Understanding Providence
By Derek Thomas
providence

Illustration by Muti

Few things distinguish Christian and secular worldviews with greater clarity than the doctrine of providence. This doctrine insists that everything that happens does so because God wills it to happen, wills it to happen before it happens, wills it to happen in the way that that it happens. Such a view signals immediately that history is not arbitrary or fortuitous; neither is it “simple determinism,” as though our own choices and involvement have no relevance whatsoever, a fatalistic view more reflective of Islam than biblical Christianity.

So central is the doctrine of providence that summary accounts of Christian doctrine, such as the Westminster Shorter Catechism, raise the issue at the very beginning. Thus, Question 11 of the Shorter Catechism asks: “What are God’s works of providence?” To which the answer is given: “God’s works of providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing of all His creatures, and all their actions.”

The key word is “all,” signaling the totality of God’s control. Our Father in heaven takes care of His own children, ensuring that His purposes for them will be accomplished despite the forces of sin and evil designed to oppose and frustrate His intentions. In the end, everything occurs according to the will of God.

The alternatives to this robust notion of providence are: God can see the future He desires but is powerless to bring it about (no control), or that He can see all “possible” futures based on the free choices of individuals without determining one solely based on His own volition (another form of no control), or that His control is a general one only and not one where the individual details are determined in any way (limited control). It is helpful, therefore, to examine the issue biblically and theologically.

Providence and the Bible

The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all (Psalm 103:19)

The Bible gives us many examples of God’s providential ordering of the details and circumstances of the lives of individuals. These tangible, visible demonstrations of His providence encourage us that just as He worked in the lives of certain people in the past, so He is able to work in the present. We must draw conclusions from these accounts with considerable care, lest we misconstrue those things which are unique to these individuals and their precise location within the history of redemption. Such accounts are not necessarily meant to imply that we can expect God to work in our lives in exactly the same way. However, seeing the way God worked in the lives of others should prompt us to recall Paul’s words regarding Israel in the time of the wilderness wanderings: “these things took place as examples for us” (1 Corinthians 10:6). We will, therefore, examine three examples from the Bible.

Naomi and Ruth

The book of Ruth is that tiny jewel that sparkles after the darkness of the book of Judges, a book which ends with the somber words, “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). It is a refrain picked up from an earlier statement in the book: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6). From such dark surroundings emerges something that, in one sense, is wholly unexpected, but only to those unfamiliar with the ways of God!

The book of Ruth is illustrative of the doctrine of providence from two distinct points of view. First, a macrocosmic view reveals how the purposes of God announced in the Garden of Eden are fulfilled — that the woman’s “offspring” is set at enmity with the serpent’s “offspring,” the so-called protoevangelium (Genesis 3:15). This is the story of the Old Testament, from Genesis to Malachi. It tells us how the flow of redemptive history from the patriarchs to the prophets is one in which the line of the Messiah is told. This is what enabled Jesus to lead the two disciples on the Emmaus road on a Bible study from “Moses and all the Prophets,” pointing out to them “the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Had the storyline of the Old Testament not displayed a unifying theme established by divine providence, this would not have been possible. God has ensured that His promise of salvation to sinners through the atoning work of His own Son be realized, not through haphazard events contingent upon the choices of men and women and the forces of evil over which God has no ultimate control, but by events that are planned and certain. There is a masterplan. God reigns through the stumbling, hobbling service of His people and the rage and malice of His foes to establish His eternal purpose for this world. The story of a small, insignificant family from Bethlehem is one of the building blocks in the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. A son born to Ruth and her husband, Boaz, becomes King David’s grandfather.

The story of Ruth is also illustrative of the doctrine of providence at a microcosmic level. It shows us God’s wise provision of a husband for a Moabite widow — which, in Bethlehem in those times was a necessary provision to ensure her release from a life of penury. When, by God’s astonishing grace, Ruth professed her faith in her mother-in-law’s God, thereby evidencing a work of conversion in her heart, she also vowed to go with Naomi to Bethlehem. There were no guarantees for her there as a Moabite widow, which is partly why Naomi had urged her to return to her own people (Ruth 1:8-9). She did not know that God would provide for her in a way that would be a source of wonderment forever afterward.

In ways that only afterward became clearer, Ruth’s gleaning in the barley fields of Bethlehem was part of God’s plan all along.

