PROVIDENCE: A PARTNERSHIP WITH GOD
August 7, 2005
It is instructive to consider the titles of the best selling books on spiritual things these days. There are titles like “The Purpose Driven Life,” “Experiencing God,” or “The DaVinci Code.” One writer recently pointed out that this has a lot to say about the nature of the hungers that are being felt in this postmodern culture where we have reacted to the reason of the scientific age by turning to a “spirituality” in which nothing is nailed down as right or wrong for the individual. This writer observed that “our people are looking for a sense of purpose in their lives, a place in the divine story. They are looking for the mystery of God and a relationship with divinity.” (Matthew Morine, Church Growth Magazine, 2nd Quarter, 2005) Why is it that people are recognizing these needs, even though they often are looking for answers in the wrong places? How should the church be responding to the situation that is around us every day?
One very important thing that we really need to be stressing to ourselves and to others is the providence of God. The idea that our God is involved in life, that he is in control and that he helps us along as his children, is a thought that we cannot live without and a teaching that the world sorely needs. To face up to what the Bible says about the providence of God would mean that a person who is a child of God is intertwined in the story of God’s purpose in life. It means a place in the mystery of God that makes life more than just the meaningless passing of time. Here is a chance for us to walk with the Lord and to experience his character and his will for our lives.
This morning we would like to delve into what the Bible has to say on this important theme. Let’s start with what we mean by the providence of God. The word “providence” is made up of a couple of terms that mean “to see before.” And while the English term is not in the Bible used of God’s action, the idea that God has acted with divine forethought, that God has purposed and planned something, that God is working his will, that God is caring for his world – that theme is definitely stressed in scripture. Providence is the idea that God can work through natural means, that he can use the laws that he has established and ordered in his world and work through those things to do his will. It is the idea that God can work behind the scenes and in ways that we might not even recognize at the time to open doors and to move us along in the way he would have for his people to go. The idea of the loving care of a heavenly Father who deals gently with his children and watches over them and provides for them is contained in the thought of God’s providence. Homer Hailey said that “the providence of God is the working of God through his provision in the natural and spiritual realms. It is a working control in both those realms which neither violates the sovereignty of human will or of divine laws.” (Prayer and Providence, p. 114).
Let’s take a minute to see the way the Bible teaches this principle. The Bible teaches that God surely is involved in providing for the natural world which he has created and in sustaining it and caring for it. In Acts 14:17, Paul taught that “God has not left himself without witness.” The apostle said, “He did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” Psalm 104 stresses the provision of God for his natural world. This whole psalm praises God for his involvement in the world that he has made. Beginning in verse 9 it stresses that the God who set the world on its foundations then laid the boundaries for the mountains and the oceans. He is involved in the ordering of what is often called “the inanimate world.” And then notice in verse 10 and following it says, “You make springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills; they give drink to every beast of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst. Beside them the birds of the heavens dwell; they sing among the branches. From your lofty abode you water the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.” A little bit later he makes the point that “The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God” (v. 21). There are other statements like that, but the idea is that God orders his world even to the point of controlling the natural elements and providing for wild animals in this world. Isn’t that an amazing thought? I can’t explain all of that, but that is what the Bible teaches of the God that I get to call my heavenly Father!
In the second place I want you to see this government of God, this rule of God extends to the nations of the world. Daniel emphasized to some pagan kings that they may think they are rulers but actually the most high God rules in the kingdoms of men. Daniel 4 says that twice. (See also 4:34, 35). In Daniel 5, Daniel gets to tell a pagan ruler that even his breath is in the hands of God (v. 23). Proverbs 21:1 stresses that “the king’s heart is a stream of water in he hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.” In Acts 17 at Mars Hill, the apostle Paul stressed this point as he spoke to the philosophers and others who were there that day. He said, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made by man nor is served by human hands as though he needed anything since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined the allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place.” Notice where they are going to live and how long they are going to live is said to be subject to the God who is our heavenly Father.
