Providence and the purposes of God - Romans 8:28-39
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One of the most beloved hymns of an earlier generation is, ‘God moves in a mysterious way’. Just listen to these words: ‘God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform; He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm. Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; the clouds you so much dread are big with mercy and will break In blessings on your head. Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, But trust him for his grace; Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face. His purposes will ripen fast Unfolding every hour; The bud may have a bitter taste, But sweet will be the flower. Deep in unfathomable mines Of never-failing skill, He treasures up his bright designs And works his sovereign will. Blind unbelief is sure to err and scan his work in vain; God is his own interpreter, And he will make it plain.’
That hymn was written by William Cowper on the first of January 1773. What many people don’t realize is that earlier that morning he was walking in a field in Olney when he had a terrible premonition that a curse of madness was going to fall upon him. He had been plagued with mental problems before of course. And struggling to make a declaration of his Christian faith in poetic form before the cloud of depression engulfed his mind (and he was a first class poet), he struggled home, picked up his pen and wrote that magnificent hymn. It was soon after he had finished writing that Cowper’s mind plunged into the abyss of a total mental breakdown. During the night he had terrible dreams and hallucinations, in one fit of madness he believed that he had received God’s command to take his own life with a knife, in a way that Abraham was called to sacrifice Isaac. Amazingly his suicide attempt was thwarted by a Christian friend, Mary Unwin, who in the small hours of the morning sent for Cowper’s local Vicar and friend, another hymn writer, John Newton of ‘Amazing Grace’ fame. When Newton found him, Cowper’s body was a bloody mess but it was not fatal. Throughout the weeks; day after day, night after night, Newton tried to calm and console his troubled friend. This went on for four months until April when Cowper made some recovery, which sadly was never to be a full one. In August of 1775, three years later, Newton described Cowper’s mental illness in this way, he said it is, ‘mysterious….a very great trial to me. But I hope I am learning (though I am s slow student) to silence all vain reasonings and unbelieving complaints with the consideration of the Lord’s sovereignty, wisdom and love.’
What was it that enabled John Newton to write those words and Cowper his hymn? It was the liberating belief expressed in these famous words of the apostle Paul: ‘And we know that in all things God works for the God of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’ (Romans 8:28). You might ask; ‘is Paul really serious that God is working for the good of those who love him in all things?’ That is what he says. ‘What even hard and painful things?’ Absolutely, that is why Paul under the inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit wrote down these words at this point in his letter because a few verses earlier he had been talking about the whole of creation groaning because of the corrosive effects of sin, and a few verses later he will speak of Christians suffering persecution and famine and yet conclude in v 37, ‘In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us’ and that nothing in heaven or on earth or in hell ‘will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’
So we are forced to ask: why should Paul and all Christians have such confidence? The answer is because of the power and purposes of God which come together in the providence of God. You see from beginning to end God presents himself in the Bible as the one who is in complete personal control of every detail of human existence. There it is in that reading from Isaiah 45: 6b, ‘I am the LORD and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things.’ He is involved in the macro level of world politics which is what he is talking about earlier in the chapter in raising up King Cyrus who at the time of writing is not even born, to bring down Babylon which was about to take God’s people into captivity and Cyrus was to be God’s man- pagan though he was- in setting God’s people free. But God is also at work at the micro level too, such that he personally even determines the life span of every single sparrow on the planet; so Jesus says, ‘Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are numbered.’ God is concerned with that amount of detail?! That is what Jesus says. But this is not the interfering concern of a celestial busy body, because Jesus goes on to say to his followers, ‘So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.’ You see, this is a very practical teaching which is meant to comfort and encourage God’s people, especially for when the tough times come our way. After all Jesus says the God who is all powerful, all wise and all good is the one we can call, ‘Our Father.’
So what do we mean when we speak of providence? Let’s just think of the way Christians tend to use the term. Imagine there is a pandemic of bird flu which scared the living daylights out of us a few years ago. Despite the fact that the rest of her family went down with it, Mrs Miggins didn’t. Of course she took reasonable precautions against contracting the illness, she had the jab, she made sure her hands were always washed and being a Christian believer attributes the fact that she was spared to God’s providence. By the way, she had prayed about it too! What she means when she speaks in this way is that her not going down with flu was a good thing and it was God who had made sure she didn’t contract it. Now of course that still leaves us with the issue about what God was doing with those who did go down with flu, but we will come back to that in a moment. You see, Mrs Miggins believes that it is not the devil that is in the detail, but God, sovereignly bringing about his good purposes for his people- ‘providing’ or ‘governing’ if you will-that is providence.
