No Special Providence?
Many Christians profess to believe in the sovereignty of God. They will speak of God's sovereignty in the salvation and damnation of sinners. They may even remind others that God is sovereign over the trials and challenging circumstances of life. However, it is one thing to profess to believe in God's sovereignty respecting His ability to intervene in certain affairs and quite another to believe that He is sovereign over the circumstances of our lives when things seem to go terribly wrong and when they seem to be going quite well. When we contemplate God's sovereignty, we delve into the doctrine of divine providence. God is in absolute control of every moment, interaction, event, provision, protection, trial, difficulty and conflict of our lives. He has determined all of the events of our lives and is governing His own accordingly.
In his Popular Lectures on Theological Themes, Archibald Alexander Hodge relayed the following story about John Witherspoon's interactions with a man who had just encountered a near-death experience. He wrote:
"The great Dr. Witherspoon lived at a country-seat called Tusculum, on Rocky Hill, two miles north of Princeton. One day a man rushed into his presence crying, 'Dr. Witherspoon, help me to thank God for his wonderful providence. My horse ran away, my buggy was dashed to pieces on the rocks, and behold! I am unharmed.' The good doctor laughed benevolently at the inconsistent, halfway character of the man's religion. 'Why,' he answered, 'I know a providence a thousand times better than that of yours. I have driven down that rocky road to Princeton hundreds of times and my horse never ran away and my buggy was never dashed to pieces.' Undoubtedly, the deliverance was providential, but just as much so also were the uneventful rides of the college president. God is in the atom just as really and effectually as in the planet."
Witherspoon exposed one of the main deficiencies many believers have when it comes to their understanding of the providence of God. We sometimes mistakenly reduce God's providence down to some special act of intervention in which He helps us through a particularly dangerous or difficult time. Whereas, Scripture teaches that God is sovereign over every single action of all His creatures and every single aspect of all of His creation--the enjoyable and the painful, the mundane and the seemingly miraculous. The authors of the Westminster Shorter Catechism wisely answer the question about the nature of God's providence when they suggest that "God's works of providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures and all their actions."
C.S. Lewis, in his book Miracles, explained the reservation that he had with our use of the phrase "specially providential," when he wrote:
"We must abandon the idea that there is any special class of events (apart from miracles) which can be distinguished as ‘specially providential’. Unless we are to abandon the conception of Providence altogether, and with it the belief in efficacious prayer, it follows that all events are equally providential. If God directs the course of events at all then he directs the movement of every atom at every moment; ‘not one sparrow falls to the ground’ without that direction. The ‘naturalness’ of natural events does not consist in being somehow outside God’s providence. It consists in their being interlocked with one another inside a common space-time in accordance with the fixed pattern of the ‘laws.’"
We have to dispel the notion that God is acting in our lives when we experience some great deliverence but not when we are in the crucible. Additionally, we have to understand that God is at work in our lives when things are going well and not merely when He offers us some noticeable indicator that He is at work. The writer of Hebrews sums up the nature of God's sovereignty in His providential care over all things when he says that the Son "upholds all things by the word of His power" (Heb. 1:3). Reflecting on the author's use of the word panta (i.e. all things), Geerhardus Vos explained, "We must understand that this also includes a leading and guiding of the world to its appointed goal. Christ is therefore represented as the Author of providence in the broadest sense."1
The next time you are tempted to refer to some special occurrence in your life as "the providence of God," remember that you may inadvertently be denying your professed belief in His absolute sovereignty over every single aspect of every part of creation. As R.C. Sproul used to say, "there are no maverick molecules."
1. Vos, G. (1956). The Teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews. (J. G. Vos, Ed.) (p. 83). Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co.