Of Walking Humbly with God, Part 4
by John Owen
What it is to humble ourselves to the law of God’s grace, you have heard.
(2.) I come now to show what it is to humble ourselves to the law of his providence.
By the law of providence, I intend, God’s sovereign disposal of all the concernments of men in this world, in the variety, order, and manner which he pleaseth, according to the rule and infinite reason of his own goodness, wisdom, righteousness, and truth.
[1.] To evince what it is to humble ourselves to this law, some general observations must be given. And, —
1st. There is, and ever was, somewhat, very much, in God’s providential administration of the things of this world, and the concernments of the sons of men therein, which the most improved reason of men cannot reach unto, and which is contrary to all that is in us, as merely men; — of judgment, affections, or what else soever we are acted by.
“Thy judgments,” saith David unto God, “are far above out of his sight,” Ps. x. 5; that is, of the man he is speaking of: he is not able to see the ground and reason, the order and beauty of them. And Ps. xxxvi. 6, “Thy righteousness is like a great mountain, and thy judgments are a great deep;” that is, as the sea, which none can look into the bottom of, nor know what is done in the caverns thereof. So that there is a height in the judgments of God not to be measured, and a depth not to be fathomed. Men cannot look into his ways. So also Ps. lxxvii. 19, “Thy way is in the sea, and thy path in the great waters, and thy footsteps are not known.” Men must be content to stand at the shore, and admire at the works of God; but as to the beauty and excellency of them, they cannot search them out. To this purpose discourseth Zophar, in Job xi. 7–12. It is of the excellency and perfection of God in his works of providence that he is speaking; in the consideration of whose unsearchableness, he closes with that of verse 12, “Vain man would know the secrets of the counsels of God, the reason of his ways; but, in his attempts after it, he is as an ass, as a wild ass, as the colt of a wild ass;” — than which nothing could be spoken with more contempt, to abase the pride of a poor creature.
The ways of God are, we know, all perfect. He is our rock; and his work is perfect: nothing can be added to them, nor taken from them; yea, they are all comely and beautiful in their season. There is not any thing comes out from him, but it is from wonderful counsel; and all his ways will at length be found to praise him. But, as Job speaks, chap. ix. 11, we perceive it not, — we take no notice of it; for who hath known his mind, or been his counsellor? Rom. xi. 33, 34.
Hence, not only the heathen were entangled in the consideration of the works of providence, — some, upon it, turning Atheists; most, ascribing all things to blind, uncertain chance and contingency; and others (very few) labouring to set a lustre upon what they could not understand, — but we have the people of God themselves disputing with him about the equality of his ways; bringing arguments against it, and contending against his wisdom in them: “Ye say, The way of the Lord is not equal,” Ezek. xviii. 25. And again are they at it, chap. xxxiii. 20, “Yet ye say, The way of the Lord is not equal.” Yea, not only the common people, but the choicest of God’s servants, under the Old Testament, were exceedingly exercised with this, that they could not oftentimes see the beauty and excellency, nor understand the reason or order, of God’s dispensations; which I might prove at large, in the instances of Job, David, Heman, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and others. Yea, there was nothing that God was more put to, in dealing with his people of old, than to justify the righteousness and perfections of his providential dispensations against their unjust, unbelieving complaints and manners.
This, then, being the condition of God’s providential dispensations in general, — that there is much in them, not only above us, and unsearchable to us, as to the reason and beauty of his ways, but also contrary to all that is in us of reason, judgment, or affections; there is surely need of humbling our souls to the law of this providence, if we intend to walk with him. Neither is there any other way to come to an agreement with him, or to quiet our hearts from repining.
2dly. There are four things in God’s providential disposing of the things and concernments of men in the world that require this humbling of ourselves to him, as being no way able to grapple with him:— (1st.) Visible confusion; (2dly.) Unspeakable variety; (3dly.) Sudden alterations; (4thly.) Deep distresses.
