The Mystery of Providence Book ReviewJanuary 7, 2023 Book Review
Originating from the Latin term providentia, the noun providence appeared in Middle English in the fourteenth century. A study of its base Latin root providere helps us to unlock its meaning: the prefix pro- (“before,” “prior to,” or “earlier than”) joins with vidēre (“to see”), thus conveying the idea of seeing beforehand or prior to.
The doctrine of providence found in the pages of Scripture, though, teaches something far more intricate and profound than just foresight; the Bible proclaims God’s sovereign rule over all his creation, even evil plots devised by wicked men. In The Mystery of Providence, Puritan John Flavel sheds light on God’s sovereign ways by examining David’s prayer in Psalm 57:2: “I will cry unto God most high; unto God that performeth all things for me.” David uttered these words while in dire straits, hiding in the caves of Engedi from King Saul who sought to murder him (see 1 Sam. 24:1–2).
Puritan John Flavel (1628–1691)
Author John Flavel, no stranger to adverse providences himself, lived during tumultuous political times that saw the rise and fall of Puritan influence in England. In 1662 Charles II issued the Act of Uniformity, requiring all worship to be conducted only by the dictates of the government as outlined in the Book of Common Prayer. People were not allowed to worship God according to the Bible, and ministers who violated this law were called Nonconformists and ejected from their pulpits, facing imprisonment and severe fines.
As a nonconforming minister, John Flavel lived under the government’s stringent watch and endured afflictive providences. Some noteworthy dangers include fleeing on horseback from arrest and plunging into the ocean to swim to safety, disguising himself as a woman to reach a secret area to preach and administer baptism, and narrowly evading arrest from soldiers while preaching to large crowds as late as midnight. Not only did Flavel experience hard providences as a minister, he also faced them in his personal life. His father, Richard Flavel, died while imprisoned for nonconformity during the plague. John’s first wife died in childbirth and the baby too. In addition, he underwent the sorrow of burying his second wife and then third.
Acquainted with grief, Flavel published The Mystery of Providence in 1678. This 221-page work is not a dry encyclopedia of theology but instead a heartfelt exploration of God’s providence—his sovereign performances of his gracious purposes and promises to his people. By tracing the connections between God’s providence, his Word, and prayer, Flavel teaches us how to comprehend God’s goodness in the face of trouble.
Providence and God’s Word
For the follower of Christ, Flavel demonstrates it is impossible to understand the providence of God apart from the Bible. All the evidences of his ways and works reside in his Word. Divided into three sections, the book opens with presenting the evidences of God’s providence.
The author selects three major Bible stories that demonstrate God turning evil plots against his people into good purposes: (1) Joseph being sold into slavery but God using this evil to save his people from coming famine, (2) Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews but God raising Esther to the position of queen to rescue his people from annihilation, and (3) Persian princes who sought to destroy Daniel by the decree against prayer but God saving Daniel to preserve his people.
In presenting these major Bible stories, though, Flavel argues that learning God’s providence is not merely recounting these events. Instead, it is meeting the gracious heart of God in the history of his faithfulness to his people. This communion with God involves an exchange: through his Word, God manifests his goodness to my soul, and my soul answers in return with thanksgiving and praise to God. Such vigorous study of his Word united with earnest prayer results in a heart aflame to Christ, a soul longing for holiness, and a mind renewed in the ways of God. This is the depth of experiential faith the Puritans were known for and why The Mystery of Providence is a classic Christian work.
Providence and Prayer
In addition to searching the Scriptures, Flavel argues that the Christian must also engage in persistent prayer to learn God’s providence. He proposes, “Prayer honors providence, and providence honors prayer.”[i] A major motif that runs through this work, the relationship between providence and prayer is an avenue of biblical knowledge and experience that challenges me to seek God with greater fervency. This part of the book propels me to grow in my prayer life.
How does a Christian pray with God’s providence in mind? Flavel presents David’s prayer in Psalm 57 as an example. In this cry for mercy, David argues two points while hiding from King Saul in the caves of Engedi. First, he pleads to God based on his reliance on God: “For my soul trusteth in thee” (v. 1). Second, he pleads based on his past experiences with God: “I will cry unto God most high; unto God that performeth all things for me” (v. 2). With intensity, David prays on the basis of God’s proven faithfulness and remembers it is God who sovereignly performs all things. This is prayer that honors providence.
I readily agreed with this first part of Flavel’s proposition but found the second part harder to comprehend. How does providence honor prayer? Again, Flavel points us to God’s Word, and we see God answering the prayers of his people in dire straits: Israel cried to heaven and the sea divided (see Ex. 14:10–18), Ahitophel hung himself just at the time of David’s distressed prayer (see 2 Sam. 15:31), and the church prayed for Peter’s release from prison just as Peter arrived at their door (see Acts 12:5–7, 12). These timely “providences proclaim him to be a God who hears prayer.”[ii]
Providence and Unanswered Prayer
But sometimes we do not receive the things we ask for. Flavel acknowledges there are many holy requests—salvation of loved ones, healing of family members suffering from illness—that God, in his infinite wisdom, withholds from us. When we struggle to understand why we do not receive the good things we seek, we must pursue God and eye his wisdom.
I found chapter 9 “How to Meditate on the Providence of God” full of practical wisdom on how to seek God amidst unanswered prayer. Flavel shares precious spiritual gems on how to recognize God’s goodness during hard times. While there is no instant formula to learning God’s providential ways, Flavel teaches us to put our mind on holy thoughts. He exhorts us to consider God’s choice of affliction for us, the duration of affliction, the supports God has provided in the midst of it, and the invincible promise that God has brought the trial for our good and not our destruction.
When struggling with unanswered prayer, we must consider God’s holy purposes. By waiting on him we develop a mind and heart conformed to Christ—this is a greater mercy than simply receiving immediate relief. When God delays to answer our requests, we learn to wait on his timing. Our Father in heaven will never give us a snake or a rock when we have asked for something good. If we do not receive what we have asked for, we can trust that he has planned something better because he knows the real mercy our souls need. This is how providence honors prayer.
Judge Not by Outward Appearance
The Mystery of Providence challenges the Christian reader to judge affliction not by outward sense or appearance but by God’s Word and earnest prayer. Distressing providences happen in a fallen world, but the Bible reveals God’s fatherly heart is always for his people. Christ is the channel through which the mercies of God flow to us, and the Holy Spirit powerfully enables us to trust the Father in every providence he sends.
On June 6, 1691, after a major stroke at age 63, John Flavel went home to the Lord. His final words, “I know that it will be well with me,” demonstrate his trust in the providence of God. The Mystery of Providence is available in the Church Library and on Amazon.
[i] John Flavel, The Mystery of Providence (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1963), 120.
[ii] Flavel, 42.