The providence of God is a central Christian doctrine. Providence is the assurance that God, the Creator of all things, does not “walk away” from what God created. God is continually involved with the creation. God upholds the creation, sustaining it. God also leads and guides creation to move to and through God’s purposes. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism put it: “God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions” (Q. 11).
God’s providence is very important and very real to us. The life of all creation, of the world, and our own lives all depend upon God’s providence. God’s providence is always at work. As Christians, we see God’s general providence in the divine purposes at work in the world around us—in nature and with people; as well as God’s special providence in working in our own lives in ways we can recognize as God’s ongoing leading and guiding us, sustaining us with every breath we take.
Yet God’s providence is not always clear and apparent to us. Often, we think we “know what is best” for our lives. But when events or people do not fall in line with our visions, we may think God has “fallen asleep” or is “neglecting” us—not carrying out the kind of providential help we think would be “best” for us.
This is pointed to in the famous story of the aftermath of Winston Churchill’s defeat in the election for Prime Minister. Churchill lost. His wife, Clementine, tried to cheer him up by saying that Churchill’s defeat might be “a blessing in disguise.” Churchill gloomily replied, “At the moment it seems quite effectively disguised.” We know of what Sir Winston spoke!
We all need continually to renew our commitment to trusting God’s providence. Believing in God’s providence as a vital, indispensable dimension of our Christian lives—the lens through which all else is viewed—takes trust. It takes trust when “times are good” to recognize the “goodness” we experience is God’s work. It takes trust when “time are bad” to continue to believe God is leading us and guiding us into God’s best ways for us. In “bane and blessing, pain and pleasure” we trust God’s providential, loving care to sustain and strengthen us, leading and guiding us in God’s ways to carry our God’s will and purposes.[i]
The seventeenth-century theologian and pastor, Stephen Charnock wrote a book which helps us continue to trust God’s providence.[ii] Throughout its 200 pages, Charnock continues to remind us of the nature and importance of God’s providence; and what it can mean for us.
In one section, Charnock discusses the mystery of providence. God’s providence is “mysterious” to us. This mystery can seem “dark” to us when we do not understand what God is doing in our lives—and especially when we think we may know a “better way” for God to be at work!
To help and sustain us in these times, Charnock offers some theological understandings of what God is doing in what we can call the “midst of mystery.” These perspectives give us a deeper view of God’s work; and help to sustain and encourage us as we live out our days.
- God’s ways are above our human methods. Charnock notes that “dark Providences are often the groundwork of some excellent piece [God] is about to discover [display] to the world” (42). Charnock cites biblical examples: Sarah had been barren and then God “brings out the root of a numerous progeny” (Gen. 17:15-22). Jacob suffered a wound in his wrestling match; then was blessed (Gen. 32:22-32). Our temporary distresses can be the preludes to blessings—of which we could never imagine! In the words—and experience—of the Psalmist: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Ps. 30:5). We can live on “tiptoe,” through all our troubles—anticipating God’s new actions and providential help to us. God’s ways are above and beyond our human expectations.
- God’s ends and purposes are higher than human aims. For example, said Charnock, there was a tradition that Caesar Augustus, had initially planned for a taxing of his empire, some twenty-seven years before the birth of Jesus. But because of a “breaking out of some stirs” (civil disturbances), he “deferred his resolution to some other fit time, which was the very time of the birth of Christ” (43-44). This marks, said Charnock, “God’s wise disposal of things, in changing Augustus’s resolution, and deferring it till the Forty Fourth year of his Reign, when Christ was ready to come into the world!” It was this emperor’s decree that necessitated Mary and Joseph to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem (Luke 2:1-7), since Joseph was “descended from the house and family of David” (Luke 2:4). Bethlehem was the city where “Jesse lived, and David was born” (44). In this, the continuity of Jesus with the line of David from which the promised Messiah was to come, was maintained. “How wisely doth God,” said Charnock, “order the ambition and pride of men to fulfil his own predictions, and to publish the truth of Christs birth of the seed of David.” The outcomes of God’s purposes are higher than our human aims and perceptions. In events and decisions—unknown to us—God’s purposes are being carried out!
