Providence may be defined as
that continued exercise of the divine energy whereby the Creator preserves all his creatures, is operative in all that comes to pass in the world, and directs all things to their appointed end. (Berkhof)
The doctrines of creation and providence are inseparably connected: the same God who made all things continues to sustain them moment by moment.
God’s providence is all-encompassing, Psa 115:3; Mt 10:30; Eph 1:11. Natural events, such as the wind and the rain, are part of his ordering, even though these can sometimes lead to disaster, Lk 13:1-5.
Even evil itself lies within God’s control and he uses it for his own ends, Gen 50:20; Acts 2:23; Phil 1:178f. This clearly raises a moral problem. Some have sought to deal with this by suggesting that God made the universe, and set it up with natural laws to goven its operation, but then left it to operate more or less independently. But such a deistic approach is a long way from biblical theism.
Providence, being purposeful, is to be clearly distinguished from fate, as taught by the Stoics and (in practice) by Islam. God’s purpose is centred on the redeeming and sanctifying work of Jesus Christ, Rom 8:27f.
A distinction is sometimes made between primary and secondary causality. In the first, God acts directs, without human means, as in creation itself and in the resurrection of Jesus. In the second, God acts through human agents, as in the rise and fall of nations. A further distinction is sometimes made between God’s directive will and his permissive will: God is said the activley will good, but merely to permit evil. Although this latter distinction seems to ease a moral problem by distancing God from evil, it is difficult to maintain in practice, especially since even so terrible an act as the crucifixion of Jesus is attributed to God’s directive will, Acts 2:23.
How then is the doctrine of providence to be related to the problem of evil? Scripture itself acknowledges a mystery here, 2 Thess 2:7. Our task as Christians is not so much to understand and explain the problem of evil as to witness to its conquest by Christ and to mitigate its worst effects by bringing help and support to those who suffer. Biblical religion offers no easy answers, but it does teach us to face up to evil and its consequences in human life and in the world at large. Insofar as the problem of evil can be solved, it must be solved in the light of the nature and destiny of humankind, and the person and work of Jesus Christ.
One ‘given’ is the Bible’s teaching on man’s fall into sin, Gen 3; Rom 5:12d. The world we live in is not as God made or intended it to be. It is clear that man was made with the capacity to resist evil and to love and serve God as Lord. Adam’s disobedience was sure to have the most serious consequences in a moral universe that reflects the holy character of its Maker. This does not imply a 1=1 relationship between an individual’s sin and his suffering. What it does mean is that just as all our sinning flows from Adam’s disobedience so the whole world is affected by the consequences of this, in the form of brokenness and decay, and therefore the possiblity of suffering and tragedy.
But it will not always remain so. Just as sin, evil, and suffering were never part of God’s original plan for the universe, so they are to be seen as temporary intrusions that will one day be abolished, Rev 21:3f.
The hinge upon which all this turns is Jesus Christ. He took upon himself, in his flesh, our sin and its punishment, not only identifying with us in our suffering but providing the means whereby the curse can be lifted. In his resurrection we see God’s triumph over evil and sin. With the coming of the Holy Spirit we experience in some measure the power of the age to come, when sin and suffering will be no more. The promise of Christ’s return assures us that our present experience of sin and suffering is not the final reality.
1. God has his hand upon all our affairs. We are not at the mercy of blind, impersonal forces. There is purpose in everything, and that purpose concerns God’s glory and our own good. God commonly uses secondary causes such as the cast of our personality and our interests, skills and opportunities. Therefore, we are not to see his providence at work only at occasional critical points, but in the daily ordering of our lives.
2. God’s providence teaches us to be humble. Even in our strengths and abilities, we are utterly dependent upon his sustaining power and his benevolent rule.
3. God’s providence is a profound comfort in times of difficulty or sadness. There is no event or circumstances that can affect us that lies outside of God’s sovereign will. Even where we cannot understand it at the time, we can rest in his fatherly goodness.
4. God’s providence puts our times of happiness and success into perspective. We see them as gifts from God, rather than as the products of our own ability and wisdom.
5. God’s providence gives us a sense of security in an uncertain, often violent world. The Lord is enthroned above all military, political, social and economic might, and his eternal purposes are ripening even as earthly events unfold. Nothing is out of control.
6. God’s providence means that the ultimate triumph of his purposes is assured. All the sin, evil, hatred, and violence that we see in the world are of limited duration. Everything is moving towards that appointed day when all that opposes God will be judged and everlastingly exculed from his presence.
7. God’s providence does not excuse us from taking responsibility for our decisions and actions. The same Scripture that teaches divine sovereignty also teaches human responsibility. We not abdicate our responsibility, or withdraw from the problems facing us in the world around us. Rather, we take responsibility and become involved, knowing that when we pursue love, truth and justice we are reflecting the character of the Lord who rules over and orders all things.
Based on Bruce Milne, Know the truth, 101-111.