As an encouragement to Christians to meditate upon God’s providence, Puritan pastor John Flavel wrote, “O recount in how great extremities former experience has taught you not to despair!” In other words, if we reflect upon God’s past mercies to us, we will gain comfort to sustain us in our current extremity. Since God was faithful in the past, we can be sure he will be faithful in the present. And when it comes to God’s providential comfort, we should “pay it forward.”
We can all recount difficult times of “great extremities” when our only hope was God’s intervention. And if you are having difficulty pinpointing one, think about your most hopeless extremity: when you were dead in your sins, having no hope and without God (Ephesians 2:1, 12). God brought you out of the spiritual tomb into spiritual life, from the domain of darkness into the kingdom of his dear Son (Colossians 1:13). As you recount this blessing, well, no other extremity is greater.
But while not minimising the greatest of all deliverances, sometimes more “temporal” extremities challenge our peace of mind and we question whether we have finally found ourselves in a situation that is too big. A situation where the promises of God don’t cover. If you find yourself there, let me encourage you to consider the providence of God in the lives of others. Their “former experience” can teach you “not to despair.”
The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church informing them of his extreme difficulties in Asia. He writes, “For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself” (2 Corinthians 1:8). But he does so in the context of boasting in the Lord’s deliverance. He says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (1:3–4). Paul was pre-empting John Flavel!
Paul recounts his “former experience” of experiencing God’s comfort in his “great extremities” to provide comfort for beleaguered believers in Corinth. His testimony of God’s kind providential care was a helpful example to provide comfort to others. They had no need to despair: God is faithful.
There are members of BBC that are some of the most remarkable Christians I have had the privilege to know. If I were writing Hebrews 11, I’d include them in that “hall of faith.” And yet some of them have never taught a lesson, never held a position in the church, and would have a cardiac arrest if asked to say or pray anything publicly. But they are people that I look to when I am tempted to despair.
I have observed these brothers and sisters endure “great extremities.” And I have observed God’s kindness and power giving them the kind of comfort of which Paul spoke. How they responded to their “former experience” has provided me with an instructive example. Their experience has kept me from despair. Their experience has become a means of God’s comfort to me. Just as Paul wrote.
Brothers and sisters, as we face various trials, and perhaps as the future will confront us with “great extremities,” let us remember God’s past kindnesses to us and find comfort as we “recount in how great extremities former experience has taught you not to despair.” But also recount God’s faithfulness to others, who faced similar if not worse despair.
If you just look around our congregation almost every conceivable “extremity” has been experienced. And along with this is the experience of God’s providential, powerful, purposeful, productive, and loving comfort.
I am thankful for flesh-and-blood examples in BBC of those who joyfully persevere in the face of “great extremities.” Their example encourages me that God’s comfort can make me a comforting example as well. May we all be.
Comforted and comforting with you,