Providence – not Superstition – for 2019

Providence

Trust is believing that ultimately God’s purpose will prevail – even amidst the apparent triumph of evil and when good seems so overwhelmed.  God is working out His purpose.  Even when we are hard of seeing and hearing how it happens, it will have its victory.

 

It is that time of the year – the old one concluding, and a new one beginning – when superstitions and pseudo-sciences are at their peak of influence and following.  Polka dots and round fruits to represent wealth.  Preference for pasta to symbolize long life.  Feng Shui to manipulate good energies.  Zodiac and Chinese calendar-cycle to divine the secret charm of the coming year.  The options are numerous.  Each is an exercise in false hope.

A well-instructed Christian will not give credence to any of these superstitions.  It is not because the Christian’s alternative is fatalism.  A what-will-be-will-be attitude is not Christian at all.  Certainly, it is not according to the Word of God.  A Christian is as much concerned as anyone else for the new year’s prospect.  He has his expectations.  He hopes.  But he holds steadfastly to something more certain than superstitions.  It is called providence of God.

Concept of Providence

It is not a word that is commonly used in the English Bible.  In the KJV, it only occurs once (Acts 24:2), and there it only means the foresight of Felix’s leadership.  The one time it occurs in the NIV is closer to our sense, in Job 10:12, You gave me life and showed me kindness, and in your providence watched over my spirit. But while sparse in occurrence, the idea pervades biblical thought.  In systematic theology, providence is put under the category of the works of God – after His predestination and creation.  Where predestination is the plan of God from eternity past (also called decrees), providence is the execution of the plan in time and history.  In the simple assertion of Reformed theologian Hermann Bavinck, “according to Scripture and the church’s confession, providence is that act of God by which from moment to moment he preserves and governs all things.” [ Hermann Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol 2: p. 596 ]

The pervasive “all things” in the coverage of providence is intended to spare nothing from God’s governing control.  All created things are in the two modes of either remaining in the same state, or changing into another state – in philosophical language, being or becoming.  Belief in providence holds that all states of being remain as they are by the preservation and provision of God.  As Nehemiah exalts God: You alone are the LORD; You have made heaven, The heaven of heavens, with all their host, The earth and everything on it, The seas and all that is in them, And You preserve them all (Neh 9:6).  Even the changes, the becoming, are directed by the purpose of God.  In contrast with the pagan deities, the prophet asserts, The LORD of hosts has sworn, saying, “Surely, as I have thought, so it shall come to pass, And as I have purposed, so it shall stand…”  For the LORD of hosts has purposed, And who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, And who will turn it back? (Isa 14:24, 27).

Theologian GC Berkouwer summarizes, “All things, having once proceeded from God’s creative hand, are still utterly dependent upon his omnipresent power… all things are indebted for their existence to the preserving act of God; let God cease to act and the universe will cease to exist.  This concept of sustenance opposes every claimant to absoluteness in this world – gods and idols, and any who would autonomously and sovereignly pretend to a self-sufficient existence.” [ G.C. Berkouwer, The Providence of God: p. 50 ]

The assertion of Scriptures is as emphatic when it pertains to God’s providence in the affairs of mankind – human actions and intentions.  This happens without any infringement of man’s moral accountability and responsibility.  When men do the evil, the culpability is theirs; but even the evil does not happen outside God’s providential purpose.  Sometimes, God restrains the evil (Gen 20:6); and at other times, He lets loose man’s own evil devices, So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own devices (Psa 81:12).  In this, humans remain ‘free agents’ in their actions.  Their will is not coerced contrary to their nature.  Providence must not be stretched to the denial of human freedom and moral responsibility.  In the language of the Confession, “God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty and power of acting upon choice, that it is neither forced, nor by any necessity of nature determined to do good or evil.” [ 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: IX. 1 ].

Use of Providence

How are we to use the concept of God’s providence in facing the prospect of 2019?

It is a corrective to the heavy emphasis on the miraculous and spectacular.  A dominant faction in Christian circles has inculcated the expectation that God’s acts of power are to be seen in the miraculous and supernatural.  Its effect is the impoverishment of faith – reducing it to a magical formula that is more pagan than Christian.  Many are blind to the wonder of providence that is often hidden in ordinary motions – human or natural.  The 19th century English preacher, CH Spurgeon, puts it eloquently:

Everything is in the Divine purpose, and has been ordered by Divine wisdom. All the events of your life – the greater, certainly; and the smaller, with equal certainty.  It is impossible to draw a line in Providence and say this is arranged by Providence and that is not. God’s Providence takes everything in its sweep- all that happens. Divine Providence determines not only the movement of a star, but the blowing of a grain of dust along the public road. God’s Providence knows nothing of things so little as to be beneath its notice, nothing of things so great as to be beyond its control. Nothing is too little or too great for God to rule and overrule. [ Spurgeon’s Sermons “The Hairs of Your Head Numbered” #2005. Mt.10:30 ]

It is an inspiration to the real challenge of faith – to trust in God.  In his book, Trusting God, author Jerry Bridges makes an impressive comparison between obeying God’s commands and trusting God in our circumstances.

