READ : Psalm 121
His promise is that even if evil befalls us it can’t hurt us ultimately. Nothing can interfere with God’s care or thwart his purpose to bless us in the end.
I used to visit a man who was afraid to leave his own house. He had what the psychiatrist called agoraphobia – from agora, the Greek word for “market place,” plus phobia, or “fear.” Agoraphobia is the fear of going out in public. This man was crippled by such a fear fears of a thousand real or imaginary dangers that lurked outside his door. No amount of persuading could coax him out of his house.
But of course, there are almost as many dangers inside our houses. You’re scarcely any safer there than out on the highway. You could slip and fall in the bathtub, or trip down the stairs. Your house could catch fire. Cancer-causing radon gas might be seeping silently into your basement. Your tap water could be contaminated with all sorts of harmful chemicals. In fact, you’re not even safe sitting in your back yard a mosquito bite might give you West Nile virus!
Come to think of it, maybe we should all be terrified!
God Watching Over Me
But for Christians, there is a way to handle our fears. The Heidelberg Catechism begins with the wonderful affirmation that in life and death and everything in between, we are not our own but belong to the Lord. That is our security, our source of strength. We know this is true because Christ himself has redeemed us at the cost of his own precious blood. We have been bought and paid for. And so we are his, completely and forever.
But this truth has major implications for us. Because, as the Catechism goes on to affirm, Christ “also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.” There are echos in that statement of some of the Bible’s most wonderful promises. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” said Jesus to his followers. “Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:29-31).
Then there is the ringing assertion of Romans 8:28: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
God Watching Over Us
So if I belong to Jesus Christ, I can not only be sure of my ultimate salvation, I can be sure of his watchful care over me here and now, every moment of every day. This assurance that the Lord will always protect and watch over his people is derived from the Christian belief in providence. One of the most wonderful biblical expressions of the truth of God’s providential care for his people is found in the 121st Psalm:
He will not let your foot slip –
he who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord watches over you –
the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all harm
he will watch over your life;
the Lord will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore.
What a picture of God’s comprehensive protection. He protects his people from all harm and danger. Nothing can hurt them, neither real dangers nor imagined terrors, by night or by day. “The Lord will keep you from all harm,” says the psalmist (v. 7). “He will keep you from your going out and your coming in.”
But wait a minute. Is that literally true? Do believers have a blanket guarantee of a trouble-free existence? Are we to conclude that Christians lead charmed lives, that nothing harmful or hurtful can happen to us? That would mean that believers would never get sick, never have accidents, never die. Well, obviously that isn’t true. It never has been. We are not always kept in our “going out and coming in.” Christians can and do go out to highway crashes; we come in to diagnoses of cancer. We are spared none of the tragedies and suffering of life, or so it seems.
But then are these biblical promises not true? Well, that can’t be either. For one thing, they don’t seem false. For thousands of years now believers have been lifting up these verses in confident faith. In fact, I’ve often read Psalm 121 with people who were facing surgery, just before they were taken off to the operating room because it’s a marvelous reminder that God is always awake, even when we’re asleep, and that nothing interrupts or interferes with his watchful care over those whom he loves. So these promises speak to us. They ring true to our experience. Our help does come from the Lord. The Lord does watch over us and keep us from all harm.
So providence is true, but it’s not a simple truth. We could think of it as a deep truth (deeper than surface appearances), and a complex truth (more complicated than a simple reading would suggest). Sometimes, when harm threatens, God does protect us from it literally. He delivers us out of the accident unhurt. He shields us from the danger. He heals us from the sickness. And when he does that, we lift up our grateful thanks to him.
But sometimes God doesn’t do those things. Then we must conclude that the harm from which we are protected must be ultimate or eternal harm, and we have to wait for the Lord to heal our suffering bodies and our wounded spirits, perhaps wait even until the last day, the Day of Resurrection.
The assurance we have isn’t that nothing will ever go wrong for us. Rather, our assurance is that even if things do go wrong, God our Father is still watching over us in ways that we can’t understand. His promise is that even if evil befalls us, it can’t hurt us ultimately. Nothing can interfere with God’s care, or thwart his purpose to bless us in the end.
Let me draw three conclusions about the biblical doctrine of providence.
First, as a Christian, I can be sure that God knows and cares about me, down to the smallest details of my life. Nothing escapes his attention, nothing is too insignificant for him to be concerned about. The very hairs of my head are numbered. My Father in heaven sees them all, and not one of them can fall without his permission. My life is not left to chance. Nothing just “happens” to me. God is always watching over me.
That is a reassuring truth in a world where most of us are wondering, “Do I matter?” Life is cold and impersonal in modern technological society. Call for help and you get a recording telling you which buttons to push on the phone. Open the mail and there’s a computer-generated letter: “Dear David Bast: Because you are such a valued customer we want to make the following special offer just to you personally. . . .” Go to the polls and try to voice your opinion and you realize you’re just one grain of sand on the beach. What difference do I make?
But you and I do matter; we are important. We are important to God himself. The Creator and Ruler of the whole universe is interested in the tiniest details of our lives. He loves us so much he cares about everything to do with us.
My second conclusion is that God’s providential care for me is not an automatic guarantee of happiness, at least as I tend to define happiness. My understanding of providence does not promise me that I will never be touched by pain or suffering. The Bible never teaches us to sing that everything’s coming up roses. It’s just not true. The best doesn’t always happen; sometimes the worst does. Sometimes our feet slip, and we fall, and our bodies are broken. Sometimes the sun does “smite us by day, or the moon by night.” We become sick in body or in mind. In the end, we do die – every last one of us.
No. The Bible never says that everything in our lives is good. But it does say that in everything God will work for good to those who love him and are called by him to belong to him by faith in Jesus Christ. It does say that everything will work together for our salvation and that in the end the final outcome will be very good indeed. God guarantees that. Our assurance is that in everything God works so that our eternal health and wholeness will be the result.
My last conclusion is this. I can stake my life, I will stake my life on the faithfulness of God in fulfilling his promises to me. You know, it’s possible to endure an awful lot if you believe that there’s meaning in it somehow. If you know there is a God who is all-loving and all-powerful, who is watching over you, over your life in each detail, who unfailingly works out his good purposes, who sends everything that happens to you as a part of his plan to make you just like Jesus well, believing that makes all the difference in the world. Then your life has a purpose. If you belong to Jesus Christ, you can be sure of his watchful care on the journey and a safe homecoming at the last. Bet your life on it!