[Not] Prying into the Secrets of Providence (Flavel)

 One basic but difficult truth in the Christian faith is this: we can’t always interpret or understand providence.  We sometimes have no idea why certain things happened when they did; we don’t know why they happened how they did.  This fact stretches and tests our faith.  Why did my kids get terribly ill but no one else’s did?  Why did God allow my parents to get into a car accident and sustain life-threatening injuries?  How come there are people getting laid off at work, and am I next?  Sometimes we just can’t understand, interpret, or read God’s sovereign providence.  John Flavel (d.1691) gave wise counsel that the child of God should not pry into his Father’s providence:

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 show 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.

Indeed.  The secret things belong to the Lord, but the things he revealed belong to us and to our children (Deut. 29:29).  And, as has been said before, even though the child of God cannot always trace the ways of his Father, he can always trust him!

The above quote is found on page 141 of The Mystery of Providence.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015


Keeping the Heart In Time of Adversity

In this great little book, Keeping the Heart, John Flavel (d. 1691) gives an exposition and application of Proverbs 4:23: “Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life.”  After explaining how “keeping the heart” means fighting sin and staying close to the Lord, Flavel applies the text to specific seasons in the Christian life – seasons which require extra diligence in keeping the heart (for example, times of prosperity, need, danger, trial, temptation etc.).

Here’s an edited summary of Flavel’s instructions in keeping the heart during times of adversity, times when providence frowns upon us and troubles are intense.

1) Consider that in these adverse providences God is faithfully pursuing the great design of electing love upon the souls of his people, and he orders all these afflictions as means sanctified to that end.  Afflictions come not by casualty or chance, but by God’s counsel (Is. 27:9, Heb. 12:10, Rom. 8:28).

2) Remember that though God has the liberty to afflict his people with fatherly discipline, he is bound to his covenantal oath and promise to never take away his loving kindness from them.  Though does discipline us, he does not forsake us (2 Sam. 7:14).

3) In order to keep your heart, remember that your heavenly Father orders adversity.  Not a creature moves hand or tongue against thee but by his permission.  The cup may be bitter, but since the Father gave it to you, it is not filled with poison, but medicine.

4) Don’t forget that God loves you when you are at your best and when you are at your worst.  He ordinarily manifests more of his love, grace, and tenderness in the time of affliction than in the time of prosperity.  As God did not at first choose you because you were high, he will not now forsake you because you are low.

5) Ponder how God can remove your earthly comforts to keep your soul from temptation.  Love of earthly comforts have made many forsake Christ.  Just like seamen throw valuable goods overboard during a storm to save their lives, so God sometimes throws our worldly comforts overboard to save our lives during a storm, as it were.

6) To help keep your heart during adversity, consider the fact that humbling adversities are accomplishing that which you have prayed for a long time.  If you have prayed for humility, detachment from the world, mortification of lusts, and if you have prayed that your heart might only find rest and enjoyment in Christ, remember that God brings adversity as a way to answer our prayers for these things.

7) Remember that in God’s secret counsel, these troubles and adversities are part of his sovereign plan for your life as his child.  If we could only remember that God has decreed even the smallest things in our life, it would help us make it through adversity.  Providence is like a curious piece of tapestry made of a thousand shreds, which, single, appear useless, but put together, they represent a beautiful history to the eye.

8) Usually, during adversity, our fretting and discontentment hurt us more than the trial does.  Affliction is a pill, which, being wrapped up in patience and quiet submission, may be easily swallowed; but discontent chews the pill, and so embitters the soul.

9) Never forget that you deserve to suffer far worse adversity than you are currently facing.  We deserve eternal hell for our sins, but God in Christ is merciful, and the only pain his people have to suffer is nothing like hell – it is fatherly discipline that lasts only for a short time.

Again, I’ve summarized Flavel’s slightly more detailed explanations.  Also, in case you were wondering, he used more Scripture in his application that I’ve given above.  Though Flavel isn’t the easiest puritan to read, this book is short enough that it isn’t overwhelming.  And in it there is some amazing, faith-strengthening, and biblically saturated encouragement to “keep your heart” through tough times in the Christian life.  Highly recommended!

