Providence is so sixteenth century.
We seem to have moved past needing to talk about God’s providence—we’re quite sophisticated these days. By ‘we’, I mean especially our modern, western, secular society, but also the church within it. We no longer tend to think of the sun suspended and directed by God in its course. Rather, we hurtle through a vacuum on a rock, directed by the seemingly inexplicable distortion of the space time continuum created by one lump of energy condensed as matter that then directs its motion towards another. (Or so my astrophysicist friends tell me, anyway.)
Twenty-first century sensibilities dismiss the idea of an overruling God in preference to self-direction. Healthy, wealthy, intelligent, capable humans take responsibility and control of their own future through education, insurance, prudent financial investment, savvy work choices and the occasional international holiday. Christianity seems to have outgrown providence.
But life isn’t always quite so neat, is it? Our self-built image of control is all-too-easily shattered by chronic or mental illness, sudden tragic death, redundancy, relationship breakdown, and injustice. Very occasionally we realize what a tiny fragment of the vast order of the universe we actually occupy or understand.
Sometimes, in the midst of chaos or tragedy, well-meaning but possibly-not-very-helpful Christians will tell us, “Don’t worry, God’s in control”—which may or may not be an encouraging statement, depending on what you think about God. Is this some sort of Christian fatalism: “let go and let God”? Or worse, if God is somehow removed from the world, or a distant or absent overseer, this is a frightening thing to say. And it’s nothing short of terrifying if the one in control is somehow unfavourably disposed towards me.
This is just one of many points where we are greatly helped by a good understanding of God’s providence. What we’re going to do briefly here is to consider how God provides, and how he continually oversees and cares for his creation. Or, to use more technical theological language, we’ll consider the shape of a Christian doctrine of providence. To do this, we have to recognize at the start that there are a number of parts of Scripture that speak to a few interconnected points:
- the character and power of God
- the dependence of creation on God in an ongoing way
- the genuine relationship between God and creation that includes salvation and final judgement.
Can anything happen without God?
Essential to the issue of providence is the question of God’s ability to provide, in conjunction with his willingness to do so. That is, if God is unable to provide for his creatures or to interact with his creation, then the thing we’re calling ‘God’s providence’ doesn’t really exist. Similarly, if we can establish that God could act but chooses not to, then the same result applies.
So, a quick look through some of the Bible is in order. Throughout the revelation of Scripture we are shown time and time again that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and thoroughly good. For example, as the Lord questions Job, he is the incomprehensible, unfathomable, awesome1 creator:
Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?
Declare, if you know all this. (Job 38:16-18)
The only possible reply here is humble repentance:
I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. (Job 42:2-3)
The New Testament also acknowledges that no action is undertaken outside God’s ruling care. Despite boastful claims of human independence, his control is complete.
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:13-15)
Not a sparrow falls to the ground without God knowing. His rule and his relationship with his creatures plays out in the generalities and in the specifics of life in this world. God, the creator, continues to care for us. The sun rises on the righteous and the unrighteous, under the creator’s directive.
God’s oversight is inescapable. But it’s not remote or absent oversight: Abraham, Moses and Jonah are just a few of many who personally experience God relenting from sending disaster in response to prayer.
And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” (Jonah 4:2)
In general we appreciate the idea of God’s provision when it benefits us—but, as Jonah pleads, we’re probably not always so quick to concur with God’s decision if it means our enemies prosper. But this is the God who reveals himself in the pages of Scripture: kind and gracious, compassionate, eager to forgive sin, but punishing wickedness. That is, God is able to provide, and shows that he does so in general terms as well as in specific events, in perfect accord with his merciful and righteous character.
The dependence of creation
What we’ve been saying about the ability and desire of God to provide for his creation can be clarified when we contrast it to alternate views. The God of the Bible who provides for us in all things is neither disconnected from creation (known as ‘deism’), nor is he in everything so that he is indistinguishable from creation (known as ‘panentheism’).
A caricature of the tragedy of our planet could be twisted to suggest that a creator set things going and then did the spiritual equivalent of walking out of the house while leaving the oven on. Clearly, as we’ve seen, this is not the biblical picture. Our Lord didn’t set the universe in motion and then leave it to its own devices. Nor is he the ‘God of the gaps’, intervening only occasionally in miraculous ways when the machinery runs off its tracks. Paul, for example, explains to the Athenians at the Areopagus in Acts 17:27 that God gives circumstances to people for their own good: “that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us.”
God is near, but is fundamentally different to creation. God is not the world and the world is not God. God is not dependent on the world, even though the world depends on him. In fact, as God cares for his creation, he very clearly does this work as God: the Father provides for his world, the Son redeems his creation, and the Spirit transforms us to bring all things together under one head, Christ.
The redeemer is the provider
See what’s happening here? The relationship between God and creation isn’t just one of distinction—that God and his creation are fundamentally different. The relationship between God and his creation has real substance because of God’s action in the past, present, and future. The grand story of the Bible goes from creation through to new creation, with the grand central stage given to the cross of Jesus Christ. God’s providential relationship with his creation is no different to this: it rests on the cross to give it real substance. Jesus, the true man, fulfils the creation mandate. Made a little lower than the angels, he has received a name greater than theirs (Phil 2:5-11; Heb 1:4). In Jesus, creation can stand in right relationship to its creator (Col 1:20) in joyful submission and adoration.
In other words, knowing the God who saves makes sense of the God who rules and provides. He sends rain on the just and the unjust, and has made all of humanity in his image—I see the compassion and wonder of God the creator in my non-Christian family and friends who deny him. That is true if God is the ruler, creator, and provider—but knowing him as the saviour and redeemer gives that providence a goal. He desires that all might be saved and know Jesus as king. He will one day bring all things together under one head, Christ, the perfect image of God. Every knee will bow and confess that Christ is Lord; all of creation will be freed from its bondage to decay; even death itself will be finally defeated. Right now creation is good, but not complete.
There’s lots to be thankful for in recognizing God’s providence—he simply provides so much, even in the tough times. The character of God and our dependence on him has big implications for our thinking as Christians about worry, guidance, prayer, accountability, evil, salvation, and scientific enquiry. But knowing the redemption found in the gospel of Jesus Christ? That means I can be confident that the one who created me is in control; my provider does have a plan. And his plan involves transferring me from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of the son he loves, for his glory.
My Father has been pleased to give me the kingdom. I will not doubt him for the rest (Luke 12:22-34).
- ‘Awesome’ in the older sense of ‘awe-inspiring’, not the modern Lego Movie usage. ↩