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The Successful Seaman - by John Flavel (1630-1691)

Articles on Christian Stewardship

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A sermon by John Flavel on wealth and God’s bestowal of goods on Christians. How will you serve Him in your stewardship? Highlights are important!

Deut. viii. 17, 18, “And thou say in thine heart. My power, and the might of my hand hath gotten me this wealth; but thou shalt remember the Lord God; for he it is that giveth thee power to get wealth.”

This context contains a necessary and very seasonable caution to the Israelites, who were now passing out of the wilderness straits into the rich and fruitful land of Canaan, which abounded with all earthly blessings and comforts. Now, when the Lord was about to give them possession of this good land, he first gives them some wholesome caveats to prevent, the abuse of these mercies. He knew how apt they were to forget him in a prosperous estate, and ascribe all their comfortable fruition to their own prudence and valor: to prevent this, he reminds them of their former estate, and warns them about their future estate: he reminds them of their former condition, whilst they subsisted upon his immediate care in the wilderness; verses 15,’16. “ Who lead them through the great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents and scorpions, and drought, “ where there was no water:” here were their dangers and wants. “Who brought thee forth water out of the rock of flint, who fed “thee in the wilderness with manna, which thy fathers knew not:” here were their supplies in these straits. “That he might humble thee, and that he might prove thee to do thee good at thy latter end:” here was the wise and gracious design of God in all this.

But wherein did God humble them by feeding them with manna? Were they not shrewdly humbled (saith Mr. Gurnall, vol. II. p. 345. an ingenious author) to be fed with such a dainty dish, which had God for its cook, and was called angels food for its delicacy? It was not the meanness of the fare, but the manner of having it, by which God intended to humble them. The food was excellent, but they had it from hand to mouth; so that God kept the key of their cup­board, they stood to his immediate allowance; this was a humbling way. But now the dispensation of Providence was just upon the change; they were going to a land, “where they should eat bread without scarceness,” verse 9. and have their comforts in a more natural, stated, and sensible way; and now would be the danger. Therefore, He not only reminds them of their former state, but in this text cautions them about their future estate, “Say not in thy heart, my power, or the might of my hand, hath gotten me this wealth.” In this caution we have these two things especially to observe:

I. The false cause of their prosperity removed.

II. The true and proper cause thereof asserted.

1. The false cause removed: “ Not their power, or the might of “ their hand.” That is said to be gotten by the hand, which is gotten by our wisdom as well as labour: headwork, and wit-work, are handwork in the sense of this text. It cannot be denied but they were a great people, prudent, industrious, and had an excellent polity among them: but yet, though they had all these natural external means of enriching themselves in that fertile soil. God will, by no mean, allow them to ascribe their success and wealth to any of these causes: for alas! what are all these without His blessing?

2. The true and proper cause asserted: “ It is the Lord that gives “thee power to get wealth,” i.e. all thy care, labour, wisdom, strength, signify nothing without him; it is not your pains, but his blessing, that makes your designs to prosper: and therefore in all your prosperity, still acknowledge him as the Author of all. Hence note:

That the prosperity and success of our affairs are not to be ascribed to our own abilities, but to the blessing of God upon our lawful endeavors.

We find two proverbs, in one chapter, that seem to differ in the account they give of this matter; and indeed they do but seem so. It is said, Prov. x. 4. “The hand of the diligent maketh rich;” ascribing riches and prosperity to human diligence. And verse 2, “The blessing of the Lord it maketh rich.” But these two are not really opposed to each other, but the one subordinated to the other. The diligent hand, with God’s blessing upon it, makes rich; neither of them alone, but both conjoined. A diligent hand cannot make rich without God’s blessing; and God’s blessing doth not ordinarily make rich without a diligent hand. And these two are put together in their proper places, 1 Chron. xxii. 16. “Up and be doing, and the Lord be with you.” It is a vain pretence for any man to say, “If the Lord be with me, I may sit still, and do nothing;” and a wicked one to say, “If I am up and doing, I shall prosper whether God be with me or not.” The sluggard would fain prosper without diligence, and the atheist hopes to prosper by his diligence alone: but Christians expect their prosperity from God’s blessing, in the way of honest diligence.

