Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Listening to the Voice of Providence

Westminster Larger Catechism:

Q112: What is required in the third commandment?
A112: The third commandment requires, That the name of God, his titles, attributes,[1] ordinances,[2] the word,[3] sacraments,[4] prayer,[5] oaths,[6] vows,[7] lots,[8] his works,[9] and whatsoever else there is whereby he makes himself known, be holily and reverently used in thought,[10] meditation,[11] word,[12] and writing;[13] by an holy profession,[14] and Answerable conversation,[15] to the glory of God,[16] and the good of ourselves,[17] and others.[18]

Q113: What are the sins forbidden in the third commandment?
A113: The sins forbidden in the third commandment are, the not using of God's name as is required;[1] and the abuse of it in an ignorant,[2] vain,[3] irreverent, profane,[4] superstitious,[5] or wicked mentioning, or otherwise using his titles, attributes,[6] ordinances,[7] or works,[8] by blasphemy,[9] perjury;[10] all sinful cursings,[11] oaths,[12] vows,[13] and lots;[14] violating of our oaths and vows, if lawful;[15] and fulfilling them, if of things unlawful;[16] murmuring and quarreling at,[17] curious prying into,[18] and misapplying of God's decrees [19] and providences;[20]...

William Perkins writes concerning the third commandment (Golden Chain, or the Causes of Salvation and Damnation, chap. 22) that just as superstition

...which is an opinion conceived of the works of God's providence: the reason whereof, can neither be drawn out of the word of God, not the whole course of nature. As for example, that it is unlucky for one in the morning to put on his hoe awry, or to put the left shoe on the right foot; to sneeze in drawing on his head; to have salt fall towards him; to have a hare cross him; to bleed some few drops of blood; to burn on the right ear. Again that it is contrarily good luck to find old iron, to have drink spilled on his, for the left ear to burn, to cut our nails on a certain day of the week, to dream of some certain things.

is a sin against the third commandment, so too is it a sin to "[l]ightly to pass over God's judgments which are seen in the world."

Daniel Defoe, Serious Reflections of Robinson Crusoe, pp. 181-187, 195-197:

By listening to the voice of Providence, I mean to study its meaning in every circumstance of life, in every event; to learn to understand the end and design of Providence in everything that happens, what is the design of Providence in it respecting ourselves, and what our duty to do upon the particular occasion that offers. If a man were in danger of drowning in a shipwrecked vessel, and Providence presented a boat coming towards him, he would scarce want to be told that it was his business to make signals of distress, that the people in the said boat might not pass by ignorant of his condition, and give him no assistance; if he did, and omitted it, he would little cause to concern Providence in his ruin.
I am for freely and entirely submitting all events to Providence; but not to be supinely and unconcernedly passive, as if there was nothing warning, instructing, or directing in the premonitions of God's providence, and which He expected we should take notice of, and take warning by. The "prudent man forseeth the evil, and hideth himself." How does he foresee it, since it is not in man to direct himself? There are intimations given us, by which a prudent man may sometimes foresee evil and hide himself; and I must take these all out of the devil's hands if possible, and place Providence at the head of the invisible world, as well as at the helm of this world; and though I abhor superstitious and sceptical notions of the world of spirits, of which I purpose to speak hereafter, either in this work or in some other by itself -- I say, though I am not at all a sceptic, yet I cannot doubt but that the invisible hand of Providence, which guides and governs this world, does with a secret power likewise influence the world, and may, and I believe does, direct from thence silent messengers on many occasions -- whether sleeping or waking, whether directly or indirectly, whether by hints, impulses, allegories, mysteries, or otherwise, we know not; and does think fit to give us such alarms, such precious and particular knowledge of things that, if listened to, might many ways be useful to the prudent man to foresee the evil, and hide himself.

The only objection, and which I can see no method to give a reason for and no answer to, is, why, if it be the work of Providence, those things should be so imperfect, so broken, so irregular, that men may either never be able to pass any right judgment of them, as is sometimes the case, or make a perfect judgment of them, which is often the case, and so the end of the intimation be entirely defeated, without any fault, neglect, or omission of the man.

This we can no more account for than we can for the handwriting upon the wall at the great feast of Belshazzar, viz., why it was written in a character which none could understand; and which, if the prophet had not been found, had perhaps never been known, or at least not till the king's fate, which was even then irretrievable, had been over.

This, indeed, we cannot account for, and can only say it is our duty to study these things, to listen to the voice of them and obey their secret dictates, as far as reason directs, without an over-superstitious regard to them any more than a total neglect, leaving the reason of Providence's acting thus to be better understood hereafter.

But to describe a little what I mean by listening to the voice of Providence: it is the reverse of the supine stupide man, whose character I shall come to by-and-by. The man I would recommend lives, first, in a general belief that Providence has the supreme direction of all his affairs, even of his in particular, as well as those of the world; that 'tis his mercy that it is so, that 'tis the effect of an infinitely wise and gracious disposition from above that he subsists; and that it is not below the dignity any more than 'tis remote from the power of an infinite, wise, and good Being to take cognisance of the least things concerning him.

This, in the consequence, obliges him to all I say; for to him who firmly believes that Providence stoops to concern itself for him, and to order the least article of his affairs, it necessarily follows that he should concern himself in everything that Providence does which comes within his reach, that he may know whether he be interested in it or not.