- God may have several aims in one action. There’s an expression about being able to “walk and chew gum at the same time.” Can we “multi-task”? In the Old Testament, Joseph was imprisoned by Pharoah (see the story of Joseph in Genesis 37-50). But “God makes it a step to his advancement, and by this way brings him from being a Captive to being a favourite” (45). What is God’s aim? It was not only to preserve the Egyptian nation; but moreover to bless “old Jacob and his Family.” Yet God also had a “further design,” said Charnock. God was laying the foundation for something “to be acted in the future age.” Charnock saw Joseph’s experience—and deliverance—a “type of the spiritual deliverance by Christ.” God provided for Joseph and his family. In delivering Joseph, God was “pre-viewing” the kind of deliverance from sin and evil that Jesus Christ came to provide in salvation for God’s people. God can—and does!—do more than one thing at a time! We do not know the range of what God is doing in the actions we perceive. Much more may be at work—beyond our knowledge—in what God’s actions mean—and will mean in the future!
- God has more remote aims than we can see. Charnock used the phrase: “God has more remote aims than Short-sighted Souls are able to espy.” God is concerned not only with a present situation but also for the overall glory of God, even to the “very last ages of the world.” This means, said Charnock, that “in small things, there are often great designs laid by God, and mysteries in the least of his acts.” The story of Isaac being delivered when Abraham was commanded to sacrifice him (Gen. 22) illustrated Charnock’s point. Isaac was delivered from death when “a ram is conducted thither by God, and entangled in the thickets, and appointed to sacrifice” (46). In this, said Charnock, “God sets forth a type of Christ’s death.” God “set forth to the World a type of Christ’s resurrection.” A ram caught in the thicket became the sacrifice God desired. This was God’s “great design.” This experience anticipated—centuries in advance—the sacrifice of God’s own Son, Jesus, who was the sacrifice for our sins by his death on the cross (Rom. 3:25). In his resurrection, we have new, eternal life—as Isaac had “new life” when the ram became the sacrifice and he was freed. In this story of Abraham and Isaac, God was carrying out a divine purpose in anticipating the message of salvation in God’s Son, Jesus Christ! In the “small things” we experience, God can work in ways to serve God’s glory. What are the “small things” in our lives through which God’s greater aims can be at work? God’s purposes go beyond what we are able to see or “espy”!
A favorite hymn by William Cowper begins: “O God, in a mysterious way/Great wonders You perform.”[iii]God’s ways are mysterious. We do not understand them at the time; or, even, later. But we can trust God’s providence. Throughout his book, Charnock advises to “trust providence” (167; 169; 171; 174). He cites Psalm 37:5: “Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.” Charnock wrote: “Commit thy way to the guidance of his providence, with an obedience to his precept, and reliance on his promise, and refer all success in it to God” (175). Even when God’s ways may be “effectively disguised,” we can trust God’s providence. We can believe it is God who “by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20)!
Dr. Donald K. McKim is an Honorably Retired minister of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and lives with his wife, LindaJo, in Germantown, Tennessee. Some of his publications include: (with Jim West), Heinrich Bullinger: An Introduction to His Life and Theology (Wipf & Stock, 2022); Everyday Prayer with the Puritans (P&R, 2021); Everyday Prayer with the Reformers (P&R, 2020); Living into Lent, new edition (Westminster John Knox Press, 2020); Everyday Prayer with John Calvin (P&R, 2019). Several of his other articles can also be found at The Presbyterian Outlook https://pres-outlook.org/
[i] The phrase is from John Bowring, “In the Cross of Christ I Glory,” 1825.
[ii] Stephen Charnock, A Treatise of Divine Providence. In General. In Particular, as Relating to the Church of God in the World (London, 1680). This book is recognized as one of the greatest Puritan treatments of providence, second only to John Flavel’s, The Mystery of Providence (1680). See the new edition: Stephen Charnock, Divine Providence: A Classic Work for Modern Readers, ed. Carolyn B. Whiting (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2022).
[iii] The Presbyterian Hymnal, ed. LindaJo H. McKim (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990), #270.