The doctrine of the providence of God assures believers that the Lord is sovereign over the circumstances of their lives. Indeed, “The Church is His special care and charge. He rules the world for its good, as a head consulting the welfare of the body.” (John Flavel)
Meditation on God’s providence will foster both gratitude and fortitude in believers. Flavel in his classic book, The Mystery of Providence demonstrates how the Reformed doctrine of providence provides practical advice on how believers may grow in sanctification and enjoy the peace of God through times of affliction (excerpts given below).
APPLICATION OF THE DOCTRINE OF PROVIDENCE
How may a Christian discover the will of God and his own duty under dark and doubtful providences?
In order to answer this question we must consider what is meant by the will of God and what by those doubtful providences that make the discovery of His will difficult and what rules are to be observed for ascertaining God’s will for us under such difficult and puzzling providences.
How may a Christian be supported in waiting upon God, while Providence delays the performance of the mercies to him for which he has long prayed and waited?
It is supposed in this case that Providence may linger and delay the performance of those mercies to us that we have long waited and prayed for, and that during that delay and suspense our hearts and hopes may be very low and ready to fail.
Providence truly may long delay the performance of those mercies we have prayed and waited upon God for. For the right understanding of this, know that there is a twofold term or season fixed for the performance of mercy to us: one by the Lord our God in whose hand are times and seasons (Acts 1:7), another by ourselves who raise up our own expectations of mercies, sometimes merely through the eagerness of our desires after them and sometimes upon uncertain conjectural grounds and appearances of encouragement that lie before us.
But for the seasons which are of our own fixing and appointment, as God is not tied to them, so His providences are not governed by them; and here are our disappointments, ‘We looked for peace, but no good came; and for a time of health, and behold trouble’ (Jeremiah 8:15), and this is why we fret at the delays of Providence, and suspect the faithfulness of God in their performance, but His thoughts are not our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8). ‘The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness’ (2 Peter 3:9). It is slackness if you reckon by your own rule and measure, but it is not so if you reckon and count by God’s. The Lord does not compute and reckon His seasons of working by our arithmetic. You have both these rules compared, and the ground of our mistake detected in that Scripture: ‘For the vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak, and not lie: though it tarry, wait for it: because it will surely come, it will not tarry’ (Habakkuk 2:3). God appoints the time; when that appointed time is come the expected mercies will not fail. But in the meantime, ‘though it tarry,’ says the prophet, ‘wait for it, for it will not tarry.’ Tarry, and not tarry, how shall this be reconciled? The meaning is, it may tarry much beyond your expectation, but not a moment beyond God’s appointment.
During this delay of Providence the hearts and hopes of the people of God may be very low and much discouraged. This is too plain from what the Scriptures have recorded of others, and every one of us may find in our own experiences.
If we duly examine our own hearts about it, we shall find that these sinkings of heart are the immediate effects of unbelief. We do not depend and rely upon the Word with that full trust and confidence that is due to the infallible Word of a faithful and unchangeable God. You may see the ground of this faintness in that Scripture: ‘I had fainted unless I had believed’ (Psalm 27:13). Faith is the only cordial that relieves the heart against these faintings and despondencies. Where this is wanting, or is weak, no wonder our hearts sink at this rate, when discouragements are before us.
Our judging and measuring things by the rules of sense, this is a great cause of our discouragements. We conclude that according to the appearance of things will be their issues…But here is a desperate design carrying on under very plausible pretenses against our souls. It concerns us to be watchful now, and maintain our faith and hope in God. Now blessed is he that can resign all to God, and quietly wait for His salvation (Lamentations 3:26).
Will you lose anything by patient waiting upon God for mercies?
Certainly not! Yea, it will turn to a double advantage to you to continue in a quiet submissive waiting posture upon God. For though you do not yet enjoy the good you wait for, yet all this while you are exercising your grace; and it is more excellent to act grace than to enjoy comfort. All this time the Lord is training you up in the exercise of faith and patience, and bending your wills in submission to Himself, and what do you lose by that? Yea, and whenever the desired mercy comes, it will be so much the sweeter to you, for look how much faith and prayer has been employed to produce it, how many wrestlings you have had with God for it, so many more degrees of sweetness you will find in it when it comes. O therefore faint not, however long God delays you.
Are not those mercies you expect from God worth waiting for?.
How may a Christian discern when a providence is sanctified, and comes from the love of God to him?
The benefit of a providence is discerned as that of a medicine is. For the present it gripes, and makes the stomach sick and loathing, but afterwards we find the benefit of it in our recovery of health and cheerfulness. Now the providences of God are some of them comfortable, and others sad and grievous to nature, and the way to discern the sanctification and blessing of them is by the manner in which they come, and their operations upon our spirits.