It is a common thing for men to benumb their own arms, and make them as dead and useless by leaning too much upon them: so it is in a moral as well as a natural way: all the prudence and pains in the world avail nothing without God. So saith the Psalmist, in Psalm cxxvii. 2. “It is in vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sorrow, for so he giveth his beloved sleep.”

A man would think, he that rises betimes fares hard, works hard, sits up late, cannot but be a thriving man; and probably he would be so, if God’s blessing did second his diligence and frugality. But the Psalmist intends it of diligence in a separate sense; a diligent hand working alone, and then it is all in vain, and serves only to confirm the common proverb—Early up and never the nearer. La­bour without God cannot prosper; and labour against God will not only destroy itself, but the laborer too.

Now, that this is really so as the doctrine states it, I shall endeavor to make evident.

1. By a general demonstration of the whole matter.

2. By a particular enumeration of the ordinary causes and means of all success, which are all dependent upon the Lord’s blessing.

First, That success in business is not in the power of our hand, but in the hand of Providence to dispose it as he pleases, and to whom he pleases, appears by this, “That Providence sometimes blasts and frustrates the most prudent and well-laid designs of men;” and in “the mean time succeeds and prospers more weak and improbable ones.” What is more common in the observation of all ages than this? One man shall toil as in the fire, for very vanity; run to and fro, plot and study all the ways in the world to get an estate, deny back and belly, and all will not do: he shall never be able to attain what he strives after, but his designs shall be still fruitless. Another hath neither a head to contrive, nor a hand to labour as the former hath: nor doth he torture his brains about it, but manages his affairs with less judgment, and spends fewer thoughts about it, and yet suc­cess follows it. It shall be cast in upon some, who as they did not, so, considering the weak management of their business, had little ra­tional encouragement to expect it; and fly from others, who indus­triously pursue it in the prudent choice and diligent use of all the proper means of attaining it. And tills is not only an observation grounded upon our own experience, but confirmed by the wisest of men; Eccl. ix. 11. “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong; neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” If two men run for a prize, reason gives the prize to the swiftest: if two armies join battle, reason gives the victory to the strongest: if two men undertake a design to get wealth, reason gives the riches to the wisest; yea, but Providence sometimes disposes it quite contrary to the verdict of reason, and the prize is given to the slowest, the vic­tory to the weakest, the estate to the more shallow capacity; so that these events seem to fall out rather casually than answerably to the means employed about them. And who that observes this, can doubt but it is the hand of God’s providence, and not our diligence that disposes the issues of these things? For why doth God so often step out of the ordinary way, and cross his hands, as old Israel did, lay­ing the right hand upon the younger, and the left upon the elder: I mean, give success to the weak, and disappointment to the strong, but to convince us of this great truth which I here bring it to confirm? And because men arc so apt to sacrifice to their own prudence, and disown providence, therefore it sometimes makes the case much plain­er than so: it denies riches to the industrious, that live for no other end but to get them, and casts them in upon those that seek them not at all, and indeed are scarcely competent for business. Aristides, one of the wisest men of his age, was yet still so poor, that Plutarch said, “it brought a slur upon justice herself, as if she were not able to maintain her followers.” Socrates, one of the prime Grecian sages, was so exceeding poor, that Apulcius could not but note, “That poverty was become an inmate with philosophy;” when in the mean time, the empty, shallow, and foolish, shall come up with it, and overtake it without any pains at all, which others prosecute in the most rational course all their life, and all to no purpose. Thus it was noted of pope Clement V. None more rich, none more foolish. And this is the ground of that proverb, Fortun favet fatiis: Fortune favors fools. Though the author of that proverb, in nicknaming providence, shewed as little wisdom as he that is the subject of it.

