Inscrutable Providence

Over a year has passed since my family and I were forced to leave the US and return to Britain under rather unusual circumstances. We had moved to America in 2010 in response to a call from Proclamation Presbyterian Church in Bryn Mawr, PA for me to become its next Senior Pastor. Given that we had an adult daughter with severe learning difficulties, we had not made that move lightly, but had made extensive inquiries as to whether it would be possible for her to gain some kind of permanent resident status in the country. We were given assurances that this was the case, so we moved. As it turned out, within the first year we discovered things were not as straightforward as we had been told. And, despite the involvement of a congressman, a senator and three specialist immigration lawyers, our daughter’s application for some provision to remain in the country was denied and she was given five months to leave.

The pain of having to leave Proclamation, as a congregation that had embraced us with extraordinary love and affection and to which we were deeply attached, was exacerbated by the fact we had been seeing significant encouragement and blessing in the work there. So much so that, in the months leading up to our departure, the recurring question being asked was, ‘What on earth is God doing in all this?’

For us as a family that question hung over us, almost like a cloud, for the best part of the next year. The sadness of our farewells to dear friends and parishioners in the US had been somewhat mitigated by the thought that we were at least returning to our native country of Ireland, which we left 20 years ago when I was called to minister in London. The thought of being near to family once more and the prospect of what we thought might be an opening into a church in Ireland brought a measure of consolation. But as the months wore on after our return it became clear that no doors into ministry in Ireland were going to open and there was no obvious alternative on the horizon.

In a way that both shocked and shook us as a family we found ourselves for the first time in our lives with absolutely no idea where our next step would lie and at a loss to know what God was doing with us. We found ourselves in dark times when it seemed as though our little world was being dismantled piece by piece. So, even though our belief in God’s Providence never wavered, we found ourselves saying again and again that it was ‘inscrutable’. It was the word that cropped up repeatedly in our conversations with many dear friends and family members who walked that path with us through the long months that followed.

Even after the denouement came and we received a call to minister in our new church in Cardiff, Wales, our wondering about the mystery of God’s dealings with us rumbled on as we faced further challenges we had not anticipated – not least a family bereavement. So, perhaps not surprisingly this whole experience has forced us to think about God’s Providence in ways we never had to before.

In one sense it is very easy to recite the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s answer to Question 11: ‘God’s works of Providence are his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures and all their actions’. But at the same time even such a great truth can feel somewhat clinical and detached from the uncomfortable realities with which his people struggle. Perhaps the biggest challenge we faced during these long months was the challenge to our faith.

But ironically it was only in the all-too-real challenge to where our trust was placed during this time that God proved himself to be the faithful One. Although there were times when we felt on the very brink of reason, we were kept from going over the edge. Even though there were more than a few ‘What happens next?’ moments, those moments passed and ‘the next thing’ became clear in due course. And now with hindsight we can look back and genuinely say with the hymn writer, ‘All the way my Saviour leads me; what have I to ask beside?’ (Fanny J. Crosby, 1820-1915).

So what have we learned through it all? Apart from ‘not as much as we should have learned’, a number of things stand out.

The first most certainly has to be that Bible doctrines are never merely learned in the classroom or from the pulpit, but on the battlefields of life. There is nothing abstract or ethereal about the doctrine of God’s Providence. If it is real, then it is something that undergirds our very existence as human beings and our hope as those who have placed their trust in Christ and his lordship over all. And often it is not in the midst of those battles, but only after they are done that we can appreciate this great truth a little bit more fully.

The second is that there is a great deal about God’s dealings with us that we will never know – certainly not in this life and possibly not even in the next. It was a curious providence that when we returned to temporary housing in Ireland and began attending a nearby Presbyterian church, the evening sermon series was on the Book of Job. And of course the biggest question that hangs over Job – ‘Why, Lord?’ – is the one question God never answers. Indeed, the whole point of God’s extended discourse to his suffering servant in the closing chapters is in effect to say, ‘It’s not for you to ask the reason why; but it is enough for you to know who I am and what I’m like, in order for you to trust me!’ His providence is indeed inscrutable, but that does not mean he is untrustable.

The third lesson that was pressed home to us over what proved to be a long year is that divine Providence very often has hands, feet and voices that are very human. He uses people – and his people especially – to unfold his purpose in his children’s lives. And that often happens without their even being aware of it.

Perhaps the greatest thing of all that we have learned (though definitely not as much as we should) is to appreciate the way Jesus as the God-man stepped into the theatre of divine providence in a way that would qualify him to be the great Saviour-Priest we need for redemption in its fullest form. That is, a redemption that will not only get us into God’s family, but will keep us safe until he takes us home. He has been made like his brothers [in the gender-neutral sense] in every way in order to secure that salvation (He 2.17-18) and he has been exposed to the whole gamut of human testing and temptation in order to be our sympathetic supporter and keeper through our own varied experiences of life (He 4.14-16). He has known darkness and he has cried out ‘Why?’ under circumstances that we will never have to know because he has rescued us from them.

There is a part of me that wants to look back on 2013/14 as a year to forget; but in an altogether more important sense, for us it will be a year to remember forever.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mark Johnston

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