The Providence of God and why we are thankful
by Rick Shrader
“In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (1 Thes. 5:18).
“Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:20).
One of the most difficult things for us to do is to give God thanks for everything. How can we do that? Especially when we see all around us a broken world that appears to be at odds with its Creator. Yet God commands us to be thankful for all things. Some reflection on God’s very nature will help us here. We forget that God is in control and at the same time He cannot be changed by sin, brokenness, or difficulty. Whatever God does is good and perfect, and even the seeming contradictions in life are working together for the ultimate good in His plan.
We often thank God for His creation. “O LORD, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all” (Psa. 104:24). “The LORD by wisdom hath founded the earth; by understanding hath he established the heavens” (Prov. 3:19). We also thank God for His special acts by which He has shown us His mercy and grace. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness neither shadow of turning” (Jas. 1:17). We also know that God displays His common graces to all the world. “For he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). “Nevertheless he left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17).
“Providence” comes from two Latin words, pro, meaning “before,” and video, meaning “to see,” and therefore often carries the meaning of “foresight.” In the doctrine of providence, however, we speak more of God’s “oversight” and control. Because God is omniscient and omnipresent, He is everywhere overseeing everything. We may think of controlling all things in some chronological order and therefore having to run from place to place. But God sees all of history like one snapshot, all at once. “Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world” (Acts 15:18). J. Oliver Buswell rightly said, “The universal providence of God is the basic assumption of all Scripture.”1
Two old but ongoing errors regarding providence are deism and pantheism. One sees God too distant and the other sees God too close. Deism teaches that God created the world and then left it to run on its own without His interference, like winding up a clock and letting it run. Many deists have believed in God’s control and praised Him for His providence but only meant that He made a wonderfully exact time piece! Pantheism, on the other hand, teaches that everything is in fact God and therefore the world keeps itself going because it is one big universal being. Louis Berkhof wrote, “Christian theism is opposed to both a deistic separation of God from the world and a pantheistic confusion of God with the world.”2 More modern errors are panentheism, or process theology, which views God as getting smarter and more involved as time goes on. Another error is openness theology which teaches that God doesn’t know the future and can only control things by calculating what, in all probability, will happen. In contrast to these is the God of Scripture “who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will (Eph. 1:11).
Most theologies call the subject of God’s control over the world providence and some have called it preservation. Common grace is very similar but is usually dealt with separately (see Rolland McCune and Wayne Grudem). The usual way this subject is divided is into three categories: preservation, concurrence, and government. In all of these we find ourselves thankful to a great and mighty God who never leaves us nor forsakes us.
Preservation: Being thankful for all God created and maintains.
Heb. 1:3, in describing the divine attributes of Jesus Christ, says that He “upholding all things by the word of his power” sat at God’s right hand after finishing His redemptive work. The word “upholding” is from pher? meaning “to bear” or “carry.” God, in the person of Jesus Christ, continually bears or carries the whole creation along by the very word of His power. Col. 1:17 says, “And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.” “Consist” (from sunistemi) gives the meaning of being framed and held together. Peter uses this word in 2 Peter 3:5, “by the word of God the heavens were of old” (lit. “were sunistemi,” were held together). God not only created the world but holds it all together by the very word of His power.
It appears from these verses that the world could not continue to operate or even exist without God’s steady hand upon it. Solomon said, “The LORD by wisdom hath founded the earth; by understanding hath he established the heavens. By his knowledge the depths are broken up, and the clouds drop down the dew” (Prov. 3:19-20). We can thank God for the dew because it comes when God wills it to come. The Psalmist writes, “He sendeth the springs into the valleys, which run among the hills. . . . He watereth the hills from his chambers; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of thy works. . . . He appointed the moon for seasons: the sun knoweth his going down. . . . O LORD, how manifold are thy works!” (Psa. 104:10, 13, 19).
It should not be thought that God leaves no room for secondary causes (as we will see in the next point) but that He oversees everything that happens for the best possible result, considering the fallen nature of man and the brokenness of this world. It is not like the cruise control on your car which can be set at a certain speed and then the foot can relax. It is like the gas pedal that needs a constant pressure so that you don’t go too fast or too slow. God knows exactly (precisely, minutely, explicitly) how the whole universe needs to run and always applies the right amount of pressure at every instant.
