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The Mystery of Providence: Chapter 9 - How to Meditate on the Providence of God

By John Flavel

      Next we proceed to show in what manner we are to reflect upon the performances of Providence for us. And certainly, it is not every slight and transient glance, nor every cold, historical, unaffecting rehearsal or recognition of His providences towards you that will pass with God for a discharge of this great duty. No, no, it is another kind of work than what most men understand it to be. O that we were but acquainted with this heavenly spiritual exercise, how sweet it would make our lives, how light it would make our burdens! Ah, sirs, you live estranged from the pleasure of the Christian life, while you live in the ignorance or neglect of this duty. Now to lead you up to this heavenly, sweet and profitable exercise, I will beg your attention to the following directions:

      Labour to get as full and thorough a recognition as you are able of the providences of God concerning you from first to last.

      O fill your hearts with the thoughts of Him and His ways. If a single act of Providence is so ravishing and transporting, what would many such be, if they were presented together to the view of the soul! If one star is so beautiful to behold, what is a constellation! Let your reflections therefore upon the acts and workings of Providence for you be full, extensively and intensively.

      Let them be as extensively full as may be. Search backward into all the performances of Providence throughout your lives. So did Asaph: 'I will remember the works of the LORD: surely I will remember thy wonders of old. I will meditate also of all thy work, and talk of thy doings' (Psalm 77:11, 12). He laboured to recover and revive the ancient providences of God's mercies many years past, and suck a fresh sweetness out of them by new reviews of them. Ah, sirs, let me tell you, there is not such a pleasant history for you to read in all the world as the history of your own lives, if you would but sit down and record from the beginning hitherto what God has been to you, and done for you; what signal manifestations and outbreakings of His mercy, faithfulness and love there have been in all the conditions you have passed through. If your hearts do not melt before you have gone half through that history, they are hard hearts indeed. 'My Father, thou art the guide of my youth' (Jeremiah 3:4).

      Let your meditation be as intensively full as may be. Do not let your thoughts swim like feathers upon the surface of the waters, but sink like lead to the bottom. 'The works of the LORD are great, sought out of them that have pleasure therein' (Psalm 111:2). Not that I think it feasible to sound the depth of Providence by our short line: 'Thy way is in the sea, and thy path in the great waters, and thy footsteps are not known' (Psalm 77:19), but it is our duty to dive as far as we can; and to admire the depth, when we cannot touch the bottom. It is in our viewing providences as it was with Elijah's servant, when he looked out for rain (1 Kings 18:44); he went out once and viewed the heavens, and saw nothing, but the prophet bids him go again and again, and look upon the face of heaven seven times; and when he had done so, what now, says the prophet? 'O now', says he: 'I see a cloud rising like a man's hand'; and then, keeping his eye intently upon it, he sees the whole face of heaven covered with clouds. So you may look upon some providences once and again, and see little or nothing in them; but look 'seven times', that is, meditate often upon them, and you will see their increasing glory, like that increasing cloud.

      There are several things to be distinctly pondered, and valued in one single providence, before you can judge the amount and worth of it. First, the seasonableness of mercy may give it a very great value. That it is timed so opportunely, and occurs just when needed, makes it a thousandfold more considerable to you than the same mercy would have been at another time. Thus when our needs are permitted to grow to an extremity, and all visible hopes fail, then to have relief given wonderfully enhances the price of such a mercy (Isaiah 41:17, 18).

      The peculiar care and kindness of Providence to us is a consideration which exceedingly heightens the mercy in itself, and endears it to us. So when, in general calamities upon the world, we are exempted by the favour of Providence, covered under its wings; when God shall call to us in evil days: 'Come, my people, enter thou into thy chambers' (Isaiah 26:20); when such promises shall be fulfilled to us in times of want or famine (Psalm 33:18, 19); when others are abandoned and exposed to misery who have every way as much, it may be much more, visible security against it, and yet they are delivered up and we saved - O how endearing are such providences! (Psalm 91:7, 8).

      What a providence introduces is of special regard and consideration, and by no means to be neglected by us. There are leading providences which, however slight and trivial they may seem in themselves, yet in this respect justly challenge the first rank among providential favours to us because they usher in a multitude of other mercies, and draw a blessed train of happy consequences after them. Such a providence was that of Jesse's sending David with provisions to his brethren that lay encamped in the army (1 Samuel 17:17). And thus every Christian may furnish himself out of his own stock of experience, if he will but reflect and consider the place where he is, the relations that he has, and the way by which he was led into them.

      The instruments employed by Providence for you are of special consideration, and the finger of God is clearly seen by us when we pursue that meditation. For sometimes great mercies are conveyed to us by very improbable means, and more probable ones laid aside. A stranger is stirred up to do that for you which your near relations in nature had no power or will to do for you. Jonathan, a mere stranger to David, clave closer to him, and was more friendly and useful to him than his own brethren, who despised and slighted him. Ministers have found more kindness and respect from strangers than from their own people that are more obliged to them. 'A prophet,' said Christ, 'is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house' (Mark 6:4).

      Sometimes help has come from the hands of enemies, as well as strangers: 'The earth helped the woman' (Revelation 12:16). God has bowed the hearts of many wicked men to show great kindness to His people (Acts 28:2).

      Sometimes God makes use of instruments for good to His people, who designed nothing but evil and mischief to them. Thus Joseph's brethren were instrumental to his advancement in that very thing in which they designed his ruin (Genesis 50:20).