Here’s the full citation: John Flavel, Keeping the Heart (Ross-Shire: Christian Focus Publications, 2012), 41ff.

shane lems

Puritan Treasures for Today

  I recently purchased three books from Reformation Heritage’s series called “Puritan Treasures for Today.”  I’m familiar with these authors (Greenhill, Swinnock, and Flavel), so I was interested to see if these books are advertised correctly: are they readable for today’s average Christian?  In a word, and having read two of the three, yes, they are readable.  The language is modernized though not to the extent of watering the text down.  They still read like Puritan literature – proper grammar, striking illustrations, clear biblical allusions, and penetrating application.  Each book is small and relatively short (73, 170, and 124 pages).  In case you’re interested, here’s a sample from Greenhill’s Stop Loving the World.  Here he’s answering the question: “What does it mean to love the world?”

“We are said to love the world when we employ most of our strength in, on, and about the things of the world.  When our chief strength is employed toward something, we commit our time and energy to it.”

“We are said to love the world when we watch all opportunities and occasions to get the things of the world: to buy cheap and sell high; to get great estates, houses, lands, and things of that nature.”

“We love the world when we endure great hardships for it…When men endure great difficulties, run through great dangers, and venture upon anything to get the world, they can be said to love it. … Men can endure any difficulty and danger to get estates, but they will hardly endure anything to get heaven, grace, or an interest in Christ.”

My only critiques of this set are these: 1) I wish the books had a topical and scripture index to use for future reference,  2) An extended outline would be helpful to see the flow of the argument, and 3) The KJV is awkward in an updated text; the ESV would have been much better and would have made the books even more readable.  Please note these critiques are minor; if you saw these books and were thinking about purchasing them – go for it!   I would not hesitate to give these to Christians who enjoy reading and would benefit from topics like worldliness, fear, the brevity of life, and the endurance of faith.  These are perfect for a church library, individual devotional reading, or as an introduction to the Puritans.  The books in this series (“Puritan Treasures for Today“) are an excellent stepping stone to the Puritan Paperbacks, which bring Christian readers to a gold mine of solid and edifying literature. 

shane lems


Your Conversion?

 If you’re a Christian and you can’t pinpoint the date and time of your conversion, don’t despair and don’t let your conscience bother you.  Listen to these great paragraphs found in John Flavel’s The Mystery of Providence.  I added the words in the brackets for clarification.

“Conversion, as to the subjects of it, may be considered two ways; either as it is more clearly wrought in persons of riper years, who in their youthful days were more profane and vile; or upon persons in their tender years, into whose hearts grace was more imperceptibly and indiscernibly instilled by God’s blessing upon pious education” (Christian teaching).

“In the former sort, the distinct acts of the Spirit, illuminating, convincing, humbling, drawing them to Christ and sealing them are more evident and discernible.  In the latter, these are more obscure and confused (mixed together).  They can remember that God gave them an esteem and liking of godly persons, care of duty and conscience of sin; but as to the time, place, instruments, and manner of the work, they can give but a slender account of them.  However, if the work is savingly wrought in them, there is no reason they should be troubled because the circumstances of it are not so evident to them as they are to others.”

“Let the substance and reality of the work appear and there is no reason to afflict yourselves because of the lack of evidence of such circumstances” (p. 61).

shane lems


The Loss of A Loved One

 This is a great resource on dealing with sorrow and grief in the Christian life: Facing Grief by John Flavel (d. 1691).  Flavel starts by discussing Luke 7.13: When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry” (NIV).  He then moves to aspects of sorrow, explaining the biblical way for a Christian to grieve (he mostly speaks about grief over the loss of a loved one). 

One of the first points he makes is that Christians may grieve, of course, but grief should never overcome us: “Christians ought to moderate their sorrows for their dead relations (friends/family), no matter how many afflicting circumstances and aggravations meet together in their death” (p. 10).  It is a deep and cutting sorrow to lose a loved one, but since Jesus defeated death in his resurrection, death’s sorrow should not overwhelm us.  Here are a few more words of wisdom Flavel gives to the mourner.

“Whatever God takes, be still thankful for what he leaves” (p. 23).

“It is well for us and ours that our times are in God’s hand, and not in our own” (p. 56).

“The more impatient you are under this affliction, the more need you had of it” (p. 85).

“If you would not be overwhelmed with trouble for the loss of dear relations, turn to God under your trouble and pour out your sorrows by prayer into his bosom” (p. 117).

If deep sorrow has hit your life, you’ll want to read through this book.  I’m quite certain it will bring out some tears, especially when Flavel talks about losing an infant.  I had to set it down a few times – I wish I had read this several years ago!

By the way, Flavel’s language is a bit archaic, so you have to concentrate while reading, but it is not long (120 small pages), and the benefits are worth the effort.  And, as with many of these Puritan Paperbacks, it is very affordable.  You really should get this one! 

shane lems