“But you will soon be at home; and then, when by a clearer light you look back upon the way by which the Lord led you through the wilderness, you will be ashamed (if shame be compatible with the heavenly state) of your misapprehensions while in this dark world, and will confess, to his praise, that mercy and goodness surrounded you in every step, and that the Lord did all things well. What you will then see, it is now your duty and privilege to believe. If you sincerely desire his guidance in all things, labour to submit to it. The path which he has marked out for you is difficult, but he has trod it before you, and it leads to glory. The time is short. Yet a little while, and you shall receive the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls.”
“All that has been transacted in the kingdoms of providence and grace, from the beginning of the world, has been in subserviency to this grand point, the redemption of the deathless soul. And is it so – and shall there be found among us numbers utterly insensible of their natural dignity; that dare disparage the plan of Infinite Wisdom, and stake those souls for trifles, which nothing less than the blood of Christ could redeem?”
-John Newton, from The Works of John Newton, Volume 2
“The sons of Jonadab the son of Rechab have performed the commandment of their father which he commanded them, but this people has not listened to me.”
-Jeremiah 35:16 (WEB)
This month I’m reading from several different places in the Bible (Psalms, Jeremiah, Mark) and found myself yesterday in Mark 4 and Jesus’ parable of the sower. Jesus provides four examples of seed and soil and only one truly proves fruitful. One of the issues with the other soils is the length of time for its crops – either birds grabbed the seed too quickly, or the sun scorched it before it had time to grow roots and expand. I thought about this parable in Mark 4 while reading Jeremiah 35 later in the day.
Although Jeremiah had a lengthy ministry, he did not live to see much fruit from it. In Jeremiah 35, God sends him to a group known as the Rechabites, whose ancestor Jonadab had lived about 250-300 years prior during the time of King Jehu. Baal worship was prevalent during Jehu’s reign, and Jonadab helped King Jehu get rid of this worship, although it did unfortunately return. Since that time, the Rechabites had lived as nomads and avoided wine, as they were commanded by Jonadab. When Jeremiah presents them with the opportunity to indulge in as much wine as they would like, they had two options. One would be to say, “I think we’ve stayed on the straight and narrow long enough. It’s time to let loose a bit.” The other option would be to say, “No, this is not what we do. We have obeyed our forefather’s commands for hundreds of years and we’re not about to turn back now.” Esau incidentally was presented with a similar set of options in Genesis 25 and sadly chose door #1. But here the Rechabites stood strong and chose door #2 – an example of what Eugene Peterson once called “a long obedience in the same direction”. And God made sure that His people understood the takeaway (Jeremiah 35:13):
““Yahweh of Armies, the God of Israel, says: ‘Go and tell the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, “Will you not receive instruction to listen to my words?” says Yahweh.”
The Rechabites had lived rather obscure lives for these hundreds of years since the days of Jonadab and King Jehu. But they had kept their vows, and simply let their “yes be yes, and their no be no” (Matthew 5:37). I think these ancient nomads have a word for us today. Sometimes our own crops sprout fast but fade quickly. Our obedience looks good for a time, so much so maybe that others notice the change in us. But is it lasting? In our desire to be “radical” in our faith, as that book from a decade ago pushed, have we lost the day in and day out faithfulness to be obedient to what God is asking from us? Jeremiah certainly did not come across many encouraging groups like the Rechabites, but he kept going and preached as God called him to. What will we take away when we let the words of Jeremiah 35:13 rest on us?
“A Christian’s great care should be to keep the heart pure, as one would especially preserve the spring from being poisoned. In a duel, a man will chiefly guard and fence his heart; so a wise Christian should above all things keep his heart pure. Take heed that the love of sin does not get in there, lest it prove fatal.”
-Thomas Watson, from The Pure in Heart
“You see it in the way they spend their leisure time, the company they love to keep, and their conduct in their own homes. And all is the result of the spiritual nature implanted in them by the Holy Spirit. Just as the caterpillar when it becomes a butterfly can no longer be content to crawl on earth—but will fly upwards and use its wings, so will the affections of the man who has the Spirit be ever reaching upwards toward God.”
-J.C. Ryle from Old Paths
“Your eyes saw my body.
In your book they were all written,
the days that were ordained for me,
when as yet there were none of them.”-Psalm 139:16 (World English Bible)
I’m continuing on with John Flavel’s The Mystery of Providence and have been thinking about his 2nd chapter titled “Our Birth and Upbringing”. In this section, Flavel reminds us that God has planned all our days before the foundation of the world, including the very setting where we entered the world and the environment surrounding it. Flavel asks, “What mercies do you enjoy in respect of the amenity, fertility, temperature, and civility of the place of your habitation? What is it but a closed garden out of a wilderness?”
