Back in the mid to late 80s (it must have been) I read an
article by Carine Mackenzie in the FP Young People’s Magazine. She wrote about
taking the family dog to the vet because of some illness. As far as I remember,
the dog was distressed about being at the vet and having an injection (or
whatever treatment it was), and so they longed to be able to comfort their
beloved family pet by explaining what was going on and how this experience,
even though it was upsetting, was really the only way to get better.
But if they’d tried to explain, how could the dog have
processed the information? Its only hope was to accept what was happening
because the vet knew what she was doing and was acting in its best interests.
The point of the story was to illustrate how incapable we
are of understanding everything that happens to us in providence. Often we can
only respond with perplexity and distress to the things that happen to us. Then
our only hope is the fact that the Lord is good, he knows what he is doing, and
it is not only for his glory but also for the good of his people.
The effect of this article, for me and hopefully others, was
not only to give me an abiding affection for Carine Mackenzie and her ilk, but
also to provide a basic framework for understanding providence. I can’t have
been older than 8 when I read it.
And of course, over time, some more things about providence
have swum into clearer focus. In particular these two.
1. Providence is not a mark of grace
To hear some people talk, the mere fact that unexpected
things have happened to you in providence is a sign that the Lord has saved
you. It is an integral part of some people’s testimony, or account of their
call by grace, that certain events happened in their lives with certain details
in certain circumstances and it was all very remarkable.
This is, unfortunately, a fallacy. Time and chance happen to
us all. (Ecclesiastes 9:11) If
you were to write the biography of any single individual on the planet, it
would be full of unexpected events and remarkable deliverances. Nobody,
Christian or not, could have predicted five years ago where they would find
themselves today. The fact that things have turned out better for you than you
feared, or that you have learned some things the hard way, is no sign of grace.
It is simply your own personal version of a universal reality, an experience
shared by every other human being who has ever lived.
This is not to deny that when the Lord does save people, he
does so in a way that interweaves his supernatural grace with the very
specific, concrete, natural facts he has ordained for their lives. You were
born to these godly parents and grew up under that pastor’s faithful preaching
and your job created those opportunities to consider the truths of the gospel,
and so on. Providence and grace are inextricably linked for every one of the
Lord’s people, because grace reaches us in exactly the situation we’re in.
But when the Holy Spirit unites sinners to Christ, we have
to understand his work in theological terms, far more than in providential
terms. It’s not so much that he sends this affliction into our lives or brings
about that deliverance in our circumstances, but that he convinces us of our
sin in the light of God’s holy law, enlightens our minds in the knowledge of
Christ and his salvation, renews our wills to incline us to wisdom’s ways, and
enables us to believe and repent.
If someone’s testimony majors on their personal life events,
while leaving big gaps where they could have talked about their grasp of the
mercy of God in Christ, then, assuming they really are saved, their account of
what the Lord has done for them is sadly defective when it comes to giving him
the glory that is due to his name.
Of course believers should acknowledge what God does in providence.
But the God of providence works marvellous things in the lives of the most
hardened reprobates. Marvellous providences are not a distinguishing feature of
the believer. To believers alone he makes himself known as God the Lord, who
keeps covenant and mercy, and that’s what people’s call by grace is really all
The other side of the coin from this is of course that when
dramatic things have not happened in
someone’s life where they can discern the hand of the Lord manifestly working,
this is not a sign that they have no grace. Far more important than remarkable
stories is evidences of the new birth – trust in Christ, love for the Lord,
grief over sin, prayerfulness, and willingness to walk in the paths of
righteousness for his name’s sake.
2. Providence is not a means of grace
overstates the case to say that providence is not a means of grace. The Lord
does use events and circumstances to further his people’s growth in grace. His
goodness in everyday things should lead us to repentance. The difficult things
he sends (illness, bereavement, relationship breakdowns, financial hardship)
should nudge us to cling closer to him and less tightly to our sins and our
secondary supports. Believers towards the end of their lives have grown in
grace in ways that can sometimes be easily connected to events that happened in
their personal providences.
But granting all of
this, it is still missing the point to treat providence as a means of grace.
For two reasons.
a) Nothing we learn from providence is not already more clearly expressed in Scripture
is not sufficient to inform us of what repentance is, what faith is, or what
sin is. How could it? Whether you study the rise and fall of empires, or the
life cycle of a gnat, you would never get a hint of how the Lord answers the
request of his disciples, ‘Increase our faith.’ Study any conceivable sub-discipline
of epidemiology or meteorology or criminology or sociology to the highest
possible levels of expertise, and you will still be none the wiser how to
follow the apostle’s direction, ‘Grow in grace.’ Drill down as detailed as you
like into the chains of causes and effects and the webs of events and their
interactions in your own life, and you will never know whether or not ‘ye be in
the faith.’ It is not the job of providence to explain these things. For this,
we need Scripture.
