How may a person, who is desirous of following the dictates of providence, in every respect, know the mind and will of God in any particular circumstance, whether temporal or spiritual?
This is a question of so large an extent, and of so great importance, that the very sight of it, when it came into my hands, raised in me a great desire to give some solution of it. But, when I looked more attentively into the nature and purport of it, I found it to be a question attended with so much difficulty and so much nicety in many cases, that I was made almost to doubt whether I should attempt an answer to it or no. However, looking up to the Spirit of God, and into the word of God, for direction in an affair of so much moment, I have ventured upon it; and shall now offer you my thoughts on the subject, in the most free and open manner. And although I cannot pretend to give such a particular, or such an extensive answer to it, as the case may require; yet I shall not account my labour in vain, if enabled to exhibit some general rules, which may be helpful to the serious Christian in determining his course of duty. As for those who have not the fear of God before their eyes, they are unconcerned about the matter; they go on in the ways of their own hearts, and in the sight of their own eyes, and, at best, advance no higher than to follow the maxims of human prudence, and worldly wisdom. But the truly serious person desires to follow the dictates of divine providence in every respect, and is concerned to have the Lord going before him in every step, pointing out his way, and marking out his path for him. He would not, he dares not walk at random, as knowing that the path of duty is the only path of safety and comfort. But how the Christian should know or find out his path, is the great question before us.
Here then it will be necessary, first to explain the terms of the question, and then give an answer to it, both negatively and positively.
I. As to the explication of the meaning of the question itself: this is so very needful, that, unless you attend to it, you will not be able to see into the nature and suitableness of the answer. For I apprehend that a great part of the difficulty belonging to the subject arises from a misunderstanding or a misapplication of the terms, in which it is conceived; and a clear conception of the meaning of the case proposed, will of itself prevent many mistakes, and will give a general clue for the solution of it.
There is some reason to fear, that, by the mind and will of God in a particular circumstance, many understand something that is absolutely unknown to us, or not to be known by us without a special, fresh revelation? and therefore, when they are seeking after, or praying for the knowledge of the divine will, they aim at some peculiar illuminations or impressions, which are neither to be sought after, nor to be depended upon; by which means they are unnecessarily perplexed, and often sadly deluded. We must therefore, in this case, be particularly upon our guard against a species of enthusiasm, which we may be too easily inclined to, and ensnared by.
To prevent mistakes of this nature, let it be observed, that these phrases, the dictates of providence, and the mind or will of God, though they are very proper to the subject, yet are truly metaphorical. Let me therefore express what we mean.
- By the dictates of providence;
- By the mind and will of God in a particular circumstance; and,
- By following these dictates of providence, or conforming ourselves to this will of God.
(1.) What is meant by the dictates or voice of providence. We are not to imagine that divine providence of itself, abstractedly considered, makes known any thing to us: but we must include his word of revelation in the affair. For in reality, by the voice of providence, we mean the voice of God in his word, concerning our duty as to the particular providences we are attended with. Thus we say, that afflictive providences have an humbling voice in them; by which, I presume, is meant, that, when we are under afflictive dispensations, the divine word directs and teaches us to submit to, and be humble under, the mighty hand of God. Prosperous circumstances call us to thankfulness; i.e. God requires us to be thankful for all his mercies to us; and, when such favours are bestowed upon us, it then becomes our duty to be thankful for them.
