Providence is so sixteenth century.
We seem to have moved past needing to talk about God’s providence—we’re quite sophisticated these days. By ‘we’, I mean especially our modern, western, secular society, but also the church within it. We no longer tend to think of the sun suspended and directed by God in its course. Rather, we hurtle through a vacuum on a rock, directed by the seemingly inexplicable distortion of the space time continuum created by one lump of energy condensed as matter that then directs its motion towards another. (Or so my astrophysicist friends tell me, anyway.)
Twenty-first century sensibilities dismiss the idea of an overruling God in preference to self-direction. Healthy, wealthy, intelligent, capable humans take responsibility and control of their own future through education, insurance, prudent financial investment, savvy work choices and the occasional international holiday. Christianity seems to have outgrown providence.
But life isn’t always quite so neat, is it? Our self-built image of control is all-too-easily shattered by chronic or mental illness, sudden tragic death, redundancy, relationship breakdown, and injustice. Very occasionally we realize what a tiny fragment of the vast order of the universe we actually occupy or understand.
Sometimes, in the midst of chaos or tragedy, well-meaning but possibly-not-very-helpful Christians will tell us, “Don’t worry, God’s in control”—which may or may not be an encouraging statement, depending on what you think about God. Is this some sort of Christian fatalism: “let go and let God”? Or worse, if God is somehow removed from the world, or a distant or absent overseer, this is a frightening thing to say. And it’s nothing short of terrifying if the one in control is somehow unfavorably disposed towards me.
This is just one of many points where we are greatly helped by a good understanding of God’s providence. What we’re going to do briefly here is to consider how God provides, and how he continually oversees and cares for his creation. Or, to use more technical theological language, we’ll consider the shape of a Christian doctrine of providence. To do this, we have to recognize at the start that there are a number of parts of Scripture that speak to a few interconnected points:
– the character and power of God
– the dependence of creation on God in an ongoing way
– the genuine relationship between God and creation that includes salvation and final judgement.