IV. Discussion of the Contents of the Biblical Doctrine.
1. Different Views of Providence Compared:
There are four distinct conceptions of providence as it concerns God's relation to the ongoing of the world and to man, the rational and moral free agent whom He has placed upon it, namely, the atheistic, the deistic, the pantheistic, and theistic or Biblical view. See also GOD, I, 4. The last named view can best be understood only when stated in comparison and contrast with these opposing views.
(1) The Atheistic or Materialistic View:
Atheism or materialism, stands at one extreme, affirming that there is no God, that the material uerse is eternal, and that from material atoms, eternally endowed with certain properties, there have come, by a process of evolution, all existing forms of vegetable, animal and rational life. As materialism denies the existence of a personal Creator, it, of course, denies any and every doctrine of divine providence.
(2) The Pantheistic View:
Pantheism stands at the other extreme from atheism, teaching that God is everything and everything is God. The created uerse is "the living garment" of God--God is the soul of the world, the uerse His existence form. But God is an infinite It, not a personal Being who can express His existence in terms of selfconsciousness--I, Thou, He, Providence, according to pantheism, is simply the evolution of impersonal deity, differing from materialism only in the name which it gives to the infinite substance from which all things flow.
(3) The Deistic View:
Deism teaches that there is a God, and that He created the world, but created things do not need His presence and the exercise of His power in order to continue in existence and fulfill their functions. The material world is placed under immutable law; while man, the rational and moral free agent, is left to do as he wills. God sustains, according to deism, very much the same relation to the uerse that the clock-maker does to his timepiece. Having made his clock, and wound it up, he does not interfere with it, and the longer it can run without the maker's intervention the greater the evidence of wisdom and skill on the part of the maker. God according to deism has never wrought a miracle nor made a supernatural revelation to man. The only religion that is possible to man is natural religion; he may reason from Nature up to Nature's God. The only value of prayer is its subjective influence; it helps us to answer our own prayers, to become and be what we are praying to be. If the Divine Being is a prayer-hearing God, He is least not a prayer-answering God. The laws of Nature constitute God's general providence; but there is no other personal and special providence than this, according to deism. God, the deists affirm, is too great, too distant, too transcendent a Being to concern Himself with the details of creaturely existence.
(4) The Theistic or Biblical View:
The theistic or Biblical conception of providence teaches that God is not only the Creator but the Preserver of the uerse, and that the preservation of the uerse, no less than its creation, implies and necessitates at every moment of time an omnipotent and omnipresent personal Being. This world is not "governed by the laws of Nature," as deism teaches, but it is "governed by God according to the laws of Nature." "Law," in itself, is an impotent thing, except as it is the expression of a free will or person back of it; "the laws of Nature" are meaningless and impotent, except as they are an expression of the uniform mode, according to which God preserves and governs the world. It is customary to speak of the laws of Nature as if they were certain self-existent forces or powers governing the world. But shall we not rather say that there is no real cause except personal will--either the divine will or created wills? If this be true, then it is inconsistent to say that God has committed the government of the physical uerse to "secondary causes"--that is, to the laws of Nature--and that these laws are not immediately dependent upon Him for their efficiency. The omnipresent and ever-active God is the only real force and power and cause in the uerse, except as created wills may be true and real causes within their limited bounds. This view of God's relation to the created uerse serves to distinguish the Biblical doctrine of divine providence from the teachings of materialists and deists, who eliminate entirely the divine hand from the ongoing of the uerse, and in its stead make a god of the "laws of Nature," and hence, have no need for a divine preserver. Biblical theism makes ample room for the presence of the supernatural and miraculous, but we must not be blind to a danger here, in that it is possible to make so much of the presence of God in the supernatural (revelation, inspiration, and miracle) as to overlook entirely His equally important and necessary presence in the natural--which would be to encourage a deistical conception of God's relation to the world by exaggerating His transcendence at the expense of His immanence. That is the true theistic doctrine of providence which, while not undervaluing the supernatural and miraculous, yet stedfastly maintains that God is none the less present in, and necessary to, what is termed the "natural."
(5) The Divine Immanence.