Why is it easier to obey God than to trust Him?  Because obeying God makes sense to us… But the circumstances we often find ourselves in defy explanation.  When unexpected situations arise that appear unjust, irrational, or even dreadful, we feel confused and frustrated.  And before long we begin to doubt God’s concern for us and His control of our lives. [ Jerry Bridges, Trusting God: ch 1; from the back cover ]

Trust is believing that ultimately God’s purpose will prevail – even amidst the apparent triumph of evil and when good seems so overwhelmed.  God is working out His purpose.  Even when we are hard of seeing and hearing how it happens, it will have its victory.  As Stanley Grenz confidently assures,

Despite appearances to the contrary, the world historical process is going somewhere.  God is directing human affairs to the final revelation of his sovereignty and reordering of the universe in the new heaven and the new earth.  In his time, God will act decisively.  And even now he invites us to orient our lives around his ongoing program.  By means of allegiance to God revealed in Christ we can exchange the disorder of life for a new order marked by community or fellowship with God, others, and all creation. [ Stanley Grenz, Theology for the Community of God: 123 ]

Believing in God’s providence, we can own the language of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563):

Q28:  What does it profit us to know that God created and by His providence upholds all things?  

A28:  That we may be patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity, and for what is future have good confidence in our faithful God and Father, that no creature shall separate us from His love, since all creatures are so in His hand, that without His will they cannot so much as move.

What a comfort the providence of God truly is!  May it be the foundation of your hope in 2019.  A God-blessed New Year to all!

‘I know who holds the future’ of 2018

Ecc 7 14

The Economist issue on “The World in 2018” is summarized succinctly by its editor thus: “It promises to be a nerve-jangling year.”  So it may prove to be.

Futurology is the study of future possibilities based on current trends.  That it uses scientific tools differentiates it from divining out of crystal balls or tarot cards.  There is certainly nothing wrong with that.  In fact, it is responsible to use current patterns – economic, political, demographic; etc. – to extrapolate expectations.  Proper preparations can then be set up.

That conceded, a Christian must be alert to the pride that often attends such prognostications.  The future that experts predict as sure has so often bombed.  We are periodically inconvenienced by a failed weather forecast.  Investments deemed to earn sure profit fall flat.  Stock  markets jitter between bear and bull.  And need we be reminded of who, the polls were sure, to win the last American presidential elections?  Overheard of a crew member trying to assure an anxious passenger of the Titanic were the words, “Madam, even God cannot sink the Titanic!”  Whether or not the story really happened, it is an everyday fact that human pride excludes God from consideration of the future.

While we do our responsible preparations for what the future may bring, it must be in humble spirit.  It is balance that is struck by biblical Wisdom: The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the LORD. (Prov. 21:31 ESV).  Whatever the battle confronting us, there is to be due readiness with all tools and implements at disposal.  This applies to our academic studies, our jobs and commerce, and national plans.  But behind even the most meticulous planning should be the humble recognition that only God’s favour can give success.  So James advises for every human plan, you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that’ (Jas. 4:14-15).

James touches the most basic of human limitations: you do not know what tomorrow will bring.  This is true of the tomorrow of the next 24 hours; and that of the next 365 days of 2018.  It calls for humility that casts oneself upon the God who alone knows and holds the future.  The Lord is jealous for His sovereignty over the future.  Against the false gods of Babylon, He claims for Himself: I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose’ (Isa. 46:9-10).

But in our generation, to be told that one is unable to shape his future by himself goes against present wisdom.  Bookstores are littered with bestsellers that assure their readers, Your best life now!  It is pride that will laugh at the words of the song, I do not know what lies ahead / The way I cannot see / Yet One stands near to be my Guide / He’ll show the way to me!

Without the assurance of the God who holds the future, anticipating that future will alternate between a fearsome darkness, or a prideful path.  One may face the future like Dylan Thomas, Rage, rage against the dying of the light!  Or else, own the resolve of William Ernest Henley, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul!

Neither is acceptable to the believer who has learned to submit to God in His sovereign control.  That submission will not yield to a fearsome darkness of superstition, nor will it own a prideful path of self-direction.  Instead it confesses in the wise words of biblical Wisdom: In the day of prosperity be joyful; but in the day of adversity consider: Surely God has appointed the one as well as the other, so that man can find out nothing that will come after him (Ecclesiastes 7:14).  The Christian will own every line of that song, adding its plea:

I know who holds the future,

And He’ll guide me with His hand.

With God, things don’t just happen,

Everything by Him is planned.

So as I face tomorrow,

With its problems large and small,

I’ll trust the God of providence,

Give to Him my all.

A God-blessed future for everyday of 2018 to all!