There are times when it seems life is out of control, when it seems the universe is out of control. Perhaps a close friend or family member dies, or we become ill. Another terrible shooting is reported on the news. We lose a job, or can’t seem to find a job. We run into financial trouble. We have one of those weeks when nothing seems to go as we planned. At times like that, life can seem unpredictable and arbitrary…and that’s why the doctrine of God’s providence is so important to our faith.
The word “providence” comes from the Latin, providentia, to foresee or to attend to, and refers to God’s governance of nature and history, his divine will, foresight, protection, intervention, or predetermination. Providence implies first that there is a God; and second that God sees the end from the beginning, that God is actively moving not just your life, but all of creation, toward a goal and an ultimate purpose.
In our ultra-democratic age this idea of God’s providence, that God is in charge, is seen by many to be a monstrous insult to our human freedom. But history shows that God’s absolute freedom and sovereignty over humankind is really good news. When human beings claim to be in charge with absolute sovereignty, all hell breaks loose, literally. In the 20th century alone, the systematic purges, death camps, starvations, and summary executions of Pol Pot, Adolf Hitler, Jozef Stalin, Kim Il Sung, and others caused the deaths of many tens of millions. Today, Kim Jung Un is regarded as an omnipotent genius, and worshiped as a god. He and those like him take their place among the foolish emperors, fuhrers, kings, politicians, and even religious leaders, who have played God and caused immense suffering in the process.
But while the Bible states that God alone is sovereign and free, it does not mean that human beings are not free in any sense at all. God is the absolute or first cause of all things, but human beings are still derivative or secondary causes. We are free to act within God’s plan (Romans 8: 28-30). The tension in scripture between God’s sovereignty and human freedom is complementary rather than contradictory. For example, God’s revelation to Joseph of the coming famine (Genesis 41) was also the invitation for Joseph and Pharaoh to act. God chose that Joseph should have a choice to respond. The point here is that our conviction that God presides over or governs human history can set us free to act boldly and without fear in the world for the greater good and God’s glory. It was this same belief in God’s providence, and his justifying grace that set Dietrich Bonhoeffer free to work boldly against the Third Reich. Here again are the words of his poem, Action, which I committed to memory long ago…
Do and dare what is right, not swayed by the whim of the moment.
Bravely take hold of the real, not dallying now with what might be.
Not in the flight of ideas but only in action is freedom.
Make up your mind and come out into the tempest of living.
God’s strength is enough and your faith in Him to sustain you.
Then at last freedom will welcome your soul amid great rejoicing.
- From D. Bonhoeffer, Ethics
God’s sovereign strength, providence, and power was the foundation for Bonhoeffer’s heroic actions. And so, set free by the conviction that God is in charge, we step out in faith with the words of the apostle Paul on our lips, “Work out your salvation with fear trembling, for God is at work in you both to will and to work for His good pleasure!” - Phil. 2:12. As we look at our lives, the past, the present, and the future, we can know that we have been forgiven for the sins of the past, invited to join God in his saving work today, and that our future is held securely in the hands of the Risen Christ. Hope to see you soon…