What Is Providence?
Jun 22, 2018 · Scott Hoezee
Have you ever wondered if God cares for you? During times of great loss or spiritual dryness, it can be difficult to see God's hand in our lives. Maybe you know God cares in the big scheme of things, but you wonder if he tends to or guides our steps on a more day-to-day basis. You are not alone. Even great figures of faith like Naomi, in the book of Ruth, have questioned whether "the Lord’s hand has turned against” them (Ruth 1:13b).
Sooner or later almost every believer wonders whether or not God is involved in their lives. When they do, they are wondering about God's providence. What is providence? Well, at a most basic level, the definition of providence is contained in the first seven letters of the word itself: p-r-o-v-i-d-e. God provides for our lives. This divine provision is called God’s providence.
What Providence is Not
Embracing providence in any form distances Christians from those who hold to what is often called a “Deist” theology. Deism claims that although there is a God who created the universe, he has not paid much attention to it lately.
Imagine the cosmos is like a giant clock that God wound up at the dawn of time but ever since he has let it tick down on its own. The natural forces and laws God set up determine what happens on earth or anywhere else. Each individual’s life is a combination of the choices they make, luck, fate, happenstance, coincidence. But God is not actively involved or actively managing the world. Stuff happens. Accept it or don’t, but don’t give either credit or blame to anything God is up to on a daily basis. God’s focus is elsewhere. That is what a Deist believes.
Most Christians along the ages have not believed in such a cold, luck-based cosmos. It is the very opposite of providence.
What Providence Is
Christians believe that God in his providence superintends this world and particularly the lives of his children in Christ. That he cares about life’s daily events and does not abandon humanity.
Mainly, providence means God is aware of what is happening in any given person’s life. He is invested in how things go for us. By his Spirit he is able to steer us, move us, clarify things for us, and motivate us to make decisions on a career or a marriage partner or any number of things. And all of this somehow serves God’s larger plans. God provides. Many things do not just “happen” randomly but serve a purpose.
How Involved is God?
Folks vary in their beliefs about what counts as providential and what doesn’t. Some seem to believe God micromanages every single event right down to the toss of the dice or whether your apple pie will turn out or not. Others see God as deeply involved in our world and in our lives, and yet, they also believe that God has built a certain amount of randomness and chance into the universe, which he lets play out in some fashion. In either case, God’s providence is also held in tension with the belief that God gave people free will, such that, starting with Adam and Eve, people often do things that do not go along with God’s will in any sense.
Whether divine providence involves God micromanaging the details or God wooing us and beckoning us from the sidelines—or whether it’s both or some combination—the concept/belief is the same. Believing in providence means believing that God has big plans and small plans for this world, for the Church, for individuals, and he actively does things to see those plans through.
Ruth: Recognizing Providence in Hindsight
Most people testify, though, that they can sense God’s guiding hand of providence best in retrospect. Sometimes, what seems like a random choice—say, Ruth’s “happening” upon the field of a farmer named Boaz in the biblical book of Ruth—is seen in hindsight as God’s hidden hand moving the chess pieces of our lives around to achieve a wonderful result. Today, we can read Ruth’s story and we see all the connections that Ruth and Naomi could not have known for sure at the time. Ruth finds herself in Boaz’s field. Naomi picks up on a hint that maybe something is cooking between Ruth and Boaz on the romantic front and so she tells Ruth to take a risk and make her intentions known to Boaz. Boaz gets the hint, but then, must rely on a combination of God’s providence, and his own savvy and wits, to outsmart someone with a prior claim on Ruth.
In the end it all “works out,” as we like to say, and the next thing you know Boaz and Ruth become parents, grandparents, and then great-grandparents of King David. Down the line a millennium or so later, they are ancestors of no less than the King of kings, Jesus himself. But, of course, Ruth’s story is in the Bible for one reason only: the whole thing represents the providence of God to move his big plan of salvation forward by involving himself in the sometimes seemingly “little details” of the lives of two otherwise obscure people living in the Middle East 3,000 years ago.
“Who knew?” we might be tempted to ask. Well, God did! And that’s providence.