This idea of God's essential relation to the continuation of all things in existence is perhaps best expressed by the term "immanence." Creation emphasizes God's transcendence, while providence emphasizes His immanence. Pantheism affirms God's immanence, but denies His transcendence. Deism affirms His transcendence, but denies His immanence. Biblical theism teaches that God is both transcendent and immanent. By the term "transcendence," when applied to God, is meant that the Divine Being is a person, separate and distinct from Nature and above Nature--"Nature" being used here in its largest signification as including all created things. By the Divine Immanence is meant that God is in Nature as well as over Nature, and that the continuance of Nature is as directly and immediately dependent upon Him as the origin of Nature--indeed, by some, God's preservation of the created uerse is defined as an act of "continuous creation." By the Divine Immanence is meant something more than omnipresence, which term, in itself alone, does not affirm any causal relation between God and the thing to which He is present, whereas the term "immanence" does affirm such causal relation. By asserting the Divine Immanence, therefore, as the mode of God's providential efficiency, we affirm that all created things are dependent upon Him for continued existence, that the laws of Nature have no efficiency apart from their Creator and Preserver, that God is to be sought and seen in all forms and phases of creaturely existence, in the natural as well as the supernatural and miraculous, that He is not only omnipresent but always and everywhere active both in the natural and the spiritual world, and that without Him neither the material atom, nor the living organism, nor the rational soul could have any being. He not only created all things, but "by him all things consist," that is, by Him all things are preserved in being.
2. The Divine Purpose and Final End of Providence:
What, then, let us ask, do the Scriptures teach as to the purpose and end of God's providential goverment of the world? Back of this question is another:
What was the divine motive and supreme thought in the creation of the uerse, and what the final cause and end of all things in the mind and purpose of God? If we can think God's thoughts after Him and discover this "final cause" of creation, with even approximate accuracy, then we shall find a principle that will illuminate at least, if it does not fully explain, the methods and mysteries of providence. We venture to affirm that the controlling thought in the mind of God in establishing this order of things, of which we are a conscious part, was to create a race of beings who should find their highest happiness by being in the highest degree holy, and who should, in proportion as they attain their highest holiness and happiness, thereby in the highest degree glorify their Creator. The Creator's highest glory can be promoted only by such beings as are at once rational, moral, free, holy. There are unconscious, unthinking, unmoral forms of existence, but the motive and meaning of the uerse is to be found, not in the lower, the physical and animal, but in the highest, in the rational and moral. The lower exists for the higher, the material and animal for the spiritual and moral. A being whose character is formed under the conditions and laws of intellectual and moral freedom is higher than any being can be that is what it is necessitatively, that is, by virtue of conditions over which it has no control. Character that is formed freely under God's government and guidance will glorify the Creator more than anything can which is made to be what it is wholly by divine omnipotence. These things being true, it follows that God's providence in the world will be directed primarily and ceaselessly toward developing character in free moral agents, toward reducing sin to the minimum and developing the maimum of holiness, in every way and by every means compatible with perfect moral freedom in the creature.
The possibility of sin in a world of free agents and in a state of probation is unavoidable, but to say that sin is possible does not mean that it is necessary. See CHOICE; WILL. The final cause and end, the purpose and motive, of divine providence, then, are not the temporal, material and earthly happiness of men, but the highest ultimate moral good of free beings whose highest happiness is secured through their highest holiness--which means first, their obedience to the holy will of God as their Father, and secondly, loving and self-sacrificing service to their fellow-men. This ever-present and all-dominating moral purpose of divine providence determines its methods and explains, in part at least, what would otherwise be its mysteries. With this conception of divine providence the general trend of Biblical thought is in entire accord. In the light of Christ's revelation of God as a holy and loving Father who regards all men as His children and whose chief concern is to develop holiness and love in those whom He loves, we may define divine providence as Infinite Wisdom, using infinite power to accomplish the ends of infinite holiness and love. The originating and determining cause of divine providence is, in the New Testament conception of it, always to be found in the love of God, while the final cause is the glory of the Father as realized in the holiness and happiness of His children.
