understanding providence

How much effort should you put into trying to understand your providences?

Take it as a given that all things work together for good to them that love God.

Also, take it for granted that we clearly aren’t able to  comprehend all the details of our circumstances or understand fully how they fit together or see all their effects. They say that our lives are like the back of a tapestry, all knots and tangles, and you don’t see the beautiful harmony of the finished product until you turn it over, which a person can’t do till they reach heaven. (And even then – ?)

So is it a sign of undue carelessness to say that you’re not going to try too hard to make sense of your providences? Or should you reflect on as much as you can and try to work out what God means by what happens in your life? Is there a difference between being satisfied in and with God and feeling you understand what his doings mean? Do you need to understand what he’s doing in order to trust him?Are his dealings not sometimes inevitably opaque, such that “what is he saying to me by this detail” is sometimes simply an inappropriate question to ask? Is it too pietistic to say you should spend more time contemplating the solid, known truths of the gospel rather than puzzling over things you can never get a guaranteed understanding of?

31 thoughts on “understanding providence

  1. 1) As much as serves the salvation of souls and the glory of God. Duh.


    2 – no
    3 – not necessarily
    4- yes
    5 – no
    6 – Yup
    7 – nope

    “My thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways” “The Lord moves in mysterious ways” ekcetra.

    That was easy.

    Is this a rhetorical post written in mild exasperation caused by someone being all tediously and vacuously life-interpretative?


  2. The whole works of the Lord our God. are great above all measure,. Sought out they are of ev’ry one. that doth therein take pleasure. Psalm 111: 2


  3. Not rhetorical :) Those are the right answers (i hereby declare) A real difficulty for some folks esp in perplexing circumstances. If his name is Jehovah-Jireh, why am I so bereft? etc. The fact that we must search out his works is entirely obvious. The question is how it is best to be done so as to be beneficial in an individual’s own case.


  4. Is it too pietistic to say we should put more effort into having the right response (of humility, gratitude) to our providences, than into understanding what they mean?


  5. Nope.

    Anyway, everything usually means two things, namely “I’m crap, God loves me anyway.” Usually it is more precise on in what way I am rubbish, which is useful for avoiding Pointless Generic Guilt of the Neurotic Kind, and for kissing the divine hand with greater gratitude.

    Are you sure these posts aren’t the result of exasperation with someone?


    • I’m *positive* ! :)

      But am maybe causing exasperation in the direction of sounding too pious/spiritual than (a) i am and (b) is helpful. Hence appreciating your reassuring responses. (So much so that I’m trying out the “threaded comments” function on your reply :) )


      • so it does. How exciting. Must implement!

        nuvver fot – if really bad things happen, then of course they don’t make sense in themselves, because evil makes no sense. The only sense we can make out of evil (natural or moral) is of the good mixed up in it or that comes out of it or that is shown up by it.


        • (This is 4 levels deep, i’ve just changed it – wonder how deep it can go before it gets too unwieldy)

          Well certainly the most useful thing i ever read on sin (or explaining it) is that it is the only irrational thing in God’s universe, so no wonder we can’t understand how it ever came about.
          (That was Rabbi Duncan, in the amusingly titled Colloquia Peripatetica, if i’ve spelled that right – he used to stroll around the Meadows discoursing with anyone who would walk with him)


    • It doesn’t allow me to reply to Cath’s 4th-level-reply so there. (And I’m wondering where this is going to show up now – i hope below cath’s remark.)

      I’m curious about Rabbi Duncan. He still in Edinburgh?


  6. Thanks, Cath, for inspiring questions, not least because they led to Berenike linking to a great post on dealing with fear of death.

    If it pleased God to shroud Himself as well as quite a chunk of reality which He created into mystery (if not outright paradox), why not try both: probing into the meaning of life and growing in the humility of not knowing?
    It isn’t always a bad thing being a Christian and an agnostic at the same time.


