Flavel’s remedies for excessive sorrow over a loved one’s death

John Flavel (1627-1691) wrote the book we know as Biblical Mourning to encourage friends who had recently lost a young child. Flavel himself had lost his wife and his only son within a single year sometime prior to this writing which makes his counsel more than theoretical. The following are his seven rules (in italics) for dealing with “sinful excesses of sorrow” with a few editorial comments added on:

Rule 1. If you do not want to mourn excessively for the loss of human comforts, then take care that you do not excessively and inordinately set your delight and love on them while you enjoy them. Or, don’t allow your loved one to become an idol.

Rule 2. If you do not want to be overwhelmed with grief by the loss of your loved ones, be exact and careful in carrying out your duties to them while you have them. Don’t leave room for regrets. A clean conscience may not alleviate our sorrow, but a troubled conscience makes the burden heavier.

Rule 3. If you do not want to be overwhelmed with distress at the loss of dear relationships, turn to God under your troubles and pour out your sorrows by prayer into his open arms. See Psalm 34:17-18.

Rule 4. If you want to bear the loss of your dear relatives with moderation, then view God in the whole process of the affliction more, and secondary causes and circumstances of the matter less. This is particularly good counsel for those who carried the burden of decision-making in an emergency or end of life care. Our second-guessing may betray our confession that God has ordained the number of our days (Job 14:5; Psalm 139:16). Our time is in his hands and we can neither add nor take away from the time he has allotted us.

Rule 5. If you want to bear your affliction with moderation, compare it with the afflictions of other men, and that will greatly quiet your spirit. This counsel is cold comfort and certainly not our first recourse in dealing with grief, but perhaps we should remember that our sorrow seldom (if ever) runs as deep as it might.

Rule 6. Carefully shun and avoid whatever might renew your sorrow or cause you to stop persevering. Grief is inevitable but it shouldn’t be indulged.

Rule 7. In the day of your discontent for the death of your friends, seriously consider both that your own death is approaching and that you and your dead friend are separated by a small interval and point of time: I shall go to him (2 Samuel 12:23). Ironic, that even as we walk in the shadow of death we continue to think and act as if death is far from us (Psalm 144:3-4). We will not be separated for long.

Greg: Don’t be so literal

A good reminder that reading the Scriptures well consists of defining words and discerning how those words are being used in a given context, especially when we’re talking about God and his works:

Some things mentioned in the Bible are not factual; some factual things are not mentioned; some nonfactual things receive no mention there; some things are both factual and mentioned. Do you ask for my proofs here? I am ready to offer them. In the Bible, God “sleeps,” “wakes up,” “is angered,” “walks,” and has a “throne of cherubim.” Yet when has God ever been subject to emotion? When do you ever hear that God has a bodily being? This is a nonfactual, mental picture. We have used names derived from human experience and applied them, so far as we could, to aspects of God. His retirement from us, for reasons known to himself into an almost unconcerned inactivity, is his “sleeping.” Human sleeping, after all, has the character of restful inaction. When he alters and suddenly benefits us, that is his “waking up.” Waking up puts an end to sleep, just as looking at somebody puts an end to turning away from him. We have made his punishing of us his “being angered”; for with us, punishment is born of anger. His acting in different places, we call “walking,” for walking is a transition from one place to another. His abiding among the heavenly powers, making them almost his haunt, we call his “sitting” and “being enthroned”; this too is human language: the divine abides in none as it abides in the saints. God’s swift motion we call “flight”; his watching over us is his “face”; his giving and receiving is his “hand.” Indeed every faculty or activity of God has given us a corresponding picture in terms of something bodily.

– St. Gregory of Nazianzus, The Fifth Theological Oration (Oration 31:22) “On the Holy Spirt”

The NT assumes that all Christians…

The New Testament assumes that all Christians will share in the life of the local church, meeting with it for worship (Heb 10:25), accepting its nurture and discipline (Matt 18:15-20; Gal 6:1), and sharing in its work of witness. Christians disobey God and impoverish themselves by refusing to join with other believers when there is a local congregation that they can belong to.

