Making Use of Providence

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In his excellent book, Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts, Jerry Bridges wrestles with the doctrine of God’s Providence as it relates to the difficult circumstances of life.  Bridges summarizes the doctrine of God’s Providence this way: God’s “constant care for and His absolute rule over all His creation for His own glory and the good of His people.”

For the sake of understanding, he goes on, “…note the absolute terms: constant care, absolute rule, all creation.  Nothing, not even the smallest virus, escapes his care and control.”

To the ears of some, the idea that not even the smallest virus escapes God’s care and control may sound like a fairly radical (and perhaps ridiculous) idea.  But, in reality, Bridges is only explaining what the Bible repeats over and over again – the fact that God is always in control (E.g. Proverbs 16:9, 33; 21:1).

Now, this truth is simple enough, but it can be easily misunderstood and even abused, and often is. Especially in hardship, injustice, and in personal trials.

In chapter 17 of book 1 of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin lays out a biblical view of God’s Providence.  Acknowledging the sticky nature of putting the doctrine of Providence to use in our day to day lives, Calvin writes:

“…such is the proneness of the human mind to indulge in vain subtleties, that it becomes almost impossible for those who do not see the sound and proper use of this doctrine, to avoid entangling themselves in perplexing difficulties.” (Calvin 1.17.1)

In other words, as simple as the truth of God’s Providence is; it is important to think biblically and carefully about it, because it is extremely easy to tie yourself in philosophical knots when you go to apply the truth of God’s Providence to real life and real world situations.

To that end, Calvin offers some guidelines for putting the truth of God’s Providence to use in our own lives – guidelines that I find to be full of carefully applied wisdom – which is why I want to pass them on in this post.  How can we make use of the doctrine of God’s Providence in our daily lives?  We’ll look at a number of ways here.

First, we must recognize God as the ultimate cause of all events, but also understand that God exercises his rule in different ways. 

Something Calvin says at the beginning of this chapter could really help a lot of us come to a proper understanding of what “God is in control” really means.  It is that “in overruling all things, [the Providence of God] works at one time with means, at another without means, and at another against means” (Calvin, 1.17.1).  Calvin elsewhere referred to means as “second causes.”

What Calvin means is that although God is in control at all times, in all places, and over all events – this does not mean that he exercises his control in the same way at all times.  Sometimes he uses means – working with the desires of men and free choices of men, working with the natural workings of the created order, accomplishing his purposes by working through natural things.

At other times, however, God works without means – in spiritual and inexplicable fashion – intervening in the natural order of things and accomplishing his purposes in mysterious and supernatural ways.  Healing someone without the direct use of medicine or medical care could be an example of when God works without means.

And still at other times, God works against means – going directly against the natural order of things to accomplish his good purposes.  Calvin might point to Jesus walking on water or healing Lazarus from the dead to illustrate his point here.

I believe that these distinctions are especially important when it comes to applying the truth of God’s Providence to situations of injustice or those times when we are mistreated by others.  Many people have a hard time saying that God is in control even over wickedness and sin and evil events in the world.

However, I believe this is often the case because for some people, saying that God is in control is the same as saying that God has all of us attached to puppet strings and is dangling us along however he so chooses, making people do things they otherwise would not want to do.  Some people struggle with the doctrine of God’s strong Providence because they either do not acknowledge or do not understand that God is able to work out his purposes with means – means such as the free choices of sinful people – and yet in such a way that he is still not guilty of the evil itself (Cf. Job 1:21-22; Genesis 50:20; 45:5; Acts 2:23).

Calvin sums up this point by saying:

“The Christian, then, being most fully persuaded, that all things come to pass by the dispensation of God, and that nothing happens fortuitously, will always direct his eye to him as the principal cause of events, at the same time paying due regard to inferior causes in their own place.” (Calvin, 1.17.6)

So, saying God is in control is not the same as saying that God is the exclusive cause of the things that happen in our lives.

Second, we must not doubt that everything God brings into our lives is for our good. 

Now, this is true only for those who are in Christ.  It is only for true, Jesus loving, regenerate Christians.  Note the condition in the words of Romans 8:28:  “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”  This is not a promise for everyone.  It is only a promise for those who love God and have been called according to God’s purpose and grace.

God working all things together for good is not the same thing as saying that everything that happens to you is good.  A lot of people abuse this precious promise when they try to convince their friends not to feel sorrow over hardship, because, after all, if God is going to use it for good, there is no reason to be sad about it!

Wrong.  God working all things together for good does not mean that everything that happens to you is good.  It just means that somehow, for those who love God, God is working to use your hardship – together with all of the other events in your life – to do you good in the end.  Somehow, God is going to use this for your good.

Calvin encourages believers with the reminder that “…a special providence is awake for [their] preservation, and will not suffer anything to happen that will not turn to his good and safety” (Calvin 1.17.6).

Later, he says,

“The whole comes to this. When unjustly assailed by men, overlooking their malice (which could only aggravate our grief, and whet our minds for vengeance), let us remember to ascend to God, and learn to hold it for certain, that whatever an enemy wickedly committed against us was permitted, and sent by his righteous dispensation.” (Calvin, 1.17.8)

Third, we must understand that when it comes to people in our lives, God has all power to lead or restrain as he so pleases. 

