Charnock on Providence and Prayer

The great English Puritan writer, Stephen Charnock (1628-1680), wrote “A Discourse of Divine Providence,” which is included in volume 1 of Banner of Truth’s 5 volume set of his collected works. A simple definition of the doctrine of providence is found in Westminster Shorter Catechism Q/A 11, which says:

Q. 11. What are God’s works of providence?
A. God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.

And so providence essentially includes two (2) things: That God sustains or preserves all things, and that He also likewise governs or rules over all things, including the actions of his creatures! The Lord Jesus spoke of this very truth in Matthew 10:29, where He said,

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” (ESV)

This is what is sometimes called an argument from the lesser to the greater. If God is sovereign over the minute details and goings-on in His creation, such as a sparrow falling to the ground, then certainly He is also sovereignly in control of the bigger things as well.

In his discourse on God’s providence, Charnock includes a section dealing with a number of the ways that men often tend to “practically deny providence, or abuse it, or contemn [i.e. show contempt for] it.” (p.42). Just as a person may claim to believe in God, but live in a way that is contrary to that profession so that he or she is guilty of a kind of “practical atheism,” even so we sometimes deny the providence of God in our actions, even if not necessarily in our words.

One of the many ways that Charnock speaks of in which we deny the providence of God in our daily lives is in “omissions of prayer,” a failure to pray. He writes,

“If we did really believe there was a watchful providence, and an infinite powerful goodness to help us, he would hear from us oftener than he doth. Certainly those who never call upon him disown his government of the world, and do not care whether he regards the earth or no. They think they can do what they please, without any care of God over them. The restraining prayer is a casting off the fear of God: Job xv. 4, ‘Thou casteth off fear,’ why? ‘and restrainest prayer before God.’ The neglect of prayer ariseth from a conceit of the unprofitableness of it.”

The Works of Stephen Charnock, Vol.1, p.43

In other words, if we really believed that God were sovereignly governing all the affairs of this world, and that He is a God who then hears and answers prayer, we would pray much more often than we do. In many ways, when push comes to shove, the reason we often fail to pray is simply because deep down we doubt or disbelieve that it will really do any good or make any difference to pray.

Do you struggle with prayer at times? (Who doesn’t?) Perhaps it is because in some ways you doubt that God is actually willing to hear and answer from heaven? How often we need to be reminded of the promises of God regarding prayer, such as the words of our Lord in Matthew 7:7–11, where He says,

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (ESV)

“Ask, and it will be given to you” (v.7). As James 4:2 puts it, “You do not have, because you do not ask.” (ESV) If even we who are evil (!) “give good gifts” to our children, “how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11, ESV) Or do we think that we are somehow more generous and loving than God?

If you at times struggle with prayer, perhaps you might find it helpful to consider the doctrine of the providence of God, especially in how it relates to prayer. Charnock is surely correct when he says that if we really believed in the providence and goodness of God, “he would hear from us oftener than he doth.

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