I love that phrase – “a closed garden out of a wilderness”. I often say that most of my life has been lived on scholarship – I’ve been incredibly blessed to grow up in the place (and time!) that I did, surrounded as I was by parents, grandparents, and many dear friends. I have done my best not to take that for granted and realize it has all been a gift from God. Others I know have not had the same experience. Much of this world can feel like a wilderness, as Flavel says, and God saw fit in my case to put me in the center of a “closed garden”. A further example of that to me is that, as someone who is a child of the 80s, all these years later God has kept in my life two dear friends from high school. Both are Christians, and both gently prodded me for many years to seek God – even though in my mind I was convinced (wrongly) that I already knew Him. Knowing these two friends for all these years has been a reminder of how God cares for each of his children. As Flavel explains…
“But such has been the special care of Providence towards us, that our turn to be brought upon the stage of this world was graciously reserved for better days, so that if we had had our own option, we could not have chosen for ourselves as Providence has done”
Many of us may wish we grew up less poor or with access to better education, or lived closer to family or friends. Others of us may wish the home we grew up in was more loving and more peaceful. It helps to be reminded of Flavel’s counsel here. God’s map had all of our days written on them, with the exact GPS coordinates of our upbringing. Who and what would enter in during those formative days and years was decided by Him, so much so that He knew how those days would shape who we are today. I have given a great deal of thought to that over the years, but Flavel again reminded me of its importance. It also serves as a reminder to pray for others that currently are not experiencing these “temporal blessings” and that God would feel near to them even today.
“Finally, brothers, rejoice! Be perfected. Be comforted. Be of the same mind. Live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you.”-2 Corinthians 13:11 (World English Bible)
“For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that through patience and through encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”
-Romans 15:4 (WEB)
I’m continuing to read through John Flavel’s excellent work, The Mystery of Providence. Last time I discussed how Flavel introduced his book. In his first chapter, he moves on to what he calls “The Work of Providence for the Saints”. Flavel talks about those who deny God in total, as well as those who acknowledge His existence, and yet deny His providence. While Flavel laments those who are in both of these categories, there is another group that he is more concerned about. Flavel believes that many who profess to be believers still count “natural causes” as the main conductors of what happens in our world. How then, Flavel asks, do we account for what happened to Daniel in the lions’ den, as one example?
“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?”
In this chapter, Flavel is asking us to remember and reflect on what God has done for his saints throughout the ages. Paul in Romans 15 reminded his own hearers of the same. As we reflect, we remind ourselves that His thoughts and ways often go in another direction than what we in our “wisdom” would think best. Flavel succinctly explains the difference:
“Thus reason lays it, according to the rules of nature, but Providence crosses its hands, as Jacob did in blessing the sons of Joseph, and orders quite contrary issues and events.”
Although we can push back on this at times, we should be careful not to do so too hard. We may in our darker moments wonder if God sees or cares what is happening in our own lives and daily struggles. Flavel reminds us that the natural way of thinking is to be discarded at this point. We should then return to the Scriptures and find God’s providence working throughout history in what appear to be natural impossibilities. It is there we will again find Him and have reason not to be discouraged.
“And, indeed, it were not worth while to live in a world devoid of God and Providence“-John Flavel
I wonder how many of us throughout our day (or months or years, for that matter) think about the term providence – more specifically, the providence of God. In his book Concise Theology, J.I. Packer explained the term in this way – “The model is of purposive personal management with total ‘hands-on’ control: God is completely in charge of his world. His hand may be hidden, but his rule is absolute” (p. 54). When I first started studying theology early on as a Christian and started encountering these big terms, I wondered how providence differed from God’s sovereignty. I remember hearing a pastor explain that, “Sovereignty means God is all-powerful. Providence means God is ‘small-powerful'”. While I’m not sure if that’s the most precise way to put it, that illustration has stuck with me in the years since. And thinking again about providence specifically with that in mind, how many of us take note of or give thanks to the many ways that God directs even the smallest of our steps in this life?
My current focus on providence has come in a bit of a roundabout way. After hitting a milestone birthday last fall, I began to think more about where God has brought me to and the means in which He has done it. All the times I could have turned left instead of right – chose one job offer instead of staying put – moved from one area of the country to another – all of those and thousands more of my days have been in His hands. It’s difficult to reflect on that, even the minute details, without a sense of wonder and gratitude. John Piper has recently published a massive work (750+ pages!) on providence (available for free from Desiring God as a PDF) and that got me thinking more. Piper explains what his book is all about in the video below:
After thinking about Piper’s words and my own reflections, I remembered that on my bookshelf I had a work on this very topic from another era. John Flavel (c.1627–1691), one of the Puritans, wrote Divine Conduct, or The Mystery of Providence, nearly 400 years ago. I have benefitted so often from the works of the Puritans and yet had not taken the time to read Flavel’s work. After pulling it down from the shelf, I figured his 220 page work might be a good opening act to Piper’s! I began reading Flavel’s work this week (also available in his complete The Works of John Flavel) . I figured it might be good for my own soul to journal my way through it as a more intentional way to reflect on the providence of God.
