Facing Grief: Counsel for Mourners
by John Flavel (1627-91)
This book was written by a Presbyterian minister in 1674. He witnessed the death of his only child and three wives. He was survived by his fourth wife. After the death of his second wife and the death of his first and only child (mom and child died at childbirth), John Flavel wrote this work to help us sorrow correctly.
Though this small book deals primarily with the death of loved ones, these timeless truths apply to all forms of afflictions. That is how I read this book. It relates to those who are afflicted with health issues, sudden turn of events, loss of employment, a broken relationship, financial hardships, etc.
Flavel works with the assumption (a biblical assumption) that God orders all things. That serves as the foundation for his discourse . Our losses, afflictions, etc. come to us by the hand of God. That being the case, how do we respond to Him? He does not deny that we must mourn or grieve but denies that we should murmur or grumble
Text and Theme
“And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said unto her, Weep not.” (Lk. 7:13) Having lost her son, our Lord compassionately said “Weep not.” From this, Flavel argues that Christ’s encounter with her is providential and his counsel comes from compassion. His counsel to not weep means, “Yet the words are not an absolute prohibition of tears and sorrow; he does not condemn all mourning as sinful, or all expressions of grief for dead relations as uncomely… he only prohibits the excesses and extravagancies of our sorrows for the dead…” (pp. 6-7) He counseled her this way because he intended to quickly remove the cause of her tears by restoring her son to life (7).
Though this is an extraordinary case, yet all believers can also moderate their sorrows with the death of their believing loved ones since Christ will raise them as well.
The book has eight chapters. The second chapter explains the difference between moderate and immoderate sorrow. Fourth explains when sorrow actually becomes sinful. The longest chapter is the sixth chapter: “Godly Mourners Comforted.” In it, he gives twenty considerations. The seventh chapter tackles the arguments people often use to justify their sorrow: “Pleas for Immoderate Grief Answered.” The last chapter offers several ways to prepare ourselves so that our sorrows would not overwhelm us.
The fifth chapter is unusual. In it, he offers counsel to unbelievers. The general thrust is that they can ultimately find their relief only in Christ. Here is one of the counsels:
This affliction for which you mourn may be the greatest mercy to you that ever yet befell you in this world. God has now made your heart soft by trouble, showed you the vanity of this world, and what a poor trifle it is which you made your happiness. There is now a dark cloud spread over all your worldly comforts. Now, oh, now! if the Lord would but strike in with this affliction, and by it open your eyes to see your deplorable state, and take off your heart for ever from the vain world, which you now see has nothing in it; and cause you to choose Christ, the only abiding good for your portion… (39)
We will focus only on a few things from the book. I recommend that you read the entire book, whatever your circumstances. Some weighty thoughts can be found in this precious little volume.
When Sorrow is Sinful
Perhaps we think that each individual should grieve in his own way? After all, we are all different. We dare not gently challenge them because we are not in their shoes! Sorrow is just a response, an emotion over which they have no control and for which they remain immune from any challenge. Flavel, on the other hand, not being insensitive, offers seven circumstances in which sorrow has become sinful.
First, It causes us to slight and despise all our other mercies and enjoyments as small things, in comparison with what we have lost.
Besides, what vile ingratitude is in this! What, are all your remaining mercies worth nothing? You have buried a child, a friend; well, but still you have a husband, a wife, other children; or if not, you have comfortable accommodations for yourselves, with health to enjoy them; or if not, yet have you the ordinances of God, it may be, an interest in Christ and in the covenant, pardon of sin, and hopes of glory. What, and yet sink at this rate, as if all your mercies, comforts, and hopes, even in both worlds, were buried in one grave! Must Ichabod be written upon your best mercies because mortality is written upon one? (22)
Thirdly, Our sorrows then become sinful and exorbitant when they divert us from, or distract us in our duties, so that our intercourse with heaven is stopped and interrupted by them.
Or if you dare not wholly neglect your duty, yet your affliction spoils the success and comfort of it; your heart is wandering, dead, distracted in prayer and meditation, so that you have no relief or comfort from it. (26)
Fifthly, When affliction sours the spirit with discontent, and makes it inwardly grudge against the hand of God, then our trouble is full of sin, and we ought to be humbled for it before the Lord.
…how many have their hearts embittered by discontent and secret risings against the Lord? Which, if ever the Lord open their eyes to see, will cost them more trouble, than ever that affliction did which gave the occasion of it. (30)
Sixthly, Our sorrows exceed due bounds when we continually excite and provoke them by willing irritations.
Grief, like a lion, loves to play with us before it destroys us. And strange it is that we should find some kind of pleasure in rousing our sorrows. (31)
Comfort in Times of Affliction
Flavel considers twenty ways to find comfort in times of sorrow. He says that believer does not want to provoke or grieve his heavenly father so he gives these comforts to settle their hearts. Though these considerations focus on being bereaved of a loved one, still many of these have general principles that apply to all our afflictions.
EXTRACTS & THOUGHTS
Consideration 1. Consider, in this day of sorrow, who is the framer and author of this rod by which you now smart; is it not the Lord? And if the Lord has done it, it becomes you meekly to submit. ‘Be still, and know that I am God’ (Psa. 46:10).
Remember, our Sovereign God has clearly acted in this event. We must believe that His purpose is good and that He acted for my ultimate good.
Consideration 6. A parting time must needs come; and why is not this as good as another? You knew before-hand your child or friend was mortal, and the thread which linked you together must be cut.
Most things have their time limit. Our health, relationships, present prosperity, etc. have never been promised to us to be forever. A parting time was bound to come. In this, we acknowledge that God has determined that exact time and bow in thanksgiving and submission.
