Frank could not remember a worse day in his whole life. At work he had been called in by his boss to be told that the company would have to lay off a third of their staff. That included Frank. He was out of a job, and everyone knows that at fifty it is not easy to find employment.
On his way home he had a doctor’s appointment. A recent X-ray confirmed the doctor’s suspicions — there was a tumour on his lung and it would require surgery. ‘Why did this happen to me?’ was the very understandable cry from Frank.
How different was Denise’s day! Her boss had called her in to tell her of a promotion and a large increase in salary. Her visit to the doctor that same afternoon was a happy relief. What the doctor feared was stomach cancer was no more than the result of a food allergy. That evening her boy friend proposed to her and, of course, she said ‘yes’. She was walking on air. ‘Why am I such a lucky girl?’ asked Denise.
How do we explain such diverse experiences? Do we put it down to luck, or is there some other explanation? Why do things happen as they do?
Consider the following verse: ‘The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord’ (Proverbs 16:33). Casting the lot was a means of making decisions in a fair way. If the verse had been written this century it might read, ‘The coin is spun, but whether it comes down heads or tails is decided by the Lord’.
We call this truth (or doctrine) the ‘providence of God’. In simple terms it tells us that God controls everything. Nothing happens without God. Jesus said that not even a sparrow falls to the ground without God’s will (Matthew 10:29). In the Westminster Shorter Catechism, God’s works of providence are defined as ‘His most holy, wise and powerful preserving and governing [of] all his creatures and all their actions’ (Question 11).
This teaching is not very popular today. People feel threatened by it. They feel deprived of choice. They claim it makes them robots, and they feel very small and insignificant. But is this fair? Our choices are always restricted by things as diverse as our personal limitations and our sinful hearts, but we are certainly never relieved of responsibility. If the doctrine makes us seem insignificant, that is because we need to know how small we are in the sight of God.
If we don’t like the idea of God being in control of everything, what are the alternatives? Either someone else is in control, or things happen purely by chance. If God is not in charge, who is? The devil? That would be a frightening prospect indeed! Ourselves? Bill Clinton? None of these options are very comforting.
Perhaps things are left to chance? That would make life a lottery. Surely it is far better to follow the plain teaching of Scripture that God is in charge. And he is not only all powerful, but also infinitely wise. Moreover, he works all things, not only as he sees fit, but also for the good of his people. Let us, then, consider the providence of God in a few areas.
The Bible often attributes the weather to God’s work. ‘He spreads the snow like wool and scatters the frost like ashes. He hurls down his hail like pebbles’ (Psalm 147:16-17). This can work two ways. God promised the nation of Israel that if they were obedient to his laws he would give them good weather, conducive to a good harvest. He also used the weather to the advantage of the Israelites in battle. He sent down hail on their enemies to destroy them (Joshua 10).
On the other hand, if the Israelites were disobedient, the Lord punished them with drought and resultant famine. Who can doubt that extremes of weather are God’s judgements? We have numerous examples in Scripture, including the flood in Noah’s time and certain of the plagues of Egypt.
Someone will say, ‘But Christians get hurt in storms. They get struck by lightning, and drowned in floods’. That is perfectly true. We live in a fallen world where everything, including the natural order, has been affected by sin. God is never the author of sin, but he does use human wickedness to further his purposes. This is seen most clearly at Calvary, where God allowed wicked men to put his Son to death, thereby securing salvation for his people. Similarly, in a climatic disaster, God can use storms for his glory – even though his people may suffer through them. God is still in control, and Romans 8:28 should be precious to believers at such times — ‘all things’ really do ‘work together for good to those who love God’.
Whether it is an election result or a war, God is on the throne. He controls the outcome. For example, he refers to the powerful nation of Assyria as ‘the rod of my anger’ (Isaiah 10:5). Just as a farmer might use a rod to beat a stubborn mule, so God used a power-hungry nation to punish Israel for their stubborn rebellion.