  7. Recently saw Sproul being quoted as saying there’s plenty room in the Christian faith for paradox and mystery, though no room for contradictions. The kind of agnosticism that professes ignorance of what’s beyond human understanding is surely/admittedly necessary, as long as it’s not the kind that remains undecided on the being and attributes of God himself :) I don’t think we need (or have any right/reason to expect) to understand his workings in providence, but there’s no real excuse for uncertainty as to who he is, and how we can be reconciled to him.


    • One person’s paradox is another person’s contradiction ;-)

      The two kinds of agnosticism which you mention may not be quite as distinguishable as you seem to make out. While I’m still certain about the way of reconciliation, I do believe that the nature of God leaves plenty of room for uncertainty. How else can it be where a finite mind tries to grasp the nature of an infinite being. A “personal God” shouldn’t become too anthropomorphic a God (even though our language cannot avoid using anthropomorphic imagery in describing Him); and where does “Triune” start to become “transpersonal”? Just a few coathangers for my musings …


    • Uncertainty? rather than certainty about a limited number of things? :) A finite mind is very quickly out of its depth, trying to comprehend an infinite being, but that needn’t result in uncertainty, as long as what is grasped is essentially true.

      Not sure I understand what’s meant be transpersonal. Saying that God is a personal God on the other hand really doesn’t have to be understood in terms of human persons. Can’t decide if “personal” means he relates to his creatures in a personal way, or exists in three persons, but either way, whatever anthropomorphisms are appropriate, they’re only analogies on the human level of things that are true in a vastly different way of God who is transcendent. This is maybe getting a bit too philosophical for me though :)


      • Yeah, I know, “transpersonal” is really a bit … hm … transluding me. :-)

        An analogy might be dimensions. We can talk about ourselves as three-dimensional (and some have added a fourth dimension, time). And of course, we can imagine one- or two-dimensional beings / existences. However, when it comes to God (apart from Him appearing in three / four dimensions in Jesus), it may not be sufficient to call him “multidimensional” as he might simply transcend dimensions, hence “transdimensional”. So, philosophically, there are a number of uncertainties about God. None of which I find overly disconcerting. Simply wanted to have it mentioned.


  8. Yes (you got here before me)

    transcendence of God refers to his absolute self-existence and independence from his creation. Not like the way you might say Barak Obama transcends race and party politics etc – this transcendence is utterly, infinitely eternally above any actual or imaginable aspect of creation
    which is why analogies on the human level of any revealed mystery inevitably fall short – it’s simply impossible to categorise or comprehend/encapsulate him in our terms, even by imagining something an order of magnitude bigger than the biggest thing we can imagine, although i don’t think i’m expressing myself very well here.


  9. Van Til – “… we must stress the point that man must always be different from God. Man was created in God’s image. We have seen that some of God’s attributes are incommunicable. Man can never in any sense outgrow his creaturehood. This puts a definite connotation inot the expression that man is like God. He is like God, to be sure, but always on a creaturely scale. He can never be like God in God’s aseity, immutability, infinity, and unity. For that reason the church has embedded into the heart of its confessions the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God. God’s being and knowledge are absolutely comprehensive; such knowledge is too wonderful for man; he cannot attain unto it. Man was not created with comprehensive knowledge. … Neither could man ever expect to attain to comprehensive knowledge in the future. … even in heaven. It is true that much will be revealed to us that is now a mystery to us, but in the nature of the case God cannot reveal to us that which as creatures we cannot comprehend; we should have to be God ourselves in order to understand God in the depth of his being. God must always remain mysterious to man.”


  10. Oops – how did I, who was nurtured theologically on Barth’s otherness of God and who frequently complained about some theological language and concepts being too anthropomorphic, fall into that trap? Thanks for setting me straight again.

