A Matter of the Heart

Bible Book: Proverbs  4 : 23
Subject: Heart

Proverbs 4:23 says, “Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.”

We realize that the writer of Proverbs is not referring to the physical heart, that marvelous pump that sends blood to all parts of the body. Rather, he is using the term “heart” spiritually--and when the Bible speaks of the heart spiritually, it is referring to the inner life--which is inclusive of intellect, emotion, and will. So, the writer of Proverbs is saying to us, “Keep”--or, literally, “Guard”--”your inner life.”

That phrase, “with all diligence,” denotes emphasis--even urgency. It’s as if he is saying, “You’ll find it necessary in life to guard many things that pertain to you personally--your property, your body, your reputation; but above and beyond all else, guard your heart--guard your inner life.” And the reason for that urgent admonition is made clear: “...for out of it are the issues of life.” He is saying to us that a person is made or broken by what transpires within the secret chambers of his heart. Or, to put it differently, he is reminding us that every one of life’s great issues is, in the last analysis, a matter of the heart--and that’s my subject today: “A Matter of the Heart.”

I want to call our attention to three of life’s most monumental, tide-turning issues, and in referring to them I want to remind you, and remind myself, that if we’re going to come out winners in the race of life, it is essential that we regard each of these great issues as a matter of the heart and deal with it accordingly.

I. Character is a Matter of the Heart

First of all, the Bible leaves no question but that CHARACTER is a matter of the heart.

In Proverbs 23:7 we read, “...as he thinketh in his heart, so is he.” Marcus Aurelius said, “The soul is dyed the color of its thoughts.” Emerson said, “A man is what he thinks about all day long.” An anonymous homespun poet expressed it in these quaint lines:

“I have a house inside of me, A house that others seldom see;

It has a door through which none pass, And windows, but they’re not of glass.

‘Where do you live?’ ask folks I meet, And then I say, ‘On such a street’;

But still I know, what’s really me Lives in a house folks never see.”

Someone has said that reputation is what people think you are, but character is what God knows you are as he looks upon your heart.

The devil tries constantly to blind us to the reality that character is a matter of the heart. He tries to lure us into the fallacious notion that unholy, God-dishonoring desires and attitudes aren’t really so bad so long as we keep them bottled up inside--so long as we “keep the lid on.” But Jesus said differently. Jesus said, in Matthew 15:19-20, “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: These are the things which defile a man....” One of life’s greatest dangers is that of convincing ourselves that we’re o.k. simply because we keep up a good outward appearance--but the truth is that regardless of how impressive and admirable an outward facade we maintain, if we are allowing our hearts to harbor sorry, muck-raking thoughts and desires, we are marked as reprobate in the sight of God.

But not only is it true that these sins of the heart contaminate a person inwardly; they also bring outward ruination as well. Jesus said, in Matthew 12:35, that “a good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things.” A person might delay the process for a while--but mark it down, on the authority of God’s Word, that what’s in the heart will eventually be manifested outwardly.

Sometimes, upon learning that some well-respected person has “bitten the dust” in moral defeat, we shake our heads sadly and say, “My, wasn’t that a sudden tragedy!” But probably, if we knew the whole story, we would see that it wasn’t really sudden at all. Probably what actually happened was this: Some time ago that individual allowed some unholy, God-dishonoring desire to enter his heart and instead of immediately expelling it, as one ought to do, he “did a number” on himself. He said, “I would never actually do such a thing, so there’s no harm in just imagining what it would be like.” Thus, he allowed that unclean desire to remain. He nurtured it; he coddled it; he pampered it; and, lo, the stormy winds of illicit desire blew more and more fiercely until at last the sacred lights of restraint were snuffed out and the thing erupted into outward action. Down he went, and we read or heard about it and with sadness said, “My, wasn’t that sudden!”--when in reality it wasn’t sudden at all, but started a long time ago when that person carelessly failed to guard his heart.

What ought we do in a case like that? For one thing, we ought to pray for the fallen individual, that he will repent and get right with God. Also, we ought to remember the admonition of 1 Corinthians 10:12: “Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.” We must never let our guard down, remembering the warning in

1 Peter 5:8: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: Whom resist steadfast in the faith....”

Because sin, the great enemy of character, is a heart issue, it logically follows that salvation, the only source of right character, is also a heart issue. That’s why Paul declared in Romans 10:9-10, “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.”