Imagine another situation. Bill Bates is a salesman. He too is a Christian and to be frank things have been a struggle for him recently. The economic downturn has not been too kind to him. To add insult to injury he just misses his train to London for an important appointment which he hoped would land him a good order. And of course it starts to rain and Crew station is not the place you want to be in rain or sunshine! It then so happens that he bumps into an old school friend he hasn’t seen for years who unlike himself has done quite well in the business world. As a result of this ‘chance’ meeting, his friend places a large order for Bill’s products. So what does Bill conclude? Remember he is a Christian and so thinks like a Christian and comes to the happy conclusion that it was providential that he missed the train because if he had caught it, he wouldn’t have met his friend and he wouldn’t have had the order and his business would not have been put back on its feet. Now I am sure that we all have had similar experiences at some time or another.
Now from one point of view, to say that God is providentially at work in all things may mean no more than whatever happens, happens by divine say so- so even falling off the pavement which at one level can be described as an ‘accident’ because of a loose slab, but at another level be seen to be within the orbit of God’s personal ruling decree. But what we normally mean when we speak of something being ‘providential’ is that it we perceive something that has happened to be significant, we see some sort of pattern or purpose in it- Mrs Miggins being kept healthy to care for her sick family, Bill Bates being provided for his business. So we might define providence like this: ‘Providence is God our heavenly Father working in and through all things by his wisdom and power for the good of his people and the glory of his name.’
Now much of what we call ‘providence’ is considered with hindsight, it is retrospective. Sometimes things happen to us and while it is happening we haven’t a clue as to the why, it is only months, or sometimes years later we can look back and say, ‘Now I see it; that is what God was doing’. The other reason why we have not to be too quick in deciding whether a thing that happens is providential in an immediately good sense is because things might turn out differently as time goes on. So for example, let’s imagine that Bill Bates as a result of his business deal with his friend decides, unwisely as it turns out, to expand his business. In fact he over-expands with the result that he becomes bankrupt. If that happens he might be less eager to call his chance meeting with his friend at the train station providential. But then again that is not necessarily the end of the story, because as a result of his bankruptcy he may come to get a better perspective on life, because he no longer spends all his waking hours at work, trying to get more and more money. Now he can spend more time with the family who up to this point have hardly seen him and what is more get involved in the children’s work at church which has been desperate for a male worker for years. Now you can call that providential can’t you? Do you see how it works?
This illustrates three important principles when we think about providence and how to understand it.
First, we need to identify properly the good purpose that God has in mind for his people. Remember, Paul says, ‘In all things God works for the good for those who love him who have been called according to his purpose.’ It is what God considers to be ‘good’ and not what we think is good that counts. What is that? Well, it is not a text for the Prosperity gospel which is big in Cameroon- ‘Have faith and God will bless you with riches and a happy and prosperous life.’ Look very carefully at what Paul says next: ‘For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son.’ Now do you see what God’s good purpose is? It is to be made more like Jesus, a practical conformity to Christ. So Mrs Miggins was spared the flu so that she could show kindness and love-just like Jesus. Bill Bates learnt his lesson from his greed and adjusted his priorities so that he would be like Jesus in ‘seeking first the kingdom of heaven’. This also helps towards answering the question: ‘What about those in the family who did get the flu?’ Well, for a start if you think about it they had to go down with the flu and Mrs Miggins spared so she could care for them and become more like Christ. What is more, this was an opportunity for the rest of the family to perhaps take stock of what really matters, maybe appreciate God’s blessings of good health and the kindness of God shown through Mrs Miggins. The point is this: whether easy things or hard things come our way, God will use them to shape us so that we become little mirror images of his Son.
Secondly, how God will work providentially so that we become more like Jesus will to some degree depend upon our response to what happens to us. This is not fatalism we are talking about- ‘whatever will be will be’ because human choice is involved, which God is involved in too. Again going back to our two examples; Mrs Miggins could have taken her escaping the flu as an opportunity to be selfish. She might have said, ‘Let the family fend for itself, I am taking a holiday in Spain until all this blows over’. Bill Bates might have responded to his loss of his business with cynicism and resentment- throwing in the faith with the cry, ‘Why has God done this to me?’ But instead both chose to respond positively in obedient faith. They knew God’s commands- love your neighbour as yourself, seek first the Kingdom of God and so they decided with the help of God’s Spirit to obey him.