By all which, this point is in the general made good: it is not industry, but providence, that directs and commands the success of business: It being much in the attaining of riches, as the apostle saith it is in the obtaining of righteousness: “The Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attained to righteousness; but Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness,” Rom. ix. 30-31. So it is here, for the vindication of the honor of providence, which men would scarcely own, if it did not thus baffle them sometimes: they that follow the world cannot obtain it; and they attain it that follow it not; that all men may see their good is not in their own hand; and lest man, who is not only a covetous creature, and would en­gross all to himself, but as proud as covetous, should ascribe all to Himself. But this will further appear:

Secondly, By a particular enumeration of the ordinary causes and means of all success in business, which are all dependent things upon a higher cause.

Now, if we proceed upon a rational account, we shall find five-things required to the success of our affairs: and that I may speak to your capacity, I will instance in that affair of merchandizing in which you are employed, as the hands that execute what the heads of your merchants contrive; and will shew you, that neither their wisdom in contriving, nor your skill and industry in managing then-designs, can prosper without the leave and blessing of Divine Provi­dence. Let us therefore consider what is necessary to the raising of an estate in that way of employment; and you will find, that in a rational and ordinary way, success cannot be expected, unless:

1. The designs and projects be prudently laid, and molded with much consideration and foresight. An error here is like an error in the first concoction, which is not to be rectified afterwards. “The wisdom of the prudent (saith Solomon) is to understand his way;” that is, to understand, and thoroughly to consider, the particular designs and business in which he is to engage. Rashness and in-considerateness here hath been the ruin of many thousand enter-prizes. And if a design be never so well laid, yet:

2. No success in business can be rationally expected, except there be an election of proper instruments to manage it. The best-laid de­sign in the world may be spoiled by an ill management. If the per­son employed be either incapable or unfaithful, what but trouble and disappointment can be expected? “He that sendeth a message” (saith Solomon) “by the hands of a fool, cutteth off the legs, and drinketh damage.” It is as if a man should send him on his busi­ness that had no legs to go; i.e. one that is incompetent for the bu­siness he is employed about. All that a man shall reap from such a design is damage: and if the instrument employed be never so capa­ble, yet if be he not also faithful to the trust committed to him, all is lost; and such is the depth of deceit in the hearts of men, that few or none can be secured against it. Solomon was the wisest of men, and yet fatally miscarried in this matter; “He seeing the young man (Jeroboam) that he was a mighty man of valor, and that he was industrious, made him ruler over all the charge of the house of Joseph,” 1 Kings xi. 8. And this was the man that rent the kingdom from his son, even ten tribes from the house of David. And yet:

3. Let designs be projected with the greatest prudence, and com­mitted to the management of the fittest instrument; all is nothing as to success, without the concurrence of health, strength, favourable winds, security from the hands of enemies, and perils of the deep. If any of those be wanting, the design miscarries, and all our projects fail. How often are hopeful and thriving undertakings frustrated by the failure of any one of these requisites? “Go to now, ye that say, to-day or to-morrow we will go into such a city, and remain there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain; whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow: for what is your life? It is even a vapor that appeareth for a little while, and then vanisheth away,” Jam. iv. 13-14. How soon arc the purposes of men’s hearts broken off, and their thoughts perish in one day? They think to send or go to such a place, and there enrich themselves, and re­turn prosperous; but sometimes death, sometimes captivity, some­time? cross winds, dash all their hopes.

4. Proper seasons must be observed, else all success and expectation of increase is lost. “ There is (saith Solomon) a season for every “ thing, and a time to every purpose under the sun,” Eccles. iii. 1. This being taken, gives facility and speedy dispatch to a business; and therefore lie gives this reason, why man miscarries so frequently, and is disappointed in his enterprises because lie knows not the time; Eccl. ix. 11. “He comes (as one saith) when the bird is flown.” It is a wise and weighty proverb with the Greeks, “That there is mud time in a short opportunity,” that is, “a man hitting the season of a business, may do more in a day, than losing it, he may be able to do in a year.” This is of a special consideration in all human affairs, and is the very hinge upon which success turns: so that to come before, is to pluck apples before they are ripe; and to come after it, is to seek them when they are fallen and perished.

