Christians need the wisdom from the past to stand firm amid the trials of today. A prolific figure during the English Puritan era, John Flavel stood fast for the gospel and fulfilled a faithful ministry even as society was in upheaval. Then, as now, there was great temptation for distraction among believers because of the socio-political and ecclesiastical tumult. In this excerpt below from his still-in-print work, Keeping the Heart, Flavel rallies God’s people to guard themselves from “distracting and tormenting fears in times of great and threatening dangers.” Like stabilizing pillars driven deep into the bedrock, these fourteen brief, faith-filled insights help Christians in every age weather the storms in the world and in our hearts.



Let us inquire how a Christian may keep his heart from distracting and tormenting fears in times of great and threatening dangers. There are several excellent rules for keeping the heart from sinful fear when imminent dangers threaten us:

1. Look on all creatures as in the hand of God, who manages them in all their motions, limiting, restraining and determining them at His pleasure. Get this great truth well settled by faith in your heart, and it will guard you against slavish fears. The first chapter of Ezekiel contains an admirable instance or draft of providence. There you see the living creatures who move the wheels—that is, the great events here below—coming to Christ, who sits on the throne, to receive new instructions from him. In Revelation 6, you read of white, black, and red horses, which are but the instruments that God employs in executing judgments in the world, as wars, pestilence, and death. When these horses are prancing and trampling up and down in the world, here is a consideration that may quiet our hearts: God has the reins in His hand. Wicked men are sometimes like mad horses, they would stamp the people of God under their feet, if the bridle of providence were not in their mouths. A lion at liberty is terrible to meet, but who is afraid of a lion in the keeper’s hand?

2. Remember that this God in whose hand are all creatures is your Father and is much more tender toward you than you are, or can be, toward yourself. “He that toucheth you, toucheth the apple of mine eye.” Let me ask the most fearful woman whether there be not a great difference between the sight of a drawn sword in the hand of a bloodied violent man and of the same sword in the hand of her own tender husband? There is a great a difference between looking on creatures by an eye of sense and looking on them as in the hand of your God by an eye of faith. Isaiah 54:5 is here very appropriate: “Thy Maker is thine husband, the Lord of hosts is his name.” He is Lord of all the hosts of creatures. Who would be afraid to pass through an army, though all the soldiers should turn their swords and guns toward him, if the commander of that army were his friend or father? A religious young man being at sea with many other passengers in a great storm, and they being half-dead with fear, was observed to be very cheerful, as if he were but little concerned in that danger. One of them, demanding the reason of his cheerfulness, “Oh,” said he, “it is because the pilot of the ship is my father!” Consider Christ first as the King and supreme Lord over the providential kingdom, and then as your head, husband, and friend, and you will quickly say, “Return to thy rest, O my soul.” This truth will make you cease trembling and cause you to sing in the midst of danger, “The Lord is King of all the earth; sing ye praise with understanding.” That is, “Let everyone that has understanding of this heart-reviving and heart-establishing doctrine of the dominion of our Father over all creatures, sing praise.”

3. Urge upon your heart the express prohibitions of Christ in this case, and let your heart stand in awe of the violation of them. He has charged you not to fear: “When ye shall hear of wars and commotions, see that ye be not terrified.” “In nothing be terrified by your adversaries.” In Matthew 10 and just over six verses, our Savior commands us three times “not to fear man.” Does the voice of a man make you to tremble, and shall not the voice of God? If you are of such a fearful spirit, how is it that you fear not to disobey the commands of Jesus Christ? The command of Christ should have as much power to calm as the voice of a poor worm to terrify your heart. “I, even I, am He that comforteth you: who art thou, that thou shouldst be afraid of a man that shall die, and of the son of man that shall be made as the grass, and forgettest the Lord thy Maker?” We cannot fear creatures sinfully until we have forgotten God. If we were to remember who He is, and what He has said, we should not be of such feeble spirits. Bring yourself then to this reflection in times of danger: “If I let into my heart the slavish fear of man, I must let out the reverential awe and fear of God; and dare I cast off the fear of the Almighty for the disapproval of a man? Shall I lift up proud dust above the great God? Shall I run on to a certain sin to avoid a potential danger?” O keep thy heart by this consideration!