      The design and scope of Providence must not escape our thorough consideration, what the aim and goal of Providence is. And truly this, of all others, is the most warming and melting consideration. You have the general account of the aim of all providences: 'And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose' (Romans 8:28). A thousand friendly hands are at work for them, to promote and bring about their happiness. O this is enough to sweeten the bitterest providence to us, that we know it shall turn to our salvation (Philippians 1:19).

      The respect and relation Providence bears to our prayers is of singular consideration, and a most taking and sweet meditation. Prayer honours Providence, and Providence honours prayer. Great notice is taken of this in Scripture (Genesis 24:45; Daniel 9:20; Acts 12:12). You have had the very petitions you asked of Him. Providences have borne the very signatures of your prayers upon them. O how affectingly sweet are such mercies!

      In all your observations of Providence have special respect to that Word of God which is fulfilled and made good to you by them.

      This is a clear truth that all providences have relation to the written Word. Thus Solomon in his prayer acknowledges that the promises and providences of God went along step by step with his father David all his days; and that His hand (put there for his Providence) had fulfilled whatever His mouth had spoken (1 Kings 8:24). So Joshua in like manner acknowledges that 'not one good thing had failed of all the good things of which the LORD had spoken' (Joshua 23:14). He had carefully observed what relation the works of God had to His Word. He compared them together, and found an exact harmony. And so may you too, if you will compare them as he did.

      This I shall the more insist upon because it is by some interpreters supposed to be the very scope of the text. For (as was noted in the explanation) they supply and fill the sense with 'the things which He has promised,' and so read the text thus: 'I will cry unto God most high; unto God that performeth the things He has promised for me' (Psalm 57:2).

      Now, though I see no reason to limit the sense so narrowly, yet it cannot be denied that this is an especial part of its meaning. Let us therefore in all our reviews of Providence consider what Word of God, whether it be of threatening, caution, counsel or promise, is at any time made good to us by His providences.

      Doing this will greatly confirm to us the truth of the Scripture, when we see its truth so manifest in the events. Had Scripture no other seal or attestation, this alone would be an unanswerable argument of its divinity when men shall find in all ages the works of God wrought so exactly according to this model that we may say: 'As we have read or heard, so have we seen.' O how great a confirmation is here before our eyes!

      Again, doing this will abundantly direct and instruct us in our present duties under all providences. We shall know what we have to do, and how to behave under all changes of conditions. You can learn the voice and errand of the rod only from the Word (Psalm 94:12) which interprets the works of God. Providences in themselves are not a perfect guide. They often puzzle and entangle our thoughts; but bring them to the Word, and your duty will be quickly manifested. 'Until I went into the sanctuary of God, then understood I their end' (Psalm 73:17). And not only their end, but his own duty, to be quiet in an afflicted condition and not envy their prosperity.

      Well then, bring those providences you have passed through, or are now under, to the Word, and you will find yourselves surrounded with a marvelous light, and see the verification of the Scriptures in them. I shall therefore here appeal to your consciences whether you have not found these events of Providence occurring agreeably in all respects with the Word.

      The Word tells you that it is your wisdom and interest to keep close to its rules and the duties it prescribes. It tells that the way of holiness and obedience is the wisest way. 'This is your wisdom' (Deuteronomy 4:5, 6).

      Now, let the events of Providence speak, whether this is true or not. Certainly it will appear to be so, whether we respect our present comfort or future happiness, both which we may see daily exposed by departure from duty, and secured by keeping close to it. Let the question be asked of the drunkard, adulterer or profane swearer, when by sin they have ruined body, soul, estate and name, whether it be their wisdom to walk in those forbidden paths after their own lusts; whether they had not better consulted their own interest and comfort in keeping within the bounds and limits of God's commands? and they cannot but confess that 'this their way is their folly.' 'What fruit,' says the Apostle, 'had ye in those things whereof ye are now ashamed? for the end of those things is death' (Romans 6:21). Does not the Providence of God verify upon them those threatenings that are written in the experience of all ages? (Job 31:12; Proverbs 5:9, 10; Proverbs 23:21, 29) all which woes and miseries they escape that walk in God's statutes. Look upon the ruined estates and bodies you may everywhere see, and behold the truth of the Scriptures evidently made good in those sad providences.

      The Word tells you that your departure from the way of integrity and simplicity, to make use of sinful policies, shall never profit you (1 Samuel 12:21; Proverbs 3:5).

      Let the events of Providence speak regarding this also. Ask your own experience, and you shall have a full confirmation of this truth. Did you ever leave the way of simplicity and integrity, and use sinful shifts to bring about your own designs, and prosper in that way? Certainly God has cursed all the ways of sin; and whoever find they thrive with them, His people shall not. Israel would not rely upon the Lord, but trust in the shadow of Egypt, and what advantage had they by this sinful policy (Isaiah 30:1-5)? David used a great deal of sinful policy to cover his wicked deed, but did it prosper (2 Samuel 12:12)? It is an excellent observation of Livy, 'Sinful policies in their first appearances are pleasant and promising, in their management difficult, in their event sad.' Some by sinful ways have obtained wealth, but that Scripture has been verified in their experience, 'Treasures of wickedness profit nothing' (Proverbs 10:2). Either God has blown upon it by a secret curse that it has done them no good, or given them such disquietness in their consciences that they have been forced to vomit it up ere they could find peace (Job 11:13-15).