Flavel’s work on providence has been described as an extended meditation on Psalm 57:2 – “I call to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me” (CSB). In his introduction, Flavel asks us to understand early on is that providence is God performing His will in such a complete way that it is evidence in even the smallest details of our lives:
“Providence not only undertakes but perfects what concerns us. It goes through with its designs, and accomplishes what it begins. No difficulty so clogs it, no cross accident falls in its way, but it carries its design through it. Its motions are irresistible and uncontrollable; He performs it for us”
After reading this, many of us may find our minds going to Philippians 1:6 – “I am sure of this, that he who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (CSB). Flavel appears to be emphasizing that however often we may think of our justification as being a “done deal”, we can also rest in the fact that “no difficulty” and “no cross accident” will derail our sanctification either. Martin Luther, in his 95 Theses, said that “the entire life of believers should be repentance”. Flavel would most likely have no qualms with Luther’s statement, but also asks us to daily remember the following:
“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 in their lives”
Even in his introduction, Flavel has given us much to think about regarding the providence of God. I look forward to his subsequent chapters and the journey with this Puritan and his book. It is all further cause to worship Him!
“But by His grace, God is using these unprecedented circumstances to correct and sanctify people’s thinking. As the moral decline of our culture accelerates, political foundations crumble, the fleeting nature of material wealth becomes more apparent, and cultural and social pressures against true Christianity mount, the world is losing its allure and heaven is becoming more and more appealing. If the trials of the past year accomplish nothing else in believers except to redirect our affections and hopes toward the eternal home God is preparing for us – and preparing us for – we should consider them a profound blessing.”
“Were we not safer with a God of our own devising-love and only love, a Father and nothing else, one before whom we could stand in our own merit without fear? He who will may be satisfied with such a God. But we, God help us-sinful as we are, we would see Jehovah. Despairing, hoping, trembling, half-doubting and half-believing, trusting all to Jesus, we venture into the presence of the very God. And in His presence we live.”
-J. Gresham Machen, from Christianity and Liberalism
“That’s what the Preacher is saying: a coffin preaches better sermons than a cot. ‘Look forward,’ he says as he grabs us by the shoulders. ‘Don’t be a fool! Stop trying to escape life’s agonies by drowning them away, by laughing them off and pretending they don’t exist. Look forward to the day of your death and ask yourself, what kind of person should I be? For one day I will be dead.'” -David Gibson
From early on as a Christian, I have been drawn to that strange and curious book of the Old Testament, Ecclesiastes. I’ve found its attraction lies somewhat in the fact that it at times is so confounding. Why does the Preacher travel down this road and not that one? Is the author’s main message really that “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”? How come this book seems to have no real outline to it? What are we ultimately to make of it?
David Gibson has written a marvelous book that seeks to tackle the message of the Preacher (or the Teacher, or Qoheleth). In Living Life Backward, Gibson tries to tie the many strands of the Preacher’s message into something we can put our arms around. Reading through Gibson’s book along with Ecclesiastes, the message gets a bit clearer: focus your eyes on your death – for then you will understand how to really live.
“Whatever it is you think you’ve gained, it will soon vanish from the earth like morning mist, and you along with it too. Part of learning to live is simply accepting this. One day you will be dead and gone, and the world will go on, probably without even remembering you. A hundred years after your death, the chances are, no one will ever know you lived.”
In this quote, and others like it, Gibson tries to get us to understand our limitations. We are not the Creator – we are His creatures. With that, some humility is in order. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to know and understand all there is to know “under the sun”. True living, suggests Gibson, comes instead when “…we take the time to live inside the gifts themselves and see the hand of God in them.” As we begin to grasp this, we understand all of life is a gift, but still one that is moving towards an endpoint on this earth. With that we are reminded of Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:37-39 – “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (NIV). To live like this, Gibson argues, is really how to be remembered:
“But the wise person sits in the funeral home and stares at the coffin and realizes that one day it will be his turn. The wise person asks himself, ‘When it is my turn, what will my life have been worth? What will they be saying about me?’ He loved his bowling and his partying and his holidays. Is that it?”
How often do we think about our impending death? A few times a year, perhaps, if we’re really honest? I had a milestone birthday a few months ago and began to think of this more than I ever have before. In their 90s hit “Right Now”, Van Halen had a graphic in the video for that song that said “Right now your memory is getting longer while your life is getting shorter”. I think Gibson would say to that, “Exactly! Now listen to the Preacher and his message. What are you going to do with that?”
