Mystery of Providence and Prayer

Mystery of Providence by John Flavel is comprised of three parts:

  1. The Evidence of Providence
  2. Meditation on the Providence of God
  3. Application of the Doctrine of Providence

I had a hard time with the first two sections of this book. Not because it was hard to understand, but just because he listed a bunch of stuff as to what various ‘providences’ are, and how important it is to meditate on them, and again listing a bunch of them and reasons why we should. Since this is my first whole Puritan book, I was disappointed at this point to say the least. Has anyone else felt this way?

But then came section 3. What’s quoted below is a brilliant treatise on asking for things in prayer and waiting for them. What things to ask for; what things to wait for. What things are in God’s will and what things aren’t. It’s not that it was all new–I will write about waiting on God in another post using Proverbs 2 as an example and providence has been a favorite subject of mine for quite some time, it’s just that it’s such a complete and cogent treatment of this subject, so encouraging and so educational that I want to quote part of it. The problem I have is when to end it! So I just picked a place and stopped it where I did. If this subject matter is of interest to you, I’d highly recommend it. I don’t agree with everything he says later on, but what do I know.

You can find it free online or the paperback is $10, a $5 edition (I’m not sure if they’re different) or Kindle is $0.99.

I especially like how he says that we promise things for ourselves and then blame God when we don’t get them.

I have included some information about the book and author below. I’m not sure who wrote the description.

I look forward to reading more Puritan books in the near future.

Though Providence does not yet perform the mercies you wait for, yet you have no ground to entertain hard thoughts of God, for it is possible God never gave you any ground for your expectation of these things from Him.

It may be you have no promise to build your hope upon, and if so, why shall God be suspected and dishonored by you in a case in which His truth and faithfulness was never engaged to you? If we are thwarted in our outward concerns, and see our expectations of prosperity dashed, if we see such and such an outward comfort removed, from which we promised ourselves much, why must God be blamed for this? These things you promised yourselves, but where did God promise you prosperity and the continuance of those comfortable things to you? Produce His promise, and show where He has broken it. It is not enough for you to say there are general promises in the Scripture, that God will withhold no good thing, and these are good things which Providence withholds from you; for that promise (Psalm 84:11) has its limitations, it is expressly limited to such as ‘walk uprightly.’ It concerns you to examine whether you have done so, before you quarrel with Providence for non-performance of it. Ah, friend, search your own heart, reflect upon your own ways. Do you not see so many flaws in your integrity, so many turnings aside from God, both in heart and life, that may justify God, not only in withholding what you look for, but in removing all that you enjoy? And besides this limitation as to the object, it is limited (as all other promises relating to externals are) in the matter or things premised by the wisdom and will of God, which is the only rule by which they are measured out to men in this world, that is, such mercies in such proportions as He sees needful and most conducive to your good; and these given out in such times and seasons as are of His own appointment, not yours.

God never came under an absolute unlimited tie for outward comforts to any of us, and if we are disappointed, we can blame none but ourselves. Who bid us expect rest, ease, delight, and things of that kind in this world? He has never told us we shall be rich, healthy, and at ease in our habitations, but on the contrary, He has often told us we must expect troubles in the world (John 16:33), and that we must ‘through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God’ (Acts 14:22). All that He stands bound to us by promise for is to be with us in trouble (Psalm 91:15), to supply our real and absolute needs. ‘When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue faileth for thirst, I the LORD will hear them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them’ (Isaiah 41:17); and to sanctify all these providences to our good at last. ‘And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose’ (Romans 8:28). And as to all these things, not one tittle ever did or shall fail.

If you say you have long waited upon God for spiritual mercies to your souls according to the promise, and still those mercies are deferred, and your eyes fail while you look for them, I would desire you seriously to consider of what kind those spiritual mercies are for which you have so long waited upon God.