3. Special Providence:
By the doctrine of special providence, according to the best use of that term in theological literature, is meant as already indicated, that minute care and ever-watchful supervision which God exercises over His obedient and believing children in things, both small and great, which are designed to secure their ever-increasing holiness and usefusness. God's general providence is and must be special, in that it descends to particulars--to the minute details of creaturely existence--and is always and everywhere active. But the Scriptures teach that there is a more special care over and ordering of the lives of the spiritually good than pertains to the wicked, who have not the fear of God before their eyes. The following Scriptures set forth in unmistakable terms the doctrine of a special providence exercised by the heavenly Father over and in behalf of the righteous:
"A man's goings are established of Yahweh; and he delighteth in his way" (Psalms 37:23); "In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he will direct thy paths" (Proverbs 3:6); "There shall no mischief happen to the righteous" (Proverbs 12:21); "But seek ye first his kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you" (Matthew 6:33); "To them that love God all things work together for good" (Romans 8:28). The following points seem to be plainly involved in any statement of the doctrine of special providence that can claim to be faithful to the teachings of the Scriptures;
(1) Spiritual, Not Material, Good to Man the End Sought in Special Providence.
A mistaken and hurtful notion has long been prevalent to the effect that special providence is designed to secure the secular and earthly good, the material and temporal prosperity, of God's children. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Material blessings may indeed come as a special providence to the child of God (Matthew 6:33 et al.), but that "good" which all things work together to secure for them that love God is mainly spirtual good, and not financial or social, or intellectual, or temporal good, except as these may secure ultimate spiritual good. Indeed, God's special providence make take away wealth and bring poverty in its stead in order to impart the "true riches." It may defeat rather than further one's worldly hopes and ambitions; may bring sickness rather than health, and ever death instead of life--for sometimes a Christian can do more good by sickness or death than by health or continued life--and when that is the case, his sickness or death may well be interpreted as a special providence. "Every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit." Many of the Old Testament promises do, it is true, seem to have special reference to material and temporal blessings, but we should remember that the best interpretation of these is to be found in the New Testament, where they are (as, for example, when quoted by Christ in the Temptation) interpreted as having mainly a spiritual signifigcance. When our Lord speaks of the very hairs of our heads being numbered, and declares that if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without the Father's notice, surely we, who are of more value than many sparrows, cannot drift beyond His love and care, His words might be interpreted as teaching that God will save us from physical suffering and death; but such is not His meaning, for, in the very same context He speaks of how they to whom He thus pledges His love and care shall be persecuted and hated for His name's sake, and how some of them shall be put to death; and yet His promise was true. God was with them in their physical sufferings, but the great blessing wherewith He blessed them was not physical, but moral and spiritual.
(2) Special Providence and "Accidents."
Another still more mistaken and hurtful notion concerning special providence is the association of it with, and the limitation of it largely to, what are called "accidents," those irregular and occasional occurrences which involve more than ordinary danger and risk to life. The popular notion of special providence associates it with a happy escape from visible dangers and serious injury, as when the house catches on fire, or the horses run away, or the train is wrecked, or the ship encounters an awful storm, or one comes in contact with contagious disease or the terrible pestilence that walketh in darkness. A happy escape from injury and death on such an occasion is popularly designated as a "special providence," and this regardless of whether the individual thus escaping is a saint or a sinner. We cannot too strongly emphasize the fact that God's special providence is not a capricious, occasional, and irregular intervention of His love and power in behalf of His children, but involves ceaseless--yea infinite--thought and care for those that love Him, everywhere and in all the experiences of life.
(3) Special Providence as Related to Piety and Prayer.
God's special providence is conditioned upon piety and prayer though it far transcends, in the blessings it brings, the specific requests of His children. While we may properly pray for things pertaining to our temporal and physical life with the assurance that God will answer such prayers in so far as He deems best; yet the Scriptures encourage us to make spiritual blessings the main object of our prayers. "Seek ye first his kingdom, and his righteousness," is the essence of the New Testament teaching on this subject; but we should not overlook the fact that this divine injunction is both preceded and followed by the strongest assurances of the most minute and ceaseless provision for all our temporal and physical wants by the loving heavenly Father. "Therefore take no thought saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? .... For your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you," the King James Version. In keeping with this Scripture, the poet has written:
"Make you His service your delight;
Your wants shall be His care."
But while it is true that God has promised to make our wants His care, we should remember that He has promised this only to that devout and godly number of pious, praying souls who "seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness." His general providence is alike to all, by which "he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust." But it is only "to them that love God" that it is promised that "all things work together for good"--and the proof of love is not in one's profession, but in his obedience and service.