5. Lastly, in getting wealth the leaks of our estates must be stop­ped; else we do but put it into a bag with holes, as the prophet’s phrase is in Hag. i. 9. If a man Jose as much one way as he gets another, there can be no increase. Hence it is, that many are kept low and poor all their days: If one design prospers, yet another miscarries; or, if all succeed well abroad, yet there is a secret con­sumption of it at home, by prodigality, riot, luxury, or a secret curse upon it, which the scripture calls Gaits blowing upon it. Hag. i. 3. If therefore by any of these ways our gains moulder away, we do but disquiet ourselves in vain, and labour in the fire for very vanity. Thus you see what things are requisite to the advancement of an estate upon a prudential account.

Now let us particularly observe what a dependence there is upon Providence in all these things; and then it will be clear that our good is not in our hand, nor success at our beck, but it is the Lord that gives us power to get wealth. For, as to the moulding and projecting of a design, we may say, both of the prudent merchant and ingenious seaman, what the prophet doth of the husbandman, Isa. xxvlii. 10. “It is his God that instructs him to discretion, and teacheth him.” There is, indeed, a spirit in man, “But it is the inspiration of the Almighty that giveth understanding,” Job xxxii. 8. The faculty is man’s, but the light of wisdom, whether natural or spiritual, is God’s: and the natural faculty is of itself no more capable of directing us in our affairs, with­out his teaching, than the dial is to inform us of hours without the sun’s sinning upon it. And because men are so dull in apprehending, and backward in acknowledging it, but will lean to their own under­standings, thence it is that prudent designs are so often blasted, and weaker ones succeeded.

And no less doth Providence manifest itself in directing to, and prospering the means and instruments employed in our business: it is of the Lord that they prove ingenious, active and faithful servants to us; that your factors abroad prove not malefactors to you; that every design is not ruined by the negligence, ignorance, or treachery of them that manage it. If God qualify men to be fit instruments to serve you, and then providentially direct you to them, his hand is thankfully to be owned in both. It was no small mercy to Abraham, that he had so discreet, pious, and faithful a servant to manage even his weightiest affairs so prudently and prosperously for him. Laban, Pharaoh, and Jethro, never so prospered, as when Jacob, Joseph, and ‘Moses, had the charge of their business. Laban ingenuously acknow­ledged, “ That lie had learned by experience that the Lord had blessed him for Jacob’s sake,” Gen. xxx. 27. A heathen you see is more ingenuous in owning the mercy of God to him in this case, ban many professed Christians are, who sacrifice all to their own let, and burn incense to their drag, i.e. idolize the means and instruments of their prosperity, and see nothing of God in it.

And then as to the preservation of those that go down into the sea to do our business in the great waters; who can but acknowledge his to be the peculiar work of God? Doth not daily experience shew how often poor seamen are cut off in the prosecution of our designs, sometimes by sickness, sometimes by storms, and sometimes by enemies, to whom they become a prey? If they escape all these, yet “how often do they lie wind-bound, or hindered by cross accidents, 1 the proper season be over, and the design lost? Certainly, if pronounce shall so far favour men, as to prevent all these; command Is fit for their purpose, restrain enemies, preserve life, and carry safely and seasonably to their ports, it deserves a thankful acknowledgment; and those that do not acknowledge providence, so disoblige it.

Lastly, Who is it that stops the leaks in your estates, prevents the wasting of your substance, and secures to you what you possess? Is it not the Lord? How many fair estates moulder away insensibly, and come to nothing! Certainly, as there is a secret blessing in some fami­lies, so that themselves can scarce give any account how they are pro­vided for, so there is a secret blast and consumption upon others, which brings poverty upon them like an armed man. And this is the true sense of that scripture. Hag. i. 6. “Ye have sown much, and “ bring in little. Ye eat, but ye have not enough: ye drink, but are “ not filled with drink: ye clothe you, but are not warm; and he “that earneth wages, earneth wages to put it into a bag with holes;” or, as in the Hebrew, a tag pierced, or bored through; what goes in at one end, goes out at another, and so all labour is lost; nothing stays with them to do them good. So that it is an undeniable truth, that prosperity and success arc not to be ascribed to our abilities, but to the blessing of God upon our lawful endeavors.