    I would still maintain that some people’s concept of “person” is too anthropomorphic. Our understanding of that term is predominantly shaped by interaction with *human* persons. But I better stop talking way out of my competence … ;-)


  11. [Cath this is loooooong so you might want to edit it or not post it or or or …]

    From Joseph Bolin’s book “Paths of Love” – on vocational discernment, but I think this bit from the last chapter is easily applied to this question:

    (4) Attempting to draw everything from the particulars of providence
    Another method used for discerning a vocation, which is related to the previous method, is that of examining the particular events in our life, in order to see where providence is leading us. The great advantage of this approach is that it helps us see the whole of our life as a continuous dialogue with God. God speaks to us in all of the events of our life, and we speak to him in all of the choices we make. And this approach is actually a good one as long as it is rightly understood.

    Since all things are under the governance of God’s providence, in order to consider that God’s providence is guiding us to a certain choice, we must do one of two things. First, we may look for miracles of providence—i.e., things that are so improbable that they can be considered miraculous—which somehow signify that we ought to make a particular choice. This is then in effect the same way as the previous way; we are looking for something that externally expresses God’s will for us. And so this way also has the same weaknesses and dangers as that way does.
    Another way of taking guidance from divine providence, is to try to see what is good in the various possibilities presented by providence, or even determined by providence. For example, if we happen to meet repeatedly the same religious community or the same person (whom we might consider marrying), to consider whether it might be good to join that community, or marry that person. Or again, if we find ourselves for a long time unable to pursue the course that we had wanted to pursue, to consider whether it might be better to do something else. This approach is good, as long as we bear in mind that it does not determine what the better thing to do is (unless only one good and possible choice remains), but only draws our attention in certain directions, so that we can think and pray about those possibilities. Often God would like us to persevere in spite of difficulties, or to look beyond the good possibilities being immediately presented to us, so that we can make an even greater gift of ourselves. It is true that we should always live in the present, in the sense that we should seek to do and to act well now, but this often means having our eyes and hearts open for more than what is presently proposed to us.

    If, on the other hand, we want to be led by divine providence in the sense that our judgment about what is good is to be determined simply by providence, then we will most likely end up being led by our feelings. For it is in fact impossible to depend only on providence, since our perception of what is being presented is necessarily mediated through our understanding. E.g., someone with a well-formed moral conscience, who falls in love with a woman, could see the good to pursue as the good of marriage—while someone with a poorly-formed conscience, could see the good to pursue simply as sexual intimacy. Thus, to seek to have our judgment be determined in this way by providence, will ultimately mean removing rational considerations—except for general considerations, or when something is clearly seen to be bad—and basing ourselves primarily upon feelings and emotions. For matters of importance, this is not a good way of making a decision.

    On the other hand, when it comes to relatively unimportant decisions, it is right for our decision to be determined more by feelings than by reasons. In such matters it is not worth attempting to make a rational discernment of what is better. We may decide simply for what strikes us as good at the moment. St. Francis de Sales gives this as the solution for those who are tempted to doubt “whether it is God’s will for them to do one thing rather than another: as for example, whether or not they should eat with a friend… whether they should fast on Friday or on Saturday, whether they should take recreation or abstain from it.”

    He explains:
    We should not weigh every little action to know whether it is of more value than others… It is not good service to a master to spend as much time in considering what is to be done, as in doing the things which are needful. We are to proportion our attention to the importance of what we undertake…. To what end should I put myself out to learn whether God would prefer me to say the Rosary or Our Lady’s Office… to go to visit the sick in the hospital rather than to Vespers, to go to a sermon rather than to a church where there is an indulgence? Generally there is no such noteworthy importance in the one more than the other that it is needful to make any great deliberation. We must walk in good faith and without minute consideration in such matters, and, as St Basil says, freely choose what seems to us good, so as not to weary our spirit, lose time, and put ourselves in danger of disquiet, scruples, and superstition. But I mean always where there is no great disproportion between the two works, and where there is no considerable circumstance on one side more than on the other.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s