Yesterday we gave some thought to miracles. Today I want to think about God’s actions in regard to human beings in general and his people in particular – to a subject that is often misunderstood and sometimes confused with his miraculous works. The providence of God is certainly a Bible subject of which there are many illustrations.
Jesus spoke of God’s care for his creation in the sermon on the mount. In Matthew 6:26-29 he says…
“Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”
The creation is not cared for by special miracles, but by the providence of God. That same providence that cares for the “birds and buds” is also the means by which he takes care of human beings as Jesus asserts in this passage. He goes on to elaborate in the following verses…
“But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:30-33).
What does the word “providence” mean? The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says;
The word “provide” (from Latin providere) means etymologically “to foresee.” The corresponding Greek word, πρόνοια, prónoia, means “forethought.” Forethought and foresight imply a future end, a goal and a definite purpose and plan for attaining that end. The doctrine of final ends is a doctrine of final causes, and means that that which is last in realization and attainment is first in mind and thought.
In certain things, God, before something occurs, has already determined the end or objective and the means by which he intends to bring that about. There are several good illustrations of this such as in the preceding quotes from Matthew’s gospel.
The provision of sustenance for both creation and all of humanity is what is sometimes termed “general providence.” The working of God’s purpose in this respect is sometimes referred to as the laws of nature. Things as basic as sunshine and rain, fertile soil, the coming and going of the seasons all figure into the laws of nature and were established by God when he created all things. All these things contribute to the productiveness of the earth for the sustaining of life.
Actually it is broader than just what we see as the laws of nature, but it still is in the realm of law. As far as man is concerned, we obtain our “daily bread” in cooperation with divine providence by either the “law of labor,” the “law of exchange” in which we “buy, sell and get gain” or by the “law of love” by which others take care of us when we are unable to care for ourselves.
There is also what is known as “special providence” which cannot be accounted for by natural law. This means that God sometimes works in the shaping of events so as to bring about a predetermined end. The classic illustration is that of Joseph being sold by his brothers to the Midianites and winding up as a slave in Egypt. After trials and reversals of fortune, Joseph rose to a position of power, saved Egypt from famine as well as his own family when they were forced by circumstances to buy grain from him. When he finally revealed his identity to his brothers, they feared that he will seek vengeance against them for what they had done to him. But he assured them that the events leading up to that very moment – as well as the future of the nation they would become – was all of God’s doing. Joseph told his brothers…
“But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.” (Genesis 50:19-21).
That providence of God regarding Joseph and his family extended through the future of his family and their descendants as they grew to be mighty in number in the land of Egypt. Egypt served as an “incubator” of the fledgling nation. Even the rise of a Pharaoh who enslaved them may be seen as encompassed in God’s forethought as this precipitated the freeing of the Israelites from bondage and eventually their possession of the land he had promised Abraham long before.
This particular providence applies in a special way to those who believe in him.
“The steps of a man are established by the Lord,
when he delights in his way;” (Psalm 37:23).
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28).
While we may benefit materially from God’s special providence (Matthew 6:33), the objective is not material benefit as such, but spiritual. Indeed, God may permit financial losses, sickness or other trials to occur to the faithful to strengthen us and teach us to depend upon him and not ourselves.
“Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5).
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4).
A word of caution is in order. We must not presume that everything that happens is due to a divine action. There are some things – terrible things – caused by the devil through the agency of evil men. A drunk driver runs a stoplight, crashing into a family on their way home from Bible study, killing the mother and three children. Some people will attempt to console the grieving husband and father with something like, “You know God wanted some more angels for heaven!” Or they might say, “God is testing your faith!” That doesn’t console him – it makes God out to be a monster. God does not do things like that to people but the devil does!
We must realize that in all our troubles – and life certainly brings us troubles aplenty – we are promised the presence and help of our Lord to enable us to get through them all. Paul, in Romans 8:35-39, assured Christians who are suffering because of their faith with these words…
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Thank God for his wonderful providence by which we receive so many blessings! But we must realize that we have to not only pray for him to continue to provide our daily bread but we must also work for it. He gives it to us by means of not only the rain and fruitful seasons, but also through the opportunities we are afforded to earn our bread and also by the physical strength and health – which are also gifts from his bountiful hand – that enables us to work for it.