(1st.) Visible confusion, — like that mentioned, Isa. viii. 22. He that takes a view of the general state of things in the world, will see nothing but trouble, darkness, and anguish; “yea, darkness cover the earth, and gross darkness the people.” The oppression of tyrants, wasting of nations, destruction of men and beasts, fury and desolations, make up the things of the past and present ages; — the greatest and choicest parts of the earth, in the meantime, inhabited by them that know not God, — that hate him, that fill and replenish the world with habitations of cruelty, sporting themselves in mischief, like the leviathan in the sea. In respect hereof, God is said to make “darkness his secret place” and his pavilion, Ps. xviii. 11; and to “dwell in the thick darkness,” 2 Chron. vi. 1; — and to wait for the issue of this dispensation, to humble themselves to the law of it, is the patience and wisdom of the saints. See Hab. ii. 1.
(2dly.) Unspeakable variety. Not to insist on particulars, the case of the saints throughout the world is the only instance I shall mention, and that on a twofold account:—
[1st.] Compared among themselves, in what unspeakable variety are they dealt withal! some under persecution always, — some always at peace; some in dungeons and prisons, — some at liberty in their own houses; the saints of one nation under great oppression for many ages, — of another, in quietness; in the same places some poor, in great distress, put hard to it for daily bread all their lives, — others abounding in all things; some full of various afflictions, going softly and mourning all their days, — others spared, and scarce touched with the rod at all; — and yet, commonly, the advantage of holiness and close walking with God lying on the distressed side. How doth God deal, also, with families in respect of grace, while he takes one whole family into covenant, and leaves out another whole family, whose heads and springs are no less holy? He comes into a house, and takes one, and leaves another; — takes a despised outcast, and leaves a darling. Of them, also, some are wise, endowed with great gifts and abilities; — others weak to contempt and reproach. Who can, now, with an eye of reason, look upon them, and say they are all the children of one Father, and that he loves them all alike? Should you come into a great house, and see some children in scarlet, having all things needful, others hewing wood and drawing water, — you would conclude that they are not all children, but some children, some slaves: but when it shall be told you that they are all one man’s children; and that the hewers of wood, that live on the bread and water of affliction, and go in tattered rags, are as dear to him as the other; and that he intends to leave them as good an inheritance as any of the rest; — if you intend not to question the wisdom and goodness of the father of the family, you must resolve to submit to his authority with a quiet subjection of mind. So is it in the great family of God; nothing will quiet our souls, but humbling ourselves to the law of his providence.
[2dly.] Comparing them with others was the hard case of old; the pleading whereof by Job, David, Jeremiah, and Habakkuk, is so known, that I shall not need farther to insist upon it.
I shall not farther manifest this from the variety which is in the dispensations of God towards the men of the world, which the wisest of men can reduce to no rule of righteousness, as things pass among us. Solomon acquaints us with it, Eccles. ix. 11. Things are disposed of according to no rule that we may fix our expectations on; which ruined the reason of that mirror of mankind, in a natural condition, Marcus Brutus, and made him cry out, Ὠ τλῆμον ἀρετή.
(3dly.) Sudden alterations. As in the case of Job, God takes a man whom he hath blessed with choice of blessings, in the midst of a course of obedience and close walking with himself, when he expected to die in his nest, and to see good all his days; — ruins him in a moment; blasts his name, that he who was esteemed a choice saint, shall not be able to deliver himself from the common esteem of a hypocrite; slays his children; takes away his rest, health, and every thing that is desirable to him. This amazes the soul; it knows not what God is doing, nor why he pleads with it in so much bitterness. A man that either is, or may fall into such a condition, will find that he will never be able to walk with God in it, without humbling himself to the law of his providence.
(4thly.) Great, deep, and abiding distresses have the same effects with sudden alterations; — of which more afterwards.
And these are, in general, some of the things in God’s providential disposal of the things of men in this world, that are too hard and wonderful for flesh and blood; wherein his paths are in the deep; which are contrary to all rules of procedure that he hath given us to judge by, who are to judge of things but once, he being to call all things to a second account.
[2.] Having given these two observations, I return to what I first proposed, — namely, the duty of humbling ourselves to the law of the providence of God, so far as it concerns us in particular.
I do not intend merely that men, in general, should be content with the dealings of God in the world; but that we should humble our hearts to him in what falls to be our share therein, though it come under any one or more of the heads of difficulty before mentioned. Our lots are various in this world: how they may be farther different before we go out of it we know not. Some are in one condition, — some in another. That we envy not one another, nor any in the world; that we repine not at God, nor charge him foolishly, — is that I aim at; — a thing sufficiently necessary in these days, wherein good men are too little able to bear their own condition, if in any thing it differs from [that of] others.
