How God Works by Providences

Recently I’ve been taking Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne by Andrew A. Bonar down from my bookshelf. I’ve been sipping tea and turning pages for several weeks and can whole-heartedly say it is a book that has changed and blessed me. To be sure, the only reason it’s been a blessing and a vehicle of alteration is the fact it has driven me to the greatest book, the Bible, and impressed upon me a greater desire to know God.

I don’t have to be persuaded or have my arm twisted in the slightest to say the life, letters and sermons of Mr. M’Cheyne are of little value if they merely point to him, his labors, etc. But this book doesn’t point to M’Cheyne, but Christ. It’s in these pages I’m showed a man of God who by God’s grace hated his sin and loved his savior, labored in prayer, preached the gospel in his sermons and style of life, loved other saints so greatly as to profusely encourage them in the faith and lost men so much he told them of sin and death and the great remedy found in Christ alone by faith. Truly, these are fruitful gleanings.

Although M’Cheyne’s impact was great, his life bordered on that of extreme brevity––he went to glory at the age of 29. Nearly his entire adult life was spent laboring as a minister to ‘his flock’ in Dundee, Scotland with a brief mission to the Jews in the holy land. It was on this mission to Palestine that he wrote a series of ten letters back to his congregation and where I’ve found some of the finest encouragement. The third letter he authored is titled ‘How God Works by Providences’ and is reproduced in full in the following paragraphs. With striking prose and imagery M’Cheyne provides words of encouragement to those of his flock facing a tumultuous season of life.

Edinburgh, February 13, 1839.

To all of you, my dear friends and people, who are and shall ever be followers of the Lamb, whithersoever He goeth, your pastor again wishes grace and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. 

I long very much that this grace may again be given unto me to preach among you face to face “the unsearchable riches of Christ.” “Oftentimes I purpose to come unto you, but am let hitherto,” Still I feel it a great privilege that, even in my retirement, I can send you a word, to the end that you may be established. I feel as if one door was left open to me by the Lord. Believe me, it is the foremost desire of my heart that Christ may be glorified in you, both now and at his coming,—that you may be a happy and a holy people, blessed and made a blessing. For the sake of variety, let me guide your thoughts to a passage of God’s own word, and there I will speak to you as if I were yet present with you, and half forget that you are not before me. 

In Job 23:8–10 you will find these solemn words: “Behold, I go forward, but He is not there; and backward, but I cannot perceive Him: on the left hand, where He doth work, but I cannot behold Him: He hideth himself on the right hand, that I cannot see Him. But He knoweth the way that I take: when He hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold.” 

You all know the afflictions which came upon Job. “He was a perfect and upright man,” and the greatest of all the men of the East, yet he lost his oxen and his asses, his sheep and camels, and his ten children, in one day. Again, the breath of disease came upon him, and he sat down among the ashes. In all this Job sinned not with his lips. He blessed the hand that smote him: “What! shall we receive good at the hand of the Lord, and shall we not receive evil?” And yet when his troubles were prolonged, he knew not what to think. Learn how weak the strongest believer is; a bruised reed, without Christ, we are, and can do nothing. When Job’s brethren dealt deceitfully with him “as a brook”— when he felt God hedging him in, and God’s arrows drinking up his spirit,—then clouds and darkness rested on his path, he could not unravel God’s dealings with his soul; then he cried, “Show me wherefore Thou contendest with me!” He longed to get an explanation from God: “Oh that I knew where I might find Him! that I might come even to his seat! Behold, I go forward, but He is not there; and backward, but I cannot perceive Him: on the left hand, where He doth work, but I cannot behold Him: He hideth himself on the right hand,  that I cannot see Him.” You have here, then, in verses 8 and 9 , a child of light walking in darkness—an afflicted soul seeking, and seeking in vain, to know why God is contending with him. Dear friends, this is not an uncommon case; even to some of you God’s providences often appear inexplicable. I hear that God has been at work among you, and “his way is in the sea.” He has tried you in different ways: some of you by the loss of your property, as He tried Job; some of you by the loss of dear friends; some by loss of health, so that “wearisome nights are appointed you;” some by the loss of the esteem of friends, ay, even of Christians. “Your inward friends abhor you.” Perhaps more than one trouble has come on you at a time,— wave upon wave, thorn upon thorn. Before one wound was healed, another came,—before the rain was well away, “clouds returned.” You cannot explain God’s dealings with you,—you cannot get God to explain them; you have drawn the Saviour’s blood and righteousness over your souls, and you know that the Father himself loveth you; you would like to meet Him to ask, “Wherefore contendest Thou with me?” “Oh that I knew where I might find Him!” My dear afflicted brethren, this is no strange thing that has happened unto you. Almost every believer is at one time or another brought to feel this difficulty: “God maketh my heart soft, and the Almighty troubleth me.” Is it in anger, or is it in pure love, that He afflicts me? Am I fleeing from the presence of the Lord, as Jonah fled? What change would He have wrought in me? If any of you are thinking thus in your heart, pray over this word in Job. Remember the word in Psalm 46, “Be still, and know that I am God.” God does many things to teach us that He is God, and to make us wait upon Him. And, still further, see in verse 10th what light breaks in upon our darkness: “But He knoweth the way that I take: when He hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold.” 

