In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all” (Matthew 6:31-32). And if you ask me, this is the perfect description of what the Bible means when it talks about God’s Providence.
The English root of the word “Providence” is the word “provide,” and the word “provide” comes from a combination of the Latin prefix “pro” which means “ahead,” and the Latin verb “videre” which means “to see.” To “provide” literally means to “look ahead, to prepare, to supply, to act with foresight,” and the word “Providence” is how Christians have traditionally thought and talked about the way that the God of the Bible does this for His people. The traditional doctrine of Providence tells us that God knows what we need even before we tell Him, and that God has every intention of providing for those needs even before we ask Him.
Now, I believe that this is generally true in the sense that God has structured the universe in ways that are designed to sustain our lives and promote our physical well-being as human beings, and I believe that it’s particularly true in the way that God pays special attention and takes specific care of those who belong to Him by faith. As Romans 8:28 famously says – “We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” John R.W. Stott used to say that this Biblical doctrine of Providence is the “pillow on which the head of faith rests,” and what he meant by this was that no matter what might be happening to us or in our world, as Christians we can trust that God has hold of us and isn’t letting go.
Daniel Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the great 20th century British preacher, said that in different places and at different moments in the long history of the church that different Biblical teachings have assumed greater importance and required greater attention. He said that the doctrine of the person of Christ was this Biblical idea in the first few centuries of the church’s life, and that the doctrine of justification by faith was it during the Reformation, and that the doctrine of the inspiration and authority of Scripture was it at the beginning of the modern era. And Dr. Lloyd-Jones said that in our day “the most important doctrine, in many ways, is the doctrine of providence.”
All the time people I hear people say – “You tell me that God is a God of love and care, but look at the world, look at all the bad the things that are happening. Where’s God? What’s He doing? How can you possibly believe in a God of love and care when people get gunned down in church and run over by trucks on bike paths?” And I’ll admit it, personally and pastorally, my confidence in the providential love and care of God gets shaken every time something bad happens – when I see people being ravaged by disease, brutalized by violence, crushed by their circumstances, victimized by injustice, and abandoned by help and hope. But rather than giving into despair in those moments, I find that it’s precisely “when all around my soul gives way,” as an old hymn puts it, that I make the discovery once again that “He alone is my hope and stay.”
My peace and patience, my strength and hope as a Christian come from knowing that God is neither absent nor indifferent. In the vagaries of my own life, and our whole history in this world as human beings, I truly believe that God is always at work in hidden and mysterious ways, and that when the dust finally settles, that what will finally become clear are the ways that God has always been present in every circumstance, no matter how difficult and confusing those circumstances might be in the moment. As they say – “It’s difficult to see what’s going on when you’re in the absolute middle of something. It’s only with hindsight that we can see things for what they are” (S.J. Watson). And so my belief in God’s providential care and concern does not demand that everything make perfect sense to me right now, or make me completely happy in the present moment, but rather, that one day it all will. “Faith is not saying: ‘I understand,’ but rather that: ‘I believe that I will understand.’ Faith is not declaring: “Oh, I’ve got it, I see what this all means,’ but rather that: ‘I believe there is going to be a meaning” (Louis Evely).
I have kept a little piece of paper tucked between the pages of the Bible that I take with me on pastoral calls with this quote from St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) on it –
Do not look forward in fear to the changes of life; Rather look to them with full hope that as they arise, God, whose very own you are, will lead you safely through all things; And when you cannot stand, God will carry you in His arms. [So] do not fear what may happen tomorrow; the same everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of you tomorrow, and in every day to come. Either He will shield you from suffering or He will give you unfailing strength to be able to bear it. So, be at peace and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations.
It’s in many of those pastoral situations that my confidence in God’s Providence gets most severely tested. In fact, it’s not at all uncommon for me to get back to my car after one of those calls sad, or mad, about the suffering that I have been allowed to share for a moment, and with an angry fist, or a broken heart, I have cried out to God demanding to know here He is, and wanting to get some explanation about what He is doing. And that’s when this little slip of paper with St. Francis de Sales’ spiritual wisdom scrawled on it becomes a link in the chain that holds my anchor of hope in God during the storms of human suffering and sorrow that I face as a person and a pastor. And right now it sort of feels to me like we are sitting in our car as a society after having been given access to human suffering and sadness on a scale previously unimagined. It feels like “all around our soul is giving way,” and that what we desperately need right now is some assurance that “God is still our hope and stay.” So this Thanksgiving I would encourage to sit down, write out St. Francis’ words on a slip of paper, and then to put it somewhere it can be found easily when life comes at you hard, leaving you sad or mad, and you need to know where God is and what it is that God is doing.
You see, I believe that the other St. Francis got it exactly right. I believe that God is in fact with us right here and right now in this moment, and that what God is doing is slowly bending our lives, and the life of the whole world, in the direction of His intended and eternal shalom. And my Thanksgiving Prayer for you this year is for the faith to be able to catch just a tiny glimpse of this, and then for you to be able to give real thanks for the promises that God has made to us, and is in the process of keeping. DBS +