The next thing, then, is, to consider how and wherein we are to humble ourselves to the law of the providence of God. There are things on this account which our souls are to be humbled unto:—
First. His sovereignty. May he not do what he will with his own? This is so argued out in Job that I shall need to go no farther for the confirmation of it. See chap. xxxiii. 8–13. The words are the sum of what was, or was apprehended to be, the complaint of Job, — that in the midst of his innocency and course of obedience, God dealt hardly with him, and brought him into great distresses. What is the reply hereunto? Verse 12, “Behold, in this thou art not just.” It is a most unequal thing for any man to make any such complaints. Whether Job did so or not, may be disputed; but for any one to do so, is certainly most unjust. But on what ground is that asserted? See the words following: “ ‘God is greater than man; why strivest thou with him?’ It is to no purpose to contend with him that is mightier than thou. And it is likewise unjust to do it with him, who is infinitely and incomparably so, upon the account of his absolute dominion and sovereignty. ‘For,’ saith he, ‘He giveth no account of his matters.’ He disposeth of all things as he will, and as he pleaseth.” This is pursued to the utmost, chap. xxxiv. 18, 19. Men will not be forward openly to revile or repine against their governors; and what shall be said of God, who is infinitely exalted above them? Hence you have the conclusion of the whole matter, verses 31–33.
This, I say, is the first thing that we are to humble ourselves unto. Let us lay our mouths in the dust, and ourselves on the ground, and say, “It is the Lord; I will be silent, because he hath done it. He is of one mind, and who can turn him? He doth whatever he pleaseth. Am not I in his hand as clay in the hand of the potter? May he not make what kind of vessel he pleases? When I was not, he brought me out of nothing by his word. What I am, or have, is merely of his pleasure. Oh, let my heart and thoughts be full of deep subjection to his supreme dominion and uncontrollable sovereignty over me!” This quieted Aaron in his great distress; and David in his, 2 Sam. xv. 25, 26; and Job in his. It is pleaded by the Lord, Jer. x., Rom. ix. 11, and innumerable other places. If we intend to walk with God, we must humble ourselves to this, and therein we shall find rest.
Second. His wisdom. He is wise also, as he speaks in derision of men’s pretending to be so; indeed, God is only wise. Now, he hath undertaken to make “all things work together for good to them that love him,” Rom. viii. 28; — that we shall not be in heaviness unless it be needful, 1 Pet. i. 6. In many dispensations of his providence we are at a loss, — we cannot measure them by that rule. We see not how this state or condition can be good for the church in general, or us in particular. We suppose it would be more for his glory, and our advantage, if things were otherwise disposed. Innumerable are the reasonings of the hearts of the sons of men on this account; we know not the thoughts of our own souls herein, how vile they are. God will have us humble ourselves to his wisdom in all his dispensations, and to captivate our understandings thereunto. So Isa. xl. 27, 28. This is that which our hearts are to rest in, when ready to repine, — there is no end of his understanding; he sees all things, in all their causes, effects, circumstances, — in their utmost reach, tendency, and correspondency. We walk in a shade, and know nothing of what is before us. The day will come when we shall see one thing set against another, and infinite wisdom shining out in them all; that all things were done in number, weight, and measure; that nothing could have been otherwise than it is disposed of, without the abridgment of the glory of God and the good of his church. Yea, I dare say, that there is no saint of God, that is distressed by any dispensation of providence, but that, if he will seriously and impartially consider his own state and condition, the frame of his heart, his temptations, and ways, with so much of the aims and ends of the Lord as will assuredly be discovered to faith and prayer, but he will have some rays and beams of infinite wisdom shining in it, tempered with love, goodness, and faithfulness. But whether for the present we have this light or not, or are left unto darkness, this is the haven and rest of our tossed souls, the ark and bosom of our peace, — to humble our souls to the infinite wisdom of God in all his procedure; and on that account quietly to commit all things to his management.
