Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
Understanding the doctrine of providence first involves distinguishing it from the doctrine of predestination, because these two Presbyterian emphases have often become blurred and confused. The doctrine of predestination involves God choosing Israel and Christ’s church for a special task and destiny within creation. The doctrine of providence on the other hand involves God’s loving provision for the whole of creation.
The very first sentence of the Apostles’ Creed—”I believe in God the Father almighty”—is an affirmation that God is all mighty, capable of handling all situations. Of course, in making this straightforward confession of faith, we are confronted immediately with questions. If God the Father is almighty, capable of providing for the welfare of His creatures, why does the world appear to be so uncared for? Any discussion of providence must deal with the question so clearly put by Rabbi Harold Kushner, why do bad things happen to good people? Or with the biblical obverse of the question, “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive?” (Jeremiah 12:1)
Certainly, part of the answer can be found in our own sinfulness. We sinful human beings are the authors of many of our woes, from petty daily hatefulness to the Holocaust. However, nature itself can also be terribly destructive to human life and to other creatures. Natural disasters and diseases also contribute to making this beautiful planet a “vale of tears.” Why is it that the Almighty’s provision for the world often seems so haphazard and unfair?
Of course, there are no definitive answers to these questions, but we can search the scriptures for some hints and clues. While preaching on God’s oversight of the cosmos and addressing the anxieties of his audience, Jesus says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will. But even the hairs on your head are numbered. Fear not, therefore, you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Matthew 10:29 – 31)
Jesus is not assuring us that all sparrows will be kept from harm, or that nothing bad will ever happen to us. He is not answering our questions about the dark side of existence on this planet. He is saying that nothing that happens is too insignificant to fall below the divine radar. He is speaking of providence as divine power and divine concern. Our Creator is in charge of both history and nature. Nothing happens without God’s knowledge; nothing happens without God’s concern.
Writing to a fearful Christian congregation, the Apostle Paul goes so far as to say, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28) This audacious promise assures the faithful that everything is being ultimately coordinated for good. Dreadful things can happen to God’s people. Christians are as susceptible to the “dangers, toils and snares” as anyone else. The good news is that even the most awful events can be made to work for good by the power and love of God.
The doctrine of providence does not espouse the monstrous idea that “all things happen for good,” or that God approves of all the deplorable realities of life. The biblical idea of providence does assure us, however, that our God is able to deal with whatever happens, can transform the worst into the best, and can even use the malevolent intentions of the wicked and appropriate them into His purpose of salvation for the world.
For Christians, the principal clue to the divine modus operandi is given through the Messiah’s crucifixion and the Resurrection. At the crucifixion, the prototypical injustice of human history, the conclusive destruction of good by the forces of evil, the Almighty is so angry that “the curtain of the temple was rent from top to bottom, and the earth shook and the rocks were split.” (Matthew 27:50 – 51)
Despite the anger of God, the crucifixion was not called off; there was no last minute reprieve from the governor. “Twelve legions of angels” were not sent to release the Messiah. (Matthew 26:53) In some mysterious way, this inhuman scene—similar to thousands of other inhuman scenes—had to take place. On the road to Emmaus, the Risen Christ scolds his disciples with the words, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:25 – 26)
The doctrine of providence is critical to our understanding of Christian faith. It has to do with trusting that our Creator is also our Saviour, despite so much apparent evidence to the contrary.