Thirdly, To point out those special seasons in the life of a Christian which require our utmost diligence in keeping the heart. Though (as was observed before) the duty is always binding, and there is no time or condition of life in which we may be excused from this work; yet there are some signal seasons, critical hours, requiring more than common vigilance over the heart.
The first season is the time of prosperity, when Providence smiles upon us. Now, Christian, keep thy heart with all diligence; for it will be very apt to grow secure, proud and earthly. “To see a man humble in prosperity,”(says Bernard) “is one of the greatest rarties in the world.” Even a good Hezekiah could not hide a vain-glorious temper in his temptation; hence that caution to Israel: “And it shall be, when the Lord thy God shall have brought thee into the land which he aware to thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give thee great and goodly cities which thou bulkiest not, and houses full of all good things which thou filledst not” “then beware lest thou forget the Lord.” So indeed it happened: for “Jeshurun waxed fat and kicked?” How then may a Christian keep his heart from pride and carnal security under the smiles of Providence and the confluence of creature-comforts?
There are several helps to secure the heart from the dangerous snares of prosperity.
1 Consider the dangerous ensnaring temptations attending a pleasant and prosperous condition. Few, very few of those that live in the pleasures of this world, escape everlasting perdition. “It is easier” (says Christ) “for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven.” “Not many mighty, not many noble are called.”
We have great reason to tremble, when the Scripture tells us in general that few shall be saved; much more when it tells us, that of that rank of which we are, but few shall be saved. When Joshua called all the tribes of Israel to cast lots for the discovery of Achan, doubtless Achan feared; when the tribe of Judah was taken, his fear increased; but when the family of the Zarhites was taken, it was time to tremble. So when the Scriptures come so near as to tell us that of such a class of men very few shall escape, it is time to be alarmed. “I should wonder” (says Chrysostom) “if any of the rulers be saved.” O how many have been wheeled to hell in the chariots of earthly pleasures, while others have been whipped to heaven by the rod of affliction! How few, like the daughter of Tyre, come to Christ with a gift! How few among the rich entreat his favor!
2 It may keep one more humble and watchful in prosperity, to consider that among Christians many have been much the worse for it. How good had it been for some of them, if they had never known prosperity! When they were in a low condition, how humble, spiritual and heavenly they were but when advanced, what an apparent alteration has been upon their spirits! It was so with Israel; when they were in a low condition in the wilderness, then Israel was “holiness to the Lord;” but when they came into Canaan and were richly fed, their language was, “We are lords, we will come no more unto thee.” Outward gains are ordinarily attended with inward losses; as in a low condition their civil employments were wont to have a savor of their religious duties, so in an exalted condition their duties commonly have a savor of the world. He, indeed, is rich in grace whose graces are not hindered by his riches. There are but few Jehosaphats in the world, of whom it is said, “He had silver and gold in abundance, and his heart was lifted up in the way of God’s commands.” Will not this keep thy heart humble in prosperity, to think how dearly many godly men have paid for their riches; that through them they have lost that which all the world cannot purchase?
3 Keep down thy vain heart by this consideration; God values no man the more for these things. God values no man by outward excellencies, but by inward graces; they are the internal ornaments of the Spirit, which are of great price in God’s sight. God despises all worldly glory, and accepts no man’s person; “but in every nation, he that feareth God and worketh righteousness is accepted of him.” Indeed, if the judgment of God went by the same rule that man’s does, we might value ourselves by these things, and stand upon them: but so much every man is, as he is in the judgment of God. Does thy heart yet swell, and will neither of the former considerations keep it humble?
4 Consider how bitterly many dying persons have bewailed their folly in setting their hearts upon these things, and have wished that they had never known them. How dreadful was the situation of Pius Quintus, who died crying out despairingly, “When I was in a low condition I had some hopes of salvation, when I was advanced to be a cardinal, I greatly doubted; but since I came to the popedom I have no hope at all.” An author also tells us a real, but sad story of a rich oppressor, who had scraped up a great estate for his only son: when he came to die he called his son to him, and said, “Son, do you indeed love me?” The son answered that “Nature, besides his paternal, indulgence, obliged him to that.” “Then (said the father) express it by this: hold thy finger in the candle as long as I am saying a prayer.” The son attempted, but could not endure it. Upon that the father broke out into these expressions: “Thou canst not suffer the burning of thy finger for me; but to get this wealth I have hazarded my soul for thee and must burn, body and soul, in hell, for thy sake; thy pains would have been but for a moment, but mine will be unquenchable fire.”