Third. His righteousness. Though God will have us acquiesce in his sovereignty, when we can see nothing else, yet he will have us know that all his ways are equal and righteous. The holy God will do no iniquity. That he is righteous in all his ways, and holy in all his works, is pleaded as much as any thing that he hath discovered of himself: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” Is God unjust who inflicteth vengeance? God forbid. The righteousness of God — all which springeth from, and is reduced to, the universal rectitude of his nature, in respect of the works that he doth — is manifold. It is that which is called “Justitia regiminis,” — his righteousness in rule or government, in the dispensation of rewards and punishments, — that I am speaking of. Now, because we are not able to discern it in many particulars of his proceeding, to help us in humbling our souls unto it, take these considerations:—
First. That God judgeth not as man judgeth. Man judgeth according to the seeing of the eye, and the hearing of the ear; but God searcheth the heart. Little do we know what is in the heart of men; — what transactions there are or have been between God and them, which, if they were drawn forth, as they shall be one day, the righteousness of God in his procedure would shine as the sun. Rest on this, — we know much less of the matter on the account whereof God judgeth, than we do of the rule whereby he judges. Most things are to him otherwise than to us.
Secondly. God is the great Judge of all the world, — not of this or that particular place; and so disposeth of all as may tend to the good of the whole, and his glory in the universality, of things. Our thoughts are bounded — much more our observation and knowledge — within a very narrow compass. That may seem deformed unto us which, when it lies under an eye that at once hath a prospect of the whole, is full of beauty and order. He that was able to see at once but some one small part of a goodly statue, might think it a deformed piece; when he that sees it altogether is assured of its due proportion and comeliness. All things in all places, of the ages past and to come, lie at once naked before God; and he disposes of them so as that, in their contexture and answer one to another, they shall be full of order; — which is properly righteousness.
Thirdly. God judges here, not by any final, determinate sentence, but in a way of preparation to a judgment to come. This unties all knots, and solves all difficulties whatever. This makes righteous and beautiful the deepest distresses of the godly, and the highest advancements of wicked men. And there let our souls rest themselves in quietness, Acts xvii.
Fourthly. His goodness, kindness, love, tenderness. Our souls must submit themselves to believe all these to be in all God’s dispensations. I shall but name that one place wherein the apostle disputes for it, Heb. xii. 1–6; and add that wherewith Hosea closes his declaration of God’s various dispensations and dealings with his people, Hos. xiv. 9.
This, now, it is to humble our souls to the law of God’s providence in all his dispensations, — to fall down before his sovereignty, wisdom, righteousness, goodness, love, and mercy. And without this frame of heart, there is no walking with God; unless we intend to come into his presence to quarrel with him, — which will not be for our advantage.
This was Paul’s frame, Phil. iv. 11, “I have learned it,” saith he; “it is not in me by nature, but I have now learned it by faith, I have humbled my soul to it,” (ἐν οἷς εἰμι) — “in the things, state, condition, good or bad, high or low, at liberty or in prison, respected or despised, in health or sickness, living or dying,” (ἐν οἷς εἰμι,) “therein to bow myself to the law of the good providence of God; which is contentment.” So was it also with David. Ps. cxxxi. 1: He did not exercise himself, or trouble himself, about the ways and works of God that were too high and too hard for him. How, then, did he behave himself? Verse 2: Something in his heart would have been inquiring after those things; but he quieted himself, and humbled his soul to the law of the providence of God, which hath that comfortable issue mentioned, verse 3, — an exhortation not to dispute the ways of God, but to hope and trust in him, on the account mentioned before. This is also the advice that James gives to believers of all sorts, James i. 9, 10. Let every one rejoice in the dispensations of God, willingly bowing their hearts to it.
This is a popular argument, of daily use. Should I insist on the reasons of it, — its consequence, effects, and advantage; its necessity, if we desire that God should have any glory, or our own souls any peace; the perfect conquest that will be obtained by it over the evil of every condition; and stretch it in application to the saddest particular cases imaginable (for all which the Scripture abounds in directions), — I should go too far out of my way.
This, then, I say, is the second thing we are to humble ourselves unto.
2. My other inquiry remains, — namely, how or by what means we are thus to humble ourselves to the law of grace and providence?