If he neglects this, he neglects himself -- he abandons all concern about himself; since he does not know but that the very next particular act of Providence, which comes within his reach to distinguish, may be interested in him and he in it.

It is not for me to dictate here to any man what particular things relating to him Providence is concerned in, or what not, or how far any incident of life is or is not the particular act and deed of the government of Providence. But as it is the received opinion of every good man that nothing befalls us without the active or passive concern of Providence in it, so it is impossible this good man can be unconcerned in whatever that Providence determines concerning him.

If it be true, as our Saviour Himself says, that not a hair falls from our heads without the will of our heavenly Father, then not a hair ought to fall from our heads without our having our eyes up to our heavenly Father in it.

I take the text in its due latitude, namely, that not the minutest incident of life befalls us without the active will of our Father directing it, or the passive will of our Father suffering it; so I take the deduction from it in the same latitude, that nothing, of how mean a nature soever, can befall us, but what we ought to have our eyes up to our heavenly Father in it, be resigned to Him in the event, and subjected to Him in the means; and he that neglects this lives in contempt of Providence, and that in the most provoking manner possible.

I am not answerable for any extremes these things may lead weak people into; I know some are apt to entitle the hand of God to the common and most ridiculous trifles in Nature; as a religious creature I knew, seeing a bottle of beer being over ripe burst out, the cork fly up against the ceiling, and the froth follow it like an engine, cried out, "O! the wonders of omnipotent Power!" But I am representing how a Christian with an awful regard to the government of Providence in the world, and particularly in all his own affairs, subjects his mind to a constant obedience to the dictates of that Providence, gives an humble preference to it in all his conclusions, waits the issue of it with a cheerful resignation, and, in a word, listens carefully to the voice of Providence, that he may always be obedient to the heavenly vision.
If, then, we are to listen to the voice of Nature, and to the voices of creatures, viz., to the voice of the invisible agents of the world of spirits, as above, much more are we to listen to the voice of God.

I have already hinted that He that made the world we are sure guides it, and His providence is equally wonderful as His power. But nothing in the whole course of His providence is more worthy our regard, especially as it concerns us His creatures, than the silent voice, if it may be allowed me to call it so, of His managing events and causes. He that listens to the Providence of God listens to the voice of God, as He is seen in the wonders of His government, and as He is seen in the wonders of His omnipotence.

If, then, the events of things are His, as well as the causes, it is certainly well worth our notice, when the sympathy or relation between events of things and their causes most eminently appears; and how can any many who has the least inclination to observe what is remarkable in the world, shut his eyes to the visible discovery which there is in the events of Providence of a supreme Hand guiding them? For example, when visible punishments follow visible crimes, who can refrain confessing the apparent direction of supreme justice? When concurrence of circumstances directs to the cause, men that take no notice of such remarkable pointings of Providence openly contemn Heaven, and frequently stand in the light of their own advantages.

The concurrence of events is a light to their causes, and the methods of Heaven, in some things, are a happy guide to us to make a judgment in others; he that is deaf to these things shuts his ears to instruction, and, like Solomon's fool, hates knowledge.
I have heard the divines tell us by way of distinction, that there is a voice of God in His word, and a voice of God in His work; the latter I take to be a subject very awful and very instructing.

This voice of God in His works, is either heard in His works which are already wrought, such as of creation, which fill us with wonder and astonishment, admiration and adoration; "When I view the heavens, the work of Thy hands, the moon and the stars which Thou hast made, then I say, what is man?" &c. Or (2.) His works of government and providence, in which the infinite variety affords a pleasing and instructing contemplation; and it is without question our wisdom and advantage to study and know them, and to listen to the voice of God in them; for this listening to the voice of Providence is a thing so hard to direct, and so little understood, that I find the very thought of it is treated with contempt, even by many pious and good people, as leading to superstition, to enthusiasm, and vain fancies tainted with melancholy, and amusing the mind with the vapours of the head.

It is true, an ill use may be made of these things, and to tie people too strictly down to a rule, where their own observation is to be the judge, endangers the running into many foolish extremes, entitling a distempered brain too much to the exposition of the sublimest things, and tacking the awful name of Providence to every fancy of their own.

From hence, I think, too much proceeds the extraordinary (note, I say extraordinary) homage paid to omens, flying of birds, voices, noises, predictions, and a thousand foolish things, in which I shall endeavour to state the case fairly between the devil and mankind; but at present I need say no more here, than that they have nothing to do with the subject I am now upon, or the subject I am upon with them.

But as my design is serious, and I hope pious, I shall keep strictly to the exposition I give of my own meaning, and meddle with no other.

By the voice of Providence, therefore, I shall confine myself to the particular circumstances, incident, and accident, which every man's life is full of, and which are, in a more extraordinary manner, said to be peculiar to himself or to his family.

By listening to them, I mean, making such due application of them to his own circumstances as becomes a Christian, for caution in his conduct, and all manner of instruction, receiving all the hints as from Heaven, returning all the praise to, making all the improvement for, and reverencing the sovereignty of his Maker in everything, not disputing or reproaching the justice of Providence; and, which is the main thing I am at, taking such notice of the several providences that happen in the course of our lives, as by one circumstance to learn how to behave in another.

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