      That which David gave as a charge to Solomon has been found experimentally true by thousands (1 Chronicles 22:12, 13), that the true way to prosperity is to keep close to the rule of the Word, and that the true reason why men cannot prosper is their forsaking that rule (2 Chronicles 24:20).

      It is true, if God has a purpose to destroy a man, he may for a time permit him to succeed and prosper in his sin, for his greater hardening (Job 12:6). But it is not so with those whom the Lord loves. Their sinful shifts shall never thrive with them.

      The Word prohibits your trust and confidence in the creature, even the greatest and most powerful among creatures (Psalm 146:3). It tells us that it is better to trust in the LORD than in them (Psalm 118:8). It forbids our confidence in those creatures that are most nearly allied and related in the bonds of nature to us (Micah 7:5). It curses the man that gives to the creature that reliance which is due to God (Jeremiah 17:5).

      Consult the events of Providence in this case, and see whether the Word is not verified in it. Did you ever lean upon an Egyptian reed, and it did not break under you and pierce as well as deceive you? O, how often has this been evident in our experience! Whatsoever we have over-loved, idolized, and leaned upon, God has from time to time broken it, and made us to see the vanity of it; so that we find the readiest course to be rid of our comforts is to set our hearts inordinately or immoderately upon them. For our God is a jealous God, and will not part with His glory to another. The world is full of examples of persons deprived of their comforts, husbands, wives, children and estates for this reason, and by this means. If Jonah is overjoyed in his gourd, a worm is at once prepared to smite it. Hence it is that so many graves are opened for the burying of our idols out of our sight. If David says: 'My mountain shall stand strong, I shall not be moved,' the next news he shall hear is of darkness and trouble (Psalm 30:6, 7). O how true and faithful do we find these sayings of God to be! Who cannot put to his seal and say: 'Thy Word is truth' (John 17:17)?

      The Word assures us that sin is the cause and inlet of affliction and sorrow, and that there is an inseparable conection between them. 'Be sure your sin will find you out' (Numbers 32:23); that is, the sad effects and afflictions that follow it shall find you out. 'If his children forsake my law and walk not in my judgments: if they break my statutes and keep not my commandments: then will I visit their transgression with the rod and their iniquities with stripes' (Psalm 89:30-32).

      Enquire now at the mouth of Providence whether this is indeed so, according to the reports of the Word. Ask but your own experiences, and you will find that just so Providence has ordered it all along your way. When did you grow into a secure, vain, carnal frame, but you found some rousing, startling providence sent to awaken you? When did you wound your consciences with guilt, and God did not wound you for it in some or other of your beloved enjoyments? Nay, so ordinary is this with God that from the observations of their own frames and ways many Christians have foreboded and presaged troubles at hand.

      I do not say that God never afflicts His people but for their sin; for He may do it for their trial (1 Peter 4:12). Nor do I say that God follows every sin with a rod; for who then could stand before Him (Psalm 130:3)? But this I say, that it is God's usual way to visit the sins of His people with rods of affliction, and this in mercy to their souls. For this reason it was that the rod of God was upon David in a long succession of troubles upon his kingdom and family, after that great prevarication of his (2 Samuel 12:10). And if we would carefully search out the seeds and principles of those miseries under which we or ours do groan, we should find them to be our own turnings aside from the Lord (Jeremiah 2:19; 4:18). Have not all these cautions and threatenings of the Word been exactly fulfilled by Providence in your own experience? Who can but see the infallible truth of God in all that he has threatened!

      And no less evident is the truth of the promises to all that will observe how Providence makes them good every day to us; for consider how great security God has given to His people in the promises, that no man shall lose anything by self-denial for His sake. He has told us, 'Verily, I say unto you: There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake and the gospel's; but he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions, and in the world to come, eternal life' (Mark 10:29, 30).

      Though that vile apostate Julian derided this promise, yet thousands and ten thousands have experienced it, and do at this day stand ready to set their seal to it. God has made it good to His people, not only in spiritual things, inward joy and peace, but even in temporal things also. Instead of natural relations, who took care for them before, hundreds of Christians shall stand ready to assist and help them, so that though they have left all for Christ, yet they may say with the apostle: 'As having nothing, and yet possessing all things' (2 Corinthians 6:10). O the admirable care and tenderness of Providence over those that for conscience sake have left all and cast themselves upon its immediate care! Are there not at this day to be found many so provided for, even to the envy of their enemies and their own admiration? Who does not see the faithfulness of God in the promises that has but a heart to trust God in them!

      The Word of promise assures us that whatever wants or straits the saints fall into, their God will never leave them nor forsake them (Hebrews 13:5), that He 'will be with them in trouble' (Psalm 91:15).