Not only does God rule in the natural world and in the civil world of nations of men, but God’s involvement even reaches to the individual lives of people. There is what’s called “general providence” in which God is involved and interested in the lives of all people, and then “special providence” where God especially cares for his people. In Proverbs 20:24 I read, “A man’s steps are from the Lord; how then can man understand his way?” God’s involvement in the individual life raises questions and issues that we are in no position to answer for ourselves and by ourselves. One of the thrilling statements of this idea comes from Psalm 147. In Psalm 147:3 the Bible says of God, “He heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds.” Start with that idea: God deals with broken hearts and binds up their wounds. Then look at what it says in the next few verses: “He determines the number of the stars and gives to them all their names.” Look at that. The God who determines the number of the stars and then names them is actually concerned about me or you when we have broken hearts! That is the thought of the providence of God. It says, “Great is our Lord and abundant in power. His understanding is beyond measure. The Lord lifts up the humble. He casts the wicked to the ground.” God’s special care is over those who humble themselves before him, who fear him (according to verse 11) and who trust and love him (according to that same verse). That kind of providential care is what made the psalmist say in Psalm 37:25, “I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken nor his children begging for bread.” God’s care for his people!
Some of the great stories of the Bible really find their meaning against that background: God working behind the scenes to help and bless his people and to accomplish his will. One of them is the story of Esther. Her cousin Mordecai comes to Esther at a time when she is the queen in Persia. She is in a position where she might deliver her people from almost certain annihilation. And notice that he doesn’t use God’s name and he doesn’t claim here, “This is the providence of God at work” but he does allow for it. He says to Ester, “If you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this” (4:14). Esther then took the courageous action that she needed to take, and God used a sleepless night that the king had, according to Ester 6:1, to remind him of something that then led to deliverance of the people of God. Somebody who was willing, somebody who saw that “possibly in God’s providence this is the time for me,” somebody who acted with courage was used by the Lord to accomplish his will.
In the New Testament there is a story much like this in the little book of Philemon. Remember here is a man, Philemon, who lives at Colosse, and he has a servant named Onesimus, and Onesimus has run off and has stolen from his master and ended up in prison. There is another prisoner called the “apostle Paul” there. Onesimus has been taught the gospel and he has obeyed it and is now a child of God. Paul sends him home. Becoming a Christian doesn’t mean you skip out on responsibilities. You face them. He sends him back home with this letter. He says to Philemon in verses 15-17: “For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother – especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me.” Notice in both of these statements – from Esther and Philemon – a certain amount of humility. The man doesn’t make pronouncements, “This is the providence of God at work.” But one says, “Who knows whether you come to the kingdom for such a time as this.” And the other says, “Perhaps this is why he was parted from you for a while so you could receive him back as a beloved brother.”
Who is able to explain everything about the providence of God? The apostle Paul said in Romans 11 something that truly applies here. Beginning with verse 33 the Bible says, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen”
How do we deal with some of the questions that are raised by this teaching of the providence of God? A couple of things that need to be said we might consider at this point in our study. In my Bible encyclopedia is a statement that might be helpful here. “God’s control is all inclusive and certain. Yet God does not violate the freedom of rational and moral creatures.” (ZBEP, Vol. 4, p. 920). In other words, whatever God does in his providence does not violate the freedom to choose that he has given to us. This is one of the harder things to understand, but I know that it is taught in scripture. Most of us would see the story of Joseph in the Old Testament as one of the great examples of the providence of God. God used things that we wish had not happened to accomplish the purpose of saving his people alive. Remember that in Genesis 45 Joseph makes himself known to his brothers in Egypt where they had sold him some years before. In Genesis 45:4 his brothers came to him and he said to them, “I am your brother Joseph whom you sold into Egypt.” And verse 5 says, “And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here for God sent me before you to preserve life.” They sold him but God sent him. Isn’t that amazing? God worked through something that Joseph’s brothers did of their own free will from low motives, that they were still responsible for and yet God used it to do what he wanted done.
When the gospel is presented in the early chapters of the book of Acts, this idea of God’s work and yet human will is illustrated again. In Acts 2:23 on the day of Pentecost, the apostle Peter says, “This Jesus delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” There is the definite plan and foreknowledge of God but also the will and awful action of godless men. In chapter 4 of Acts this thought comes up again. The idea that God can use to accomplish his will things that are ugly, that are wrong, that men choose to do on their own is illustrated in Acts 4:27-28: “for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.”