To this point Calvin writes, “In regard to men, good as well as bad, he will acknowledge that their counsels, wishes, aims and faculties are so under his hand, that he has full power to turn them in whatever direction, and constrain them as often as he pleases.” (Calvin 1.17.6)

This sounds a lot like Proverbs 21:1: “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.”

It is helpful to consider in times of hardship, “Why might God have permitted this into my life?”  Because he certainly could have prevented it.

Fourth, we must meditate upon biblical passages where God promises to care for his people in a special way.   

Specifcally, Calvin points to passages like Psalm 55:23; 1 Peter 5:7; Psalm 91:1; Zechariah 2:8; Isaiah 26:1; 29:15, Calvin then moves to Matthew 6:25-34, commenting on Jesus’ assurance of the Father’s love for his people with these comforting words:

“…our Saviour, after declaring that even a sparrow falls not to the ground without the will of his Father, immediately makes the application, that being more valuable than many sparrows, we ought to consider that God provides more carefully for us. He even extends this so far, as to assure us that the hairs of our head are all numbered. What more can we wish, if not even a hair of our head can fall, save in accordance with his will? I speak not merely of the human race in general. God having chosen the Church for his abode, there cannot be a doubt, that in governing it, he gives singular manifestations of his paternal care.” (Calvin 1.17.6)

Christian, if your God is taking care of the sparrows, he is surely taking care of you.

Fifth, we must recognize and rejoice in the good and pleasing expressions of God’s Providential care over our lives.

I have found that one way to find comfort in the midst of trials is to recognize the sweet expressions of Providence that I have experienced.  In Calvin’s words,

“This knowledge is necessarily followed by gratitude in prosperity, patience in adversity, and incredible security for the time to come. Everything, therefore, which turns out prosperous and according to his wish, the Christian will ascribe entirely to God, whether he has experienced his beneficence through the instrumentality of men, or been aided by inanimate creatures. For he will thus consider with himself: Certainly it was the Lord that disposed the minds of these people in my favour, attaching them to me so as to make them the instruments of his kindness. In an abundant harvest he will think that it is the Lord who listens to the heaven, that the heaven may listen to the earth, and the earth herself to her own offspring; in other cases, he will have no doubt that he owes all his prosperity to the divine blessing, and, admonished by so many circumstances, will feel it impossible to be ungrateful.” (Calvin, 1.17.7)

Sixth, just because God is in control, we must not fail to appreciate the goodness of those who do us good, and the wickedness of ourselves and others who do us wrong.

In other words, don’t forget that God works often “with means.”

“…in the blessings which he receives…revere and extol God as the principal author, but…also honor men as [your] ministers, and perceive, as is the truth, that by the will of God [you] is under obligation to those, by whose hand God has been pleased to show [you] kindness. If [you] sustain any loss through negligence or imprudence…believe that it was the Lord’s will it should so be, but, at the same time…impute it to [yourself].” (Calvin 1.17.9)

And when it comes to those who do you harm:

“…in the case of theft or murder, fraud and preconceived malice have existed…palliate it under the pretext of Divine Providence, but in the same crime…distinctly recognize the justice of God, and the iniquity of man, as each is separately manifested.” (Calvin 1.17.9)

In other words, don’t let the truth that God is in control, blind you to the goodness or the wickedness of men.

Seventh, consider how terrible and unsettling it would be if all were left to chance. 

Truly…think about how terrible the situation would be if God were not ultimately in control.  Calvin turns our attention to our vulnerability to illustrate this point.

“Innumerable are the ills which beset human life, and present death in as many different forms…in what direction soever you turn, all surrounding objects not only may do harm, but almost openly threaten and seem to present immediate death.” (Calvin 1.17.10)

In other words, think about how many different ways you could die.  If God is not in control, the length and quality of your life is nothing but a roll of the dice.  How encouraging that would be to your soul?

I’m with Calvin when he writes “ignorance of Providence is the greatest of all miseries, and the knowledge of it the highest happiness.” (Calvin 1.17.11)

Truly.  How else should a person react, when he takes a gander at the sad state of the world around him, if he doesn’t believe in “God’s “constant care for and His absolute rule over all His creation for His own glory and the good of His people”?  Cold and ignorant indifference is the best response he could hope for.

Knowing that God is working in, caring for, and ruling over the world for his own glory and the good of his people is a happy kind of knowledge, if we think about it rightly.

Eighth, consciously commit yourself to rest in the gracious care and oversight of God. 

Strive to be the kind of person who Calvin describes in this chapter:

“…once the light of Divine Providence has illumined the believer’s soul, he is relieved and set free, not only from the extreme fear and anxiety which formerly oppressed him, but from all care. For as he justly shudders at the idea of chance, so he can confidently commit himself to God. This, I say, is his comfort, that his heavenly Father so embraces all things under his power—so governs them at will by his nod—so regulates them by his wisdom, that nothing takes place save according to his appointment; that received into his favor, and entrusted to the care of his angels neither fire, nor water, nor sword, can do him harm, except in so far as God their master is pleased to permit.” (Calvin 1.17.11)

This is the purpose of the biblical doctrine of God’s providence:  That we would “confidently commit [ourselves] to God,” as Calvin says.  That is how we make good use of the doctrine of God’s Providence.

“Oh, for grace to trust him more.”

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