George Herbert on the pastor and providence

Herbert was keen to foster an all-round dependence on God both in himself and in his parishioners.

To that end, he speaks in this chapter of God’s threefold power over us: his sustaining, his governing, and his spiritual power.

He uses down to earth examples from farming, to especially apply this teaching to country people. What might it look like today in more urban and suburban environments to teach people to depend on God continually? Are we over-confident in ourselves when we have all our important data backed-up? Do we cease to depend on God once the money is in the bank, the kids are into the “good school”, or the pension is nicely sorted out?

A thousand terrors could overwhelm us at any moment in this uncertain world. Have we meditated sufficiently on God’s providence, so that when our fragile lives are threatened, we can rest secure in the Father’s hands? There is another, more modern, reflection on such issues (from John Calvin and Psalm 46) in this article. But for now, let’s hear what Herbert says to his congregation…

The Parson’s Consideration of Providence

The country parson considering the great aptness if country people have to think that all things come by a kind of natural course — and that if they sow and soil their grounds, they must have corn; if they keep and fodder well their cattle, they must have milk, and calves — labours to reduce them to see God’s hand in all things and to believe that things are not set in such an inevitable order, but that God often changes it according as he sees fit, either for reward or punishment.

To this end he represents to his flock that God has and exercises a threefold power in every thing which concerns man. The first is a sustaining power; the second a governing power; the third a spiritual power.

By his sustaining power he preserves and actuates every thing in his being; so that corn does not grow by any other virtue than by that which he continually supplies, as the corn needs it; without which supply the corn would instantly dry up, as a river would if the fountain were stopped. And it is observable, that if anything could presume of an inevitable course, and constancy in its operations, certainly it should be either the sun in heaven, or the fire on earth, by reason of their fierce, strong, and violent natures: yet when God pleased, the sun stood still (Joshua 10:13), the fire burned not (Exodus 3:2).

By God’s governing power he preserves and orders the references of things one to the other, so that though the corn do grow and be preserved in that act by his sustaining power, yet if he suit not other things to the growth, as seasons and weather and other accidents by his governing power, the fairest harvests come to nothing. And it is observable that God delights to have men feel and acknowledge and reverence his power, and therefore he often overturns things when they are thought past danger; that is his time of interposing: As when a Merchant has a ship come home after many a storm which it has escaped, he destroys it sometimes in the very haven; or if the goods be housed, a fire has broken forth, and suddenly consumed them.

Now this he does, that men should perpetuate, and not break off their acts of dependance, how fair soever the opportunities present themselves. So that if a farmer should depend upon God all the year, and being ready to put hand to sickle shall then secure himself and think all cocksure — then God sends such weather as lays the corn and destroys it. Or if he depend on God further, even till he imbarn his corn, and then think all sure — God sends a fire, and consumes all that he has. For that he ought not to break off, but to continue his dependance on God, not only before the corn is inned, but after also; and indeed, to depend, and fear continually.

The third power is spiritual, by which God turns all outward blessings to inward advantages. So that if a farmer has both a fair harvest, and that also well inned, and imbarned, and continuing safe there, yet if God give him not the grace to use and utter this well, all his advantages are to his loss. Better were his corn burnt than not spiritually improved. And it is observable in this, how God’s goodness strives with man’s refractoriness. Man would sit down at this world, God bids him sell it, and purchase a better. Just as a father, who has in his hand an apple and a piece of Gold under it — the Child comes, and with pulling, gets the apple out of his father’s hand; his Father bids him throw it away, and he will give him the gold for it, which the Child utterly refusing, eats it, and is troubled with worms. So is the carnal and wilful man with the worm of the grave in this world, and the worm of conscience in the next.


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