The ways of God cannot always be discerned by us. It requires from us a degree of trust and faith. In ways that only afterward became clearer, Ruth’s gleaning in the barley fields of Bethlehem was part of God’s plan all along whereby she and Boaz would meet and eventually marry and have a child called Obed, “the father of Jesse, the father of David” (Ruth 4:17). On a microcosmic scale, Ruth could express wonder in the providence (provision) of God in her time of need. As the Puritan John Flavel put it: “Sometimes providences, like Hebrew letters, must be read backward.”

On a macrocosmic scale, she knew next to nothing of her role in the fulfillment of God’s promise in the Garden of Eden. On this level, there were aspects of what God did in her life that only future generations would understand. And give glory to God.

Joseph

The entire life of Joseph is summarized in Genesis 50:20: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” The teenager we met at the beginning of the story is now more than 100 years old. His life has come full circle and he is addressing his duplicitous brothers. Their action, in selling him into slavery, reflected nothing but evil intent. Their malevolence can in no way be lessened by the knowledge that things did not turn out as they might have. Truth is, God overruled their evil actions to accomplish a purpose that neither they nor Joseph could have fathomed. God brought good out of evil. In the words of the Westminster Confession, God in providence “doth uphold, direct, dispose and govern all creatures, actions and things” to bring about a sovereignly predetermined plan.

This predetermined plan God accomplished through a complicated strategy which initially did not yield confidence of a good outcome. Joseph’s descent into slavery, followed by a false accusation of rape resulting in a lengthy imprisonment, spelled his downward spiral to the bottom. His life could hardly have been worse. Only later, from the vantage point of what God had, in fact, accomplished (ensuring that an heir of the covenant promises was in the most powerful position in Egypt at a time when famine engulfed Canaan, thereby ensuring the survival of the covenant family) could Joseph look back and see the hand of God.

Looking at things from God’s perspective, we see a wisdom that is incomparable and majestic. No matter how dark things get, his hand is always in control.

Providence has wider issues in mind than merely our personal comfort or gain. In response to the oft-cited question in times of difficulty, “Why me?” the answer of this narrative is, “Them!” He allows us to suffer so that others may be blessed. Joseph suffered in order that his undeserving brothers might receive blessing. In their case, they would be kept alive during a time of famine and have the covenant promises of their father, grandfather, and great-grandfather reaffirmed before their eyes.

What do you think went through the minds of those disciples who carried the blood-soaked body of Stephen to his burial? Were they perhaps tempted to say, “What a waste! Couldn’t God have spared this godly man so that he might be of use to the church in her time of need? Does God care about us at all?” In all these questions, they would have been showing the shortsightedness that is so much a part of unbelief. They would not have been reckoning on the purposes of God. For there, at the feet of Stephen’s corpse, stood a man upon whom Stephen’s death had the most profound impact. In hearing the voice of Jesus speak to him and accuse him of persecuting him (i.e., Jesus), Paul learned what is arguably the most characteristic feature of his later writings: To persecute one of Jesus’ little ones is to persecute Jesus Himself, because every Christian is united to Jesus Christ in an indissoluble union.

And what were the purposes behind Joseph’s suffering? First, Joseph learned that whatever happened to him personally, he was part of a larger purpose in which God’s plan was being revealed. In that case, he could not hold grudges against his brothers. True, they must own their sin and confess it; this explains the lengthy way in which Joseph finally reveals himself to them. God used him as an instrument in the spiritual growth of his brothers, and Joseph shows this through his unwillingness to hold a grudge against them. No matter what personal hurt he had experienced, Joseph saw God working in the lives of his brothers, and for that, he was  thankful.

But secondly, and on a much larger scale, Joseph begins to learn the answer to the question, How will the promises made to Abraham be fulfilled? At one level, the final scene of Jacob’s burial in Canaan attended by a huge entourage of Egyptians seems a curious way to end the story of Joseph.

“And Pharaoh answered, ‘Go up, and bury your father, as he made you swear.’ So Joseph went up to bury his father. With him went up all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his household, and all the elders of the land of Egypt, as well as all the household of Joseph, his brothers, and his father’s household. Only their children, their flocks, and their herds were left in the land of Goshen. And there went up with him both chariots and horsemen. It was a very great company.” (Genesis 50:6-9)

Nothing, absolutely nothing, is adrift of the purposes of God to accomplish His ultimate design for the cosmos.

