A Good Time to Reflect on Providence with Flavel
The amount of information coming at us regarding COVID-19 is mind exploding. In addition, Western moderns, so used to ready comfort and instant convenience, struggle to navigate quarantines and restrictions. A good remedy for these surreal times would be to unplug the news and reflect on the doctrine of providence, which Westminster explains this way.
God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, according to His infallible fore-knowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will, to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness and mercy.
Perhaps no other resource is more helpful to that end than the writings of John Flavel. Listening to a voice from the past, who went through far more troubles than most of us will ever see, helps bring a more measured response to our current afflictions.
Flavel was a Puritan minister in seventeenth century England. In 1656 he accepted a call to Dartmouth, which was a thriving seaport. Though he was often driven away from his pulpit for being a non-conformist minister, often having to preach secretly in outdoor conventicles in forests and other places. On one return to Dartmouth in 1685, he was confined to his house and preached to all those who could crowd into it. The congregation at Dartmouth remained his true charge throughout his ministry until he died in 1691.
Because of this attachment to this congregation, his sermon and books are filled with illustrations taken from the sea. Some of his works, such as Navigation Spiritualized: A New Compass for Seamen and The Seamen’s Companion: Six Sermons on the Mysteries of Providence as relating to Seamen; and the Sins, Dangers, Duties and Troubles of Seamen, use running themes throughout of life at sea. In so doing, Flavel reflects the Scriptures, which often use sea imagery to portray the sovereign mystery of God's providence.
Often people pursue a greater understanding of the doctrine of providence when difficult times arise. That is why Flavel is a master on this subject. Not only did he face persecution throughout his ministry, but he lived through civil war in England, the bubonic plague, and the loss of three wives (the first who died in childbirth where their first child died as well). In addition, in his ministry at Dartmouth he witnessed the innumerable tragedies of seamen and their families. Communicating to others about the mysteries of providence were woven into into his life and ministry.
One helpful example of his work is in a sermon "The Seaman in a Storm" based on Psalm 107:23-28.
Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the great waters; they saw the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep. For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea. They mounted up to heaven; they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their evil plight; they reeled and staggered like drunken men and were at their wits' end. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.
As Flavel says, "This psalm contains an excellent account of the mysterious and admirable effects of providence." Using the dangers of those who travel on seas, he gives many lessons and applications of providence to the reader who may likewise going through a difficult period.
So during these days of the Corona epidemic, as you attempt to traverse the tsunami of information coming at you, the storms caused by the illness, and the waves of uncertainty in the economy, reflect on these following five lessons, excerpted thoughts from Flavel's sermon, and short application to our present plight. Then, if you'd like to read the whole message, go here.
The principal cause of storms is the will and pleasure of God.
He commanded and raises the stormy winds. This is God's prerogative; none can raise winds but himself, and if devils or witches do it at any time yet it is still by his permission (as you see in Job 1:12, 19)...There is indeed a natural cause of winds...yet this doth not at all restrain the absolute sovereignty of God over them.
Application: We should acknowledge that we might call "Hurricane Corona" was sent to us by the hand of God.
The instrumental, subordinate cause of storms is the wind.
There is naturally in the sea a continual agitation and rolling of its waters hither and thither; it cannot rest, as the prophet speaks of it. But when a violent wind blows upon it, the ocean is incensed and enraged, and the winds roll moving mountains of water before them.
Application: Yet we can also recognize that the virus most likely originated in an animal source and was transmitted to people.
A storm can have a true impact on our bodies and minds.
It tosses them up and down in a dreadful manner, which the Psalmist elegantly expresses in the text, "They mount up to heaven, they go down to the depths,"...They seem to mix with the very clouds and then open deep graves for them in the bottom sands. Yea, it moves them not only perpendicularly, lifting them up and casting them down, but obliquely and circularly also. "They reel to and fro and stagger like a drunken man."
The internal effect of it upon their minds is far (more) terrible. For it is said here, "Their soul is melted because of trouble, they are at their wit's end." Both expressions do import a greater commotion and storm in the passions of the mind than that in the waves of the sea. The stoutest spirit quails and melts when it comes to this; and the wisest artist is at his wit's end.
Application: We should humble ourselves before the Lord who sends afflictions that threaten our bodies and disturb our minds.
Providence normally makes the ocean navigable for men.
It is a wonderful providence of God to make the ocean navigable for men at any time, that such a fluid body as water is which cannot support a stone or bullet of an ounce weight, should yet, by reason of its own fairness and the innate property of timber, be able to support ships of such vast burden which are carried from place to place being mounted on the backs of its proud waves. Who can but acknowledge a most wise providence, in gratifying the natural wit and desire of man, which fits him for converse and traffic with foreign nations; with instruments and materials so fit for his purpose as timber, iron, hemp, pitch, the load stone, and whatever else is necessary for this purpose?
Application: During this time of quarantine, we should thank the Lord that usually we can move around with great freedom.
So often the Lord delivers men from the sea's tempest.
This is a mysterious and admirable work of God: that a poor ship should not be swallowed up by the furious ocean, when mountains of water come rolling towards it with an horrid noise, and give it such dreadful stripes. When seas roll over it, and so cover it with the waves, that for a time they know not whether they sink or swim; to see it emerge out of such fatal dangers, keep up its head, and mount upon the backs of those lofty seas that threaten immediately to overwhelm it. O how great is the power and care of providence in such a case!
Application: Though the virus has hurt many, praise the Lord who has delivered and will deliver many more from this illness.
For as Flavel reminds us toward the end of his message:
...then a farther design God hath in thy deliverance is to engage and encourage thy soul to a dependence upon God in future straits and dangers. This is food for faith and now you are furnished with experience of the power, mercy, and goodness of God to enable you to rest yourselves upon him when new exigencies befall you...If your first deliverance were a deliverance without a promise, when you were without Christ, what encouragement have you to depend upon him when his end is answered in your repentance and conversion, and, being in Christ, are entitled to all the promises! God's end in your marvelous preservations and deliverances is to furnish you for, and to engage you to, a life of praise. O how should the high praises of God be ever in your mouths! You have seen his works and wonders in the deeps!