David Gibson has written a book that I think will stay with me a long time. His extended meditation on the Preacher’s message in Ecclesiastes gets us to view life in the light of death. Yes, it may make us uncomfortable. It may make us anxious even, or sad. But in doing so, we are given light to see how to truly live.
“Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.”
-Ecclesiastes 12:13 (NIV)
“I thought that I was the greatest debtor to Divine grace, and would sing the loudest to its praise; but when I came down out of the pulpit, there was a venerable woman who said to me, ‘You made a blunder in your sermon this evening.’
‘I said, ‘I daresay I made a dozen, good soul, but what was that particular one?’
‘Why, you said that you would sing the loudest because you owed most to Divine grace; you are but a lad, you do not owe half as much to grace as I do at eighty years of age! I owe more to grace than you, and I will not let you sing the loudest.’
“I found that there was a general conspiracy among the friends that night to put me in the background, and that is where I meant to be, and wished to me; that is where those who sing the loudest, long to be, to take the lowest place, and praise most the grace of God in so doing.”
-Charles H. Spurgeon, Autobiography, The Early Years, 1834-1859
“I have never met a mature, fruitful, strong, spiritually discerning Christian who is not full of Scripture, devoted to regular meditation on Scripture, and given to storing it in the heart through Bible memorization — and that’s not a coincidence…reading and meditating on and understanding and memorizing and enjoying the Scriptures is absolutely essential for the Christian life, which would include being in the word every day with the aim that we will meet God there and, little by little, the glory of his truth will fill and transform our lives.”
“Let your Christianity be so unmistakable, your eye so single, your heart so whole, your walk so straightforward that all who see you may have no doubt whose you are, and whom you serve. If we are quickened by the Spirit, no one ought to be able to doubt it…
“It ought not to be necessary to tell people, as in the case of a badly painted picture, ‘This is a Christian.’ We ought not to be so sluggish and still, that people should be obliged to come close and look hard, and say, ‘Is he dead or alive?'”
-J.C. Ryle, from Old Paths
The Meaning of Christmas
“You do not know much of yourself, or think much of yourself; you can scarcely read, perhaps. Or if you have some talent and ability, you are despised amongst men; or, if you are not despised by them, you despise yourself. You are one of the little ones. Well, Christ is always born in Bethlehem among the little ones.
“Big hearts never get Christ inside of them; Christ lies not in great hearts, but in little ones. Mighty and proud spirits never have Jesus Christ, for he comes in at low doors, but he will not come in at high ones. He who has a broken heart, and a low spirit, shall have the Saviour, but none else. He heals not the prince and the king, but ‘the broken in heart, and he binds up their wounds.’ Sweet thought! He is the Christ of the little ones.”
-Charles H. Spurgeon, from The Incarnation and Birth of Christ
“Sometimes I indulge a hope that I am growing wiser, and think surely, after such innumerable proofs as I have had, that he does all things well, I shall now be satisfied to leave myself, quietly and without reserve, to his disposal. A thousand such surrenders I have made, and a thousand times I have interpretatively retracted them. Yet still he is gracious. Oh, how shall I praise him at last!”
-John Newton, November 23, 1774 from The Works of John Newton, Volume One, pgs. 456-457
“The question isn’t whether you’re going to believe, but who; it’s not merely about what to believe, but who to entrust yourself to. Do you really want to trust yourself? Do we really think humanity is our best bet? Do we really think we are the answer to our problems, we who’ve generated all of them? The problem with everything from Enlightenment scientism to mushy Eat-Pray-Love-ism is us. If anything looks irrational, it’s the notion that we are our own best hope.”
-James K.A. Smith, from On The Road With Saint Augustine
“I warn everyone to beware of a hope not drawn from Scripture. It is a false hope, and many will find out this to their cost. That glorious and perfect book, the Bible,
however people despise it, is the only fountain out of which man’s soul can derive
peace. Many sneer at the old book while living, who find their need of it when dying.
“The Queen in her palace and the pauper in the workhouse, the philosopher in his
study and the child in the cottage—each and all must be content to seek living water from the Bible, if they are to have any hope at all. Honor your Bible—read your Bible—stick to your Bible. There is not on earth a scrap of solid hope for the other side of the grave which is not drawn out of the Word.”
-J.C. Ryle, from Old Paths
“I am amazed at times at the fact that I, or anybody else who is a Christian, can remain so silent, can live such a poor, unworthy life. Was I not right when I said at the beginning that the whole trouble with us all is that we do not realize what we are? We insist on thinking about this Christian life as some great height which we have to climb. But before we are asked to do anything, we have been made something; we have eternal life abiding in us, otherwise we are not Christians at all.”
-Martyn Lloyd-Jones, from Life in Christ: Studies in 1 John, p. 344.