So, the Bible makes it clear that being saved, becoming a Christian, is not just a matter of intellectually agreeing with a set of facts. A person can do that and spend eternity in hell. To become a Christian, to receive God’s gift of eternal life, one must believe in his heart. He must say, in effect, “Lord, I believe that you died on that cross to take the punishment for my sins. I believe that you are my only hope, and without you I am doomed. I repent of my sins and here and now I yield myself to you--body and soul, all that I am and have, for time and eternity; come what may, sink, swim, or die, I’m yours, Lord Jesus, totally.” When a person makes that surrender to him, that’s when Jesus, in the person of the Holy Spirit, comes into that person’s heart and works that miracle of transformation that the Bible calls the new birth. That person becomes God’s child forever. Then, day by day as he, from his heart, calls upon the Lord and experiences fellowship with him, his character is increasingly strengthened and stabilized.

II. Contentment is a Matter of the Heart

But the Bible not only teaches that character is a matter of the heart; it also makes crystal clear that CONTENTMENT is a matter of the heart.

To be at peace inwardly is a wonderful thing. 1 Timothy 6:6 says that “...godliness with contentment is great gain.” Everyone wants to have that inner sense of fulfillment that we call contentment, and God desires that for us. But the only way that contentment can be experienced is for one’s heart to be right with God and with people. I’m not discounting the fact that circumstances most assuredly make their impact on us, but circumstances are not decisive--contentment is, in the last analysis, a matter of the heart.

Even if a person has the most favorable circumstances imaginable, he will not be content if things are “out of kilter” inwardly.

Many years ago I read a fable about a little mouse who was in a constant state of discontent because of his fear of the cat. One day a kindly magician came along and changed the little mouse into a cat, thinking that the little creature’s fears were now forever banished. But then he was afraid of the dog. So, the magician changed him into a dog. Then he was afraid of the tiger, so the magician changed him into a tiger. Then he was afraid of the hunter; and at that the magician changed him back into a mouse. He said, “Be a mouse again; I can’t help you, because you only have the heart of a mouse.”

It’s only a fable, but the lesson it teaches is soberingly real--and that is that no amount of juggling, shifting, or manipulating our circumstances is going to bring contentment if our heart is not right. Lord Byron, the profligate poet, when fleeing from England, cried out with a broken heart, “What exile from himself can flee?”

But on the other hand, look at it positively: If a person’s heart is right with God and with other people, he can have contentment even in the most adverse circumstances.

Alex Munthe said, “A man can stand a lot as long as he can stand himself.” Paul said it better in Philippians 4:11: “...I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.” Paul was a man who knew what it was to experience trials and tribulations. He had laid everything on the line for Jesus Christ. He had been disowned, maligned, whipped, run out of town, stoned and left for dead, shipwrecked, and imprisoned for the cause of Christ--and he bore a painful physical affliction that he referred to as a “thorn in the flesh.” It was this man who said, “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.” He wasn’t out of touch with reality; he wasn’t unaware of the storms swirling around him. But all of his troubles notwithstanding he lived so close to Christ in daily fellowship that the encouraging, undergirding, uplifting presence of the living Lord in his life simply overshadowed the grim, yet lesser, reality of his circumstances. Thus he could say in Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.”

Of course we ought to do our best to provide the most favorable circumstances possible for ourselves and for other people. That’s important. But far more important, we ought to point others to him who, when he dwells in the heart, can bring contentment in spite of one’s circumstances. Someone has said, “Life is like a grindstone; it either wears you down or polishes you up, depending on the stuff you’re made of”--and being made of the right stuff is the result of being trustfully and obediently anchored to Jesus Christ. In John 16:33 Jesus said, “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”

III. Conquest is a Matter of the Heart

But not only is it true that character and contentment are matters of the heart; it is also true that CONQUEST is a matter of the heart.

In 1 Timothy 6:12 we are admonished to “fight the good fight of faith.” In Romans 8:37 Paul declared that “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.” If God lets us live any length of time at all on this earth, it is inevitable that we will find ourselves engaged in conflict. There are battles to be fought against the tyranny of our own moods, and against personal handicaps of various sorts--sometimes handicaps that are known to others, sometimes handicaps that are very unique and personal. There are battles to be fought against temptations of all sorts. As the old spiritual puts it, “That’s just the way things is down here.” And if we’re going to be victorious we must realize that conquest is, in the last analysis, a matter of the heart.

