I shifted uncomfortably in my chair, conscious of the tension in the little room. I’d guessed this conversation was coming, since the people now sitting in front of me had seemed unhappy with my pastoral leadership for a good long time. I wasn’t sure what would happen now, but I was afraid it might end badly, with hurtful words spoken and their bitter departure from our church. I mention this moment not because it’s unusual in pastoral ministry—every pastor experiences such meetings sooner or later—or because it had a miraculous and uplifting outcome, but because I recall my own heart in that conversation. I claimed to be Calvinist, but I wasn’t living like one. I was thinking little of God’s role in this conversation—and much of the people sitting across from me.

A Doctrine to Cherish

In the years since, I’ve come to cherish the doctrine of God’s providence and to draw strength and encouragement from it. I’ve begun learning what a difference it makes in the Christian life. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin underscored the high stakes of believing or rejecting this doctrine: “Ignorance of providence is the ultimate of all miseries; the highest blessedness lies in the knowledge of it.”

I suspect relatively few of us who espouse a classical Reformed view of God’s providence, however, would say it’s borne the “best and sweetest fruit” or that for us “nothing is more profitable than the knowledge of this doctrine.” Reading Calvin on God’s providence leads me to realize we must reclaim the practical benefits of this vital teaching. 

Two Planes

The classical view of divine providence holds that every event—including human thoughts, choices, and actions—occurs according to God’s sovereign will. “All things,” the Heidelberg Catechism declares, “come not by chance, but by his fatherly hand.” This view of providence allows for genuine human causality; divine and human agency are held together.

And yet there is an ultimate causality in divine agency that sets it apart from (and over) human agency. We see this in the famous Genesis 45 passage recounting the story of Joseph and his brothers. In Genesis 45:4–8, Joseph twice says that his brothers sold him into Egypt and three times that God sent him to Egypt. Both are true. But there’s another important and initially puzzling feature here that’s crucial for grasping how to apply the doctrine of divine providence. After twice affirming his brothers’ role, Joseph seems to deny it: “It was not you who sent me here, but God.” Unless Joseph is flatly contradicting himself, he must mean his brothers were not the ones ultimately responsible. While both they and God exercise genuine agency, only God’s is ultimate. Their choice is part of God’s plan.

Providence Amnesia  

This is far from an irrelevant theological distinction in Joseph’s mind. In fact, it has immediate practical implications. “Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here,” Joseph tells his brothers. Why? “For God sent me before you to preserve life.” God’s activity is the reason Joseph’s brothers need not be distressed. Yes, they really sinned, and that can’t be ignored. But God had a purpose for their actions, and that must shape their response to what they’ve done. Joseph urges them to focus more on God’s good purposes in the situation than on their own sinful purposes. They’re to report to their father Jacob that God has made Joseph lord of all Egypt (Gen. 45:9)—and the result of God’s action will be salvation for the entire family (Gen. 45:10–11). Later, we learn God’s ultimate causality led Joseph to speak kindly to his brothers rather than seek revenge (Gen. 50:19–21).

“When we are unjustly wounded by men,” Calvin wrote, “let us overlook their wickedness (which would but worsen our pain and sharpen our minds to revenge), remember to mount up to God, and learn to believe for certain that whatever our enemy has wickedly committed against us was permitted and sent by God’s just dispensation.” I think Calvin (like Joseph in Genesis 45) speaks hyperbolically to make a point. We’re not to completely ignore other people’s good or bad intentions, words, and actions. Calvin further writes, “The Christian heart, since it has been thoroughly persuaded that all things happen by God’s plan, and that nothing takes place by chance, will ever look to him as the principal cause of things, yet will give attention to the secondary causes in their proper place.” In the same evil deed, a godly man will “clearly contemplate God’s righteousness and man’s wickedness, as each clearly shows itself.” Calvin’s strongly-worded counsel to “overlook their wickedness” and “mount up to God” is his way of emphasizing that our main focus is to be on God’s purposes, not human intentions. 

This is enormously helpful and practical counsel for all Christians. We’re prone, when confronted with spiteful and malicious human enemies, to forget God is ultimately behind what’s happening to us. Perhaps we give lip service to the truth of his providence, but most of our emotions and responses are directed toward the human agents. After all, they’re more immediately present to our senses. Too often the conviction that God is sovereign, and that humans fulfill his good plans, has virtually no practical impact on the way we live. We suffer from providence amnesia.

Seeing the Invisible Hand

We should begin each day by asking God to give us faith to see his hand in every encounter. Paul Tripp prays three commendable prayers at the outset of the day: (1) “Lord, I’m a person in desperate need of help today,” (2) “Lord, won’t you, in your grace, send your helpers my way?” and (3) “Lord, please give me the humility to receive the help when it comes.” Daily preparing ourselves to receive God’s loving help in unexpected ways, through unexpected people—perhaps through unexpected suffering and hardship—opens our eyes to see the loving activity of his hand in every circumstance. We’re watching for that fatherly hand.

Moreover, when someone hurts us, we should spend more time reflecting on God’s good purposes than on their evil intentions. Or, adapting Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s famous advice, for every look at someone else’s evil intentions, take ten looks at God’s providential purposes. This is what Joseph instructed his brothers to do. It’s what Job did (Job 1:21). Of course we can never fully know God’s purposes, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ponder them. After all, our ignorance of the bad intentions of those who hurt us doesn’t stop us from endlessly speculating on their intentions. If we’re going to speculate, why not speculate on God’s good purposes instead?

A Doctrine for Life

If I were having that same painful conversation in the little room tomorrow, I’m sure I wouldn’t be looking forward to it. My palms might still be sweaty. But I hope I’d have a confidence this time I didn’t have before. I hope I’d be expecting God to work for me, even through the cutting words of angry people. God’s providence doesn’t make our troubles go away, but it does frame them within his majestic and loving purposes for us. This doctrine matters for life.