(4) Special Providence as Related to Human Cooperation.
The words of Christ concerning the heavenly Father's watchful and loving providence do not mean that the children of God are not in any sense to take thought for food and raiment, and labor daily to obtain the necessities of life. Labor, both mental and physical, is as much a duty as prayer. The prayer, "Give us this day our daily bread," does not render it unnecessary that they who offer it should work for their own daily bread. Nothing could be more hurtful to healthful Christian activity than to interpret our Lord's insistence, in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere, upon trust in the heavenly Father's watchful providence as a justification of thoughtlessness, idleness, and improvidence; seeing that its purpose is simply to warn us against that needless and hurtful anxiety about the future which is not only inconsistent with trust in God, but which is utterly destructive of man's best efforts in his own behalf.
(5) General and Special Providence Both Equally Divine.
While the Scriptures appear to us to make a real and true distinction between God's natural and His supernatural order, and between His general and His special providence, yet to truly pious and wisely discerning souls all is alike divine, the natural as well as the supernatural, general as well as special providence. So far as God's faithful and loving children are concerned, general and special providence blend into one. The only real and important distinction between the two is that made by the free wills of men, by virtue of which some are in loving accord with the divine plans concerning them, and others are at enmity with God and oppose the purpose of His love concerning them. If all men were and had always been, alike trustful and loving children of the heavenly Father, there would perhaps never have been any occasion for making a distinction between the general and the special providence of God. The only distinction we should have needed to recognize in that case would have been as to the varieties of divine providence, in view of the fact that the all-loving Father would cause widely different events to happen to His different children. If anyone, therefore, is inclined to deny the distinction which we have here made between general and special providence, and prefers to affirm that there is but one general providential order over mankind in the world, that the distinction is in man and not in God's providence, his position cannot be seriously objected to, provided he does not thereby mean that the world is governed by impersonal and immutable laws, but will affirm with clearness and confidence that the world is governed by the all-loving, all-wise, omnipresent, and everywhere-active God. For, indeed, the only thing that is really "special" and out of order is the limitation which sin imposes upon the workings of divine providence in so far as the self-will and opposition of men prevent the realization of the providential purposes of God concerning them. But, unfortunately, sin is now, and has long been, so prevalent and dominant in the world that we have come to regard God's providence as affected and limited by it, as that which is regular and general, and His more perfect and complete providence in behalf of and over the good as the exceptional and special. But whether we call divine providence, as related to believers, "general" or "special," is of little consequence, provided we believe that "the steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord" (Psalms 37:23 the King James Version), that "all things work together for (spiritual) good to them that love God," and that to those who, duly subordinating the temporal to the spiritual, seek "first the kingdom of God and his righteousness," all things needful "shall be added" by the heavenly Father.
4. Divine Providence and Human Free Will:
The problem of divine providence has its utmost significance, not in its bearing on the laws of physical nature, but in that phase of it which concerns God's dealings with moral agents, those creatures who may, and often do, act contrary to His will. God governs men as a father governs his children, as a king governs his free subjects; not as a machinist works his machine, or as a hypnotist controls his mesmerized victims. A father in his family and a sovereign in his realm may each do as he pleases within certain limits, and God infinitely more:
"He doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou?" (Daniel 4:35). He setteth up one and putteth down another. Nevertheless, even God acts within limits; He limited Himself when He created free agents. As a mere matter of power God can predetermine man's volitions and necessitate his acts, but He can do so only by making of him a kind of rational machine, and destroying his true freedom. But Scripture, reason and consciousness all unite in teaching man that he is morally free, that he is an agent, and not something merely acted on. God's providential government of men, therefore, is based on their freedom as rational and moral beings, and consists in such an administration and guidance by the Holy Spirit of the affairs of men as shall encourage free moral agents to virtue, and discourage them from sin. God's providence must needs work upon and with two kinds of wills--willing wills and opposing wills.
(1) Divine Providence as Related to Willing Wills.