      Consult the various providences of your life in this point, and I doubt not but you will find the truth of these promises as often confirmed as you have been in trouble. Ask your own hearts, where or when was it that your God forsook you, and left you to sink and perish under your burdens? I doubt not but most of you have been at one time or other plunged in difficulties, difficulties out of which you could see no way of escape by the eye of reason; yea, such as it may be staggered your faith in the promise, as David's was when he said, 'I shall now perish one day by the hand of Saul' (1 Samuel 27:1). 'All men are liars' (Psalm 116:11), even Samuel himself! And yet notwithstanding all we see him emerge out of that sea of trouble, and the promises made good in every tittle to him. The like, doubtless, you may observe in your own case. Ask your own souls the question, and they will satisfy it. Did God abandon and cast you off in the day of trouble? Certainly you must belie your own experience if you should say so. It is true, there have been some plunges and difficulties you have met with, in which you could see no way of escape, but concluded you must perish in them. There have been difficulties that have staggered your faith in the promises, and made you doubt whether the fountain of all-sufficiency would let out itself for your relief; yea, such difficulties as have provoked you to murmuring and impatience, and thereby provoked the Lord to forsake you in your trouble; but yet you see He did not. He has either strengthened your back to bear, or lightened your burden, or else opened an unexpected door of escape, according to promise (1 Corinthians 10:13), so that the evil which you feared did not come upon you.

      You read that the Word of God is the only support and relief to a gracious soul in the dark day of affliction (Psalm 119:50, 92; 2 Samuel 23:5), and that for this purpose it was written (Romans 15:4). No rules of moral prudence, no natural remedies can perform for us that which the Word can do.

      And is not this a sealed truth attested by a thousand undeniable experiences? From this source have the saints fetched their cordials when fainting under the rod. One word of God can do more than ten thousand words of men to relieve a distressed soul. If Providence has at any time directed you to such promises as either assure you that the Lord will be with you in trouble (Psalm 91:15), or that encourage you from inward peace to bear cheerfully outward burdens (John 16:33), or satisfy you of God's tenderness and moderation in His dealings with you (Isaiah 27:8), or that you shall reap blessed fruits from them (Romans 8:28), or that make clear your interest in God and His love under your afflictions (2 Samuel 7:14), O what ease and relief ensues and how light is your burden compared with what it was before!

      The Word tells us that there is no better way to improve our estates than to lay them out with a cheerful liberality for God, and that our withholding our hands when God and duty calls to distribute will not be for our advantage (Proverbs 11:24, 25; Proverbs 19:17; Isaiah 32:8).

      Consult Providence now, and you will find it in all respects according to the report of the Word. O how true is the Scripture testimony in this respect! There are many thousand witnesses now living that can set their seals to both parts of this proposition. What men save (as they count saving) with one hand, Providence scatters by another hand; and what they scatter abroad with a liberal hand and single eye for God is surely repaid to them or theirs. Never did any man lose by distributing for God. He that lends to the poor lends to the LORD, or as some expound that text, puts his money to interest to the LORD. Some have observed how Providence has doubled all they have laid out for God, in ways unexpected to them.

      The Word assures us that the best expedient for a man to settle his own interest in the consciences and affections of men is to direct his ways so as to please the Lord (Proverbs 16:7), and does not Providence confirm it? This the three Jews found by experience (Daniel 3:28, 29) and so did Daniel (6:20-22). This kept up John's reputation in the conscience of Herod (Mark 6:20). So it proved when Constantius made that exploratory decree; those that were conscientious were preferred, and those that changed their religion expelled. Never did any man lose at last by his fidelity.

      The written Word tells us that the best way to gain inward peace and tranquillity of mind under puzzling and disturbing troubles is to commit ourselves and our case to the Lord (Psalm 37:5-7; Proverbs 16:3).

      As you have read in the Word, so you have found it in your own experience. O what a burden is off your shoulders when you have resigned the case to God! Then Providence concludes your affairs comfortably for you. The difficulty is soon over when the heart is brought to this.

      Thus you see how Scriptures are fulfilled by Providence in these few instances I have given. Compare them in all other cases and you will find the same, for all the lines of Providence lead from the Scripture, and return there again, and do most visibly begin and end there.

      In all your reviews and observations of Providence, be sure that you eye God as the author or orderer of them all (Proverbs 3:6).

      In all the comfortable providences of your lives, eye God as the author or donor of them. Remember He is 'the Father of mercies' that begets every mercy for you, 'The God of all comfort' (2 Corinthians 1:3) without whose order no mercy or comfort can come to your hands. And do not think it enough thus to acknowledge Him in a general way, but when you receive mercies, take special notice of the following particulars:

      Eye the care of God for you. 'He careth for you' (1 Peter 5:7). Your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of these things (Matthew 6:32). You have but to acquaint Him what you need, and your needs are supplied. Be careful about nothing. (Philippians 4:6); do not torture yourselves about it, you have a Father that cares for you.

      Eye the wisdom of God in the way of dispensing His mercies to you, how suitably they are ordered to your condition, and how seasonably. When one comfort is cut off and removed, another is raised up in its room. Thus Isaac was comforted in Rebecca after his mother's death (Genesis 24:67).

      Eye the free grace of God in them, yea, see riches of grace in every bequest of comfort to so vile and unworthy creatures as you are. See yourselves surpassed by the least of all your mercies: 'I am not worthy of the least,' said Jacob (Genesis 32:10).

      Eye the condescension of God to your requests for those mercies (Psalm 34:6). This is the sweetest bit in any enjoyment, in which a man can consciously relish the return and answer of his prayers, and it greatly inflames the soul's love to God (Psalm 116:1).

      Eye the design and end of God in all your comforts. Know that it is not sent to satisfy the cravings of your sensual appetite, but to quicken and enable you for a more cheerful discharge of your duty (Deuteronomy 28:47).

      Eye the way and method in which your mercies are conveyed to you. They all flow to you through the blood of Christ and the covenant of grace (1 Corinthians 3:22, 23). Mercies derive their sweetness from the channel through which they run to us.