Concurrence: Being thankful for all God does with us and through us.
“Concurrence” means agreement or union in action. God also works with His creation, especially His sapient creatures, to perform His providential work. So Psalm 104 also says, He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and the herb for the service of man” (14). God makes the herb to grow but man has to till the ground if it is going to become food. “The trees of the LORD are full of sap, the cedars of Lebanon, which he hath planted; where the birds make their nests: as for the stork, the fir trees are her house” (16-17). God makes the trees to grow but the birds are busy making nests.
Charles Hodge likens this cooperation to the sun, “which affects different objects in different ways. The same solar ray softens wax and hardens clay. It calls the germinating force of all seeds into action, but does not determine the nature of that action.”3 This is partly why good and bad happen under God’s providence. God makes a tree and one man makes a boat that floats and another man makes one that sinks. God causes fire to happen because He has made the elements of His creation to combust, but one man warms himself by his fire and the arsonist burns someone else’s home with his fire. One man makes a bullet from God’s raw material for food and protection, but the murderer uses it to kill. And in it all, God holds each one responsible for how he has used, or cooperated with, God’s provision.
Without this concurrence within God’s providence there would be no science, for man could not make experiments that could be tested with the same criteria again and again. Technology would not be possible if man did not know that raw materials will respond the same way each time they are molded or formed. We easily recognize the secondary causes in these things because we see the materials or watch the construction and testing and sometimes witness the tragedies or failures. But we often forget that the primary cause is God though His hand is invisible to us. I may plant a garden but I would still have no food if God had not created the herb yielding seed after its kind. Believers who have the eyes of faith should, of all people, be thankful “always for all things.”
Government: Being thankful for all God plans and brings to completion.
This third division differs from the first two in that we also see God using His creation and His providential hand to bring about His will and to bring all of creative history to its appointed end. As with concurrence, God uses even imperfections and evil to bring about good purposes. Joseph’s brothers thought to do evil when they sold him into slavery in Egypt, but Joseph reminded them of God’s providence, “But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive” (Gen. 50:20). God used Babylon to punish Israel and called that wicked nation “the sword of the Lord” because it served His purpose with Israel. Paul said in prison, “For I know that this shall turn to my salvation through your prayer, and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:19).
Sometimes God’s governmental providence is called His “secret will” as opposed to His “revealed will.” We all do difficult things that no one sees or notices in order to bring about a greater good or a long range plan. So God works in ways that seem mysterious to us but in the end will bring about His eternal good.
Not long ago I showed Samantha, a young Sunday School girl, how the word “history” could be divided into “His-story.” She looked at it and said, “cool.” Yes! and that is why we all love Rom. 8:28, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” This is how we can understand David in the 103rd Psalm, “The LORD hath prepared his throne in the heavens; and his kingdom ruleth over all. Bless the LORD, ye his angels, that excel in strength, that do his commandments, hearkening unto the voice of his word. Bless ye the LORD, all ye his hosts; ye ministers of his, that do his pleasure. Bless the LORD, all his works in all places of his dominion: bless the LORD, O my soul.”
And So . . . .
Even more could be said about God’s miraculous interventions into His creation, those special providences where the very “laws” of nature were broken for His purposes. It is generally agreed that providence, like common grace, does not lead the sinner to Christ. It witnesses (Acts 14:16-17) and informs (Rom. 1:20) but it takes the preaching of the gospel for conversion to take place (Rom. 10:14). We can wrestle with supposed “accidents” or “chance” happenings or even the problem of evil. Yet the believer will never lose faith even when bad things occur. He knows that Almighty God maintains His creation and holds His children in His hand. Our life is hid with Christ in God (Col. 3:3) and that is all the comfort we need.
____________________________________________Notes: 1. J. Oliver Buswell, A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980) 174. 2. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapdis: Eerdmans, 1977) 165. 3. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol I (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977) 599.