providence - Basic Issues
It was All Saints Day, November 1, 1755. In Lisbon, Portugal, considered one of the most Christian cities in the world, thousands of people packed the local churches. Then at 9:40am one of the largest earthquakes in recorded history (estimated to be between 8.5-9.0 on the Richter scale) hit the city. As the churches swayed people ran out into the streets only to be crushed by falling stones. Attempting to get away from the crashing buildings they rushed to the water front only to be met by three successive tsunamis. Finally as they ran from the tsunamis back into the city they were met by fire which ultimately consumed much of what was left of Lisbon. Estimates of deaths range from 10,000 – 100,000, making it one of the most destructive and deadly earthquakes of all time. The questions which then confronted Christian Europe were: did God cause this to happen? Was this the Providence of God?
Providence is not a word that is commonly used in the modern American lexicon other than to refer to a town in Rhode Island or to a hospital system here in Southeast Michigan. I have no great theories on why we have allowed a term of such great Biblical and theological importance to go dormant, yet we have. Be that as it may we are going to resurrect it for a little while not only because it matters to “the church” but because it matters to us. I say that because, whether we realize it or not, we not only deal with the concept of providence on a regular basis, but we often struggle with it during some of the most difficult times of our lives (as did those who suffered in the Lisbon earthquake).
Let’s begin with a few simple definitions of providence from Dictionary.com.
1. The foreseeing care and guidance of God or nature over the creatures of the earth
2. God, especially when conceived as omnisciently directing the universe and the affairs of humankind with wise benevolence
3. A manifestation of divine care and direction
The issue at stake in these definitions as well as in any discussion of or struggle with Providence is that of how much power does God have and how does God use it. We wrestle with these issues every time we ask questions such as: “Why did God let this happen?” “How could God allow evil to exist?” “Why am I still here when I want to die?” “Why hasn’t God answered my prayers?” We also make reference to Providence when we make statements such as: “It’s all in God’s hands.” “God always has a purpose.” “God’s in control.” “God will provide.”
Over the millennia people of various religions, races and cultures have wrestled with these questions. They have wondered about their own freedom from or dependence on God or the gods. At times people have believed themselves to be completely independent of supernatural forces while at other times people have come to see themselves as no more than puppets of the gods/God. As we will see over the next few weeks Judaism and Christianity have expressed and held widely divergent views on the extent of God’s Providence.
A final piece with which we must deal when speaking of Providence is the role that science has played in how we understand God’s control or lack of it in human affairs. As science has developed its understanding of things such as genetics, evolution, geology (including the physics of plate tectonics and earthquakes) and brain chemistry and the social sciences have developed concepts which explain human interactions (both individually and corporately) humanity has the knowledge that allows it to see itself as completely independent of God. We see this in the rise of the New Atheism movement. Writers such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have led this movement which believes that religion, and in many ways, the concept of Providence should be exposed and done away with by rational arguments.
Though much of what I have articulated above is focused on how Providence and evil are linked we will see that Providence in the scriptures is a much broader concept.
providence and the SOVEREIGNTY of god
The concept of Providence (God’s directing the universe and the affairs of humankind with wise benevolence – Dictionary.com), is actually a subset of the doctrine of the Sovereignty of God. The Sovereignty of God refers to God’s unlimited power to accomplish that which God desires. A few examples of the scriptures demonstrating this sovereignty include stories of creation (Genesis 1-2), God suspending the natural order (Joshua 10:13), the directing of nations without their knowledge (Isaiah 10:7-11), God’s power over nature (Job 38-41) and the final renewal of the creation (Revelation 20-22). Thus because God has the power to accomplish whatever God desires, then God can direct the affairs of humankind. The issue which confronts both Judaism and Christianity is just how far does God go in this providential directing of humanity in general and of the lives of individuals in particular. The scriptures give us a rather mixed message.
