by John M. Frame
Most Christians I know speak of providence when something happens to them that is both good and unusual. Someone appears to fix your tire, and you reach your meeting exactly on time. When you fear you will miss your rent payment, a check (for precisely the amount you need) arrives in the mail. You pray for the healing of a loved one and shortly later you find a medical treatment that succeeds when all else has failed. These things do happen, and when they do the word “providence” often appears on our tongues.
So providence becomes the Christian alternative to “luck.” When someone says “good luck,” some Christians will remark that we do not believe in luck, only in God’s providence. Luck is something impersonal, a kind of fate or chance. Providence is the hand of our loving God. I’ve even been in churches where “potluck” suppers have to be renamed as “pot providence.” Of course, then the ambiguity of “pot” in our culture has to be addressed.
Using the word “providence” to describe special, coincidental divine blessings is perfectly all right. We do experience these, and providence is as good a word as any to describe them. But we should be aware that the theological definition of providence is much broader than this. The definition of providence is, of course, theological. The word is rarely if ever found in English translations of the Bible, so the concept of providence is to some extent the work of theologians. These theologians have grouped a number of biblical ideas under providence, and it will help us to look at those ideas.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines providence in the answer to question 11: “God’s works of providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.” First, notice that God’s providence is universal. It extends to all God’s creatures and all their actions. So Eph. 1:11 speaks of God who “who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” It is right for us to see God’s hand in the special blessings of life. But it is important for us to see God’s hand in our trials, our pain and suffering, even our own decisions. God’s loving hand operates in everything that happens to me and in everything I do. So Paul calls us to be thankful in everything (1 Thess. 5:18).
We often hear that we should be thankful for God’s mercy in the midst of trouble. But it is harder to see God’s hand in our own sinful or unwise decisions. Let us recognize, however, that God’s hand of providence is in these decisions also. Remember that Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery? Later he tells them, “And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Gen. 45:5), and later, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20). The brothers made a sinful decision. But that sinful decision was part of God’s providence, to keep the family of Jacob alive. The relationship between God’s providence and human sin is mysterious indeed. But it is always true that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). We should not thank God for sin, but we should thank him heartily for using even sin to further his good purposes.
The Catechism also tells us that in providence God “preserves” and “governs.” Government here is not so much a political metaphor as it is the idea of a pilot steering a ship into port. When Heb. 1:3 says that Jesus “upholds the universe by the word of his power,” the picture is not so much that of Atlas holding the world on his shoulders, but of a relay racer carrying a baton to the finish line. God’s government is a dynamic concept, one that gives direction to nature and history. The world process is moving toward a goal, to the fulfillment of all God’s purposes at the return of Christ. History is not just one thing after another. It is a wonderful narrative, that will lead to a fully satisfying (if sometimes surprising) conclusion.
“Preservation” is another aspect of providence mentioned in the Catechism. It means a number of things:
(1) God preserves the existence of the world. Without his permission (and specifically that of Jesus Christ) it would fall apart (Col. 1:17).
(2) God also preserves the world by postponing the final judgment until his purposes are complete. So he promised Noah that he would not destroy the world by another flood (Gen. 8:21-22). Until then, the days and seasons will succeed one another in a regular way. One day, of course, there will be another disaster—this time by fire (2 Pet. 3:7)—like the days of Noah, when God will come in final judgment. In between the flood and the judgment, however, God delays. Why? To give time to the church to preach the Gospel all over the world, and to give opportunity for people to repent of their sins and turn to Christ (2 Pet. 3:9).
(3) Preservation also refers to the way God protects us from danger throughout our lives. As God used the sin of Joseph’s brothers to provide food for them in Egypt, so God regularly “preserves the faithful” (Ps. 31:23). Another Psalm says “he has preserved our lives and kept our feet from slipping” (Ps. 66:9). This is what we usually think of when we use the term “providence.” It includes all the precious coincidences I referred to at the beginning of this article. God often steps in and rescues us, when we most need his help. Of course, this kind of providence has a limit. Unless we live until the return of Christ, we shall all die. But of course even then God’s hand upholds us. If you belong to Christ, not even death can snatch you out of God’s hand (John 10:29). The Lord fulfills his promise of long life (Eph. 6:3), ultimately, in eternal life. And that eternal life begins in the present. Everyone who trusts in Christ already has it (John 5:24).
So providence turns out to be far more than we may have thought it was. Yes, God does give us little surprises through life, and that is a wonderful blessing of knowing him. But providence also extends to everything that happens. It spans all of time and all of space. It carries us from creation to eternity future. Such providence deserves our ecstatic praise: “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever” (Ps. 106:1).