When our troubles are fitted both for quality and degree to work properly upon our most predominant corruptions, then they look like sanctified strokes. The wisdom of God is much seen in the choice of His rods. It is not any kind of trouble that will work upon and purge every sin; but when God chooses for us such afflictions as, like medicine, are suited to the disease the soul labours under, this speaks divine care and love. Thus we may observe that it is usual with God to smite us in those very comforts which stole away too much of the love and delight of our souls from God, and to cross us in those things from which we raised up too great expectations of comfort. These providences show the jealousy of God over us, and His care to prevent far worse evils by these sad but needful strokes. And so for the degrees of our troubles, sanctified strokes are ordinarily fitted by the wisdom of God to the strength and ability of our inherent grace. ‘In measure, when it shooteth forth, thou wilt debate with it: he stayeth his rough wind in the day of the east wind’ (Isaiah 27:8). It is an allusion to a physician, who exactly weighs and measures all the ingredients which he mingles in a potion for his sick patient, that it may be proportionate to his strength, and no more. And so much the next words intimate: ‘By this therefore shall the iniquity of Jacob be purged’ (Isaiah 27:9).
It is a sure sign that afflicting providences are sanctified when they purge the heart from sin, and leave both heart and life more pure, heavenly, mortified, and humble than they found them. Sanctified afflictions are cleansers, they pull down the pride, refine earthliness, and purge out the vanity of the spirit.
We may conclude our afflictions to be sanctified, and to come from the love of God to us, when they do not alienate our hearts from God, but inflame our love to Him. This is a sure rule: whatever ends in the increase of our love to God proceeds from the love of God to us. A wicked man finds his heart rising against God when He smites him, but a gracious heart cleaves the closer to Him; he can love as well as justify an afflicting God. ‘All this is come upon us: yet have we not forgotten thee, neither have we dealt falsely in thy covenant. Our heart is not turned hack, neither have our steps declined from thy way: though thou hast sore broken us in the place of dragons, and covered us with the shadow of death’ (Psalm 44:17-19). Here you have a true account of the attitude and frame of a gracious soul under the greatest afflictions. To be ‘broken in the place of dragons, and covered with the shadow of death’, imports the most dismal state of affliction; yet even then a gracious heart does not turn back, that is, does not for all this abate one drachm of love to God. God is as good and dear to him in afflictions as ever.
How may we attain an evenness and steadiness of spirit under the changes and contrary aspects of Providence upon us?
These vicissitudes of Providence commonly cause great disorders of spirit in the best men. As intense heat and cold try the strength and soundness of the constitution of our bodies, so the alterations made by Providence upon our conditions try the strength of our graces, and too often reveal the weakness and corruption of holy men…Though the best men are subject to such disorders of heart under the changes of Providence, yet these disorders may in a great measure be prevented by the due application of such rules and helps as God has given us in such cases, and these shall be considered accordingly.
How may our hearts be established and kept steady under calamitous and adverse providences?
Next, let us consider what may be useful to support and quieten our hearts under doubtful providences when our dear concerns hang in a doubtful suspense before us, and we do not know which way the providence of God will cast and determine them.
Now the best hearts are apt to grow concerned and pensive, distracted with anxiety about the event and outcome. To relieve and settle us in this case, the following considerations are very useful.
Let us consider the vanity and uselessness of such anxiety. ‘Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?’ (Matthew 6:27). We may break our peace and waste our spirits, but not alter the case. We cannot turn God out of His way. ‘He is in one mind’ (Job 23:13). We may, by struggling against God, increase, but not avoid or lighten our troubles.
How often do we afflict and torment ourselves by our own restless thoughts, when there is no real cause or ground for so doing?.. How great and sure a means have the saints ever found it to their own peace, to commit all doubtful outcomes of Providence to the Lord, and devolve all their cares upon Him! ‘Commit thy works unto the LORD, and thy thoughts shall be established’ (Proverbs 16:3). By works he means any doubtful, intricate, perplexing business, about which our thoughts are racked and tortured. Roll all these upon the Lord by faith, leave them with Him, and the present immediate benefit you shall have by it, besides the comfort in the last issue, shall be tranquility and peace in your thoughts. And who is there of any standing or experience in religion that has not found it so?
How may a Christian work his heart into resignation to the will of God when sad providences approach him and forebode great troubles and afflictions coming on towards him?