      Eye the distinguishing goodness of God in all the comfortable enjoyments of your lives. How many thousands better than you are denied these comforts (Hebrews 11:37)!

      Eye them all as comforts appointed to refresh you in your way to far better and greater mercies than themselves. The best mercies are still reserved till last, and all these are introductive to better.

      In all the sad and afflictive providences that befall you, eye God as the author and orderer of them also. So He represents Himself to us: 'Behold, I create evil, and devise a device against you' (Jeremiah 18:11). 'Is there evil in the city, and the LORD hath not done it?' (Amos 3:6).

      Set before you the sovereignty of God. Eye Him as a Being infinitely superior to you, at whose pleasure you and all you have subsist (Psalm 115:3), which is the most conclusive reason and argument for submission (Psalm 46:10). For if we, and all we have proceeded from His will, how right it is that we be resigned up to it! It is not many years ago since we were not, and when it pleased Him to bring us upon the stage of action, we had no liberty of contracting with Him on what terms we would come into the world, or refuse to be, except we might have our being on such terms as we desired. His sovereignty is gloriously displayed in His eternal decrees and temporal providences. He might have put you into what rank of creatures He pleased. He might have made you the most despicable creatures, worms or toads: or, if men, the most vile, abject and miserable among men; and when you had run through all the miseries of this life, have damned you to eternity, made you miserable for ever, and all this without any wrong to you. And shall not this quieten us under the common afflictions of this life?

      Set the grace and goodness of God before you in all afflictive providences. O see Him passing by you in the cloudy and dark day, proclaiming His name, 'The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious' (Exodus 34:6). There are two sorts of mercies that are seldom eclipsed by the darkest affliction that befalls the saints in their temporal concerns, that is, sparing mercy in this world, and saving mercy in that to come. It is not so bad now as it might be, and we deserved it should be, and it will be better hereafter. This the Church observed, and reasoned herself quiet from it (Lamentations 3:22). Has He taken some? He might have taken all. Are we afflicted? It is a mercy we are not destroyed. O if we consider what temporal mercies are yet spared, and what spiritual mercies are bestowed and still continued to us, we shall find cause to admire mercy rather than complain of severity.

      Eye the wisdom of God in all your afflictions. Behold it in the choice of the kind of your affliction, this, and not another; the time, now and not at another season; the degree, in this measure only, and not in a greater; the supports offered you under it, not left altogether helpless; the issue to which it is overruled, it is to your good, not ruin. Look upon these and then ask your heart that question God asked Jonah, 'Doest thou well to be angry?' (4:9). Surely, when you consider all - what need you had of these rods, that your corruptions will require all this, it may be much more, to mortify them; that without the perishing of these things you might have perished for ever - you will see great reason to be quiet and well satisfied under the hand of God.

      Set the faithfulness of the Lord before you under the saddest providences. So did David (Psalm 119:75). This is according to His covenant faithfulness (Psalm 89:32). Hence it is that the Lord will not withhold a rod when need requires it (1 Peter 1:6). Nor will He forsake His people under the rod when He inflicts it (2 Corinthians 4:9).

      O what quietness will this breed! I see my God will not lose my heart, if a rod can prevent it. He would rather hear me groan here than howl hereafter. His love is judicious, not fond. He consults my good rather than my ease.

      Eye the all-sufficiency of God in the day of affliction. See enough in Him still, whatever is gone. Here is the fountain still as full as ever, though this or that pipe is cut off, which was wont to convey somewhat of it to me. O Christians, cannot you make up any loss this way? Cannot you see more in God than in any or all the creature-comforts you have lost? With what eyes then do you look upon God?

      Lastly, eye the immutability of God. Look on Him as the Rock of ages, 'The Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning' (James 1:17). Eye Jesus Christ as 'the same yesterday, today and for ever' (Hebrews 13:8). O how quietly will you then behave yourselves under the changes of providence! It may be, two or three days have made a sad change in your condition. The death of a dear relation has turned all things upside down; that place is empty where lately he was, as it is: 'neither shall his place know him any more' (Job 7:10). Well, God is what He was, and where He was; time shall make no change upon Him. 'The grass withereth, the flower fadeth; but the word of our God shall stand for ever' (Isaiah 40:6-8). O how composing are those views of God to our spirits under dark providences!

      Lastly, work up your hearts to those frames, and exercise those affections which the particular providences of God that concern you call for (Ecclesiastes 7:14).

      As there are various affections planted in your souls, so there are various graces planted in those affections, and various providences appointed to draw forth and exercise these graces.

      When the providences of God are sad and afflictive, either upon the Church in general, or your families and persons in particular, then it is seasonable for you to exercise godly sorrow and humility of spirit. For in that day and by those providences, God calls to it (Isaiah 22:12; Micah 6:9). Now, sensual pleasure and natural joy is out of season: 'Should we then make mirth?' (Ezekiel 21:10). If there is a filial spirit in us, we cannot be light and vain when our Father is angry. If there is any real sense of the evil of sin which provokes God's anger, we must be heavy-hearted when God is smiting for it. If there is any sense and compassion for the miseries that sin brings upon the world, it will make us say with David: 'I beheld the transgressors, and was grieved' (Psalm 119:158). It is sad to consider the miseries that they pull down upon themselves in this world and that to come. If there is any care in us to prevent utter ruin, and stop God in the way of His anger, we know this is the means to do it (Amos 4:12).

