As the Lord’s providence would have it, last Sunday—the Sunday before everyone and everything seemed to be taken over by COVID-19—was Lord’s Day 10. If you’ve ever used the Heidelberg Catechism you know the 129 questions and answers are given over 52 Lord’s Days. Week 10 is about providence.
Q. What do you understand by the providence of God?
A. Providence is the almighty and ever present power of God by which he upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty—all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 27).
This is my favorite Lord’s Day in the entire Catechism. I love its poetic description of providence. “Sovereignty” is the word we hear more often. That’s a good word too. But if people run out of the room crying whenever you talk to them about sovereignty, try using the word “providence.” For some people God’s sovereignty sounds like nothing but raw, capricious power: “God has absolute power over all things, and you better get used to it.” That kind of thing. And that definition is true in a sense, but divine sovereignty, we must never forget, is sovereignty-for-us. As Eric Liddel’s dad remarked in Chariots of Fire, God may be a dictator, but “Aye, he is a benign, loving dictator.”
Coming to grips with God’s all-encompassing providence requires a massive shift in how we look at the world. It requires changing our vantage point—from seeing the cosmos as a place where man rules and God responds, to beholding a universe where God creates and constantly controls with sovereign love and providential power.
The definition of providence in the Catechism is stunning. All things, yes all things, “come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand.” In my previous denomination, I used to ask seminary students being examined for ordination, “How would the Heidelberg Catechism, particularly Lord’s Day 10, help you minister to someone who just lost a job or a child, or just received a frightening diagnosis?” I was often disappointed to hear students who should have been affirming the confessions of their denomination shy away from Heidelberg’s strong, biblical language about providence.
Like most of us, the students were much more at ease using passive language about God’s permissive will or comfortable generalities about God being “in control” than they were about stating precisely and confidently to those in the midst of suffering “this has come from God’s fatherly hand.” And yet, that’s what the Catechism teaches.
And more importantly, so does the Bible.
To be sure, God’s providence is not an excuse to act foolishly or sinfully. Herod and Pontius Pilate, though they did what God had planned beforehand, were still wicked conspirators (Acts 4:25-28). The Bible affirms human responsibility. It also affirms comprehensive divine sovereignty. Prudence, yes. Precautions, yes. And providence, a thousand times yes.
The Bible also affirms, much more massively and frequently than some imagine, God’s power and authority over all things.
The nations are under God’s control (Psalm 2:1-4; 33:10), as is nature (Mark 4:41; Psalm 135:7; 147:18; 148:8), and animals (2 Kings 17:25; Dan. 6:22; Matt. 10:29).
God is sovereign over Satan and evil spirits (Matt. 4:10; 2 Cor. 12:7-8; Mark 1:27).
God uses wicked people for his plans—not just in a “bringing good out of evil” sort of way, but in an active, intentional, “this was God’s plan from the get-go” sort of way (Job 12:16; John 19:11; Gen. 45:8; Luke 22:22; Acts 4:27-28).
God hardens hearts (Ex. 14:17;Josh. 11:20; Rom. 9:18).
God sends trouble and calamity (Judg. 9:23; 1 Sam. 1:5; 16:14; 2 Sam. 24:1; 1 Kings 22:20-23; Isa. 45:6-7; 53:10; Amos 3:6; Ruth 1:20; Eccl. 7:14).
God even puts to death (1 Sam. 2:6, 25; 2 Sam 12:15; 2 Chr. 10:4, 14; Deut. 32:39).
God does what he pleases and his purposes cannot be thwarted (Isa. 46:9-10; Dan. 4:34-35).
In short, God guides all our steps and works all things after the counsel of his will (Prov. 16:33; 20:24; 21:2; Jer. 10:23; Psalm 139:16; Rom. 8:21; Eph. 1:11).
It’s worth noting that Lord’s Day 10 is explaining what the Apostles’ Creed means when it says, “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” If God is the creator of all things and truly almighty, then he must continue to be almighty over all that he has created. And if God is a Father, then surely he exercises his authority over his creation and creatures for the good of his beloved children. Providence is nothing more than a belief in “God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth” brought to bear on our present blessings and troubles and buoying our hope into the future.
You can look at providence through the lens of human autonomy and our idolatrous notions of freedom and see a mean God moving tornadoes and influenza like chess pieces in some kind of perverse divine play-time. Or you can look at providence through the lens of Scripture and see a loving God counting the hairs on our heads and directing the sparrows in the sky so that we might live life unafraid.
“What else can we wish for ourselves,” Calvin wrote, “if not even one hair can fall from our head without his will?” There are no accidents in your life. Nothing has been left to chance. Every economic downturn, every novel virus, every oncology report has been sent to us from the God who sees all things, plans all things, and loves us more than we know.
As children of our heavenly Father, divine providence is always for us and never against us. Joseph’s imprisonment seemed pointless, but it makes sense now. Slavery in Egypt makes sense now. Killing the Messiah makes sense now. At some point in the future—whether near or far—the coronavirus will make sense. Whatever difficulty or unknown we may be facing today, it will make sense someday—if not in this life, then certainly in the next.
We all have moments where we fear the unknown. The fact of the matter is our worries may come true, but God will never be untrue to his own. We don’t know what the future holds, but we do know who holds the future. God will always lead us, always listen to us, and always love us in Christ.
God moves in mysterious ways; we may not always understand why life is what it is. But we can face the future unafraid because we know that nothing moves, however mysterious, except by the hand of that great Unmoved Mover who moves all and is moved by none, and that this Mover is not an impersonal force but the God who is our Father in heaven.