Observe, first, “He knoweth the way that I take.” What sweet comfort there is in these words: He that redeemed me—He that pities me as a father—He who is the only wise God—He whose name is love—“He knoweth the way that I take!” 

The ungodly world do not know it; the world knoweth us not, even as it knew Him not. A stranger doth not intermeddle with the joys or sorrows of a child of God. When the world looks on your grief with unsympathizing eye, you feel very desolate. “Your soul is exceedingly filled with the scorning of those who are at ease.” But why should you? He that is greater than all the world is looking with the intensest interest upon all your steps. 

The most intimate friends do not know the way of an afflicted believer. Your spirit is lonely, even among God’s children; for your way is hid, and the Lord hath hedged you in. Still be of good cheer, the Father of all, the best of friends, knows all the way that you take. 

You do not know your own way. God has called you to suffer, and you go, like Abraham, not knowing whither you go. Like Israel going down into the Red Sea, every step is strange to you. Still, be of good cheer, sufferer with Christ! God marks your every step. “The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord, and he delighteth in his way.” He that loves you with an infinite, unchanging love, is leading you by his Spirit and providence. He knows every stone, every thorn in your path. Jesus knows your way. Jesus is afflicted in all your afflictions. “Fear not, for I have redeemed thee. I have called thee by my name, thou art mine. When thou passest through the water, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee. When thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned, neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.” 

Second, “When He hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold.” This also is precious comfort. There will be an end of your affliction. Christians must have “great tribulation;” but they come out of it. We must carry the cross; but only for a moment, then comes the crown. I remember one child of God’s saying, that if it were God’s will that she should remain in trials a thousand years, she could not but delight in his will. But this is not asked of us: we are only called “to suffer a while.” There is a set time for putting into the furnace, and a set time for taking out of the furnace. There is a time for pruning the branches of the vine, and there is a time when the husbandman lays aside the pruning-hook. Let us wait his time; “he that believeth shall not make haste.” God’s time is the best time. But shall we come out the same as we went in? Ah! no; “we shall come out like gold.” It is this that sweetens the bitterest cup; this brings a rainbow of promise over the darkest cloud. Affliction will certainly purify a believer. How boldly he says it: “I shall come out like gold!” Ah, how much dross there is in every one of you, dear believers, and in your pastor! “When I would do good, evil is present with me.” Oh that all the dross may be left behind in the furnace! What imperfection, what sin, mingles with all we have ever done! But are we really fruit-bearing branches of the true vine! Then it is certain that when we are pruned, we shall bear more fruit. We shall come out like gold. We shall shine more purely as “a diadem in the hand of our God.” We shall become purer vessels to hold the sweet- smelling incense of praise and prayer. We shall become holy golden vessels for the Master’s use in time and in eternity. 

To the many among you who have no part nor lot in Christ, I would say, “See here the happiness of being a Christian in time of trouble.” It is no small joy to be able to sing Psalm 46 in the dark and cloudy day. I have often told you, and now tell you when I am far from you, “We are journeying to the place of which the Lord hath said, I will give it you: come then with us, and we will do thee good, for God hath spoken good concerning Israel.” 

Finally, Pray that your pastor may come out of his trials like gold. All is not gold that glitters. Pray that everything that is but glittering dross may be taken away, and that, if it be his will, I may come unto you like the fine gold of Ophir. “Continue in prayer, and watch in the same with thanksgiving, withal praying also for us, that God would open unto us a door of utterance to speak the mystery of Christ.” 

My chief comfort concerning you is, that “my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus.” Brethren, farewell! Be perfect, be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace, and the God of love and of peace shall be with you. 

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all. Amen.1

Whether our Christmas season, or our very life, is peaceful and full of rest or difficult and riddled with pain, may we always know and rejoice that our God works all things together for good, conforming us to the image of Christ.

1Bonar, A. A. (2012). Letters. In Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne. (pp. 224-228). Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth.

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