      However sad and dismal the face of Providence is, yet still maintain spiritual joy and comfort in God under all. 'Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation' (Habakkuk 3:17-18).

      There are two sorts of comforts, natural and sensual, divine and spiritual. There is a time when it becomes Christians to exercise both (Esther 9:22). And there is a time when the former is to be suspended and laid by (Psalm 137:2), but there is no season wherein spiritual joy and comfort in God is unseasonable (1 Thessalonians 5:16; Philippians 4:4). This spiritual joy or comfort is nothing else but the cheerfulness of our heart in God, and the sense of our interest in Him and in His promises. And it is sure that no providence can render this unseasonable to a Christian.

      Let us suppose the most afflicted and calamitous state a Christian can be in, yet why should sad providences make him lay aside his comforts in God, when those are but for a moment, and these eternal (2 Corinthians 4:17)?

      Why should we give up our joy in God on account of sad providences without, when at the very worst and lowest ebb the saints have infinitely more cause to rejoice than to be cast down? There is more in one of their mercies to comfort them than in all their troubles to deject them. All your losses are but as the loss of a farthing to a prince (Romans 8:18).

      Why should they be sad, as long as their God is with them in all their troubles? As Christ said: 'Can the children of the bridechamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them?' (Matthew 9:15). So say I: Can the soul be sad while God is with it? O I think that one promise, 'I will be with him in trouble' (Psalm 91:15) should bear you up under all burdens. Let them be cast down that have no God to turn to in trouble.

      Why should we be sad as long as no outward dispensation of Providence, however sad, can be interpreted as a mark or sign of God's hatred or enmity. 'There is one event to the righteous and wicked' (Ecclesiastes 9:2, 3). Indeed, if it were a sign of the Lord's wrath against a man, it would justify our dejection; but this cannot be so, His heart is full of love while the face of Providence is full of frowns.

      Why should we be cast down under sad providences while we have so great security that even by the hands of these providences God will do us good, and all these things shall turn to our salvation (Romans 8:28)? By these God is but killing your lusts, weaning your hearts from a vain world, preventing temptations and exciting your desires after heaven. This is all the hurt they shall do you, and shall that sadden us?

      Why should we give up our joy in God, when the change of our condition is so near? It is but a little while, and sorrows shall flee away. You shall never suffer again: 'God will wipe away all tears' (Revelation 7:17). Well then, you see there is no reason on account of Providence to give up your joy and comfort in God. But if you will maintain it under all providences, then be careful to make sure of your interest in, and title to God. Faith may be separated from comfort, but assurance cannot.

      Mortify your inordinate affections to earthly things. This makes providences that deprive and cross us so heavy. Mortify your opinion and affection, and you will lighten your affliction. It is strong affection that makes strong affliction (2 Samuel 18:33).

      Dwell much upon the meditation of the Lord's near approach; and then all these things will seem but trifles to you. 'Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand' (Philippians 4:5).

      Exercise heavenly-mindedness, and keep your hearts upon things eternal under all the providences with which the Lord exercises you in this world. 'Noah walked with God' (Genesis 6:9), yet met with as sad providences in his day as any man that ever lived since his time. But alas! we find most providences rather stops than steps in our walk with God. If we are under comfortable providences, how sensual, wanton and worldly do our hearts grow! And if sad providences befall us, how cast down or disturbed we are! And this comes to pass partly through the narrowness, but mostly through the deceitfulness of our spirits. Our hearts are narrow and know not how to manage two businesses of such different natures, as earthly and heavenly matters are, without detriment to one of them. But certainly such a frame of spirit is attainable that will enable us to keep on in an even and steady course with God, whatever befall us. Others have attained it, and why not we? Prosperous providences are for the most part a dangerous state to the soul. The moon never suffers an eclipse but at full; yet Jehoshaphat's grace suffered no eclipse from the fullness of his outward condition, who 'had riches and honour in abundance. And his heart was lifted up in the ways of the LORD' (2 Chronicles 17:5, 6). David's life was as full of cares, turmoils, and encumbrances as most men we read of; yet how spiritual the attitude of his heart was, that excellent Book of Psalms, which was mostly composed amidst those turmoils, will acquaint us. The apostles were cast into as great necessities and suffered as hard things as ever men did; yet how raised and heavenly their spirits were amidst all! And certainly, if it were not possible to maintain heavenly-mindedness in such a state and posture of affairs, God would never exercise any of His people with such providences. He would never give you so much of the world to lose your hearts in the love of it, or so little to distract you with the care of it. If therefore we were more deeply sanctified, and the tendencies of our hearts heavenward more ardent and vigorous, if we were more mortified to earthly things and could but keep our due distance from them, our outward conditions would not at this rate draw forth and exercise our inward corruptions, nor would we hazard the loss of so sweet an enjoyment as our fellowship with God for the sake of any concern our bodies have on earth.

      Under all providences maintain a contented heart with what the Lord allots you, be it more or less of the things of this world. This grace must run parallel with all providences. Learn how to be full, and how to suffer want, and in every state to be content (Philippians 4:11-12).