Romans 13 tells us that rulers, at all levels, are put in place by God. That does not mean that everyone in authority is consciously obeying God. But they are serving him none the less.
We might be shocked to think of Slobodan Milosevic, or even Tony Blair, as servants of God. However, we are not saying that these men obey God’s revealed will, but that they are put in place by God and are to be obeyed as far as conscience allows. Even when they are allowed to act unjustly, they can go no further than God permits.
Provision for our needs
The psalmist wrote, ‘The eyes of all look to you and you give them their food at the proper time’ (Psalm 145:15). Sometimes God did this in miraculous ways, as when he provided Israel with manna in the desert, and sent ravens to feed Elijah. More often he provides by natural means. He gives us strength to sow and reap, or to work and earn enough to buy food. He may provide sustenance through a pension or a gift. By whatever means, however, God provides for our needs.
What about famine? As we saw earlier, God may bring famine on a nation, and Christians living there may also starve. It is tragic, but they are not forgotten by God. Sometimes people quote Philippians 4:19: ‘My God will meet all your needs’, as if believers will never go short of food or money. The fact is, they do.
God supplies all our needs as long as they are needs. When it is God’s time for us to die, earthly provisions are no longer needs. If God sees that suffering is good for us, he may deprive us of earthly comforts. In the providence of God, the same situation that represents judgement on one person may be a means of loving chastening to another.
How should we respond to all this?
Firstly, we should recognise God’s providence. The mindset of the Jews in biblical times involved this recognition. Everything was seen as coming from the hand of God. When Joseph was sold as a slave by his jealous brothers, he saw the whole sequence of events as overruled by God for good (Genesis 50:20). We also need to have this mindset. Words such as ‘luck’ or ‘chance’ should not be part of the Christian’s vocabulary. We need to think in terms of God’s providence and see all things as under his hand.
Secondly, we should admire God’s providence. It is usual for Christians to give thanks for their food, but we often do so mechanically, without conscious gratitude to God. Whatever means God uses to provide for our needs, we must see his hand in it, marvel at his goodness, and thank him for it.
This is well illustrated in the story of a poor widow who had run out of food. She asked the Lord to provide something for her next meal, praying aloud, as people often did in former days. Two lads were passing her window, heard her prayer, and determined to play a joke on her.
They went to the local store and bought some bread and milk. They put them on her doorstep, knocked at the door and hid round the corner. The woman saw the provisions and immediately thanked God for sending them. The lads appeared and laughed at her. ‘God didn’t send the bread and milk; we put it there’. Her reply brings home a wonderful truth. ‘The devil may have brought it, but God sent it!’
Thirdly, we should submit to God’s providence. That is not hard when someone leaves us a generous inheritance! But often God’s providence brings us pain or disappointment, and we complain.
When we experience tragedies, sickness, or painful situations, we should submit, and do so with joy, not just stoicism. ‘Count it all joy’, says James, ‘when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience’ (James 1:2-3).
Finally, God’s providence should make us more prayerful. That may seem a contradiction. If God is sovereign, what is the point of praying? The result of such thinking would be to stop us praying altogether.
If our safety when driving depends on chance, we won’t pray; we will just cross our fingers. But if God is in control, then we will pray about everything – travel, health, finances, and so on. We do not pray that we will never be harmed, but that God will watch over us and that his will may be done.
To be sure, there is a mystery here. But in his wisdom God not only chooses what will happen but how it will happen; he determines not only the end but the means. And the means often involves prayer.
Matthew Henry puts it rather quaintly: ‘When God intends great blessing for his people, the first thing he does is to set them a-praying’. In other words, God moves us to pray, then he answers those prayers. What an amazing privilege to be so profoundly involved in God’s purposes! What a wise and wonderful God is ours! May he grant that our knowledge of him will increase, along with our trust in him and our cheerful submission to his ways!