I shall but name one or two of the principal graces, in the exercise whereof this may be performed:—
(1.) Let faith have its work. There are, among others, two things that faith will do, and is suited to do, that lie in a tendency hereunto:—
[1.] It empties the soul of self. This is the proper work of faith, — to discover the utter emptiness, insufficiency, nothingness that is in man unto any spiritual end or purpose whatever. So Eph. ii. 8, 9. Faith itself is of God, not of ourselves; and it teaches us to be all by grace, and not by any work of ours. If we will be any thing in ourselves, faith tells us then it is nothing to us; for it only fills them that are empty, and makes them all by grace who are nothing by self. While faith is at work, it will fill the soul with such thoughts as these: “I am nothing; a poor worm at God’s disposal; lost, if not found by Christ; — have done, can do, nothing on the account whereof I should be accepted with God: surely God is to be, in all things, submitted to; and the way of his mere grace accepted.” So Rom. iii. 27. This is the proper work of faith, — to exclude and shut out boasting in ourselves; that is, to render us to ourselves such as have nothing at all to glory or rejoice in ourselves, that God may be all in all. Now, this working of faith will keep the heart in a readiness to subject itself unto God in all things, both in the law of his grace and providence.
[2.] Faith will actually bring the soul to the foot of God, and give it up universally to his disposal. What did the faith of Abraham do when it obeyed the call of God? Isa. xli. 2. It brought him to the foot of God. God called him, to be at his disposal universally, by faith to come to it, following him, he knew not for what, nor whither. “Leave thy father’s house and kindred;’ — he disputes it not. “Cast out Ishmael, whom thou lovest;” — he is gone. “Sacrifice thine only Isaac;” — he goes about it. He was brought by faith to the foot of God, and stood at his disposal for all things. This is the proper nature of faith, — to bring a man to that condition. So was it with David, 2 Sam. xv. 26. This faith will do. Will God have me to suffer in my name, estate, family? “It is the Lord,” saith faith. Will he have me to be poor, despised in the world, — of little or no use at all to him or his people? “Who,” saith faith, “shall say to him, What doest thou?” In any state and condition, faith will find out arguments to keep the soul always at God’s disposal.
(2.) Constant, abiding reverence of God will help the soul in this universal resignation, and humbling of itself. Now, this reverence of God is an awful spiritual regard of the majesty of God, as he is pleased to concern himself in us, and in our walking before him, on the account of his holiness, greatness, omniscience, omnipresence, and the like. So Heb. xii. 28, 29; Ps. lxxxix. 7, viii. 9.
Now, this reverence of God ariseth from three things, as is evident from the description of it:—
[1.] The infinite excellency and majesty of God and his great name. This is the apostle’s motive, Heb. xii. 29, iv. 13. So Deut. xxviii. 58. The excellency of God in itself, is not only such as makes wicked men and hypocrites to tremble, whenever the thoughts of it seize on them, Isa. xxxiii. 14, but also it hath filled the saints themselves with dread and terror, Hab. iii. 16. Nor is there any bearing the rays of his excellency, but as they are shadowed in Christ, by whom we have boldness to approach unto him.
[2.] The infinite, inconceivable distance wherein we stand from him. Thence is that direction of the wise man to a due regard of God at all times, Eccles. v. 2: He is in heaven, whence he manifests his glorious excellency in a poor worm creeping on the mire and clay of the earth. So did Abraham, Gen. xviii. 27. What an inconceivable distance is there between the glorious majesty of God, and a little dust which the wind blows away and it is gone!
[3.] That this inconceivably glorious God is pleased, of his own grace, to condescend to concern himself in us poor worms, and our services, which he stands in no need of, Isa. lvii. 15. His eye is upon us, — his heart is towards us. This makes David break into that admiration, 1 Chron. xvii. 16; and should do so to us.
Now, what are the advantages of keeping alive a reverence of God in our hearts; how many ways it effectually conduces to enable us to humble our souls to the law of his grace and providence; what an issue it will put to all the reasonings of our hearts to the contrary, — I cannot stay to declare. And the improvement of these two graces, faith and reverence, is all that I shall at present recommend unto you for the end and purpose under consideration.
But I come, in the next place, to that part of this whole discourse which was at first principally intended.
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