– J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs, 202

A Calvinist puts away the knife

Charles Simeon’s account of his conversation with John Wesley:

“Sir, I understand that you are called an Arminian; and I have been sometimes called a Calvinist; and therefore I suppose we are to draw daggers. But before I consent to begin the combat, with your permission I will ask you a few questions. . . .

“Pray, Sir, do you feel yourself a depraved creature, so depraved that you would never have thought of turning to God, if God had not first put it into your heart?”

“Yes,” says the veteran, “I do indeed.”

“And do you utterly despair of recommending yourself to God by anything you can do; and look for salvation solely through the blood and righteousness of Christ?”

“Yes, solely through Christ.”

“But, Sir, supposing you were at first saved by Christ, are you not somehow or other to save yourself afterwards by your own works?”

“No, I must be saved by Christ from the first to the last.”

“Allowing, then, that you were first turned by the grace of God, are you not in some way or other to keep yourself by your own power?”

“No.”

“What, then, are you to be upheld every hour and every moment by God, as much as an infant in its mother’s arms?”

“Yes, altogether.”

“And is all your hope in the grace and mercy of God to preserve you unto his heavenly kingdom?”

“Yes, I have no hope but in him.”

“Then, Sir, with your leave I will put up my dagger again; for this is all my Calvinism; this is my election, my justification by faith, my final perseverance: it is in substance all that I hold, and as I hold it; and therefore, if you please, instead of searching out terms and phrases to be a ground of contention between us, we will cordially unite in those things wherein we agree.”

– quoted by J. I. Packer in Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God

John Webster on divine revelation

Revelation is the overthrow of the blindness, silence, and deafness in which we refuse to be addressed and disturbed by God.

Revelation is fellowship freely established by God. This fellowship is the fellowship of the divine covenant: the fellowship, that is, of creator and creature, of Lord and subject, of judge and sinner, of savior and saved. It is not the mutual agreement of two equal parties but a determination made by one of the parties which unconditionally and unreservedly defines the other. . . . Nor is it a fellowship in which the response of the subordinate party is either self-generated or self-referring. To respond to the gratuity with which God in revelation makes himself accessible to us is to confess, to acknowledge, to repent, to praise–all modes of the ecstasy of faith. And revelation, therefore, comes to do battle with us: to overcome our refusal to confess the sheer overwhelming goodness, beauty, and truth of God. Revelation is the overthrow of the blindness, silence, and deafness in which we refuse to be addressed and disturbed by God. That revelation does indeed overthrow us is not the least sign of that fact that it is the mercy of God.

-John Webster, The Culture of Theology (Baker: 2019), 123

What Newton remembered in disagreements

I well know, that the little measure of knowledge I have obtained in the things of God has not been owing to my own wisdom and docility, but to his goodness. Nor did I get it all at once: He has been pleased to exercise much patience and long-suffering towards me, for about twenty-seven years past, since He first gave me a desire of learning from himself. He has graciously accommodated himself to my weaknesses, borne with my mistakes, and helped me through innumerable prejudices, which, but for his mercy, would have been insuperable hindrances: I have therefore no right to be angry, impatient, or censorious, especially as I still have much to learn, and am so poorly influenced by what I seem to know. I am weary of controversies and disputes, and desire to choose for myself, and to point out to others Mary’s part, to sit at Jesus’s feet, and to hear his words. And, blessed be his name, so far as I have learned from him, I am favored with a comfortable certainty. I know whom I have believed, and am no longer tossed about by the various winds and tides of opinions, by which I see many are dashed one against the other. But I cannot, I must not, I dare not contend; only as a witness for God, I am ready to bear my simple testimony to what I have known of his truth whenever I am properly called to it.

-John Newton, “Letter to Mrs. John Thornton,” Letters of John Newton, 273.