One of the great characters of the American Revolution was General Francis Marion. They called him “The Swamp Fox,” because he knew the terrain of North and South Carolina so well that he could suddenly appear with his troops, strike the British a crippling blow, and then just as suddenly disappear. The late Dr. George Truett told of an episode that occurred during that war for American independence. Francis Marion’s troops were rough, rag-tag volunteers. They were ill-clad and ill-equipped, and yet were remarkably effective. One day a British officer was allowed behind the American lines to meet with General Marion at his headquarters on Snow’s Island, South Carolina. Apparently a temporary truce had been called so that the two men could discuss some issue of mutual concern.

At any rate, this British officer’s visit came during meal time, so he dined with General Marion. Roasted sweet potatoes were served on a piece of bark. The astonished British officer asked General Marion if he and his forces did not generally have better food than that. Marion responded, “No, not better, but rather worse, for we do not get even enough of this.” The British officer was puzzled. He knew how valiantly those rugged troops fought and what ominous adversaries they were, yet they were poorly armed, and poorly supplied otherwise--they didn’t even have enough food to eat. He said to General Marion, “Then surely you must draw large pay.” Marion said, “Not a cent.” The British officer said, “Then how on earth can you stand the life you are leading?”

I can picture General Marion as he makes his reply. I can see him as he rises to his feet, leans over the table, looks that British officer intently in the eye, and says, “When the heart is deeply stirred a man can do anything....I am in love and my sweetheart is liberty. I would rather fight for my country and feed on roots than keep aloof and enjoy all the luxuries of Solomon....The children of future generations may never hear my name but it gladdens my heart to think that I am now contending for their freedom and all its countless blessings.”

When that British officer returned to his headquarters that day he said to his superior officer, “I do now resign my commission...for we have no chance against such men.”

General Marion said, “If the heart is deeply stirred a man can do anything.” I want to pick up on that statement and say to us that if a man’s heart is deeply enough stirred with love for and commitment to Jesus Christ, he can do anything that is within the will of God. One of the great tragedies of so many of our lives as Christians is that we settle for too little. We allow the difficulties and pressures of life to intimidate us and subdue us rather than saying with Paul, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” May the Lord help us to live so close to Jesus in daily fellowship that our hearts will be on fire and stirred to the point that we’ll not settle for anything less than victory in the battles of life.

And we must never forget what real victory is. Real victory is being sure that what you’re attempting is right in the sight of God, whether or not it happens to be socially acceptable or politically correct, and then pouring your dead-level best into the battle. In other words, real victory in life is being able to say as Paul did, in 2 Timothy 4:7, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.” If you can truly say that, you’re a winner in God’s sight, whatever the world may think.

So when you get right down to it, life in its real essence is a matter of the heart. Thus, life’s towering, overriding, number one question is this: Is your heart right with God?--and there’s only one way to be right with God: Jesus said, in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” Having Jesus Christ in your heart not only means that you’re going to heaven when you die, but knowing him as your Lord and Savior gives you the foundation for building noble character. His presence in our lives enables us to experience contentment in spite of the face value of the situation. And with him living in our hearts, we can say, as Paul did in In Romans 8:37, that “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.” I like the way the missionary poet, Dan Crawford, expressed it:

“I cannot do it alone; the waves run fast and high;

The chill of the fog closes in all around, and the light goes out in the sky.

But I know that we two shall win in the end, Jesus and I.

Coward, and wayward, and weak, I change with the changing sky;

Today so eager and brave, tomorrow not caring to try.

But he never gives in, so we two shall win, Jesus and I.”

Jesus loves you and if he does not yet dwell in your heart he wants to do so. All he is waiting on is for you, by repentance and faith, to invite him in. In Revelation 3:20 he says, “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” Question: If you’ve never done so, will you open the door this very moment by repentance and faith and say, “Lord Jesus, I believe you died for me. You’re my only hope; I’m lost without you, and I accept you now as my Lord and Savior?”

You can take his word for it that he’ll not deny a request like that. Jesus said, in John 6:37, “...him that cometh to me, I will in no wise cast out.” Let your prayer right now be that expressed in this simple chorus:

“Into my heart, Into my heart, Come into my heart, Lord Jesus;

Come in today, Come in to stay; Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.”