Spiritual mercies are of two sorts: such as belong to the essence, the very being of the new creature, without which it must fail, or to its well-being and the comfort of the inner man, without which you cannot live so cheerfully as you would. The mercies of the former kind are absolutely necessary, and therefore put into absolute promises, as you see, ‘And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from them to do them good; but I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me’ (Jeremiah 32:40). But for the rest they are dispensed to us in such measures and at such seasons as the Lord sees fit, and many of His own people live for a long time without them. The donation and continuation of the Spirit, to quicken, sanctify, and unite us with Christ, is necessary, but His joys and comforts are not so. A child of light may walk ‘in darkness’ (Isaiah 50:10). He lives by faith, and not by feeling.

You complain that Providence delays to perform to you the mercies you have prayed and waited for, but have you right ends in your desires after these mercies?

It may be that this is the cause you ask and receive not (James 4:3). The lack of a good aim is the reason why we lack good success in our prayers. It may be we pray for prosperity, and our aim is to please the flesh. We look no higher than the pleasure and accommodation of the flesh. We beg and wait for deliverance from such a trouble and affliction, not that we might be the more ready and prepared for obedience, but freed of what is grievous to us and destroys our pleasure in the world. Certainly, if it is so, you have more need to judge and condemn yourselves, than to censure and suspect the care of God.

You wait for good, and it does not come; but is your will brought to a due submission to the will of God about it?

Certainly, God will have you come to this before you enjoy your desires. Enjoyment of your desires is the thing that will please you, but resignation of your wills is that which is pleasing to God. If your hearts cannot come to this, mercies cannot come to you. David was made to wait long for the mercy promised him, yea, and to be content without it before he enjoyed it. He was brought to he ‘as a weaned child’ (Psalm 131:2), and so must you.

Your betters have waited long upon God for mercy, and why should not you?

David waited till his ‘eyes failed’ (Psalm 69:3). The Church waited for Him in the way of His judgments (Isaiah 26:8). Are you better than all the saints that are gone before you? Is God more obliged to you than to all His people? They have quietly waited, and why should not you?

Will you lose anything by patient waiting upon God for mercies?

Certainly not!

The “Mystery of Providence” by John Flavel presents the Puritan perspective on the providence of God in practical terms. The book is really a lengthy meditation and application of Psalm 52:7, which says “I will cry unto God most high; unto God that performeth all things for me.” From this text, Flavel derives his “doctrine” (falling in line with typical Puritan sermon-structure): “It is the duty of the saints, especially in times of straits, to reflect upon the performances of Providence for them in all the states and through all the stages of their lives.” This theme is then unfolded in in a three-part treatise, covering 1. The Evidence of Providence, in which Flavel seeks to prove and demonstrate the reality of God’s Providential care over the lives of believers by looking at such things as birth, upbringing, conversion, employment, family affairs, preservation from evil, and sanctification; 2. Meditation on the Providence of God, where the author shows that it is our duty to meditate on Providence, directs in how to do this, and then covers ten advantage to gained from this practice; and 3. Application of the Doctrine of Providence, in which the practical implications of the doctrine are considered and the problems and questions arising in peoples minds are answered. Though not as witty or colorful as Thomas Brooks, as astute as Stephen Charnock, or as experiential as John Owen, Flavel does have merits to commend him. Having lived a difficult life, he knew firsthand how to rely on God’s sovereignty in his life. Flavel’s work cultivates a greater awareness of God’s mercy, trust in God’s wisdom, and resignation to God’s will in one’s life. Highly recommended.

About the Author

John Flavel (1627–1691) was an English Presbyterian clergyman. Flavel was born at Bromsgrove, Worcestershire and studied at Oxford. A Presbyterian, he held livings at Diptford (in Devon) and Dartmouth. He was ejected from the latter as a result of the Great Ejection of 1662; however, he continued to preach there secretly. After the Declaration of Indulgence 1687, became a minister of a Nonconformist Church there. He was a prolific and popular author. Among his works are The Mystery of Providence (1678), Husbandry Spiritualised (1669) and Navigation Spiritualised (1671), The Seamon’s Companion (1676), titles which suggest some of his characteristics as a writer. He died at Exeter, Devonshire, on 26 June 1691. Flavel is commemorated in the name of Flavel Road on Bromsgrove’s Charford Estate.

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