1. Inference. And if so, how are they justly reprovable, that wholly depend upon means in the neglect of providence; that never eye God, nor acknowledge him in any of their ways? This is a very great evil, and highly provoking to the Lord; it is the fruit and discovery of the natural Atheism of the hearts of men. How confident are men of success and prosperity, when second causes lie for it, and smile upon them? And, on the contrary, how dejected and heartless when they seem to lie cross to their hopes? 0 how few consider and be­lieve that great truth, Eccl. ix. 1. “That the righteous, and the wise, and their works are in the hand of God.” To be in the hand of God, noteth both their subjection to his power, and to his directive providence. Whether your works be in your hand, or put out of your hand, they always are in God’s hand to prosper or frus­trate them at his pleasure.

Foolish man decreeth events without the leave of Providence: as if he were absolute lord of his own actions, and their success. Indeed, you may then speak of success, when you have asked God’s leave; Job xxii. 28. “Acquaint thyself with God, then shalt thou decree a thing, and it shall be established.” But your confidence in the means, whilst God is neglected, will surely be followed either with a disappointment or a curse. For what is this but to labour without God, yea, to labour against God? For so do all they that give the glory of God to the creature: that set the instrumental and subordi­nate in the place of the principal efficient cause. It is just with God to deny you your comfort in those things wherein you rob him of his glory.

2. Inference. How vain and unreasonable are the proud boasts of men, in the midst of their successes and prosperity! If God be the sole author of it, and it is not in your power, nor the might of your hand, that hath gotten you this wealth; why do you glory in it, as if it were the effect and fruit of your own prudence and industry? How soon do the spirits of men rise with their estates? How haugh­tily do they look? How proudly do they speak? What a sensible change of temper doth this small change of condition work? it is an exceeding hard thing to keep down the heart when providence exalteth a man’s estate. Saith Austin, “It is a great felicity not to be overcome by felicity.” That man is surely rich in grace, whose graces suffer no eclipse by his riches. It is as hard to be prosperous and humble, as to be afflicted and cheerful. But to keep down thy heart in times of success and prosperity, I will offer thee, reader, a few humbling considerations about this matter.

1. And the first is this: Though providence do succeed and pros­per thy earthly designs, yet this is no argument at all of the love of God to thy soul: thou mayest be the object of his hatred and wrath for all this. No man knows either love or hatred by all that is be­fore him, Eccl. ix. 1. How weak an evidence for heaven must that be, which millions now in hell have had in a greater measure than you have? The least drachma of grace is a better pledge of happiness, than the greatest sum of gold and silver that ever lay in any man’s treasury. Externals distinguish not internals? you cannot so much as guess what a man’s spiritual estate is, by the view of his temporal. Ishmael was a very great man, the head of a princely family, but, for all that, excluded from the covenant, and all its spiritual blessings, Gen. xvii. 20, 21. He that reads the lxxiii. Psalm, and the xi. of Job, will plainly see how wretched a case that man is in, who hath a better evidence for the love of God than this amounts to.

2. Be not proud of outward prosperity and success; for provi­dences are very changeable in these things; yea, it daily rings the changes the entire world over. Many a greater estate than yours, and every way as well, yea, far better secured to the eye of reason, hath he scattered in a moment. It is the saying of a philosopher, speaking of the estates of merchants and seamen, “I like not that happiness that hangs upon ropes.” I need not here cite histories, to confirm this truth: there is none of you but can abundantly confirm it to yourselves, if you will but recollect those instances and examples which have fallen within your time and remem­brance. It is a poor happiness that may leave a man more miserable to-morrow, than he that never arrived to what you have, can be.