Calvinism as a temperament

Those of us who approach theology as a science assume persuasion occurs when evidence is marshaled into a compelling argument. But even when we agree on the body of evidence, we may still find ourselves at odds in how we interpret the evidence. And the process of interpretation that leads to conclusions that give rise to our convictions is more than a mental exercise. We arrive at our convictions by volitional and emotional means, too.

A passage in James Eglinton’s biography of Herman Bavinck speaks to the way the whole person is needed to hold a conviction. As a Dutch theologian steeped in the Reformed tradition, Bavinck had visited America in 1892 “to defend Calvinism” as a complete worldview. According to Eglinton, Bavinck concluded that Calvinism was unlikely to gain ground in America, but not for purely intellectual objections:

For all that his impressions of America were flattering and open, Bavinck held out little hope for Calvinism’s future prospects there. Arminianism, rather than Calvinism, would more readily take root in American soil. “As Calvinism has found little acceptance there, Arminianism (through Methodism) has gained mastery over the American spirit. The American is too aware of himself, he is too much conscious of his power, his will is too strong, to be a Calvinist.”

. . . while deism was still the philosophy du jour in America, European culture had since moved over to pantheism. In its assumptions regarding a distant deity who can be satisfied by human virtue, Bavinck believed, deism tended toward optimism and moralism–both qualities he found in abundance in the unscarred American spirit. The European Geist, however, had become deeply pessimistic about human nature and the future of European culture.

. . . Calvinism had a distinct promise in Europe: it directed morally apathetic, culturally despairing Europeans to utter dependence on a divine grace powerful enough to reform individuals and transform their societies. To Americans–already optimistic, convinced of their capacity for virtue, and looking wholly to the future–this antidote seemed unnecessary. The Calvinist missionary had come home with disappointing news about unresponsive natives on distant shores: America was, and would likely remain, the land of moralistic deism.
[Eglinton, Bavinck: A Critical Biography, 188-189.]

Crossing the river in Pilgrim’s Progress

Among the songs our church sang on Easter Sunday was “Because He Lives.” The third verse reads:

And then one day, I’ll cross that river
I’ll fight life’s final war with pain
And then as death gives way to victory
I’ll see the lights of glory and I’ll know He reigns

The line about crossing the river reminds me of a late scene in Pilgrim’s Progress where Christian & Hopeful must cross the river of death to reach the Celestial City. Bunyan’s depiction of the weakness of our flesh and our wavering faith in the face of death is arresting and somehow comforting. Until the day that it is destroyed, death remains an enemy that threatens us with fear and tempts us to despair (1Cor 15:26). We need not fear death when it comes (Heb 2:14-15), but who can say how we will fare in the heat of our last battle? On the heels of Easter Sunday I’m thankful that God’s promise of eternal life is certain even when I am not.

Now between them and the gate was a river, but there was no bridge to go over, and the river was very deep. At the sight of this river the pilgrims were stunned. Then the men who went with them said, “You must go through the river or you cannot enter the City at the gate.”

The pilgrims then began to inquire if there was no other way to the gate, to which they answered, “Yes, but there have been only two, Enoch and Elijah, permitted to tread that path since the foundation of the world. And no one else will be permitted to go that way until the last trumpet shall sound. “

Then the pilgrims, especially Christian, began to despair in their minds. They looked this way and that, but no way could be found to escape the river.

Then they asked the men if the waters were deep everywhere all the time. They told them that sometimes the water was shallow, but that they could not guide them in that matter since the waters were deep or shallow depending upon their faith in the King of the place.

Then they waded into the water, and upon entering, Christian began to sink. He cried out to his good friend Hopeful, saying, “I am sinking in deep waters; the billows are going over my head, all his waves go over me! Selah.

Then Hopeful said, “Be of good cheer, my brother. I feel the bottom, and it is good.”

Then Christian cried out, “Ah, my friend! The sorrows of death have compassed me about. I shall not see the land that flows with milk and honey.”