In this article we will examine those scriptures which imply that God is directing all events and that human beings play no significant part in the outcome of history (either personal or corporate). We begin in the Old Testament. In Genesis 20:1-7 Abram fears Abimelech, King of Gerar. In in order to appease the King, Abram gives his wife Sarah to Abimelech. God however reveals to Abimelech Sarah’s true identity. Abimelech then claims that he has not touched Sarah because he is such a good guy and so should be blameless. God however puts it this way. “It was I who kept you from sinning against me.” In several stories (Leviticus 16:8; Joshua 14:1-2; Chronicles 25:8ff; Acts 1:26) we have the casting of lots (essentially rolling the dice) in order to discern God’s will. The belief is based on Proverbs 16:33 which states that “the lot cast into the lap, but its very decision is from the Lord.” Luck, chance or the odds play no part in the outcome. In terms of great calamities God is the agent behind them. In Amos 3:6 we read, “If a calamity occurs has not the Lord done it?”
Perhaps the best known of all of these stories concerning God’s directing all events is that of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers (Genesis 37-47). The brothers are jealous of Joseph and so plan to kill him, but instead sell him to passing slavers (not a coincidence according to the story). Ultimately Joseph ends up working for Pharaoh and saves his entire family. When asked about it Joseph replies that while his brother meant it for evil, God meant it for good. (Genesis 50:20) Finally we can look to Isaiah 46:9-10. “I am God and there is no one like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, “My purpose will be established and I will accomplish all my good pleasure.”
The New Testament continues this tradition of viewing God as the director of all events.
Jesus refers to this idea in Matthew 10:29 when he states, “Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” The Gospel of John is essentially an entire book about God’s providence. In chapter 3 Jesus reminds Nicodemus that unless he is “born from above,” meaning by God sending the Spirit, Nicodemus cannot see the truth about Jesus. In the same chapter John the Baptist declares, “No one can receive anything except what is given him from heaven.” In chapter 15:16 Jesus tells the disciples that they did not choose him but he chose them. Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion are both the work of God and not that of the religious leaders or political authorities (John 19:11).
The Apostle Paul places a great deal of emphasis on the providence of God. In his letter to the church at Philippi (1:6) Paul writes, “We must understand that it is God who has begun and will complete the good work in us.” He continues (2:13), “It is God who is at work in us both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.” In Romans 8:29 Paul reminds us that “…those who God foreknew, God also predestined to be conformed to the image of God’s son.” In other words all things, including salvation are a gift from God and we have nothing to do with it. Thus God’s providential guidance of humankind is one of the great hallmarks of the scriptures and the Reformed Tradition.
providence and human freedom
One of the struggles for all people of faith has been to comprehend the boundary lines between God’s directing our lives and our ability to make our own decisions. In our two previous articles we looked at the conundrum of providence/control vs. free will/choice. We noted that the scriptures are filled with stories and statements which imply that God is completely in-charge and that everything that happens takes place because God has commanded it. This is, by the way, the historic view of our Reformed/Presbyterian tradition. The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way (and please excuse the 17th century language): “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 orders them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.” In other word there is no free will or choice.
Scripture however does not speak with one voice on this subject. The Bible is filled with stories, statements and revelation which certainly appear to imply that human beings are free to make choices for good and for ill. This view of human freedom begins in the second chapter of Genesis where God gives Adam the freedom to name the animals (Genesis 2:19). This is followed in Chapter 3 where we encounter the famous story of Adam and Eve choosing to disobey God’s command (Genesis 3:5-7). Even though Westminster states that the fall was part of God’s plan (Westminster Chapter V.IV) the Biblical story implies otherwise. The other Genesis saga stories (Cain and Able, Noah and the Tower of Babel) all show humanity choosing to ignore God’s commands and move away from, rather than toward, God.
We continue to encounter visions of free will/free choice throughout the rest of the Old Testament. The wandering story of Exodus contain multiple accounts of God’s including people distrusting God (Exodus 17) and choosing to make a golden calf (Exodus 32). When the people of God are ready to move from the wilderness to the Land of Promise their leader Joshua makes this statement, “Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).
