When Grief Goes Too Far (Flavel)

Facing Grief: Counsel for Mourners (Puritan Paperbacks)

After Saul’s kingship seriously goes down the drain, the Lord rejects Saul as king over Israel. You can read the story in 1 Samuel 15. At the end of this story, Samuel grieves over Saul. In fact, Samuel’s grief or mourning is noted twice – once in 1 Samuel 15:35 and also 1 Samuel 16:1. At one point Yahweh gives Samuel a sort of rebuke: “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel?” (NIV). From one angle it seems as if God is telling Samuel that he should not mourn so much because God is carrying out his plan.

That leads to another similar note in Scripture where we’re told to moderate our mourning. In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 we learn that since the resurrection is true, believers must not grieve in a hopeless way as unbelievers grieve. We might also think about the times in Scripture where God’s people are told to stop weeping. There’s a theme in Scripture that Christians must not grieve excessively or without moderation. Some grief is fine, of course, but there comes a point when grief goes too far and becomes sinful.

In his book, Facing Grief, John Flavel notes seven ways when grief and sorrow become sinful. I’ll list them below – I’ve edited these points for length and clarity.

Sorrow becomes sinful and excessive when…

  1. …it causes us to slight and despise all our other mercies and enjoyments as small things in comparison with what we have lost. Our tears for something we’ve lost blind our eyes so we can’t see the mercies that remain. …Whatever God takes, be still thankful for what he leaves.
  2. …it so engulfs our hearts that we selfishly ignore other Christians’ hardships, miseries, and afflictions. We focus on our own grief so much that we fail to mourn with those who mourn.
  3. …it diverts or distracts us from our God-given duties. Grief is sinful when it causes us to neglect prayer, thoughts about God, and fellowship with him.
  4. …it causes us to harm ourselves and make us unfit for service. When grief causes us to refuse rest, refreshment, sleep, food, and other things necssary for our health, it is sinful.
  5. …it makes us discontent with God’s plan and makes us start to doubt him and think wickedly of his works and providences.
  6. …it makes us constantly rehearse the source of grief and therefore scratches the wounds of sorrow open again and again and again.
  7. …it causes us to ignore and disregard godly words of counsel and comfort. It is sinful if you do not allow comforting words to help ease your grief and sorrow.

Flavel says more about these seven ways that grief can go too far and become sinful; I’ve edited them quite a bit. You can find it in full in chapter 4 of Flavel’s book, Facing Grief.

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

The Duty Ours, The Power is God’s (Flavel)


When it comes to the mysterious providence of God and trials that come our way in his providence, we need to submit to his will (even when it’s hard to do!). We need the faith to say, “Lord, you know best; thy will be done.” How can we do that? It’s easier said than done for sure! John Flavel (d. 1691) gave a good answer to the hard question: How can we submit to God’s will when his providence includes our suffering and pain?

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.

…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.

Flavel, “The Mystery of Providence”, p. 211-212.

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

[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