For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? (Deut. 4:7)
Most Christians have a moment when they pray in desperation. I remember mine. It felt like my whole future was falling apart. I sent rushed text messages to friends sharing my pain and asking them to pray for me. I lapsed into a tearful silence, with a sense that words had finally failed me. I needed to call out to God, but I wondered if he would hear me or if he would care. In that moment, what would I call him? How would my prayer start? Who hears me?
We refer to God by different names: God, Lord, Father, Jesus, Spirit, Savior, and countless others. Each sheds light on God’s character. Sometimes we call God by a certain name to emphasize his goodness or his mercy. Sometimes we call on a specific person of the Trinity, like when we pray to the Father. Other times, we may refer to him by his title, “Lord.”
On that tearful, desperate night, I knew whom to call on. This name wasn’t new. Millions of Christians had called God by it over the ages. It was a name I found in college when I studied the Puritans, a name that began to reshape my idea of who God is and how he loves me.
That name is “Providence.”
Who Is Providence?
The early church father Irenaeus wrote, “The Maker of the universe . . . exercises a providence over all things, and arranges the affairs of our world.” Providence is the way God sovereignly rules all of creation. But it’s more specific. More than a millennium later, John Calvin wrote, “He sustains, nourishes, and cares for, everything he has made, even to the last sparrow . . . nothing takes place by chance” (1.16.1). God cares. God nourishes. God, in his sovereignty, has in mind what is best for those who are his.
In college and seminary I can remember countless debates and squabbles over God’s sovereignty. There were horror stories of overzealous young preachers who used the doctrine like a hammer. But it was the doctrine of God’s providence that turned God’s sovereignty from a hammer into a pillow on which to rest my weary head. I had been told countless times how God was sovereign over everything in the world and in my life. The message of God’s providence, however, opened my eyes to the truth: God’s love governs God’s sovereignty. His sovereignty isn’t his cold, harsh rule with no regard or feeling for man. In the doctrine of providence, we see more clearly: God meets the needs of his people, according to his love for them.
God answers prayers in only two ways: provision or protection.
When Providence is the one caring for you, you needn’t fear loss or pain or death. This is what undergirds Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 6:25–34. Be anxious for nothing, he says (Matt. 6:25). Jesus says we can look to God’s providence over creation to see his love for us in miniature. The birds don’t sow, but they are fed (Matt. 6:26). The lilies of the field don’t toil, and yet they are dressed with more magnificence than Solomon (Matt. 6:28–29). And we, Jesus says, are far more than they. God isn’t just our Creator; he’s our loving Father.
Jesus’s conclusion is the kicker. “The Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows you need them all,” he says. “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt. 6:32–33).
He knows you need them all.
God’s provision isn’t arbitrary. He doesn’t withhold blessings to put his children through a cosmic test of pain tolerance. Providence is our God, and he knows our needs. He adds them to us.
On that bitter, tearful night, I knew the God to whom I prayed is the God who knows what I need and who provides for me.
Prayer and Providence
If that’s true, it changes our prayer life from beguiling, bartering, or boasting to faithfully entrusting ourselves to the God who provides—the God who is Providence. When it comes down to it, God answers prayers in only two ways: provision or protection. If he gives us what we ask for, it’s because of his great love. But the converse is also true (and what we so often miss): If the Lord isn’t giving us what we’re asking for, then he’s protecting us from it. Because God provides his children with only good gifts, any time he withholds from us we can be sure it’s because that blessing doesn’t serve his ultimate purpose: to conform us into the image of Christ.
Sometimes God withholds things we ask for because the thing itself is bad. Other times he withholds it because of the rotten fruit it would bear in our lives, the unseen pain it would cause, or the lessons or formation it would steal. Sometimes God’s “no” is for a season, whereby he provides for us in waiting what we couldn’t get through immediate gratification. Often we’re called to be like the woman from Jesus’s parable seeking justice from an unjust judge—to wait on the Lord and be persistent in our asking. But even then, God isn’t the unjust judge. In those moments, he isn’t holding out until we grovel; rather, in his providential timing he’s forming us and conforming us until we’re ready to receive his answer.
In every granted prayer request and in every ‘no,’ the one who answers our prayers is Providence himself.
Whatever the answer, we can be sure of this: In every granted request and in every “no,” the one who answers our prayers is Providence himself. He has shown us in the incarnation, cross, and resurrection of Christ the extent to which he’s willing to go for our benefit.
Charles Spurgeon once said of God, “[A Christian] trusts him where [he] cannot trace him.” When the dark night of the soul comes, when the tears flow over like a river after a rainstorm, and when our prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling, we can rest assured that our prayers are heard and answered not just by the God who reigns, but by the God who provides, nourishes, and promises to make all things new.