consequence, either to themselves, or to the world. In opposition to this dangerous plan of morality, the wise man exhorts us to keep the heart; that is, to attend not only to our actions, but to our thoughts and desires; and keep the heart with all diligence, that is, with sedulous and unremitting care; for which he assigns this reason, that out of the heart are the issues of life.-In discoursing on this subject, I propose to consider, separately, the government of the thoughts, of the passions, and of the temper. But, before entering on any of these, let us begin with inquiring, in what sense the issues of life are said to be out of the heart; that we may discern the force of the argument which the text suggests, to recommend this great duty, of keeping the heart.
The issues of life are justly said to be out of the heart, because the state of the heart is what determines our moral character, and what forms our chief happiness or misery.
First, It is the state of the heart which determines our moral character. The tenor of our actions will always correspond to the dispositions that prevail within. To dissemble, or to suppress them, is a fruitless attempt,
In spite of our efforts, they will perpetually break forth in our behaviour. On whatever side the weight of inclination hangs, it will draw the practice after it. In vain, therefore, you study to preserve your hands clean, unless you resolve at the same time to keep your heart pure. Make the tree good, as our Saviour directs, and then its fruits will be good also. For out of the heart proceed not only evil thoughts, but murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. If that fountain be once poisoned, you can never expect that salubrious streams will flow from it. Throughout the whole of their course, they will carry the taint of the parent spring.
But it is not merely from its influence on external action that the importance of the heart to our moral character arises. Independent of all action, it is, in truth, the state of the heart itself which forms our character in the sight of God. With our fellow-creatures, actions must ever hold the chief rank; because, by these only we can judge one another; by these we affect each other's welfare; and therefore to these alone the regulation of human law extends. But, in the eye of that Supreme Being, to whom our whole internal
* Matt. xv. 19.
frame is uncovered, dispositions hold the place of actions; and it is not so much what we perform, as the motive which moves us to performance, that constitutes us good or evil in his sight. Even among men, the morality of actions is estimated by the principle from which they are judged to proceed; and such as the principle is, such is the man accounted to be. One, for instance, may spend much of his fortune in charitable actions; and yet, if he is believed to be influenced by mere ostentation, he is deemed not charitable, but vain. He may labour unweariedly to serve the public; but if he is prompted by the desire of rising into power, he is held not public-spirited, but ambitious: and if he bestows a benefit, purely that he may receive a greater in return, no man would reckon him generous, but selfish and interested. If reason thus clearly teaches us to estimate the value of actions by the dispositions which give them birth, it is an obvious conclusion, that, according to those dispositions, we are all ranked and classed by Him who seeth into every heart. The rectification of our principles of action, is the primary object of religious discipline; and, in proportion as this is more or less advanced, we are more or less religious. Accordingly, the regeneration of the heart is
everywhere represented in the Gospel, as the most essential requisite in the character of a Christian.
Secondly, The state of the heart not only determines our moral character, but forms our principal happiness or misery. External situations of fortune are no farther of consequence, than as they operate on the heart; and their operation there is far from corresponding to the degree of worldly prosperity or adversity. If, from any internal cause, a man's peace of mind be disturbed, in vain you load him with all the honours or riches which the world can bestow. They remain without, like things at a distance from him. They reach not the source of enjoyment. Discomposed thoughts, agitated passions, and a ruffled temper, poison every ingredient of pleasure which the world holds out; and overcast every object which presents itself, with a melancholy gloom. In order to acquire a capacity of happiness, it must be our first study to rectify such inward disorders. Whatever discipline tends to accomplish this purpose, is of greater importance to man, than the acquisition of the advantages of fortune. These are precarious, and doubtful in their effect; internal tranquillity is a certain good. These are only means;