I remember my first failed relationship. I was in junior high and enamored with a girl one year my senior. One day I mustered up the courage to approach her and asked if she would be my girlfriend. Though we hardly knew each other, she said yes.

No one should be surprised that the relationship ended shortly thereafter. Nevertheless, my depraved 14-year-old mind and heart thought that I was in love, and when we broke up, it hurt.

I cringe at the memories of singing love songs (think Usher in 2001) while sobbing in my room, wondering why it had to end.

Frankly, it was pathetic.

Good, Bad, and Bitter Breakups

Shake your head if you must, but many of us have endured similar experiences in our adult years. Accruing countless breakups before marriage has become the norm.

Many times, we can look back on a relationship and thank God for clearly and providentially intervening. I know I can. But other broken relationships don’t readily prompt our thanks.

Perhaps you have dated, courted, or were interested in someone you wanted to marry. Instead the relationship ended, leaving you bitter at the other party or even at God. Maybe the other person is someone you still respect to this day. Or you never got closure and have no idea why it didn’t work out.

Ending a relationship without clear reasons or with unanswered questions is tough. I’ve met many godly young singles still crushed from past relationships. Many of us are acquainted with the feeling of abandonment by a significant other. We have questions. We often demand answers.

The Holy Scriptures offer help. A healthy understanding of God’s providence is essential to gaining perspective on our bitter breakups.

Pain and Providence

Recently, I visited a church where the pastor preached on the providence of God and the children of Israel. As he unpacked the first few verses of Exodus, he pointed back to Genesis to show the ways we often overlook God’s beautiful providence in the trials and tribulations of this present life.

He talked about Joseph, pointing out how this young man was sold into slavery in a twist of fate that God appointed to prevent the death of Joseph’s brothers (and the future nation of Israel) from famine by bringing them to Egypt.

Many of us lack this robust understanding of God’s providence. We see it as something that protects us from pain but not something that takes us through pain for our own good. As the pastor rightly observed, for us, providence has become a nickname for “luck.”

Providentially Present

So how should a biblical view of providence affect the way we view break ups and failed relationships?

A proper understanding of biblical providence sees God’s presence in our pain. When we lose someone significant, feelings of loneliness and abandonment invade our thoughts and emotions. Even if we’re surrounded with loved ones who care for us, their words of encouragement and attempts to provide closure rarely bring us comfort. What we really need is divine presence.

Sadly, when we think of God, we sometimes struggle to believe he’s near to us. We picture God as a cold dictator, distant and unconcerned with our earthly relationships, bored with our lives and bothered by our troubles. The Holy Scriptures contradict this thinking, reminding us that his hand will lead us and his right hand shall hold us (Ps. 139:10). He’s present.

Elisabeth Elliot, author and two-time widow, testifies to this comfort when she writes, “I am not a theologian or a scholar, but I am very aware of the fact that pain is necessary to all of us. In my own life, I think I can honestly say that out of the deepest pain has come the strongest conviction of the presence of God and the love of God.”

Providentially Active

However, God isn’t simply present and passive. He is alive and therefore present and active. While in college, I was discipled under the umbrella of Reformed University Fellowship. Our campus minister constantly reminded us that in all things, at all times, “God is at work.”

The Dutch Reformed theologian and scholar Herman Bavinck taught that the Bible presents a God who is constantly at work in the lives of his people. While Scripture describes the almighty acts of God, it at the same time praises them, in order that we may know the God of the universe is always at work for our good and ultimately his glory.

God is active in our breakups. Scripture is clear that he doesn’t just stand nearby watching the affairs of our life unfold, but he in fact orchestrates them (Gen. 45:5; Deut. 8:18; Prov. 21:1). He does so in a way that doesn’t violate our moral responsibility, but he is involved.

If we affirm that God is good and loving (Ps. 107:1), we can find comfort in the reality that he is in control of our lives. Why? We, with Joseph, realize that even what is meant for our harm by others, God means it for our good. This can only mean one thing: For those of us in Christ Jesus, our break ups are meant for our good.

Providence and the Gospel

According to the gospel, God is present in the incarnate Lord Jesus and active in his perfect life, death, resurrection, return, and consummation. We wait on the latter two, yet even as we wait “we are sealed with the promised Holy Spirit who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it” (Eph. 1:14) upon Christ’s return. Through the Holy Spirit who lives inside of you, God is present and active.

A biblical understanding of providence, according to Bavinck, makes

us grateful when things go well and patient when things go against us, prompts us to rest with childlike submission in the guidance of the Lord and at the same time arouses us from our inertia to the highest levels of activity. In all circumstances of life, it gives us good confidence in our faithful God and Father that he will provide whatever we need for body and soul and that he will turn to our good whatever adversity he sends us in this sad world, since he is able to do this as almighty God and desires to do this as a faithful Father.

In times of deep distress and pain that a broken heart can sometimes bring, rest in the reality that your Father in heaven is good and gives good gifts to those who ask him (Matt. 7:11). A biblical understanding of providence should move us to contentedly trust the hand of God–even when it comes to breakups.