      In this duty all men are concerned at all times and in every state, not only the people of God, but even the unregenerate also. I will therefore address some considerations proper to both. And first to the unregenerate, to stop their mouths from complaining and charging God foolishly when providence crosses them. Let them seriously consider these four things:

      First, that hell and eternal damnation are the portion of their cup, according to the tenor of law and Gospel threatenings. Whatsoever therefore is short of this is to be admired as the fruit of God's stupendous patience and forbearance toward them. Ah, poor souls! Do you not know that you are men and women condemned to wrath by the plain sentence of the Law (Mark 16:16; John 3:36; 2 Thessalonians 1:6, 7)? And if so, surely there are other matters to exercise your thoughts, desires, fears and cares about than these. Alas! if you cannot bear a frown of Providence, a light cross in these things, how will you bear the everlasting burnings? A man that is to lose his head tomorrow is not very concerned about what bed he lies on or how his table is furnished the night before.

      Consider, though you are condemned persons and have no promise to entitle you to any mercy, yet there are very many mercies in your possession at this day. Be your condition as afflictive as it will, is life nothing? especially considering where you must sink to when that thread is cut. Are the necessary supports of life nothing? Does not Providence minister to you these things, though you daily disoblige it and provoke God to send you to your own place? But above all, are the Gospel and precious means of salvation nothing, by which you yet are in a capacity of escaping the damnation of hell? O what would the damned say if they were but put into your condition once more! What! and yet fret against God because everything else does not suit your desires!

      Consider, that if ever you are rescued out of that miserable condition you are in, such cross providences as these you complain of are the most probable means to do it. Alas! prosperity and success is not the way to save but to destroy you (Proverbs 1:32). You must be bound in fetters and held in cords of affliction if ever your ear is to be opened to instruction (Job 36:8-10). Woe to you if you go on smoothly in the way in which you are and meet with no crosses.

      Lastly, consider that all your troubles, under which you complain, are pulled down upon your heads by your own sins. You turn God's mercies into sin and then fret against God because He turns your sins into sorrow. Your ways and doings procure these things to you. Lay your hand therefore upon your mouth and say, 'Wherefore doth a living man complain, a man for the punishment of his sins?' (Lamentations 3:39).

      But now I must turn to the Lord's people, who have least pretenses of all men to be dissatisfied with any of God's providences and yet are but too frequently found in that attitude. And to them I shall offer the following considerations:

      Consider your spiritual mercies and privileges with which the Lord Jesus has invested you, and complain at your providential lot if you can. One of these mercies alone has enough in it to sweeten all your troubles in this world. When the apostle considered them, his heart was overwhelmed with astonishment, so that he could not forbear in the midst of all his outward troubles to cry out, 'Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings' (Ephesians 1:3). Oh, who that sees such an inheritance settled upon him in Christ, can ever open his mouth again to complain at his providential lot!

      Consider your sins, and that will make you contented with your lot. Yea, consider two things in sin: what it deserves from God, and what it requires to mortify and purge it in you. It deserves from God eternal ruin. The merit of hell is in the least vain thought. Every sin forfeits all the mercies you have; and if so, rather wonder your mercies are so many, than that you have no more. Besides, you cannot doubt but your corruptions require all the crosses, wants and troubles that are upon you, and it may be a great deal more, to mortify and subdue them. Do you not find, after all the rods that have been upon you, a proud heart still, a vain and earthly heart still? O how many bitter potions are necessary to purge out this tough malignant disease!

      Consider how near you are to the change of your condition. Have but a little patience, and all will be as well with you as your hearts can desire. It is no small comfort to the saints that this world is the worst place that they shall ever be in; things will get better every day with them. If the traveler has spent all his money, yet it does not much trouble him if he knows himself to be within a few miles of his own home. If there are no candles in the house, we do not much trouble over it if we are sure it is almost break of day; for then there will be no use for them. This is the case with us; 'for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed' (Romans 13:11).

      I have done with the directive part of this discourse, but before I proceed farther, I judge it necessary to leave a few cautions, to prevent the abuse of Providence.

      If Providence delays the performance of any mercy to you that you have long waited and prayed for, yet see that you do not despond, nor grow weary of waiting upon God for that reason.

      It pleases the Lord often to try and exercise His people this way, and make them cry: 'How long, LORD, how long?' (Psalm 13:1, 2). These delays, both for spiritual and temporal reasons, are frequent, and when they befall us we are too apt to interpret them as denials, and fall into a sinful despondency of mind, though there is no cause at all for it (Psalm 31:12; Lamentations 3:8, 44). It is not always that the returns of prayer are dispatched to us in the same hour they are asked of God; yet sometimes it falls out so (Isaiah 65:24; Daniel 9:23). But though the Lord means to perform for us the mercies we desire, yet He will ordinarily exercise our patience to wait for them, and that for these reasons:

      One is that our time is not the proper season for us to receive our mercies in. Now the season of mercy is a very great circumstance that adds much to the value of it. God does not judge as we do; we are all in haste and will have it now (Numbers 12:13). 'For the LORD is a God of judgment: blessed are all they that wait for him' (Isaiah 30:18).

      Another reason is that afflictive providences have not accomplished that design upon our hearts they were sent for when we are so earnest and impatient for a change of them; and then the rod must not be taken off (Isaiah 10:12).

      Again, the more prayers and searchings of heart come between our needs and supplies, our afflictions and reliefs, the sweeter are our reliefs and supplies thereby made to us, 'Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, and he will save us: this is the LORD, we have waited for him, we will rejoice and be glad in his salvation' (Isaiah 25:9). This recompenses the delay, and pays us for all the expenses of our patience.