How do you put together the will of God and the will of man so that God’s will is done but the freedom of the will of man is not violated? You have to see it almost as one great stream that has more than one current operating within it. Here flows the plan and purpose of the will of God; here flows also the choices that people make sometimes in an effort to thwart God’s will, and here flows also the presence of evil that exists in this world, and God is still able to move that stream toward the accomplishing of his purpose. How does he do it? How can his will and our will both be active at the same time? A part of answering this question is to understand the difference between God’s control of circumstances and his allowing us to make choices. Circumstances and choices are two different things. God may, in his providence, open doors or close doors that either enlarge the realm of choices that are available to be made or limit the realm of choices that are available to be made. God can influence choices that are made based on what he does with circumstances in his rule of this world. I then look at those doors that are open and are available, and I make choices. I am responsible for my choices, but I still live within the providential care of God.
I don’t think the Bible teaches an idea of these choices that some people hold. Some people view it as if here is a hallway, and this hallway is lined with doors on both sides. God only opens up one of those doors and you either choose that door or you don’t choose that door, but if you don’t choose that door that is open, then you have missed God’s will and God’s purpose for your life and it will never be there again. That is not what the Bible teaches. The Bible teaches that if we walk in the light God walks with us. He rules over circumstances. He opens up doors of opportunity that we may choose to enter. We pray for wisdom and we do our best and he goes with us. He opens other doors according to His will. We are not under the pressure of making exactly that right decision at that time or life is ruined. We are called to walk faithfully with God, serving Him to the best of our ability.
In I Cor. 10:13, this view of the providence of God is taught. Remember that it says that there is no temptation that has taken you but such that is common to man and that God will not allow us to be tempted above what we are able to bear but will with the temptation make also a way of escape. God must be involved in ruling over circumstances and strengthening his people, and our choice must be involved to take that way of escape and to resist that temptation.
Several years ago Batsell Barrett Baxter wrote his autobiography. In his book which he titled, “Every Life a Plan of God,” he begins with this statement: “In a very real sense, every person created by God has a place in his ultimate plan, and each of us as creatures possessing freedom of will either facilitates or frustrates God’s plan for our lives” (p. 8). What he is saying is that providence is an arrangement which calls for willing partnership between man and God.
There are at least three things that all of us must be willing to have happen if we are going to cooperate with the providence of God in our lives. The first is seeking God in his way. Matthew 6 teaches that that same God who dresses up the lilies and who feeds the birds will see that we are clothed and we are fed. But he calls on us to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and then it promises these things will be added to you (v. 33). To “seek” means there is effort that goes into this. This is what really consumes our energies. “First” says that this is priority. What comes first in life and what you put your effort into is the kingdom of God and his righteousness. To be a partner with the providence of God, that has to be the way that I live and the way that you live. Are you seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness?
Second, to cooperate with the providence of God there must be supplication, prayer. In Luke 11, verses 9 and following, there is this statement by Jesus. He says, “I tell you, ask and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” I have to trust God enough as my heavenly Father to actually cast my cares on him, to believe that he cares for me and he will do what is best with those requests. Constant, sincere, believing prayer has to be characteristic of my life.
Seeking God, calling on God in prayer, and the third way we cooperate with the providence of God is to submit to his will. There is one thing that needs to be said in this world where so many are interested in the plan of God, the purpose of God for my life as an individual. How do I discern what God’s will for me is? There is one thing that I feel like I need to say to that kind of question and thinking and that is that whatever God’s will for me is will have to be consistent with what God’s will for all men is. God would have all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. God takes people who are saved and adds them to his church. God calls people who are members of his body to use their talents and abilities in his service to glorify and honor him. God calls on all people to be faithful to him. Whatever my purpose is in life has to be consistent with those things. In James 4, James says, “Submit yourselves therefore to God; resist the devil and he will flee from you; draw near to God and he will draw near to you.”
The providence of God is a partnership between God’s will and ours. To cooperate with him, we have to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, to pray to him fervently and continually, and to submit to him in our everyday lives. When we begin to approach life that way, the providence of God becomes a great comfort in life.
My Bible dictionary has this comment about the providence of God: “Belief in providence determines many of the basic attitudes of Biblical godliness. The knowledge that God determines their circumstances teaches the faithful to wait on him in humility and patience. It forbids them to grow despondent or despairing. It brings them courage and hope when harassed. It inspires all prayers for help and praise for every good thing that is enjoyed” (New Bible Dictionary, p. 991). Wouldn’t you like to put your hand in God’s hand and to be a partner with him as he tries to watch over your life for good and to bring you home? If you would confess your faith in Jesus as the Son of God and the answer to our sins, if you would repent of sin in your life and confess your faith before others, be baptized into him where he promises to raise you up to walk in newness of life, if we can help in that way would you let it be known this morning while we stand and sing?