4. Remember how much needless trouble your vain fears have caused you in the past. “And hast feared continually because of the oppressor, as if he were ready to devour; and where is the fury of the oppressor?” He seemed ready to devour, yet you were not devoured. I have not brought on you the thing that you feared, so you have wasted your spirit, disordered your soul, and weakened your hands to no purpose. You might have this whole time enjoyed your peace and possessed your soul in patience. And here I cannot but observe a very deep policy of Satan in managing a design against the soul by these vain fears. I call them vain, with reference to the frustration they cause by providence, but certainly they are not in vain as to the end Satan aims at in raising them. For through them, he acts as soldiers do in the siege of a garrison, who, in order to wear out the besieged through their constant guard and thereby unfit them to make resistance when they storm it in earnest, every night rouse them with false alarms, which though they come to nothing yet remarkably answer the ultimate design of the enemy—Oh when will you beware of Satan’s devices?

Get your conscience sprinkled with the blood of Christ from all guilt, and that will set your heart above all fear.

5. Consider solemnly that, though the things you fear should really happen, there is more evil in your own fear than in the things feared and that, not only is the least evil of sin worse than the greatest evil of suffering, this sinful fear has really more trouble in it than there is in that condition of which you are so much afraid. Fear is both a multiplying and a tormenting passion. It represents troubles as much greater than they are, and so tortures the soul much more than the suffering itself. So it was with Israel at the Red Sea. They cried out and were afraid until they stepped into the water, and then a passage was opened through those waters that they thought would have drowned them. Thus it is with us. We, looking through the glass of carnal fear on the waters of trouble, the swellings of Jordan, cry out: “Oh, they are unfordable! We will perish in them!” But when we come into the midst of those floods indeed, we find the promise made good: “God will make a way to escape.” Thus it was with a blessed martyr when he would test himself by putting his finger to a candle, and finding himself not able to endure that, cried out: “What! Cannot I bear the burning of a finger? How then shall I be able to bear the burning of my whole body tomorrow?” Yet when the next day came he could go cheerfully into the flames with this Scripture in his mouth: “Fear not, for I have redeemed thee; I have called thee by thy name, thou art Mine; when thou passest through the waters I will be with you; when thou walkest through the fire thou shalt not be burnt.”

6. Consult the many precious promises that are written for your support and comfort in all dangers. These are your refuges to which you may fly and be safe when the arrows of danger fly by night and destruction wastes at noonday. There are particular promises suited to particular cases and circumstances. There are also general promises reaching all cases and conditions. Such as these: “All things shall work together for good . . .” “Though a sinner do evil an hundred times and his days be prolonged, yet it shall be well with them that fear the Lord . . .” Could you but believe the promises, your heart should be established. Could you but plead them with God as Jacob did—“Thou saidst, I will surely do thee good”—they would relieve you in every distress.

7. Quiet your trembling heart by recording and consulting your past experiences of the care and faithfulness of God in former distresses. These experiences are food for your faith in a wilderness. By this David kept his heart in time of danger, and Paul his. It was answered by a saint, when one told him that his enemies waylaid him to take his life: “If God take no care of me, how is it that I have escaped thus far?” You may plead with God old experiences for new ones, for it is the same in pleading with God for new deliverances, as it is in pleading for new pardons. Mark how Moses pleads of that account with God: “Pardon, I beseech thee, the iniquity of this people, as Thou hast forgiven them from Egypt until now.” He does not say as men do, “Lord, this is the first fault, Thou hast not been troubled before to sign their pardon,” but “Lord, because Thou hast pardoned them so often, I beseech Thee pardon them once again.” So in new difficulties, let the saint say, “Lord, Thou hast often heard, helped, and saved in former years; therefore now help again, for with Thee there is plenteous redemption and Thine arm is not shortened.”

8. Be well satisfied that you are in the way of your duty, and that will beget holy courage in times of danger. “Who will harm you if you be a follower of that which is good?” Or if any dare attempt to harm you, “you may boldly commit yourself to God in well-doing.” It was this consideration that raised Luther’s spirit above all fear: “In the cause of God, I ever am and ever shall be stout. Herein, I assume this title: ‘I yield to none.’” A good cause will bear up a man’s spirit. Hear the saying of a heathen to the shame of cowardly Christians: “When the emperor Vespasian had commanded Fluidus Priseus not to come to the senate, or if he did come, to speak nothing but what he would have him; the senator returned this noble answer: that as he was a senator, it was fit he should be at the senate; and if being there, were required to give his advice, he would freely speak that which his conscience commanded him. The emperor threatened that he should then die. Priseus answered: ‘Did I ever tell you that I was immortal? Do what you will, and I will do what I ought. It is in your power to put me to death unjustly, and in my power to die with constancy.’” Righteousness is a breastplate. Let them tremble whom danger finds out of the way of duty.