      But though there are such weighty reasons for the stop and delay of refreshing comfortable providences, yet we cannot bear it, our hands hang down and we faint. 'I am weary of my crying: my throat is dried: mine eyes fail while I wait for my God' (Psalm 69:3). For alas! we judge by sense and appearance, and do not consider that God's heart may be towards us while the hand of His providence seems to be against us. If things continue as they are, we think our prayers are lost and our hopes perished from the LORD. Much more when things grow worse and worse and our darkness and trouble increase, as usually they do just before the break of day and change of our condition, then we conclude God is angry with our prayers. See Gideon's reply (Judges 6:13). This even staggered a Moses' faith (Exodus 5:22, 23). O what groundless jealousies and suspicions of God are found at such times in the hearts of His own children (Job 9:16, 17; Psalm 77:7-9)!

      But this is our great evil, and to prevent it in future trials, I offer a few proper considerations in the case.

      First, the delay of your mercies is really for your advantage. You read, 'and therefore will the LORD wait that he may be gracious' (Isaiah 30:18). What is that? Why, it is nothing else but the time of His preparation of mercies for you, and your hearts for mercy, that so you may have it with the greatest advantage of comfort. The foolish child would pluck the apple while it is green; but when it is ripe, it drops of its own accord and is more pleasant and wholesome.

      Secondly, it is a greater mercy to have a heart willing to refer all to God and be at His disposal than to enjoy immediately the mercy we are most eager and impatient for. In that, God pleases you; in this, you please God. A mercy may be given you as the fruit of common Providence; but such an attitude of heart is the fruit of special grace. So much as the glorifying of God is better than the satisfaction and pleasure of the creature, so much is such a frame better than such a fruition.

      Thirdly, expected mercies are never nearer than when the hearts and hopes of God's people are lowest. Thus in their deliverance out of Egypt and Babylon (Ezekiel 37:11). So we have found it in our own personal concerns: 'At evening time it shall be light' (Zechariah 14:7). When we look for increasing darkness, light arises.

      Fourthly, our unfitness for mercies is the reason why they are delayed so long. We put the blocks into the way of mercies and then repine that they make no more haste to us. 'Behold, the LORD's hand is not shortened that it cannot save: neither his ear heavy that it cannot hear: but your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear' (Isaiah 59:1, 2).

      Fifthly, consider that the mercies you wait for are the fruits of pure grace. You do not deserve them, nor can claim them upon any title of desert; and therefore have reason to wait for them in a patient and thankful frame.

      Lastly, consider how many millions of men as good as you by nature are cut off from all hope and expectation of mercy for ever, and there remains to them nothing but 'a fearful expectation of wrath.' This might have been your case; and therefore do not be of an impatient spirit under the expectations of mercy.

      Do not pry too curiously into the secrets of Providence, nor allow your shallow reason arrogantly to judge and censure its designs.

      There are hard texts in the works as well as in the Word of God. It becomes us modestly and humbly to reverence, but not to dogmatize too boldly and positively upon them. A man may easily get a strain by over-reaching. 'When I thought to know this,' said Asaph, 'it was too painful for me' (Psalm 73:16). 'I thought to know this' - there was the arrogant attempt of reason, there he pried into the arcana of Providence - 'but it was too wonderful for me,' it was 'useless labour,' as Calvin expounds it. He pried so far into that puzzling mystery of the afflictions of the righteous and prosperity of the wicked, till it begat envy towards them and despondency in himself (Psalm 73:3, 13), and this was all he got by summoning Providence to the bar of reason. Holy Job was guilty of this evil, and frankly ashamed of it (Job 42:3).

      I know there is nothing in the Word or in the works of God that is repugnant to sound reason, but there are some things in both which are opposite to carnal reason, as well as above right reason; and therefore our reason never shows itself more unreasonable than in summoning those things to its bar which transcend its sphere and capacity. Many are the mischiefs which ensue upon this practice.

      By this we are drawn into an unworthy suspicion and distrust of the faithfulness of God in the promises. Sarah laughed at the tidings of the son of promise, because reason contradicted and told her it was naturally impossible (Genesis 18:13, 14).

      Hence comes despondency of mind and faintness of heart under afflictive providences. Reason can discern no good fruits in them, nor deliverance from them, and so our hands hang down in a sinful discouragement, saying all these things are against us (1 Samuel 27:1).

      Hence flow temptations to deliver ourselves by indirect and sinful means (Isaiah 30:15, 16). When our own reason fills us with a distrust of Providence, it naturally prompts us to sinful expedients, and there leaves us entangled in the snares of our own making.

      Beware therefore you do not lean too much to your own reasonings and understandings. Nothing is more plausible, nothing more dangerous.

Back to John Flavel index.

See Also:
   Author's Introduction
   Chapter 1 - The Work of Providence for the Saints
   Chapter 2 - Our Birth and Upbringing
   Chapter 3 - The Work of Conversion
   Chapter 4 - Our Employment
   Chapter 5 - Family Affairs
   Chapter 6 - Preservation of the Saints from Evil
   Chapter 7 - The Work of Sanctification
   Chapter 8 - The Duty of Meditation on Providence
   Chapter 9 - How to Meditate on the Providence of God
   Chapter 10 - The Advantages of Meditating on Providence
   Chapter 11 - Practical Implications for the Saints
   Chapter 12 - Practical Problems in Connection with Providence
   Chapter 13 - The Advantages of Recording our Experiences of Providence


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