In the book of Judges (this book describes the time period from the conquest of the Land of Promise until the rise of the Kings) the two recurring statements are, “…and the people did what was right in their own eyes.” and “the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” To close out examples from the Old Testament we witness the prophets continually castigating God’s people for abusing the poor and worshipping other gods; two actions for which the people are punished. These statements make it clear that the people of God had some freedom to choose or not to choose to follow the way of God.
In the New Testament Jesus’ teachings imply that human beings have a measure of freedom. Jesus offers both positive and negative commands. Among the positive commands are to follow him, to forgive, to love one’s enemies, to pray for those who persecute you, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and welcome the stranger. Among the negative commands are to not lust after money, women or attention or to judge others. Again by the very act of Jesus offering these commands, the implication is that people have some power to choose to be obedient or not. The Apostle Paul in his letters continues this thread by writing such things as “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” (Galatians 5:16), “Because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9), and “Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Romans 13:2). In these and other statements the Apostle makes it clear that human beings are moral agents with the ability to make choices.
providence - finding a balance
We have reached the place in our discussion of Providence where we need to try to find a balance between those who claim that everything happens exactly as God commands (meaning our lives are scripted before we are born) and those who claim that we have absolute freedom (meaning God waits to see if we will ever love God, neighbor and creation of our own volition). The struggle for us as human beings is, how do we hold these two polar opposites in a biblically based, dynamic tension? The best way that I have found to do this is to offer an analogy. As with every analogy, it is flawed. However I hope that it might prove useful to you as you consider how you blend these competing claims together.
My analogy is of a classroom. As the year begins the teacher knows what needs to be taught, learned and experienced. She has an idea of where the students are supposed to be when they begin the year and a goal for where she wants them to be when she ends the year. In order to accomplish moving the students from beginning to end, she creates lesson plans which lay out the steps by which she will accomplish her task. Then school begins. The students come into the class room from all walks of life. Some of them are ready to learn, others are not prepared. Some arrive having come from families which love them and others from families which have abandoned them. As the school year progresses there are students who are motivated and are willing to follow directions and at the same time there are those students who spend their lives in the principal’s office (and others that are expelled). Along the way the teacher builds relationships, encourages, disciplines and challenges her students. By the end of the year most but not all of her students have become better educated people.
From my perspective this analogy captures much of the Biblical narrative as to the way in which God and humanity go about their providential dance. God begins with the knowledge that human beings are flawed and fallen. They are basically self-centered rather than God or other centered. Next God initiates a plan to take people from where they are, to where God desires them to be; people who love God, neighbor and care for creation.
God works with humanity by building relationships, teaching, loving, forgiving, guiding and disciplining. God uses TAs (prophets, priests, pastors) to do much of this work, but also comes in the flesh to the classroom (in Jesus of Nazareth). God sends the Spirit to help motivate the unmotivated and to help nudge people along. Along the way there are those who cooperate and move toward God’s end goal. There are others however who choose not to cooperate and in fact resist what God is doing. Some of these people are expelled (the nation of Israel) while others are put in time-out (the nation of Judah). Yet God does not resign from God’s goal of moving the people along toward God’s ultimate goal of a restored humanity.
We can see this analogy at work in the story of the Exodus. God’s people are being held captive and are oppressed by Pharaoh. God hears the cries of the people and recruits Moses to be God’s agent of liberation. God does not force Moses to accept but presses him to take the job. Pharaoh is not impressed by Moses’ claim that the Hebrew’s God wants the Hebrews to be set free. So Pharaoh refuses. As the plagues arrive (scripture is not clear if it is God, Moses or nature itself that bring the plagues) scripture tells us that Pharaoh’s heart continues to be hardened by God, yet scripture also makes it clear that God does not force Pharaoh to refuse the release of the Hebrews. Pharaoh can still choose to do the right thing, which ultimately he does. Once released from bondage, God allows the people the freedom to follow, or mess up…both of which they do. Thus in this story we have God at work guiding, directing, disciplining and protecting, while the people are given the ability to make their own choices within the context of their history, culture and experience. The bottom line for me is that providence is a dance in which God takes the lead, dances with multiple partners, some of whom dance better than others, yet it is a dance which God will not end until humanity gets the steps right and the world is redeemed.