It is a part of atheism not to think the acts of God in the world worth our serious thoughts. And if you would know the meaning of His administrations, grow up in the fear of God: “The secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him” (Ps 25:14). God is highly angry with those that do not remember Him: “Because they regard not the works of the Lord, nor the operation of His hands, He shall destroy them, and not build them up” (Ps 28:5). He shall utterly root them out.
1. Study providence universally. Study the darkest providence: God brings order out of the world’s confusion, even as He framed a beautiful heaven and earth out of a rude mass. The most terrible: these offer something worth our observation; the dreadful providence of God makes Sodom an example to after ages: it is “set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire” (Jude 7). The smallest: God is a wise agent, and so the least of His actions are significant. There is nothing superfluous in those acts we account the meanest, for to act vainly and lightly argues imperfection, which cannot be attributed to God. The wisdom of God may be much seen in those providences the blind world counts small, as a little picture is oft-times of more value, and hath more of the workman’s skill, than a larger, which an ignorant person might prize at a higher rate; our Saviour raises excellent observations from the lilies, flowers and sparrows.
2. Study providence regularly. By the Word: compare providence and the promise together. God’s manner of administrations, and the meaning of them, is understood by the Word: “Thy way, O God, is in the sanctuary” (Ps 77:13). By faith: we many times correct our sense by reason. When we look through a blue or green glass and see all things blue or green, though our sense represents them so, yet our reason discovers the mistake. Why should we not correct reason by faith? Indeed, our blind reason stands in as much need of regulation by faith as our deceitful sense doth of regulation by reason. We may often observe in the Gospel that the Holy Ghost, taking notice of the particular circumstances in the bringing of Christ into the world, and in the course of His life, often hath those expressions: as it is written and that the Scriptures might be fulfilled. Not a providence happens in the world but there are some general rules in the Word whereby we may apprehend the meaning of it. From God’s former work discovered in His Word, we may trace His present footsteps. Observe the timings of providence wherein the beauty of it appears, since God “hath made everything beautiful in his time”.
3. Study providence entirely. View each providence in its connection. The providences of God bear a just proportion to one another, and are beautiful in their entire scheme; but when regarded apart, we shall come far short of a delightful understanding of them. As in a piece of tapestry folded up and afterwards particularly opened, we see the hand or foot of a man, or the branch of a tree; or if we look on the outside we see nothing but knots and threads and uncouth shapes that we know not what to make of, but when it is fully opened and we have the whole web before us, we see what histories and pleasing characters are interwoven in it. View it in its end, there is no true judgement to be made of a thing in motion, unless we have a right prospect of the end to which it tends. Many things which may seem terrible in their motion may be excellent in their end. Providence is crowned by the end of it. Asaph was much troubled about the prosperity of the wicked and the affliction of the godly, but he was well satisfied when he understood their end, which was the end of providence too: “When I thought to know this, it was too painful for me, until I went into the sanctuary; then understood I their end” (Ps 73:16,17). Moses’ rod was a serpent in its motion upon the ground; but when taken up, it was a rod again to work miracles. God set us a pattern for this in the creation. He viewed the creatures as they came into being and pronounced them good; He took a review of them afterward in their whole frame and the subordination of them to one another and the ends He had destined them to and then pronounced them very good. The merciful providences of God, if singly looked upon, will appear good, but if reviewed in the whole web and the end of them, will commence very good in our apprehensions.
4. Study providence calmly. Take heed of passion in this study; that is a mist before the eye of the mind. Several pleasures also disturb and stifle the nobler operation of the understanding, and all profitable thoughts of God’s providence: “And the harp and the viol, and wine are in their feasts, but they regard not the work of the Lord, nor consider the operations of His hands” (Is 5:12). All thoughts of them are choked by the pleasures of sense. Passions and sensual pleasures are like flying clouds in the night, interposing themselves between the stars and our eyes, so that we cannot observe the motions of them. When turbulent passions or swinish pleasures prevail, they obscure the providence of God. We often make our own humour and interest the measures of our judgment of providence. When Absalom rebels against his father, Shimei looks no further than his own interest and therefore interprets it as a judgement of God in revenging the house of Saul: “The Lord hath returned upon thee all the blood of the house of Saul, in whose stead thou hast reigned” (2 Sam 16:7,8). Therefore the Spirit of God takes particular notice that he was of the house of Saul (v 5), when indeed this judgement was quite another thing, for David’s sin in the matter of Uriah was written in the forehead of it.
5. Study providence seriously. It is not an easy work; for the causes of things are hidden. Providence is God’s lantern in many affairs; if we do not follow it close, we may be left in the dark and lose our way. We must follow it with much prayer, for we cannot of ourselves find out the reason of them. Being shallow creatures, we cannot find out those infinitely wise methods which God observes in the managing of them; but if we seriously set to work and seek God in it, God may inform us and make them intelligible to us. Though a man may not be able of himself to find out the frame and motions of an engine, yet when the manufacturer hath explained the work, shown the intention of the structure, it may be easily understood. If it be dark, God may, whilst you seriously muse on providence, send forth a light into you and give you an understanding of it: Joseph thought of those things (Matt 1:20) and whilst he thought on them, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream; God made them known to him. The Israelites saw God’s acts in the bulk of them, but Moses saw His way and the manner how He wrought them: “He made known His ways unto Moses, His acts unto the children of Israel” (Ps 103:7). Moses had more converse with God than they, and therefore was admitted into His secrets.
6. Study providence holily, with a design to conform to the duty that providence calls for. Our motions should be according to the providence of God, when we understand the intent of them. There is a call of providence: “In that day the Lord called to weeping and mourning” (Is 22:12), sometimes to sorrow, sometimes to joy. If it be a providence to discover our sin, let us comply with it by humiliation; if it be to further our grace, suit it by lively and fresh actings. As the sap in plants descends when the sun goes down, and ascends at the return of the sun from the tropics, there are several graces to be exercised upon several acts of providence – either public to the Church and nation or particular to our own persons – sometimes faith, sometimes joy, sometimes patience, sometimes sorrow for sin.
There are spiritual lessons in every providence, for it doth not only offer something to be understood, but some things to be practised. A child is brought to Christ (Mark 10:15), and Christ from thence teaches them a lesson of humility. When Christ discourses of those sad providences of the blood of the Galileans and the tower of Siloam (Luke 13:1-3), He puts them upon the exercise of repentance. The ruler inquired the time when his son began to recover so that his faith in Christ might be confirmed, for upon that circumstance it did much hang. And in doubtful cases when, after a serious study of it, thou knowest not which way to determine, consider what makes most for God’s glory and thy spiritual good, for that is the end of all. Let us therefore study providence, not as children do histories, to know what men were in the world, or to please their fancy only, but as wise men, to understand the motions of states and the intrigues of councils, to enrich them with a knowledge whereby they might be serviceable to their country. So let us inquire into the providence of God to understand the mind of God, the interest of the Church, the wisdom and kindness of God, and our own duty in conformity thereunto.
1. A slightly edited extract from “A Treatise of Divine Providence” in Charnock’s Works, vol 1.