Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Hand of Providence

Nostalgia is a powerful force.  It can bend time to make us relive the past.  When I was a teenager, I attended a summer camp.  This part of my life often lingers in the dark recesses of my mind.  Even so, it only take one song to draw me back to the recreation center of the camp.  In that building, a stereo sat filling the room with one album by the artist Michael W. Smith, the album entitled, "I 2 Eye."  The first track of that album was the song titled "Hand of Providence."

The term "providence" has a unique history.  In the history of the United States, the founders of the nation often used "Providence" to refer to God Himself.  Denotatively, the word refers to the acts of God within His creation.  The Westminster Shorter Catechism splits the execution of the decrees of God into the works of creation and providence.  Thus, whatever is not the work of creation, that God does in conformity with His decrees (wherein He ordains whatever comes to pass), consists in His work of providence.  Thus, providence includes all the events that occur within the universe.

The Shorter Catechism further defines the works of providence. "God’s works of providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions." (WSC 11)  This over-arching statement reminds us that providence is the practical application of divine sovereignty.  Sovereignty refers to the quality of God as ruler over all things.  It includes His ability to control all things as well.  By His sovereign decrees, He has declared all that will take place in His creation throughout time.  Nothing has occurred, is occurring, nor will occur but that which He has decreed from before time began.  This quality interfaces with God's eternal nature, so that being external to time (if we can use that phrase without spacial implications), He decrees all things that occur in time without subjecting Himself to time.  He is ruler over all time and space.

Providence, as the practical application of this truth, refers to God's direction of the course of events.  Whereas, we may posit a rather deistic view of God as the one who decrees and lets His decrees occur without His intervention, the Bible is filled with examples of the Lord's direct involvement with the events of history.  The very Bible itself demonstrates God's activity in the world as God speaks to and through the prophets and inspires the writing of scripture.

We must carefully understand how this providence works.  The Westminster confession explains that providence works in any number of ways. "Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the First Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, he ordereth them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently." (WCF 5.2)  As "First Cause,"  God decrees all things and the manner in which those things will occur, how His providence will effect these events.  They may occur by His direct intervention, but they also may follow natural orders of cause and effect.

The Confession uses the term of art, "second causes."  These operate in three ways: necessarily, freely, or contingently.  In the biblical references added to the confession, the necessary manner of second causes appears in the normal rotation and revolution of the earth. (Gen.8:22)  God has ordained this as a consequence of His promise to preserve the earth.

The free cause appears in Isaiah 10.  There, the Lord decrees that Assyria will work His judgment on Israel even though Assyria does not intend to do so, but rather simply seeks domination of many nations. (Isa.10:5-8)  Assyria does not see itself as an agent of the Lord.  The kingdom makes its decisions freely without consultation with the Lord's prophets.  Even so, they do what God intends and are used of Him to judge Israel.

Contingently, we see the decrees of God operating in the many examples of God "relenting".  (Exodus 32, II Kings 20)  In these examples God declares a future act.  Someone prays for God to do something else.  God grants the request.  The contingent decree is true.  It would have happened that way but for the human act, but the ultimate decree of God was for it to fall out as it did.

Finally, we must consider the next statement of the confession. "God, in his ordinary providence, maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at his pleasure." (WCF 5.3)  All these things can be altered.  The examples included regarding without means refer to people surviving without bread.  Above means refer to the birth of Isaac by Sarah.  Against means, we may remember the halting of the sun for Joshua (Joshua 10) and its return for Hezekiah. (II Kings 20)

N.B.  The confession also deals with the relationship between providence and sin, which goes beyond the goal of this study, but special attention should be paid to the wording of Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 5 paragraphs 4-6.

By these reminders of what the Bible says, we see that providence includes a wider scope than merely what we would consider supernatural events.  God does not merely interact with His creation through burning bushes, mountains on fire, still, small voices, and miracles.  God's providence may appear in a multitude of small ways that seem merely coincidental or natural.  That does not mean that we ought attribute meaning or guidance to every event.  Rather, we ought remember that God's care of His creation never ceases.