A situation of special temptation or ensnarement has a voice in it to call us to watchfulness; i.e. It is the mind and will of God, by his word, that we should be peculiarly upon our guard, when providence brings us into such circumstance of trial. These particulars are introduced, in this place, as familiar instances, to give an idea of what we mean by the voice of providence. And if we clearly conceive the true import of the phrase by these hints, we may proceed, and apply the thought to those circumstances, which more nearly concern the present question, after this manner: whensoever providence hedges or stops up one way of safety, comfort, or duty, so that we cannot proceed any father in it, and at the same time opens out another way to go in; then it is evidently the voice or dictate of this providence, that we should leave the former way, and betake ourselves to the other, which appears to be most conducive to our safety, usefulness, or comfort; which is the same as to say, that God makes it our duty, by his word, to take such steps, as appear most conducive to his glory, and our real good, in all circumstances in general; and so, by this general rule, in all circumstances in general; and so, by this general rule, it becomes our duty in the circumstances above supposed to leave one path of life, and pursue another. And now it will be more easy to learn,
(2.) What is meant by the mind and will of God in any particular circumstance. For it cannot intend any secret locked up in the divine breast, which must be made known by a special revelation; but we must understand by it, the revealed will of God, which by its more general, or more particular rules, gives us proper directions for duty, and safety, and usefulness, in any distinct circumstances of life or providence. And therefore,
(3.) To follow the dictates of providence, must mean no other than to act agreeable to the laws of duty, prudence, and safety, in any particular circumstance, according to the directions or determinations of the word and law of God. He follows these dictates, who takes a due survey of the situation he is placed in, compares that with the rules of the word which reach the case, and acts accordingly. Such a person neither delays when providence calls, nor hurries on before it calls.
Having thus explained the terms of the question, I doubt not but you see that the very explication itself tends to solve many difficulties, and prevent many mistakes, and to give you a general clue for your conduct. Let us now bring down what has been said into the question itself. It supposes that you have some particular affair depending, whether temporal or spiritual; that you are at some loss to determine which way to act, or what method to take; and you desire to know what is the mind and will of God in the present case. Here then let me beg you to recollect in your thoughts, what you do or should mean by this will of God. It certainly means no more than for you to be able to understand and judge what is the properest course to be taken, agreeable to the situation you are in, and agreeable to the rules and directions of the divine word in your case. If you mean any more than this, I apprehend you aim at and intrude into those things which are not seen, and which it is not your business to know; for secret things belong to God, Deut. 29:29.
In order to come at the knowledge of that which it is proper and needful for us to be acquainted with, we are taught by prudence and conscience to make use of,
Our deliberation should be serious and attentive. We should look around us, and observe what condition and circumstances we are in; should turn our thoughts about every way that we can, in order to view our situation, in every point of light, in which it appears; and should then compare it with rules of prudence and duty, laid before us in the word.
Our consultation, with friends, should be sincere and prudent, with a design to receive what light their conversation may convey; for in most cases it is true, that in the multitude of counselors there is safety.
Our supplication to the Lord for direction should be serious, earnest, and submissive. Without this, we are in great danger of being led astray, notwithstanding all previous consideration and consultation; for the Lord will be owned and acknowledged; and if he is neglected, we are guilty of leaning to our own understanding, or depending upon the wisdom of men. We are strictly required to be submissive to divine direction; for the meek are those that he will guide in judgment, and teach his way, Ps. 25:9. And we have the greatest encouragement to hope for safe conduct in this course; because it is added in the following words, Ps. 25:10. All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth to such as keep his covenant and his testimonies. Yea, we have a positive and gracious promise of divine conduct, Ps. 25:12. What man is he that feareth the Lord? Him shall he teach in the way that he shall choose. But, when you are thus seriously employed in seeking direction from the Lord, take heed that your speech, your thoughts, and desires be ordered aright. Let me here ask you, what do you really mean by seeking divine direction? Do you hereby desire any discovery of his secret will by any unaccountable impulses, or any irrational impressions? If so, I really question whether this very desire is either warrantable or safe. I will tell you briefly what I would mean by such a practice. When I pray for his guidance and direction in a particular perplexity, I beg of him, that he would lead my thoughts, by his Spirit, into such a view of the directions of his word, and of the conduct of his providence, that I may from thence be able to judge what is my path of duty; that he would so order affairs in his providence, as to make my way clear to me upon the principles of duty, prudence, and conscience; and that he would so fix my view, and so incline my heart, as to make me ready and willing to take those steps, or pursue those measures, that may be most conducive to secure the peace of my conscience, to advance the glory of his name, and to promote my real good. Having so distinctly explained and guarded the question, I proceed,
II. To give an answer to it. The question then returns to this form: having made use of proper consideration, consultation, and supplication; what must we look upon, after all, as marks or tokens of the divine will and pleasure in any particular case that now lies before us? The reply must be made both negatively and positively.