9. Get your conscience sprinkled with the blood of Christ from all guilt, and that will set your heart above all fear. It is a guilty conscience that softens and makes cowards of our spirits. “The righteous are bold as a lion.” It was guilt in Cain’s conscience that made him cry, “Every one that findeth me will slay me.” A guilty conscience is more terrified by imagined dangers than a pure conscience is by real ones. A guilty sinner carries a witness against himself in his own bosom. It was guilty Herod who cried out, “John Baptist is risen from the dead.” Such a conscience is the devil’s anvil, on which he fabricates all those swords and spears with which the guilty sinner pierces himself. Guilt is to danger, what fire is to gunpowder. A man need not fear walking among many barrels of powder if he has no fire about him.

10. Exercise holy trust in times of great distress. Make it your business to trust God with your life and comforts, and then your heart will be at rest about them. So did David: “At what time I am afraid I will trust in Thee”—that is, “Lord, if at any time a storm arise, I will shelter from it under the covert of Thy wings.” Go to God by acts of faith and trust and never doubt that He will secure you. “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on Thee, because he trusteth in Thee,” said Isaiah. God is pleased when you come to Him this way: “Father, my life, my liberty, and my estate are exposed, and I cannot secure them. O let me leave them in Thy hand. “The poor leaveth himself with Thee,and does his God fail him? No—“Thou art the helper of the fatherless”that is, “Thou art the helper of the destitute one, that has none to go to but God.” This is a comforting passage: “He shall not be afraid of evil tidings; his heart is fixed, trusting in the Lord.” He does not say that his ear shall be preserved from the report of evil tidings, for he may hear as sad tidings as other men, but his heart shall be kept from the terror of those tidings. His heart is fixed.

11. Consult the honor of religion more, and your personal safety less. Is it for the honor of religion that you think that Christians should be as fearful as bores to start at every sound? Will not this tempt the world to think that, whatever you talk, your principles are no better than other men’s? What mischief may the discovery of your fears before them do! It was nobly said by Nehemiah: “Should such a man as I flee? And who, being as I am, would flee?” Were it not better you should die than that the world should be prejudiced against Christ by your example? For alas! How apt is the world, which judges more by what it sees in your practices than by what it understands of your principles, to conclude from your fearfulness—however much you commend faith and talk of assurance—that you dare trust to those principles no more than the world does when it comes to the trial? O let not your fears lay such a stumbling block before the blind world.

12. He that would secure his heart from fear, must first secure the eternal interest of his soul in the hands of Jesus Christ. When this is done, you may say, “Now, world, do thy worst!” You will not be very solicitous about a vile body when you are once assured it shall be well to all eternity with your precious soul. Christ tells us, “Fear not them that can kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do.” The assured Christian may smile with contempt on all his enemies and say, “Is this the worst that you can do?” What say you, Christian? Are you assured that your soul is safe, that within a few moments of your dissolution it shall be received by Christ into an everlasting habitation? If you be sure of that, never trouble yourself about the instrument and means of your death.

13. Learn to quench all slavish creature-fears in the reverential fear of God. This is a cure by diversion. It is an exercise of Christian wisdom to turn those passions of the soul that most predominate into spiritual channels, to turn natural anger into spiritual zeal, natural mirth into holy cheerfulness, and natural fear into a holy dread and awe of God. This method of cure Christ prescribes in Matthew 10, similar to which is Isaiah 8:12–13: “Fear not their fear”—but how shall we help it?—“Sanctify the Lord of Hosts Himself; and let Him be your fear, and let Him be your dread.” Natural fear may be allayed for the present by natural reason or the removal of the occasion, but then it is like a candle blown out by a puff of breath, which is easily blown in again. But if the fear of God extinguish it, then it is like a candle quenched in water, which cannot easily be rekindled.

14. Pour out to God in prayer those fears that the devil and your own unbelief pour in upon you in times of danger. Prayer is the best outlet to fear. Where is the Christian that cannot bear witness to this direction? I will give you the greatest example to encourage you to compliance, even the example of Jesus Christ. When the hour of His danger and death drew near, He went into the garden, separated from His disciples, and there wrestled mightily with God in prayer, even to the point of agony. In reference to this, the Apostle says, “Who in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with strong cries and tears, to Him that was able to save from death, and was heard in that He feared.” He was heard as to strength and support to carry Him through it, though not as to deliverance or exemption from it.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on September 3, 2020.

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