The Providence of God

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 6:25-34

A lot of people today approach their religious faith the way an adventurous cook operates in the kitchen – with a strong desire to experiment and come up with a unique personal recipe. But as Christians we are not free to make up their own beliefs. We have a creed. We confess a faith that is held in common by all true Christians of all times and places. David Bast explores this common faith in a series of programs based on the Apostles’ Creed entitled “What We Believe.”

In the Apostles’ Creed Christians confess their faith in God: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” In saying this we affirm more than just our belief that God created the universe. During the 17th century a new form of religious belief arose that was called Deism, to distinguish it from the historic trinitarian Christian faith. Deism was a faith better suited to the rise of rationalism and the enthronement of reason at the dawn of the enlightenment, or so it was thought. Deism sifted through biblical faith and discarded all the mystery, rejecting the incarnation and the Trinity and denying all the miracles. Deists still believed in a God “out there,” a divine Creator and Law-Giver, but they pictured him as a sort of Super Craftsman who designed and made the universe like an incredible, intricate clock, then wound it up and left it to run on its own.

A “Hands-on” God

Christians, by contrast, believe in a God who is very much “hands-on” with respect to his creation. The 17th-century poet and preacher John Donne took up the image of a Creator-Craftsman and used it as an argument for God’s continuing direct involvement in the world. Like so many Donne reasoned that a world as complex as ours “must necessarily have had a workman, for nothing can make itself,” he wrote. But he went on to assert that “no such workman would deliver over a . . . work of so much majesty to be governed by fortune casually, but would still retain the administration thereof in his own hands.”

This belief – that God still retains the administration of the world he made in his own hands – is what Christians call the doctrine of providence. Providence is, in the words of one historic definition, “the almighty and ever present power of God, by which he upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty – all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 27). As Donne says, “What sort of workman would give such a creation over into the hands of chance?” The literal meaning of providence is “to see ahead.” In Christian understanding providence refers not just to the perfect wisdom of God which can foresee all our needs, but also to the omnipotent power and the infinite love of God which make him willing and able always to “provide” for those needs. The same God who is the Maker of heaven and earth, and the Ruler of the universe, and the Author of history, is also our Father for Jesus’ sake. This great God loves us, and because of that we know that all things, whether good or bad, come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand.

Arguments against Anxiety

The greatest blessing of believing in the providence of God is that it can free us from needless worry and fear. Do you recall that wonderful passage in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus urges his followers not to be filled with anxiety?

Therefore, I tell you, [says Jesus] do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat . . . nor about your body, what you will put on . . . For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. . . . Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

Matthew 6:25-34

There is the original of “Live one day at a time.” All of us have to admit to times when we are anxious and worried. Usually our anxiety is over physical concerns. We worry about things like how well we will live, how to pay the bills, whether our health will hold up, how our children will turn out, where our career is going. We should recognize, though, this sort of anxiety for what it is. It is a form of practical atheism. If we only understood (and really believed) the things that Jesus has to say to us, we would never be anxious again. Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that anxiety is easy to overcome. I’m not claiming that I never worry. It’s easy to say, “Anxiety is a sin; Christians should never be anxious.” It’s much harder to develop the kind of faith that trusts in God at all times. Jesus is talking here about not worrying over what we eat and drink and wear. Food and clothing are not luxuries; they’re necessities. So he spoke these words not just for times we’re warm and comfortable, but for those times when the cupboard is bare, the bank account is empty and we’re not sure how we’re going to make it.

Anxiety is a form of fear; and the opposite of fear is faith which means that the cure for anxiety is to learn to trust in the providence of God. Listen to the arguments Jesus offers here against anxiety.

He begins by reminding us of the character of the God in whom we believe. Our faith is in a provident God. He is Jehovah Jireh, as Abraham called him long ago, “the Lord who provides.” He’s the God who feeds the birds of the air and clothes the flowers of the field, but who loves us even more and takes personal responsibility for us. So the first argument which Jesus uses against anxiety is one of his favorites. It’s the “how much more” argument: if God takes care even of the animals and plants then how much more won’t he do for the children whom he loves and whose well-being he has promised to look after?

“Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus says, “they don’t sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? . . . See the lilies of the field. They toil not, neither do they spin. And yet I tell you that even Solomon in all his glory was not dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and gone tomorrow, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry” (Matt. 6:26). Our trust is in the loving care of our heavenly Father. Do we really think he doesn’t know what we need most? Do we dare to suggest he doesn’t care enough to provide for us?

Of course, trust in the providence of God doesn’t mean we don’t have to work for our living if we are able. God usually provides for our needs by giving us the strength and the ability to do productive work. Nor does our confidence that the Lord is watching over us mean we don’t have to take sensible precautions. No, we still use medicine when we’re sick. We put seat belts on when we drive off in the car. Nor does the truth of providence mean we can ignore the needs of others because we think God will take care of them. God, you see, has a great fondness for offering his care through you and me as we help each other. We are God’s hands and fingers, instruments of a providing God.

Here is Jesus’ second argument against being anxious. It has to do with the nature of worry itself. He reminds us of some basic truths about anxiety. For one thing, it’s useless. “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” (Matt. 6:27), Jesus asks. Do you know anyone who can make himself grow taller or live longer by worrying hard enough about it? No, a proper measure of concern about ourselves is good; it motivates us to right action. But anxiety doesn’t do us any good at all. It’s not just unproductive. We all know it’s actually counter-productive. Anxiety usually shortens life; it doesn’t prolong it. Worry doesn’t help; it only harms. So why give in to it?

And then there’s one more argument Jesus offers – the fact that anxiety is so inappropriate for believers. The anxious pursuit of food, drink and clothing (what the great preacher Charles Spurgeon called “the world’s trinity of cares”) is the obsession of people who don’t know God. According to Jesus these are all the things the gentile unbelievers run after. “I was part of that strange race of people,” wrote just such a man, “aptly described as spending their lives doing things they detest, to make money they don’t want, to buy things they don’t need, to impress people they dislike.” Is that the way you want to live? Do you wish to devote your life to the accumulation of this world’s stuff? Those who know God have other interests. We have more important things to care about. So Jesus says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”

I Believe in God

“What do you believe,” asks an ancient catechism of the church, “when you say, ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth’?” And it answers:

That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth and everything in them, who still upholds and rules them by his eternal counsel and providence, is my God and Father because of Christ his Son.

I trust him so much that I do not doubt he will provide whatever I need for body and soul, and he will turn to my good whatever adversity he sends me in this sad world.

He is able to do this because he is almighty God; He desires to do this because he is a faithful Father.

Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 26

And to that I say “Amen!”