I have invited you, and others, to read a classic book with me as part of my ongoing Reading Classics Together effort. This time around we are reading John Flavel’s The Mystery of Providence. As you may have surmised from the title, this is a book about providence—about God’s care for his people. In Meet the Puritans Joel Beeke and Randall Pederson tell us what we can expect as we read through the book’s three sections and thirteen chapters.
In the first, Flavel explains the evidence of providence in the birth and upbringing of believers, in their conversion and employment, in their family affairs, and in their sanctification and preservation from evil. In the second, he instructs believers on the art of meditating on the providence of God, explaining the duty of such meditation, how to do it, and the benefits of doing it. … Finally, Flavel applies the doctrine of providence by showing its practical implications for believers and the problems of wrestling with it. The book concludes with a chapter titled “The Advantages of Recording our Experiences of Providence.”
But before all of that, Flavel has to lay some groundwork, and this is exactly what he does in chapter one, “God’s Providence in General.” In this opening chapter he means to prove the existence of providence, and does so by asking eight rhetorical questions.
- How comes it to pass that so many signal mercies and deliverances have befallen the people of God, above the power and against the course of natural causes; to make way for which there has been an obvious suspension and stop put to the course of nature? That’s a mouthful of a sentence, and I take it to mean that there are times when events in the world simply cannot be explained according to natural causes precisely because things behave in a way contrary to nature. Instead of remaining within its normal boundaries, the Red Sea divides and allows God’s people to pass; even people have been bent on one course of action and suddenly found themselves doing the very opposite. How can this be explained apart from the providence of God?
- How is it, if the saints’ affairs are not ordered by a special divine Providence, that natural causes unite and associate themselves for their relief and benefit in so strange a manner as they are found to do? Sometimes events work together so neatly and so obviously that we can only conclude that God has been behind them. Simeon and Anna were both brought to the temple when the young Jesus was there. Was that mere coincidence? An entire series of coincidences brought Joseph to power in Egypt so that he could save God’s people. Coincidence? No, it can only be providence.
- If the concerns of God’s people are not governed by a special Providence, how is it that the most apt and powerful means employed to destroy them are rendered ineffectual, while weak, contemptible means employed for their defence and comfort are crowned with success? If nature ruled, men would carry out their terrible designs. But time and again God’s providences interrupt those plans and deliver his people.
- If all things are governed by the course of nature and force of natural causes, how then comes it to pass that, like a bowl when it strikes another, men are turned out of the way of evil, along which they were driving at full speed? People have been determined on a course of action, even an evil course of action, but God has worked from behind-the-scenes to deliver them from it. Laban came at Jacob in order to harm him but God restrained him; Balaam came to curse Israel, but found himself utterly unable. God turns people away from their intended course.
- If there is not an over-ruling Providence ordering all things for the good of God’s people, how comes it to pass that the good and evil which is done to them in this world is accordingly repaid into the bosoms of them that are instrumental therein? God rewards those who do good to his people, even when those who do good are unbelievers. Not only that, but God repays the evil of unjust men with even greater evil. Just think of the Egyptian midwives who were blessed by God for the good they did to the Hebrews, and think of Pharaoh who was cursed by God for the evil he did to the Hebrews. Providential justice and mercy are both on display in this world.
- If these things are merely accidental, how is it that they square and agree so exactly with the Scriptures in all particulars? What God says in his Word is inevitably proven in his world. From the simple proverbs to the promises of the gospel, God’s Word proves true. This must be more than mere coincidence.
- If these things are contingent, how is it that they fall out so remarkably in the nick of time, which makes them so greatly observable to all that consider them? Many of God’s providences are perfectly timed so we can only agree that they are meant to further God’s purposes. For example, God shows Abraham a substitute sacrifice just when his hand is about to strike Isaac.
- Lastly, were these things accidental and contingent, how can it be that they should fall out so immediately upon and consonantly to the prayers of the saints? So that in many providences they are able to discern a very clear answer to their prayers, and are sure they have the petitions they asked (1 John 5:15). God answers prayer, and so many of his providences are directly tied to the prayers of his people. Peter was delivered from his prison cell while the church prayed; each of us knows how our prayers have been answered by God in clear and specific ways.
Now I will be honest: I found this chapter a little bit difficult to read—more so than most other Puritan works. I don’t know if the fault is mine or Flavel’s, but I am inclined to think it is mine. Not only that, but while I found his examples and illustrations compelling, I am not sure they would do a whole lot to convince someone who did not already believe in providence. They are a helpful in assuring me, but perhaps not in convincing the skeptic. Then again, that may not be his purpose here.
Overall, I found it an intriguing start and I look forward to diving in deeper. I love the premise for the book and was taken by this statement from the introduction: “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!” Some day, I trust, we will. And we will rejoice.
We will continue our reading next week with chapter 2: “God’s Providence in Our Childhood.” Read it by next Thursday and check in to see what I (and others) have to say about it.
The purpose of this project is to read classics together. So do feel free to leave a comment if you have something you would like to say. Alternatively, you may leave a link to your blog or Facebook or anywhere else you have reflected on what you have read.
If you would like to read along with us, we have only just begun, so there is lots of time to get caught up. Simply get a copy of the book and start reading…