God Preserving and Governing: The Mystery of Providence

The Mystery of Providence by John Flavel

“The greatness of God is a glorious and unsearchable mystery. The condescension of the most high God to men is also a profound mystery. But when both these meet together, as they do in Psalm 57:2, they make up a matchless mystery. Here we find the most high God performing all things for a poor distressed creature.

“O how ravishing and delectable a sight will it be to behold at one view the whole design of Providence, and the proper place and use of every single act, which we could not understand in this world!”

I’ve had The Mystery of Providence (1678) on my list of books to be read for quite a while, and with all the crazy stuff that has taken place in 2020, the time seemed right to read it. I don’t know about you, but I’ve thought a lot about the sovereignty and providence of God over the past year. Providence is defined in the Westminster Shorter Catechism as God’s “most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all His creatures, and all their actions.” This statement presupposes that God is the Creator of all things, and as such, has the prerogative to do whatever He wishes with it. A pastor friend of mine recently shared this definition of the word “providence” from the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms:

The vigilant care which God exercises in relation to all the works of his hand in their preservation and government. God has not merely created all things, but he continues to uphold them, and all his attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, justice, goodness, faithfulness, etc. are continually illustrated in his providential control.

When things occur in our life that don’t seem to make sense, or that we have a hard time seeing a good reason for, the believer who has faith in an all-wise, good God clings to the truth that He is still in control, and that He has a purpose for everything that happens, not only for His plan in general, but even for me as an individual child of His.

Flavel begins The Mystery of Providence by setting forth many evidences from scripture that show how God can and has used His creation for His purposes, and in particular, in the lives of His people. There are countless incidents recorded in the Bible in which God uses animals, weather, sickness, “natural causes,” time, and people to bring about His plan. After laying down this groundwork, the author proceeds to look at various aspects of a person’s life that are part of God’s eternal providential plan for them. These really gave me pause to think about the fact that the following are aspects of God’s providence in my life:

  • Where and when I was born
  • The family and economic setting in which I was raised
  • My religious upbringing
  • The circumstances surrounding my conversion
  • My education
  • My health
  • My past and current occupation
  • Preservation from evil/harm
  • God’s sanctifying work

Have you ever thought much about the first item on this list? Listen to how Flavel makes this point, writing from 1678 England:

Suppose your mothers had brought you forth in America, among the savage Indians, who herd together as brute beasts, are scorched with heat, and starved with cold, being naked, destitute and defenseless. How poor, miserable, and unprovided with earthly comfort and accommodations are many millions of the inhabitants of this world!

This may be shocking to read now, but Flavel’s point is that you could’ve been born under much different, less comfortable circumstances than you were. Of all the times and places I could’ve been born, the Lord saw fit to bring me into this world in 1960’s Philadelphia, as the first child born to a middle-class white Christian couple. Every detail of my birth contributes to the person I am now, and the same goes for you. I will always be thankful to the Lord that I had the privilege to be born to parents who were Christians who loved God’s Word and who valued His church so that I was exposed to the gospel basically from infanthood. It’s quite probable this was not your exact experience. Each of us has our own history, which is really His story for us, and He had a reason for it. This is helpful to keep in mind if we ever start to regret or complain about these things in our life, particularly that we had no choice or control over.

If you’ve ever taken the time to write, or had the opportunity to share your testimony of God’s saving work in your life, you’ve thought about the people and circumstances that God used to save you. Flavel writes,

In nothing does Providence shine forth more gloriously in this world than in ordering the occasions, instruments, and means of conversion of the people of God. However skillfully its hand had moulded your bodies, however tenderly it had preserved them and bountifully it had provided for them; if it had not also ordered some means or other for your conversion, all the former favours and benefits it had done for you had meant little.

Whenever new members join our church, they are asked to share their testimonies, and it’s always a blessing to hear how God worked in unique ways, sometimes over a period of many, many years, to bring an individual to repentance and saving faith.

Of course God’s work doesn’t cease once we are saved; He continues the work of sanctification in our lives to make us holy and more like Christ. Flavel explains,

There are two means or instruments employed in this work. The Spirit, who effects it internally (Rom. 8:13), and Providence, which assists it externally. The Spirit indeed is the principal agent, upon whose operation the success of this work depends…The most wise God orders the dispensations of Providence in a blessed subordination to the work of His Spirit.