Also, providence is
not self-interpreting. Events do not come with a label attached to explain
their purpose. When a problem arises, for example, you can’t automatically tell
whether it is a rebuke (because you’re walking the wrong way and need to change
course), or a test of resolve (something you need to persevere in spite of, as
you walk in the path of obedience). Your walk needs to be judged by the Word,
not by providences.
Providence may well
be a nudge from the Lord to remind us of something we should already know (from
Scripture). But it is not providence itself that informs us. It is not
providence that explains things to us. Too much of providence is completely
inexplicable and impenetrably mysterious – not because we aren’t working hard
enough to make sense of it, but because it is inherently beyond our grasp. Our
questions should be directed to the Word. Our search for explanations should
take place in the Word. If we want to grow in grace, we need to study the Word,
far more than our providences.
It is a big, perplexing,
hindrancing mistake to think that if we are going to grow in grace we need to
understand what the Lord is doing in our providences. We may never know what he
is doing, now or even much further down the line. We may never know why we
needed to have toothache at that particular time or why that particular train
was cancelled – or the reason for that bereavement or losing that job or having
that serious accident.
But we do not need
to understand what the Lord is doing in order to be convinced that he is doing
everything exactly right and in order to push our sins further away and cling
closer to him. That conviction, and the certainty of the rightness of that
response, comes from Scripture, our unfailingly clear guide to the Lord’s
character and purpose, and not from providence, where the Lord’s way is in the
great waters and his footsteps are not known.
b) Nothing that happens in providence gives the believer any grace they didn’t already have
No amount of
providential blessing is enough to make a sinner thank the Lord for his
pardoning mercy in Christ Jesus. No amount of providential hardship is enough
to make a sinner turn from their sin to the Lord in penitence and faith. Grace
in the heart of a sinner only ever comes from the Holy Spirit planting it
there. The faith he gifts is a response to Christ revealed in the Word (not in
providence). The repentance he gifts is a response to the mercy of God in
Christ revealed in the Word (not in providence).
So when a believer
encounters a fiery trial and eventually emerges from it like gold, it is not
the hardship itself that does them good. This is obvious because sometimes,
when a trial comes, the believer makes a bad use of it. They take it as a
reason to complain, to overlook the Lord’s kindness, to lash out at their loved
ones, to look for a solution in creature comforts, and in general to distrust
God. This is because trials are essentially evils. Good does not come from the
evil itself. If any good comes from it, it is because the Lord is using it to bring
the believer to make a good use of it.
The role of
providence in someone’s life is to expose, or reveal, the reality of what’s in
their heart. Trials don’t give repentance, or meekness, or thankfulness.
They can only make it clear whether someone is a penitent, or meek, or
thankful person. They remove the dross, not to make the underlying substance
into gold, but to demonstrate that it really is gold.
Far more effective
as helps to growing in grace are the ordinances which the Lord has explicitly
given for that purpose – especially the reading and hearing of the Word, the
sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper, and prayer.
Delving deeper into
the Word, hearing it expounded from the pulpit, walking in the light of your
baptism, feeding regularly on Christ in the supper, and pleading with the Lord
for mercy for Christ’s sake – these are the activities which strengthen the
believer’s graces. They grow in love, joy, peace, long suffering (etc) as they
participate in activities like these.
Then, it doesn’t
really matter whether providentially they spend their lives lurching from one
crisis to the next, snatched from the lion’s paw one moment and like a brand
from the burning the next, or whether they plod along unremarkably and
insignificantly from week to week and year after year. Spiritually, i.e., far
more importantly, their stability comes from the immutability of the love of
their Saviour, and the highlights of their lives come from new breakthroughs of
light from the truth of the Word.
Conclusion: our circumstances are measured out by the God
of all grace
Undoubtedly, in the experience of any believer, it may well
be in the midst or in the upshot of some providential situation that some
aspect of the truth can become precious, standing out with stark clarity and
warm comfort precisely as it meets them in their situation. That is because the
God of providence is the God of grace. But the truth and its preciousness
remain true and precious irrespective of our situations in providence, and
certainly irrespective of our comprehension of our providence. We can leave
ourselves safely in the Lord’s care, whether or not we understand what’s happening.
That is because God’s grace includes God’s providence, and surpasses it, since
‘over all his other works his tender mercies are.’ (Psalm 145:9)