The following is an excerpt from chapter 9 of Flavel's The Mystery of Providence
by John Flavel
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.
Excerpt From The Mystery of Providence by John Flavel