Because of the weakness of our flesh and the sin nature that still dwells in us, we still are prone to wander and to give in to temptation, to become worldly-minded, lazy or complacent, or to become proud and self-sufficient. God does not change our hearts and save us, only to then leave us to fend for ourselves! No, He continues to work in our lives for His purposes and according to His pleasure (Phil. 2:13). He uses many things, including affliction, to mold and prune us. And the means and methods He uses are unique and chose specifically for each person. It is unwise and evidences a lack of trust in God’s wisdom if we compare what we are going through with others and question what He is doing.

In the second section, Flavel exhorts the reader to take the time to meditate often on the Providence of God in his or her life, especially during times of trial. In fact, he asserts that it is the duty of the Christian to do so, and it is a sin to neglect to do so. Many times we read in scripture a command to “Remember God’s works”, to “Behold the hand of God,” or to “Tell of His wondrous deeds.” The people of Israel were condemned for “forgetting His works.” ( See I Chron. 16 and Psalm 78, for example). He makes the following observations:

  1. “Without due observation of the works of Providence no praise can be rendered to God for any of them.”
  2. “Without this we lose the usefulness and benefit of all the works of God for us or others.”
  3. “It is a vile slighting of God not to observe what He manifests of Himself in His providences.”
  4. “Men can never order their addresses to God in prayer, suitable to their conditions, without due observation of His providences.”

Flavel provides some helpful suggestions for how to think and meditate on God’s Providence, both good and bad. He exhorts us not to “pry too curiously into the secrets of Providence,” in other words, not to try too hard to read God’s mind and intentions. If something “bad” happens in our life, this doesn’t mean He is correcting or punishing us; likewise when something good happens it’s not necessary to reward us or that we deserve it. After all, we know that providentially good things happen to the wicked all the time. Some things it is just not our place to know, and we just need to submit to God’s will and trust in His wisdom and goodness. Flavel reminds us that if we can be assured that everything that happens in our life comes from the hand of God, we can be at peace, trusting that He knows what is best and needful for us. Flavel writes,

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 (Rom. 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?

This reminds me of similar thoughts expressed by Puritan pastor Thomas Watson in his book All Things for Good, in which he explains that the best things work for good to the godly, but that the worst things work for good to the godly as well.

Flavel ends with practical applications related to Providence, such as how to pray about situations and patiently wait for God to answer according to His will. Accepting something to be God’s will does not mean we give up praying for an answer or positive outcome, thus we end our prayers with “Thy will be done.” Flavel says, “Enjoyment of your desires is the thing that will please you, but resignation of our wills is that which is pleasing to God.”

One insight that I found helpful is how Flavel explains that difficult providences in our life can be what he calls sanctifying. The way we can tell if this is the case, is if these hard things in our life result in obedience, submission, humility, or stronger faith, then they serve a purging or sanctifying purpose. My pastor explained it this way just this morning: A terrible natural disaster like a hurricane hits an area. It destroys two homes, one of a family of believers and the other unbelievers. We know that this hurricane came from the hand of God upon both, but while it will have a sanctifying effect on the family of believers, to whom we know “God causes all things to work together for good,” unless it causes the unbelievers to turn in faith to Him, it may serve to be God’s hand of judgment upon them. Flavel explains that, “the events of Providence fall out so opposite to each other upon the godly and ungodly, everything furthering the eternal good of the one, and the ruin of the other.” In fact, “as the worst things are ordered to the benefit of the saints, so the best things wicked men enjoy do them no good.”

I found The Mystery of Providence to have a lot of helpful instruction and reminders supported by Scripture throughout, about how God works and uses various means in our life for His purposes and for our good if we are His child. It also served as a good reminder of why it’s important to reflect often on this, even to write down and talk with others of how we see God’s hand at work in the past as well as currently in our lives. And as we see the world seemingly spinning out of control, with evil being called good, and the wicked prospering, it is crucial for our peace of mind and heart to rest in the perfect, eternal purposes of God being played out through His providence.

The Mystery of Providence is a book I’ve included on my list of non-fiction books I feel every Christian should read, and is one of many classic Puritan works included in the wonderful Puritan Paperback series published by The Banner of Truth. Other books in this series that I have reviewed include The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, The Mortification of Sin, All Things for Good, Prayer, and The Godly Man’s Picture.

I hope you will take some time today to reflect on the unique providential working of God in your life, in the past and today.

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