Earlier this year a small band of brothers and sisters in our church embarked on reading Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life by Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones. So far, the experience has been stretching, rich, and as may be surprising from the title of the book, intersecting directly with actual life.
This was especially true in a chapter entitled “The Puritans on Providence.” In one section, the authors point the reader to John Flavel’s The Mystery of Providence, summarizing the four following ways we as Christians can and should meditate on the providence of God (Puritan Theology, 175-177).
1. “Work hard at remembering and exploring the providence of God toward you.”
In other words, as the song some grew up singing goes, count your blessings, naming them one by one. And not just one or two every now and again, but intentionally, regularly, and meticulously. Flavel writes, “Let not your thoughts swim like feathers upon the surface of the water, but sink like lead to the bottom.”
Consider the circumstances the Lord used to bring you to Christ. Consider the daily, weekly, monthly, yearly provision God has bestowed upon you. Take time to do this personally, with family, with church members, and congregationally. John Norton said “that if the least of God’s saints, who had walked with God for only a few years, could write down all of God’s dealing with him, it ‘would make a volume full of temptations, signs, and wonders: a wonderful history, because a history of such experiences, each one whereof is more than a wonder.’” (Puritan Theology, 175.)
2. “Trace the connections between the providences of God in your life and the promises of God in His word.”
The first step of meditating on God’s providence causes us to examine our experience, the second drives us to the Scriptures, thus rooting our experience in the revealed word of God. Beeke & Jones write, “The Christian’s rule of life is God’s revealed will (in Scripture), not His secret will (which comes to expression in providence). As the latter unfolds, we discover that God is always faithful to His promises.” (Puritan Theology, 175.)
Let the promises of God increasingly be the lens through which we interpret our experience of His working in our lives, our families, our churches, and our world.
3. “Look beyond the events and circumstances of providence to God as author and provider.”
The third step of meditating on God’s providence brings into view, not our experiences, not the promises of God, but God Himself. “Think of the attributes and ways of God (His love, wisdom, grace, condescension, purposes, methods, and goodness).” (Puritan Theology, 176)
As we do this, the Puritans, who lived in a period of history fraught with circumstances making them close acquaintances with suffering, remind us that “God often works out His purposes through painful trials. He is sovereign in all things, gracious, wise, faithful, all-sufficient, and unchanging, which is precisely what we need to remember in the darkness of affliction: “God is what he was, and where he was (Flavel)” (Puritan Theology, 176).
4. “Respond to each providence in an appropriate way.”
As we meditate on God’s providence in our experiences, connect them to Scripture by meditating on the promises of God, and meditate on the character of God revealed in the word and expressed in providence, a response is inevitable. But what kind? Praise and thanksgiving can easily spill from us when all goes well, but what of the times when it appears as though God hides a smiling face behind a frowning providence, as William Cowper so eloquently captured it?
“First, we must learn how to resist discouragement. God is teaching us patience. It may not yet be God’s time to act, for He may be delaying to increase our appetite for the blessing for which we long. What are we to do? We must remember that He is bringing about a greater blessing: our willingness to depend entirely on God and His good pleasure.” (Puritan Theology, 176)
“Second, we must learn not to assume that we fully understand God’s ways and purposes.” John Flavel writes again, “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 about them; a man may easily get a strain by over-reaching.” (Puritan Theology, 176)
The example is given of Psalm 73, where “Asaph deepened his depression by trying to understand all the intricacies of God’s ways; the same can be true for us. Trying to solve mysteries that are too great for us will only breed suspicion of God, darkness of spirit, and tempt us to take matters into our own hands. That leads us to distrust providence and to reject the wisdom and love of God.” (Puritan Theology, 176)
The Scriptures abound with examples of those who thought they could nudge providence along in a direction they deemed favourable. That never ends well.
The End of Meditating on God’s Providence?
According to Flavel: to “over-power and suppress the natural atheism that is in [our] hearts.” (Puritan Theology, 176). At the same time, opportunity abounds for praise to be given to God, to whom all glory and worth should be ascribed. This is why Flavel recommends that we actually record God’s providence in our lives, not only for ourselves, but for those who come behind us. So, brothers and sisters, take up whatever technology you prefer, be it pen or paper or a digital device, and begin tracing out God’s hand of providence at work. In doing so we will learn, as Beeke and Jones summarize from our Puritan forebears:
God is in control of His universe.
God is working out His perfect purposes, also in my life.
God is not my servant.
God’s ways are far more mysterious and wonderful than I can understand.
God is always good; I can always trust Him.
God’s timetable is not the same as mine.
God is far more interested in what I become than in what I do.
Freedom from suffering is not promised in the Christian gospel.
Suffering is an integral part of the Christian life.
God works through suffering to fulfill His purposes in me.
God’s purposes, not mine, are what bring Him glory.
God enables me to read His providences through the lens of His Word.
I have few greater pleasures than tracing the wonders of God’s ways (Puritan Theology, 177).
A final word from John Flavel: “Providence carries our lives, liberties, and concernments in its hand every moment. Your bread is in its cupboard, your money in its purse, your safety in its enfolding arms: and sure it is the least part of what you owe, to record the favours you receive at its hands.”