The apostle declares that God works in believers "both to will and to do of his good pleasure." If God's special providence over and in behalf of His children may involve an intervention of His Divine power within the realm of physical law, much more, it would seem, will it involve a similar intervention within the realm of the human mind and the human will. Spiritual guidance is one of the most precious privileges of believers, but it is difficult to conceive how the Holy Spirit can effectively guide a believer without finding some way of controlling his will and determining his volitions that is compatible with free agency. While most of man's thoughts, emotions and volitions are self-determined in their origin, being due to the free and natural workings of his own mind and heart and will, yet there are also thoughts, emotions and volitions that are divinely produced. Even a sinner under conviction of sin has thoughts and emotions that are produced by the Holy Spirit. Much more has the believer divinely-produced thoughts and feelings; and if divinely-produced thoughts and feelings, there may be, in like manner, it would seem, Divinely produced volitions. Does this seem irreconcilable with the fact of moral free agency? We think not; it is no more subversive of human free agency for God to influence effectively a man's volitions and secure a certain course of action than it is for one man effectively to influence another. No volition that is divinely necessitated can be a free moral volition; for moral volitions are such as are put forth freely, in view of motives and moral ends. The element of necessity and compulsion would destroy all true freedom in, and moral accountability for, any particular volition, so that it could not be either virtuous or vicious. But--and here is the crucial point--when a man, by an act of his own will, freely commits the ordering of his life to God, and prays God to choose for him what is best, working in him both to will and to do, that act of self-commitment to God involves the very essence of moral freedom, and is the highest exercise of free agency. "Our wills are ours to make them Thine," the poet has truly said. In other words, the highest moral act of man's free will is the surrender of itself to the divine will; and whatever control of man's will on God's part results from and follows this free act of self-surrender is entirely consistent with perfect moral freedom, even though it should involve divinely-produced volitions. Does a perplexed child cease to be free when in the exercise of his freedom he asks a wise and loving father to decide a matter for him, and be his guide in attaining a certain desired end? Surely not; and this intervention of parental wisdom and love is none the less effective if it should work, as far as possible, through the mind and will of the child, rather than allow the child to be entirely passive. So God works effectively through the mind and will of every soul who unreservedly commits himself to the divine will--commits himself not once simply, but continually. God cannot under the divinely-appointed laws of freedom work in and through the sinner "both to will and to do," because the sinner's will is bent on evil, and hence, opposed to the divine will. God's will can work, not with, but only against, a sinful will; and if it should so work and necessitate his volitions, that would destroy his true freedom. But, if God should work in and through an obedient and acquiescent will that is seeking divine guidance, THAT would be an exercise of divine power in no way incompatible with the true moral freedom of men. Such is the influence, as we conceive it, of the divine will upon the human will in providence. God's providence works effectively only through willing wills.
(2) Divine Providence as Related to Sinful Free Will.
But God's providence encounters opposing as well as willing wills. Not every unconverted man, however, represents an equally antagonistic will--there are different degrees of opposition. That God's gracious and special providence in behalf of an individual often antedates his forsaking sin and his acceptance of Christ as a personal Saviour is manifest to every student of Christian biography. Much of the best training that many a "chosen vessel" ever receives for his life-work turns out to be that unconscious providential preparation which he was receiving under a Father's guidance before he consciously consecrated himself to his divine Master. "I girded thee, though thou hast not known me," said God to Cyrus--and on this text Horace Bushnell preached one of the greatest of modern sermons on divine providence, taking as his theme, "Every man's life is a plan of God." If this be true of a Christian man, that, even before his conversion, the Holy Spirit was seeking him, and even preparing him, as far as was then possible, for fulfilling the "plan of God" in his life, is it not in all probability equally true that the Holy Spirit and the good providence of God were working in behalf of other sinners who persisted to the end in rebellion against God? Such is the power of moral free agency with which God has endowed man that the created free agent can defeat the plan of Infinite Love concerning his life, and frustrate the workings of providence in his behalf (Jeremiah 18). Whether a free moral agent, then, shall allow God's providential plans to be worked out for him or not, depends upon his own free will. It is said of the divine Christ that He could not do many mighty works in a certain city because of their unbelief and opposition. In like manner divine providence is conditioned and limited by a sinful free will.
