What is “providence?” How is your theology of providence? Many Christians struggle to answer those questions. The doctrine of providence is multi-faceted and rich, but for our purposes here, it can be simplified.
At the heart of providence is the word “provide.” Providence is the ongoing provision God gives to His creatures, especially His children, day to day, through natural causes, even in the midst of trials. There are several key elements here. Let’s unpack a few.
First, providence is all about God’s ongoing, sustaining grace, care and provision for His creatures. God’s care for His creation started in the beginning as described in Genesis 1-2, continues throughout all human history, and culminates in glory at the end of the age. His intimate, personal care never stops; is never hindered by surprises; is never thwarted or compromised by evil forces. This is in contrast to Deism that says God is impersonal, distant, and not involved. The Bible says otherwise. God’s very name is Jehovah-jireh, “The One Who Provides” (Gen 22:14). He is the providential One as He “gives food to all flesh, for His lovingkindness is everlasting” (Ps 136:25). Christ Himself is the providential One as He “upholds all things by the word of His power” (Heb 1:3).
Second, providence describes God working through “natural” or normal causes, and not through supernatural intervention as He did through miracles. Though they are different in nature, God working through miracles and working through natural causes are both divine, other-worldly and are orchestrated by God’s hand to fulfill His purposes. But in providence God accomplishes His good will through secondary causes, using our actions, words and prayers, as well as every other creaturely action and reaction under the sun, whether good or bad, to accomplish all the countless details of His masterplan. He is the Conductor over a symphony of infinite variables going on simultaneously in heaven and on earth, never manipulating our volition, yet always accomplishing His perfect will. With the psalmist, we say, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is too high, I cannot attain it” (Ps 139:6). But by faith, we rest in it.
Third, providence shines in relief most in the midst of evil, trials or a crisis. During hard times, God’s unseen hand is constantly moving behind the scenes, above the clouds, invisibly, putting everything in place precisely where He intends. Everything is under His control (Ps 115:3). He is surprised by nothing (Job 42:2). He not only knows the future (Ps 139:4)—He determines the future (Isa 46:9-10). God works all things together for good, including the bad and evil things (Rom 8:28). The epitome of this astounding truth is the death of Jesus Christ—the most vile act in history and at the same time the most blessed act of grace in history. This two-fold truth is proclaimed by Peter, indicting the wicked men of Israel who killed Jesus: “this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death” (Acts 2:23). God turns evil into good. That is providence.
Fourth, although the providence of God’s ongoing grace spills over onto unbelievers, it is primarily intended for believers. God has a special love for His people: “God is the Savior of all men, especially of believers.” The promise of Romans 8:28 is directed to believers: “we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who are called according to His purpose.” God turned the evil of Joseph’s brothers when they wanted to kill him into good over a decade later when God raised Joseph up to be equal with Pharaoh (Gen 37-41). Joseph’s older brothers sold him as a slave to be rid of his presence, only to have God put Joseph into a position of power through the normal course of events, whereby Joseph could be used to preserve Israel, God’s elect, in the midst of a worldwide famine (Gen 42-50).
The stories of Joseph and Esther are two beautiful examples of how God provides for His people in the midst of crisis and evil through secondary causes. A key to understanding providence is to realize that we don’t see it clearly until after the fact, in hindsight. And that is by God’s design. God does not want us continually speculating in the midst of a crisis, asking ourselves, “What is God doing right now? What is God teaching me?” That was Job’s mistake (38:1-3). Rather, God expects believers to “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). Soon enough, as time passes, He’ll allow us to look back and see the trail of His gracious providence that led us every step of the way.