With that care, we ought also remember the final point of the Confession's teaching on providence. "As the providence of God doth, in general, reach to all creatures; so, after a most special manner, it taketh care of his church, and disposeth all things to the good thereof." (WCF 5.7)  God has a general concern for the welfare of all His created order.  Jesus speak God clothing the grass. (Matt. 6:30)  In His address to the twelve before sending them on their mission work, Jesus encourages them with these words. "Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows."  Though the Father has a general care for all creation, Jesus reminds the disciples that the Father's care for them exceeds His care for the rest of His creation.

This particular providence for the people of God is seen throughout scripture.  The Confession refers to a few. (Amos 9:8-9; Isaiah 43:3-5,14)  Of particular note for us, we look to the concluding words of Romans 8.  As Paul concludes that great chapter on the benefits we have in Christ, He begins thinking about the particular blessings of the redeemed with these words. "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose." (Romans 8:28)  Providence works good for those the Lord has called to Himself.  God is for us, as Paul also writes. "What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?" (Romans 8:31-32)  As God is for His people, He will give them "all things."  This refers primarily to all things necessary for salvation, but secondarily, it includes all thing to bring about their good.  Paul goes on to remind the church that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.  Thus, providence brings to God's people good out of God's love for them.

My father had an expression for this reality that he would regularly use with his children, "providence works."  I used to have a hard time understanding what he meant, but I eventually got it.  He meant that instead of overanalyzing or seeking for signs, we should take steps by faith using good reason understanding that providence guides us well and believe that God will bring good to us.  God directs us even when we cannot see nor understand why things happen to us.  This reminder proved a good corrective to the "finding God's will" self-help material that floats around Christendom.  Instead of worrying about the big questions, if an opportunity appears, we may assume that God put it there, absent conflicting data.  Instead of wondering, does God want me to do X?  If there is no sin in X, the question should be, has God given me the desire to do X?  Do I want to do X?  Satan (FT: and the flesh and the world) want to make us trust our unsanctified judgment to sin, but distrust our sanctified judgment to follow Christ.  This is not to say that we merely invert our natural feelings, but it does instruct us how to use our minds and desires.

The Lord has a work for us to do and will providentially guide us to and in that work.  We often get trapped in our own minds overanalyzing choices.  Then again, some don't think and boldly go where angels fear to tread.  God call us to understand providence in our decisions not despite our decisions or locking our decisions.  We ought not look for windows or open doors.  I am speaking out of my own experience, but God has graciously given me two vocations.  In each, I was doings what I enjoyed and what He had gifted me to do.  That providence guided me to where I am and continues to guide me.

Providence reminds us that life doesn't depend on our choices alone.  Yes, we make choices and some bad ones.  We must learn from those bad decisions for their consequences are God's lesson of good for us.  Learning from them is why God decreed them to be.  Even in the face of disastrous decisions, we have not ruined our lives.  We have not made ourselves irredeemable.  We have not left ourselves without value to God, His church, or His kingdom.  We still have gifts and a calling to fulfill.  It may not look like what it was before our disastrous choice, but God never casts aside members of His body.

We often think choices are disastrous because we end up in a position we never envisioned.  This reveals that our conception of our ministry or life must be held loosely.  God alone knows the course our life and ministry will take.  It can change suddenly even without our intervention.  I did not make any choice and my present ministry looks almost nothing like the one I had before.  God changed it for His glory.

How we interpret providence matters.  We must remember that providence may look rather ordinary.  We ought not expect spectacular signs.  We must use ordinary events and our minds and hearts, filtered through God's word, to make decisions.  As we habitually feed our minds and hearts with God's word, as we train our minds and hearts to think and feel biblically, we may rely upon our sanctified logic to follow providence, and thus live Christian in an unchristian world.

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