5. Divine Providence as Related to Natural and Moral Evil:
That the Biblical writers do not regard the existence of evil as a valid objection to divine providence is evident to every student of the Scriptures. Indeed, it is in working good out of what the world accounts evil that divine providence accomplishes many of its most salutary and beneficent ends in behalf of the good. That natural or physical evil (poverty, sickness, suffering, etc.) is one of the mightiest agencies in the hands of God for restraining and correcting moral evil and for working out moral and spiritual good to fallen and sinful men, admits of easy demonstration. For the existence in the world of moral evil (sin), man, the moral free agent, is wholly responsible. God could prevent moral free agents from sinning only by not creating them, or else by placing their wills under irresistible divine restraint and compulsion. But the latter method of controlling them would virtually destroy their real and true freedom; and if this were done, then not only all sin, but all virtue and holiness as attributes of free beings would be thereby rendered impossible in men; for only such beings can put forth free holy volitions as can put forth free sinful volitions. If man had never sinned, there would probably have never been such a large providential use of natural or physical evil as prevails at present; and this because of the fact that an unfallen and holy race of beings would not have needed the presence of natural evil to secure their highest moral development. But a fallen and sinful race does need such an agency to bring it back to God and to develop holy character and the highest moral service. It is not true that sin is now always or even generally the immediate cause of an individual's suffering physical evil, or that extraordinary suffering is a proof of extraordinary sin. "Master, who did sin," asked the disciples, "this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, "Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents:
but that the works of God should be made manifest in him" (John 9:2,3 King James Version). Human suffering is for man's spiritual good and for the divine glory, as shown in working good out of evil--this is the explanation which the Master gives as to why natural evil is permitted or sent by God. It is not only a powerful, but, in a world like ours, a necessary agency for the correction and cure of moral evil and for the spiritual development of fallen man. "Before I was afflicted I went astray; but now I observe thy word .... It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I may learn thy statutes" (Psalms 119:67,71); "Every branch that beareth fruit, he cleanseth it, that it may bear more fruit" (John 15:2). The saintly and eminently useful men and women of history have, as a rule, had to undergo a severe discipline and to endure many and severe trials, and were made perfect only by their sufferings. Divine providence thus turns much of the world's natural and physical evil into moral good.
6. Evil Providentially Over-ruled for Good:
Many of the things that befall the children of God are directly due to the sins of other men. That good men, even the very best of men, suffer many things at the hands of wicked men admits of no question; and yet these ills are among the "all things" which are declared by the apostle to work together for good to them that love God. The good that may ensue to good men from the evil conduct of the wicked is certainly not due to the intrinsic power in sin to work good to those against whom it is maliciously directed; it can only be due to the fact that God overrules it for the good of the innocent. "As for you," said Joseph, "ye meant evil against me; but God meant it for good" (Genesis 50:20); "The things which happened unto me," said Paul, "have fallen out rather unto the progress of the gospel" (Philippians 1:12). God, though foreknowing the evil that wicked men are planning to work against His children, may not prevent it; and this because He can and will overrule it for His glory and for their good, if they abide faithful. But, suppose a good man is not simply injured, but killed by the wicked, as in the case of the martyrs that died at the stake--does the principle still hold good? It does, we answer; the saint who dies in the discharge of duty and because of is fidelity to duty is not only assured, by all the promises of revelation, of a happy immortality, but he has the rare privilege of serving to advance the kingdom of God by his death as well as by his life. God's kingdom is advanced in manifold ways by the death of good men. Is not "the blood of the martyrs the seed of the church"? But we need here again to remark that it is not material and temporal, but moral and spiritual good, that God has guaranteed to His holy, loving and faithful children. If sin had an intrinsic power to work good, they would be right who maintain that "the end justifies the means, and one may do evil when good will come of it" (compare Romans 3:8); and they also would be right who maintain that God is the Author of evil, seeing that evil is, on that supposition, only disguised good--propositions which are thoroughly vicious and subversive of all that is good in man or God. The Scriptures, rightly interpreted, nowhere lend themselves to such false and misleading ethics (compare Isaiah 45:7).