1. Negatively. We are often very prone to increase our perplexity, or to run into the way of danger, by mistaking the rule, and following those things as guides, which have no certainty or safety in them; and this renders it highly necessary, that false rules should be laid aside, in order to make way for a clear answer to the important query.
- We should not make our inclinations the rule of our conduct; for, through the depravity and vanity of our hearts, we may often find a propensity to that, which prudence and conscience, if consulted, would recriminate against; and an aversion to that, which the word and providence of God make our duty. In some cases, indeed, it is very necessary to consult the inclination, genius, or capacity, and take it into consideration while we are weighing and pondering what course of life will be the most suitable to us, or our friends. But, after all, inclination has no standard or rule, either of duty or prudence.
- We should not make our particular frames the rule of our judgment and determination: because we find ourselves sometimes in frame, for that which is not our present duty; and, when duty and prudence call, our frames may be unsuitable and reluctant. It might not be improper in this place a little to animadvert upon a method, which some serious persons take, by forming their judgment from the enlargement, or contraction of their frames in solemn prayer. If they are engaged in serious devotions, seeking to the Lord for a particular favour in providence; if they find themselves peculiarly enlarged, they gather from thence, that the favour shall be granted; but, if they are peculiarly contracted, they take it as a token of a divine denial; and so frame their actions according to these views or expectations. But this I apprehend is an erroneous and uncertain rule of judgment: for, although many a time the event may come to pass agreeably to this rule, yet many times it has proved just the reverse; and if we lay any considerable stress upon these frames, we are in danger of being misled as to the way of duty, and of having our faith and hope shocked and stumbled by an unexpected disappointment. As this rule of judgment is not given us in the word, it is therefore uncertain; and yet we should be ready to acknowledge thus much; that so far as the liberty of our frames excites and encourages us to use proper means, and so far as the contraction of our frames prevents us from being presumptuous or too forward in our conduct, so far it is a mercy to us that we are thus encouraged, or thus cautioned. And it is very likely, that God may sometimes enlarge our hearts in prayers, with a design to excite and encourage us; or contract our hearts with a design to prevent us from using those means, or taking those steps, which may be detrimental. But still the rule of judgment and duty, is to be gathered from the appearances of providence, and the directions of the word.
- We are not to be guided by the bare form of scripture phrases. Far, very far, would I be from laying aside the use of the Holy Scriptures in these points; but would only guard against abuses of it. There are some Christians who are fond of using the Bible, as if it were a fortune-book: when a difficulty in prudence or duty occurs, they will open the Bible at random, and observe what text meets their eyes first; and, according as the wild imagination applies that passage to the point in question, so they think it their duty to act. This is a very weak and dangerous practice, and a sad abuse of the word of God, applying it to a purpose for which the Holy Ghost never intended it. Others will make a random application of a passage of Scripture (which suddenly occurs to, or is strongly impressed upon their minds) to their present case and difficulty; never looking into, or attending to the proper meaning of the text, but straining and applying it to something very foreign from the intention of the Holy Spirit. For instance, if the query be, whether you should follow the practice of a neighbor or friend, and you have those words impressed upon your mind, Go thou and do likewise; you are apt from these assuredly to gather, that it is the mind and will of God you should do as he does. This method of judging concerning prudence and duty is extremely weak, precarious, and dangerous; for it can never be supposed that the Holy Spirit intended those words in the Bible to be thus applied and used at random.