It must be premised that the question does not suppose the heart or will of a Christian to be at his own command and disposal in this matter. We cannot resign it, and subject it to the will of God whenever we desire so to do. The duty indeed is ours, but the power by which alone we perform it is God’s; we act as we are acted upon by the Spirit. It is with our hearts as with meteors hanging in the air by the influence of the sun; while that continues they abide above, but when it fails they fall to the earth. We can do this and all things else, however difficult, through Christ that strengthens us (Philippians 4:13). But without Him we can do nothing (John 15:5). He does not say, Without me ye can do but little, or without me ye can do nothing but with great difficulty, or without me ye can do nothing perfectly, but ‘without me ye can do nothing’ at all. And every Christian has a witness in his own breast to attest this truth. For there are cases frequently occurring in the methods of Providence in which, notwithstanding all their prayers and desires, all their reasonings and strivings, they cannot quieten their hearts fully in the disposal and will of God; but on the contrary they find all their endeavours in this matter to be but as the rolling of a returning stone against the hill. Till God say to the heart, Be still, and to the will, Give up, nothing can be done.
It is here supposed to be the Christian’s great duty, under the apprehensions of approaching troubles, to resign his will to God’s and quietly commit the events and their outcome to Him, whatever they may prove. Thus did David in the like case and circumstances: ‘And the king said unto Zadok, Carry back the ark of God into the city; if I shall find favour in the eyes of the LORD, he will bring me back again, and show me both it and his habitation: But if he thus say, I have no delight in thee: behold here am I, let him do to me as seemeth good unto him’ (2 Samuel 15:25, 26). O lovely and truly Christian attitude! As much as to say, Go Zadok, return with the ark to its place; though I have not the symbol, yet I hope I shall have the real presence of God with me in this sad journey. How He will dispose the events of this sad and doubtful providence I know not. Either I shall return again to Jerusalem or I shall not. If I do, then I shall see it again, and enjoy the Lord in His ordinances there. If I do not, then I shall go to that place where there is no need or use of those things. And either way it will be well for me. I am content to refer all to the divine pleasure, and commit the issue, be it whatever it will, to the Lord.
And till our hearts come to the like resolve, we can have no peace within. ‘Commit thy works unto the LORD, and thy thoughts shall be established’ (Proverbs 16:3). By works he means not only every enterprise and business we undertake, but every puzzling, intricate and doubtful event we fear. These being once committed by an act of faith, and our wills resigned to His, besides the comfort we shall have in the issue, we shall have the present advantage of a well-composed and peaceful spirit…
Labour to work into your hearts a deep and fixed sense of the infinite wisdom of God and your own folly and ignorance. This will make resignation easy to you. Whatsoever the Lord does is by counsel (Ephesians 1:11), His understanding is infinite (Psalm 147:5), His thoughts are very deep (Psalm 92:5), but as for man, yea, the wisest among men, how little does his understanding penetrate the works and designs of Providence!… Now if one creature can and ought to be guided and governed by another that is more wise and skillful than himself, as the client by his learned counsel, the patient by his skillful physician, much more should every one give up his weak reason and shallow understanding to the infinite and omniscient God.
Deeply consider the sinfulness and vanity of torturing your own thoughts about the issues of doubtful providences. There is much sin in so doing, for all our anxious and agitated emotions, what are they other than the immediate outcome and fruits of pride and unbelief? There is not a greater display of pride in the world than in the contests of our wills with the will of God. It is a presumptuous invading of God’s prerogative to dictate to His providence and prescribe to His wisdom.
Set before you those choice Scripture patterns of submission to the Lord’s will in as deep, yea, much deeper points of self-denial than this before you, and shame yourselves out of this quarreling attitude with Providence.
Study the singular benefits and advantages of a will resigned up and melted into the will of God.
‘The Lord shall do all for thee, and thou shalt do nothing but be the Sabbath of Christ.’ It is by this means that the Lord ‘giveth his beloved sleep’ (Psalm 127:2); he does not mean the sleep of the body, but of the spirit. As one has said on this verse: ‘Though believers live in the midst of many troubles here, yet with quiet and composed minds they keep themselves in the silence of faith, as though they were asleep.’ Besides, it fits a man’s spirit for communion with God in all his afflictions, and this alleviates and sweetens them beyond anything in the world.
How Providence will dispose of my life, liberty and labours for time to come, I know not; but I cheerfully commit all to Him who has hitherto performed all things for me (Psalm 57:2).
Source: John Flavel, The Mystery of Providence (1687). Banner of Truth, 1963. pp. 181-218.
Great Providence of Heaven
Great providence of heaven–
What wonders shine
In its profound display
Of God’s design:
It guards the dust of earth,
Commands the hosts above,
Fulfils the mighty plan
Of his great love
The kingdoms of this world
Lie in its hand;
See how they rise or fall
At its command
Through sorrow and distress,
Tempestuous storms that rage,
God’s kingdom yet endures
From age to age
Its darkness dense is but
A radiant light;
Its oft-perplexing ways
Are ordered right.
Soon all its winding paths
Will end, and then the tale
Of wonder shall be told
Beyond the veil.
(Hymn by David Charles, 1762-1834;
Translated from Welsh by Edmund Tudor Owen).
You may listen to the hymn here.