7. Interpreting Providence:
To what extent may we, having studied God's providential methods as revealed in the Scriptures, in Nature, in human history, and in personal experience, venture to interpret providence as it applies to current events in our own lives and in the lives of others? Experience and observation will warn us both against haste and against too great confidence in our interpretations of providence. Hasty misinterpretations of providence in its bearing on present passing events frequently become fruitful sources of skepticism for the future. Some people are much given to interpreting providence. Certain ills or misfortunes come to a bad man; they are quick to assert that it is a divine judgment sent upon him in view of his sin. Certain blessings come to a good man; they are sure the blessings are heaven-sent in view of his extraordinary piety. A whiskey merchant's store burns down:
it is, say they, a divine judgment, in view of his ill-gotten gains. But presently the property of an unquestionably pious and consecrated man is swept away by the flames: where now is the providence? The "oracles" fail to explain; and so they do in innumerable other cases: as, for example, when two men, a saint and a sinner, are prostrated on beds of sickness. The former, in spite of prayer and piety, continues to grow worse, and perhaps dies; while the other, without piety or prayer, is restored to health. God has not made us interpreters of His providences except for ourselves; and even much of that which we sincerely believe comes to us in a graciously providential manner we can well afford to keep as a sacred secret between ourselves and our God, seeing that God has not furnished us with any means of absolutely proving that what has happened to us might not have happened, under similar circumstances, even to sinful men. Many a Christian man comes to see that the ill that has happened to him--the loss of property, the terrible spell of sickness, and the like--things that, at the time, he would not interpret as providential--are among the best things that were ever sent upon him, in that they made him holier and more useful (compare John 13:7):
"Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter
And He will make it plain."
There are, however, many evident truths written large on the pages of history, in the rise, decline and fall of kingdoms and nations, which he who runs may read. And to him who truly believes in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and who will duly consider all the facts and lessons of life, in himself and others, in individuals and in nations, and not for a day merely but patiently as the years come and go, it will be made plain that "God's in His heaven--All's right with the world," and that all things work together for the spiritual good of those who love God and who prove their love for Him by serving their fellow-men.
We conclude, then, that there is, according to the Scriptures, an ever-watchful providence exercised by the heavenly Father over His faithful and loving children, which is ceaselessly working to secure their ever-increasing holiness and usefulness here, an their perfect happiness in a future state of existence. To prepare rational and immortal free agents through holiness and usefulness here for happiness hereafter is the aim and end of this all-embracing providence of God, which includes within its loving care every human being except such as exclude themselves therefrom by their own willful and persistent sinning. And in the accomplishment of this end, what the world counts as the misfortunes and ills of life often contribute far more than what, in the estimation of men, are accounted the greatest earthly blessings. There is no providential highway to a state here that is free from life's ills, and that abounds in temporal and earthly blessings to the good. But there is a royal and holy highway, along which moves a providential pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, leading the children of the covenant, through lives of loving service and sacrifice, to a holy land of promise, the goal of a gracious providence; and they who journey along this highway bear this seal:
"The Lord knoweth them that are his: And, Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity" (2 Timothy 2:19 the King James Version). They who bear this seal are the divinely-chosen instruments and agents of that larger and wider providence that is ever working to establish a perfect kingdom of righteousness in the whole earth, that kingdom of God, to inaugurate which, in its Messianic form, our Lord became incarnate, and to consummate which, in its final and perfect form, He reigns from heaven and will continue to reign until, having "put all enemies under his feet," He shall "deliver up the kingdom to God, even the Father"--when the poet's vision shall be realized of:
"That God who ever lives and loves;
One God, one law, one element,
And one far-off Divine event,
To which the whole creation moves."
James Orr, The Christian View of God and the World; A. B. Bruce, The Providential Order of the World; James McCosh, The Method of Divine Government; James Hinton, The Mystery of Pain; John Telford, Man's Partnership with Divine Providence; W. N. Clarke, The Christian Doctrine of God, and, An Outline of Christian Theology; W. B. Pope, Compendium of Christian Theology; A. L. Lilley, Adventus Regni; Oehler, Theology of the Old Testament; Wendt, The Teaching of Jesus; George B. Stevens, The Pauline Theology; E. P. Gould, The Biblical Theology of the New Testament; T. Jackson, The Providence of God Viewed in the Light of the Holy Scripture; H. M. Gwatkin, The Knowledge of God; Lux Mundi:
Preparation in History for Christ; J. Flavell, Divine Conduct, or the Mystery of Providence; O. D. Watkins, The Divine Providence; Borden P. Bowne, The Immanence of God.
Wilbur F. Tillett
These files are public domain.