3. Pride not yourselves in your success; for as providences are very changeable, so the change seems very nigh to you, when your heart is thus lifted up, especially if you be such, to whose eternal happiness God hath any special regard: to be sure he will pull down that proud. heart, and quickly order humbling providences to that, end: “He looketh upon every one that is proud, to abase him,” Job xl. 11. The heart of good Hezekiah was tickled with vain-glory, and he must needs shew the king of Babylon’s servants all his treasures, and precious things; and at that time came the prophet Isaiah to him with a sad message from the Lord, that all these treasures, in which he had gloried, must be carried to Babylon, Isa. xxxix. If you hope comfortably to enjoy the good of providence, provoke it not by such vain ostentations. It is an ingenious note, even of an heathen. Exercise fear in prosperity, and think with thyself, when thy heart is most affected with it, that whilst the boast is in thy lips, the scene may alter, and thy happiness be turned into sorrow. Whilst that proud boast was in the mouth of Nebuchadnezzar, the voice from heaven told him, “His kingdom was departed from him, Dan. iv. 8ff. Pride shews, that prosperity, which feeds it, to be at its vertical point.

3. Inference. If success in business be from the Lord, then certain­ly the true way to prosperity is to commend our affairs to God by prayer. He takes the true way to thrive, that engages God’s bles­sing upon his endeavors. “ Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust “ also in him, and lie shall bring it to pass,” Psal. xxxvii. 4. It is a vile thing for any man to grudge that time that is spent in prayer, as so much time lost in his business. But having pressed this point before, I shall add no more here.

4. Inference. Doth all success and prosperity depend upon, and come from God? Then let it be faithfully employed to his glory. “If it be of him, and through him,” then there is all the reason in the world it should “be to him,” Rom. xi. 36. You do but give him of his own, as David speaks; “ All this store cometh of thine hand, “and is thine own,” 1 Chron. xxix. 16. He never intended your estates for the gratifying of your lusts, but to give you a larger capa­city thereby of honoring him in the use of them. 0 consider, when God hath prospered your estates abroad, and you return successfully homo, how you have an opportunity of honoring God, and evi­dencing your sense of his goodness to you, by relieving the poor with a liberal and cheerful charity; by encouraging the gospel, and making them partakers of your good things, who labour for your souls, and dispense better things to you than you can return to them. I would not here be misinterpreted, as though I pleaded my own interest, under a pretence of pleading God’s; no ! God forbid, I am well satisfied with a capacity of doing any good, how little soever I receive; nor can many of you reap the fruit of my labors: but I would not leave you ignorant, or regardless of so great and plain a duty as this is: you are bound to this retribution, by a plain and po­sitive precept. Gal. vi. 6. “Let him that is taught in the word, communicate to him that teacheth, in all good things.” You are ob­liged to do it, proportionally to the success God gives you in your trade, 1 Cor. xvi. 2. And when you have so done, not to think it any great matter, 1 Cor. ix. 11. but the discharge of a plain and necessary duty.

5. Inference. Let not your hearts be satisfied with all the success and increase of the world, except your souls thrive as well as your bodies, and your eternal concerns prosper as well as your temporal. It was a pious wish of St. John for Gaius his host, “That he might prosper, and be in health, even as his soul prospered,” 3 Epistle John, ver. 2. But it were to be wished, that your souls did but prosper as your bodies and estates do. It is a poor comfort to have an increasing estate, and a dead and declining soul. When a con­siderable present was sent to Luther, he earnestly protested. God should not put him off with these things. 0 friends! I beseech you take not up in these enjoyments!

6. Inference. Lastly, If God be the author of all your success, how prodigious an evil is it to make your prosperity an instrument of dishonoring him that gave it; to abuse the estates providence gives you, to rioting and drunkenness? Do you thus requite the Lord! is this the thanks you give him for all his care over you! and kindness to you! you would never be able to bear that from another, which God bears from you. If God do you good, do not return him evil for it!

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