Consideration 14. Be careful you exceed not in your grief for the loss of earthly things, considering that Satan takes the advantage of all extremes.
Sometimes he injects desponding thoughts into the afflicted soul. ‘For I said in my haste, I am cut off from before your eyes’ (Psa. 31:22); ‘My hope is perished from the LORD: remembering my affliction and my misery, the wormwood and the gall’ (Lam. 3:18–19).
Sometimes he suggests hard thoughts of God: ‘The Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me’ (Ruth 1:20). Yea, that he has dealt more severely with us than any other; ‘Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me, wherewith the LORD has afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger’ (Lam. 1:12).
And sometimes he suggests murmuring and repining thoughts against the Lord. The soul is displeased at the hand of God upon it. Jonah was angry at the hand of God, and said, ‘I do well to be angry, even unto death’ (Jon. 4:9). What dismal thoughts are these! And how much more afflictive to a gracious soul than the loss of any outward enjoyment in this world.
And sometimes he suggests very irreligious and atheistical thoughts, as if there were no privilege to be had by religion, and all our pains, zeal, and care about duty, were little better than lost labour: ‘Verily I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocency; for all the day long have I been plagued, and chastened every morning’ (Psa. 73:13–14).
By these things Satan gets no small advantage upon the afflicted Christian; for albeit these thoughts are his burden, and God will not impute them to the condemnation of his people, yet they rob the soul of peace, hinder it from duty, and make it act uncomely under affliction, to the stumbling and hardening of others in their sin. Beware, therefore, lest by your excess of sorrow you give place to the devil. ‘We are not ignorant of his devices.’ (81-82)
Consideration 15. Give not way to excessive sorrows on account of affliction, if you have any regard to the honour of God and religion, which will hereby be exposed to reproach.
If you slight your own honour, do not slight the honour of God and religion too; take heed how you carry it in a day of trouble; many eyes are upon you. It is a true observation that a late worthy author has made upon this case:
What will the Atheist, and what will the profane scoffer say, when they shall see this? So sottish and malicious they are, that if they do but see you in affliction, they are straightway scornfully demanding, Where is your God?
But what would they say, if they should hear you yourselves unbelievingly cry out, Where is our God? Will they not be ready to cry, this is the religion they make such boast of, which you see how little it does for them in a day of extremity: they talk of promises, rich and precious promises; but where are they now? Or to what purpose do they serve? They said they had a treasure in heaven; what ails them to mourn so then, if their riches are there? (82)
Consideration 16. Be quiet and hold your peace; you little know how many mercies lie in the womb of this affliction.
And what if by this stroke the Lord will awaken your drowsy soul, and recover you out of that pleasant but dangerous spiritual slumber you were fallen into, whilst you had pillowed your head upon this pleasant, sensible creature-enjoyment? Is not this really better for you than if he should say, Sleep on: he is joined to idols, let him alone; he is departing from me, the fountain, to a broken cistern; let him go.
And what if by this rod your wandering, gadding heart shall be whipped home to God, your neglected duties revived, your decayed communion with God restored, a spiritual, heavenly frame of heart recovered? What will you say then? Surely you will bless that merciful hand which removed the obstructions and adore the divine wisdom and goodness that, by such a device as this, recovered you to himself. Now you can pray more constantly, more spiritually, more affectionately than before. O blessed rod, which buds and blossoms with such fruits as these! Let this be written among your best mercies, for you will have cause to adore and bless God eternally for this beneficial affliction. (85-86)
Consideration 13. Consider, though he should deny you any more comforts of this kind, yet he has far better to bestow upon you, such as these deserve not to be named with.
Poor heart, you are now dejected by this affliction that lies upon you, as if all joy and comfort were now cut off from you in this world.
A cloud dwells upon all other comforts; this affliction has so embittered your soul that you taste no more in any other earthly comforts than in the white of an egg. Oh that you did but consider the consolations that are with God for such as answer his ends in affliction, and patiently wait on him for their comfort!
Flavel cites a very moving account from Robert Fleming’s The Fulfilling of the Scripture:
One Patrick Mackewrath, who lived in the west parts of Scotland, whose heart in a remarkable way the Lord touched, and after his conversion (as he showed to many Christian friends) was in such a frame, so affected with a new world wherein he was entered, the discoveries of God and of a life to come, that for some months together he did seldom sleep but was still taken up in wondering. His life was very remarkable for tenderness and near converse with God in his walk; and, which was worthy to be noted, one day, after a sharp trial, having his only son suddenly taken away by death, he retired alone for several hours, and when he came forth, did look so cheerfully that to those who asked him the reason thereof, and wondered at the same in such a time, he told them, He had got that in his retirement with the Lord that, to have it afterwards renewed, he would be content to lose a son every day. …
Oh, what a sweet exchange had he made! Surely he had gold for brass, a pearl for a pebble, a treasure for a trifle; for so great, yea, and far greater is the disproportion between the sweet light of God’s countenance, and the faint dim light of the best creature-enjoyment. (76-78)
 John Flavel, The Whole Works of the Reverend John Flavel, vol. 5 (London; Edinburgh; Dublin: W. Baynes and Son; Waugh and Innes; M. Keene, 1820), 604ff. The original title was published in 1674 as “A TOKEN FOR MOURNERS: or the advice of Christ to a distressed mother, bewailing the death of her dear and only son: Wherein the Boundaries of Sorrow are duly fixed, Excesses restrained, the common Pleas answered, and divers Rules for the support of God’s afflicted Ones prescribed.” The version I read is Facing Grief: Counsel For Mourners, Puritan Paperbacks (Banner of Truth, 2010). It is only 122 pages!