Why is Moses telling us that the Egyptians went with Joseph and his family to bury his father, Jacob? He wants us to understand that in the end, the Egyptians are paying homage to Joseph’s family! When Jacob makes his son pledge to bury him in the land of promise (see Genesis 50:5), he is remembering the promise that God had given to Abraham of a land that at this time they did not possess apart from this burial plot. At the end of Genesis, the people of God are nowhere near possessing Canaan. They are going to spend 400 years in captivity in Egypt. But in Jacob’s burial there is a glimpse of things to come. God has not forgotten his promise. He never does.

Job

There is no book in the Bible quite like the book of Job. It is a tale of a man who loses everything: his 10 children, his entire fortune and eventually his health. It is not a tale of a wicked man who suffers incalculable loss, in which case we might to view it as a tale of someone receiving his just deserts. No. Three times we are informed at the outset that Job was “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1, 8; 2:3). This is not a case of “Why do bad things happen to bad people?” Such circumstances are in part explained by recourse to God’s justice. The question that looms large in the opening chapter of Job is of another kind: Why do bad things happen to godly people? The sheer extent of Job’s suffering seems to call into question something at the heart of God Himself.

It is not possible to merely identify Satan as the cause of all evil in the universe, thereby removing God from any involvement and culpability, because in the story of Job, it is God who seems firmly in charge of the ensuing events. It is God who summons Satan into His presence to give an account of his doings (Job 1:6). Additionally, it is at the Lord’s suggestion that Job is made a target for Satan’s attention: “Have you considered my servant Job?” (Job 1:8; 2:3). It is the dilemma that the Prophet Amos poses: “Does disaster come to a city, unless the LORD has done it?” (Amos 3:6). It clearly was the way Job viewed it: “Have mercy on me, have mercy on me, O you my friends, for the hand of God has touched me!” (Job 19:21).

The solution that God is good but not sovereign, though resorted to frequently, was not one that sounded plausible to Job. This, according to Rabbi Harold Kushner, was Job’s problem. In his famous book written in 1981, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” he wrote: “God wants the righteous to live peaceful, happy lives, but sometimes even He can’t bring that about. It is too difficult even for God to keep cruelty and chaos from claiming their innocent victims.” More recently, in an increasingly popular view known as Open Theism, similar views have been expressed limiting God’s power in an attempt to maintain human freedom. Gregory Boyd, for example, has written, “God must work with, and battle against, other created beings. While none of these beings can ever match God’s own power, each has some degree of genuine influence within the cosmos.”

According to these views, when Job concluded, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21), and, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10), he was wrong to attribute his suffering to the sovereignty of God. But to be more consistent with the data of Scripture we must conclude that in the traumatic war between God and “cosmic powers” (Ephesians 6:12) in which Christians are often the battleground, Satan must get permission to touch one of God’s own children (Job 1:12; 2:6; Luke 22:31-32). Whatever problems arise (and genuine problems do arise), a solution posed at the expense of God’s sovereignty is one that fails to do justice to the data of Scripture. Affliction, to be sure, is God’s “strange” work: “he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:33). But affliction is something that God afflicts upon His people.

In the end, Job is never given an explanation for his suffering other than that it is beyond him to comprehend. He is reduced to laying his hand over his mouth as a sign of his submission to a higher will that he must trust even when he does not understand (Job 40:4). Nowhere does God say to him that the desperate circumstances in which he found himself were outside of God’s control to change, that he must consider the complexity of the supernatural world in which powerful forces of darkness are at work and to which even the sovereign God must yield. At no point does God abdicate His rule. He never takes His hand away from the tiller.

He remains in control even in the darkest of circumstances. Nothing, absolutely nothing is adrift of the purposes of God to accomplish His ultimate design for the cosmos. In the famous words of Abraham Kuyper, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’ ”


Derek Thomas is senior minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina, and Chancellor’s Professor of Systematic and Pastoral Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary.

This article is adapted from “What is Providence,” part of the Basics of the Faith series published by P&R Publishing. To learn more about the booklet, and the series, visit prpbooks.com/book/what-is-providence.

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