5 The heart may be kept humble by considering of what a clogging nature earthly things are to a soul heartily engaged in the way to heaven. They shut out much of heaven from us at present, though they may not shut us out of heaven at last. If thou consider thyself as a stranger in this world, traveling for heaven, thou hast then as much reason to be delighted with these things as a weary horse has to be pleased with a heavy burden. There was a serious truth in the atheistical scoff of Julian: when taking away the Christians’ estates, he told them “it was to make them more fit for the kingdom of heaven.”
6 Is thy spirit still vain and lofty? Then urge upon it the consideration of that awful day of reckoning, wherein, according to our receipts of mercies shall be our account for them. Methinks this should awe and humble the vainest heart that ever was n the breast of a saint. Know for a certainty that the Lord records all the mercies that ever he gave thee, from the beginning to the end of thy life. “Remember, O my people, from Shittim unto Gilgal”. Yes, they are exactly numbered and recorded in order to an account; and thy account will be suitable: “To whomsoever much is given, of him shall, much be required.” You are but a steward, and your Lord will come and take an account of you; and what a great account have you to make, who have much of this world in your hands! What swift witnesses will your mercies be against you, if this be the best fruit of them!
7 It is a very humbling reflection, that the mercies of God should work otherwise upon my spirit than they used to do upon the spirits of others to whom they come as sanctified mercies from the love of God. Ah, Lord! what a sad consideration is this! enough to lay me in the dust, when I consider:
a) That their mercies have greatly humbled them, the higher God has raised them, the lower they have laid themselves before him. Thus did Jacob when God had given him much substance. “And Jacob said, I am not worthy of the least of all thy mercies, and all the truth which thou hast showed thy servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan, and am now become two bands.” Thus also it was with holy David; when God had confirmed the promise to him, to build him a house, and not reject him as he did Saul, he goes in before the Lord and says, “Who am I, and what is my father’s house, that thou hast brought me hitherto?” So indeed God required. When Israel brought to him the first fruits of Canaan, they were to say, “A Syrian ready to perish was my father,” &c. Do others raise God the higher for his raising them? and the more God raises me, the more shall I abuse him and exalt myself? O how wicked is such conduct as this!
b) Others have freely ascribed the glory of all their enjoyments to God, and magnified not themselves, but him, for their mercies. Thus says David, “Let thy name be magnified and the house of thy servant be established.” He does not fly upon the mercy and suck out its sweetness, looking no further than his own comfort: no, he cares for no mercy except God be magnified in it. So when God had delivered him from all his enemies, he says, “The Lord is my strength and my rock, he is become my salvation.” Saints of old did not put the crown upon their own heads as I do by my vanity.
c) The mercies of God have been melting mercies unto others, melting their souls in love to the God of their mercies. When Hannah received the mercy of a son, she said, “My soul rejoiceth in the Lord;” not in the mercy, but in the God of the mercy. So also Mary: “My soul doth magnify the Lord; my spirit rejoiceth in God my Savior.” The word signifies to make more room for God; their hearts were not contracted, but the more enlarged to God.
d) The mercies of God have been great restraints to keep others from sin. “Seeing thou, our God, hast given us such a deliverance as this, should we again break thy commandments?” Ingenuous souls have felt the force of the obligations of love and mercy upon them.
e) The mercies of God to others have been as oil to the wheels of their obedience, and made them more fit for service. Now if mercies work contrarily upon my heart, what cause have I to be afraid that they come not to me in love! It is enough to damp the spirits of any saint, to see what sweet effects mercies have had upon others, and what bitter effects upon him.