Thirdly, we have to have a proper perspective- which is the long term view. Being made more like Jesus is a lifetime’s work that God does within us. So we are not always able to discern a providential pattern straight away. In fact we have to admit that in this life we may not be able to discern any pattern at all. You know some lives, including some Christian ones, seemed marked by very little else but pointlessness and tragedy- the stuff of the Book of Ecclesiastes- ‘Vanity, vanity all is vanity’- words written by a believer. The pain being borne might be such that, to be frank, it is very difficult for a person to reflect calmly and rationally upon what is happening to them and the ones they love. What are they to do then, when their world seems to be falling apart? That is when in the teeth of the evidence- they hold on to what Paul teaches in Romans 8- that God is still our Father, that he is still on the throne and that he is working all things for the good for those who love him. A minister I know many years ago was involved in a terrible car accident in which his young wife died. He himself was seriously injured and had to have extensive surgery to rebuild his face. He asked his minister at the time what he could possibly do, how on earth was he ever going to retrieve his life after this? And very gently but with a quiet conviction, the minister very wisely told him to keep on reading Romans 8:28 over and over to himself until he really believed it. And you know, he did. Eventually he remarried and now has a family and fruitful Christian ministry.
Sometimes, however, we may be able to see something of the ‘good’ of which Paul speaks of in this life. One of the most influential Evangelical scholars of the post war era was John Wenham. Some of you may have read his book, ‘The Easter Enigma.’ I had to work through his standard work on New Testament Greek. He too was involved in a terrible car accident when he was well on in years and in the event his wife also died. The remarkable thing that happened afterwards was this; he found himself in hospital in the next bed to the very lorry driver who had caused the accident which killed his wife. How would you have felt about that? What might you have said or done? Let me tell you what John Wenham did: he led that man to faith in Jesus Christ. Isn’t that remarkable? You see, he really believed that in all things God works for the good for those who live him. That is what Cowper means in the line, ‘Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.’
But it has to be said that while we believe that there are no such things as ‘accidents’ only ‘God incidents’ so that every single event has meaning within the great scheme of things, the real significance and purpose of some events may not be seen in this life at all, but only in eternity, which, after all, is God’s big picture.
How might we understand how this works out? Let me use a familiar illustration. It is said that Persian carpets are made on a large frame. On one side of the frame stand the family, mum and twelve children, placing the threads into the framework, sometimes randomly, sometimes thoughtfully. On the other side of the frame out of sight stands the father of the family, who is the master carpet maker, who takes all of these threads and weaves them into a rich pattern of his design. As the work is in progress, all that the family can see from their side of the frame are rough patterns and in some cases no patterns at all. But from the father’s side he knows exactly what he is doing with the threads his family put in. When the carpet is completed the father turns the frame around for all to see and hopefully receives their approval of a job well done. Now, might not God, our Father, be likened to the master weaver who takes each thread that we place into the framework of our lives only to weave them into a pattern which is of his design. The main difference being, of course, that from the 'beginning' God knows what those 'threads' are and where they are to be placed on 'this side' of the frame. However, it is the 'other side' of the frame – eternity if you like, which provides the lasting context in which ultimate significance is derived. It is in the new heaven and the new earth that we will be able to declare that our God has done all things well. We hold to that now by faith, then it will give way to sight.
So over the next few weeks we shall be seeing how this wonderfully rich teaching about the providence of God works itself out in different areas of our lives- where we were born and how we were brought up; our conversion, God using suffering, and how we might help in coping with anxiety. But just let me end by reading to you what one influential Christian writer who was on the beaches of Normandy on D day has to say about what this means for the Christian, Dr Broughton Knox: ‘The doctrine of God’s absolute and complete providence and control over every event is a ground for banishing fear from the hearts of the people of God. Thus Jesus reminded his disciples, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear; for you are of more value than many sparrows.” …. The creative power of God which brought all things into being is the guarantee that he is able to sustain us in every detail of life…. The infinite power and infinite mind of God, to which the marvels of creation bear witness, mean that he is able to give full attention, care and protection to every person in the world with the same intensity of concern that he would give if he were related to a single individual only. The infinity of God is not overwhelmed by numbers, nor stupefied by detail. God is able to comprehend, and provide for at the same time, the needs of the whole creation. Our heavenly Father gives each of us his undivided attention and his full friendship as though we were his only friend.’
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