With that a great darkness and horror fell upon Christian, so that he could not see ahead.

It was then that Christian lost his senses, and his memory failed him, and he could not talk in an orderly fashion of any of those sweet refreshments that he had met with in the way of his pilgrimage.

All the words that he spoke were filled with horror, and he feared that he should die in that river and never obtain entrance at the gate. He was greatly troubled by thoughts of his past sins, committed before and during his pilgrimage. It was also observed that he was troubled with apparitions of hobgoblins and evil spirits, which he continually spoke about.

It was everything that Hopeful could do to keep his brother’s head above water. Sometimes Christian, despite all Hopeful’s help, would slip down into the waters and rise up again half-dead.

Hopeful continually tried to comfort him, saying, “Brother, I see the gate, and men standing by to receive us.”

But Christian would answer, “It is you, it is you they wait for. You have been Hopeful ever since I knew you.”

And so have you,” Hopeful said to Christian.

Christian answered, “If things were right with me, He would now come to help me, but because of my sin he has brought me to this snare, and He will leave me here.

Then said Hopeful, “My brother, you have forgotten the text where it is said of the wicked, ‘There are no bands in their death, but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men, neither are they plagued like other men’ (Psa. 73:4, 5). These troubles and distresses you are going through in these waters are not a sign that God has forsaken you; but are sent to try you, to see if you will call to mind all the goodness that you have received from Him. You are being tested to see if you will rely on Him in your distress.”

Then I saw in my dream, that Christian was in a bewildered stupor for a while. Hopeful spoke to Christian, encouraging him to “Be of good cheer,” reminding him that Jesus Christ would make him whole.

With that Christian shouted out with a loud voice, “Oh, I see him again; and he tells me, ‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you’ (Isa. 43:2).”

Then they both took courage and crossed the river, and the enemy was as still as a stone. Christian soon found solid ground to stand on, and the rest of the river was shallow. So Christian and Hopeful crossed over the river and arrived on the other side. As soon as they came out of the river, they saw the two shining men again waiting for them. The men saluted the two pilgrims saying, “We are ministering spirits, sent here to minister to those shall be the heirs of salvation.” Then they all went along together toward the gate.

Now though the city stood upon a mighty hill with its foundations higher than the clouds, the pilgrims went up with ease, agility, and speed because the ministering spirits supported their arms as they led them. Also they had left their mortal garments behind them in the river, for though they had gone in with them, they had come out without them.

-John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress: From This World to That Which Is to Come (ed. C. J. Lovik)

He clothes us with incorruption

The Word thus takes on a body capable of death, in order that, by partaking in the Word that is above all, this body might be worthy to die instead for all humanity, and remain incorruptible through the indwelling Word, and thus put an end to corruption through the grace of his resurrection. […] Hence he did away with death for all who are like him by the offering of the body which he had taken on himself. The Word, who is above all, offered his own temple and bodily instrument as a ransom for all, and paid their debt through his death. Thus the incorruptible Son of God, being united with all humanity by likeness to them, naturally clothed all humanity with incorruption, according to the promise of the resurrection.

-Athanasius of Alexandria, quoted in The Christian Theology Reader (ed. Alister McGrath), 288.

the King is sleeping

Today, there is a great silence on earth — a great silence and a great stillness. There is a great silence because the king is sleeping. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh, and he has raised up all who have fallen asleep ever since the beginning of the world. God has appeared in the flesh, and Hades has swallowed him. God will sleep for a short time, and then raise those who are in Hades. […] He has gone to search out Adam, our first father, as if he were a lost sheep. Earnestly longing to visit those who live in darkness and the shadow of death, he – who is both their God and the son of Eve – has gone to liberate Adam from his bonds, and Eve who is held captive along with him. […] “I am your God. For your sake I have become your son[; …] I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead! Arise, my seed! Arise, my form [morphe], who has been made in my image [eikon] !”

-unknown Author, quoted in The Christian Theology Reader (ed. Alister McGrath), 292.

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