My son noticed a Christmas card we received last month with a photo of two teen-agers. When he asked about the teen-agers, I told him I was responsible for their being in the world. That got his attention. Then I told him the story.

When I was a student at Samford University, “preacher boys,” those of us planning on being vocational ministers, received opportunities to preach in churches throughout the state each semester. One week I was assigned to preach at Beulah Baptist Church just outside Albertville, Ala. I was invited back later that summer as their youth director. While there, two college friends came and helped me with a weekend lock-in for the youth. Scott Spivey, one of the college students, took a liking to a member of the youth group. They developed a relationship and a few years later I performed the wedding ceremony for the couple in that same church.

If I had had other plans that weekend I preached at Beulah, if I’d been assigned to another church, if I hadn’t accepted the position as summer youth director, if I hadn’t planned a lock-in, if Scott hadn’t come to help, a couple would not have fallen in love, there would have been no wedding and today there would be no teen-age Spiveys.

I know Scott and his wife Christy believe God had a hand in their relationship. I know many of you believe God has played a role in many of the events in your lives. If you begin with the premise that God is real and active in our world, a big question that’s difficult to answer is how many of life’s events are controlled or directed by God? Or to put it another way, how much do you believe in the providence of God?

That question occurred to me when the Rev. Pat Robertson opened his mouth and inserted his foot again recently. He traced the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin as well as the recent massive stroke of current Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to the hand of God, saying these were punishments for their efforts in trying to make peace with Palestinians by sharing land in Israel. Robertson says the Bible clearly states the land belongs only to the Jews and thus any attempt to divide the land will result in punishment by God. In Robertson’s case, he apparently does not believe that evil could work apart from God’s approval or direct involvement (even though evil and God don’t mix too well); nor can he see natural health problems at work in Sharon’s case without God’s hand directing it to occur.

If you believe that God is omnipotent (all-powerful), then God has the ability with a single breath to blow every Palestinian out of the land of Israel if He so chose. Even though the Bible states that God gave the land to the descendants of Isaac, God’s not chosen to purge the land of every Gentile and God has the power to do so. Why would God strike down two men for sharing the land for the sake of peace when God’s been sharing that land now for thousands of years?

So if you believe in God’s providence or the sovereignty of God, then God has either exercised great restraint in driving non-Jews out of Israel for the sake of peace, or we can yet expect some kind of holy war or miraculous exit of the Palestinian people from Israel in the future, for those are the only two ways the Palestinians will ever leave the land. Their ties to the land are as ancient and as strong as the Jews’.

While some evangelicals may be passionate about Robertson’s statement and theology, I don’t believe his viewpoint finds wide appeal. More people will see sharing land for the sake of peace as a Godly approach. Even if he were right, he sounds arrogant in his verbiage. But what Robertson has done is make a statement about a topic relevant to all of our lives: providence. In an indirect way he raises the question: To what extent is God involved in the events of our lives?

How often have you heard people say, “Everything happens for a reason. God doesn’t put more on you than you can handle”? These are common ways people have of expressing their belief in providence. The theology behind these statements is that the events have somehow and for some reason been ordered and orchestrated by God. We may not know why something has happened, but to give the event meaning, we tie the event to God. Sometimes the event is one of celebration and sometimes the event is one of tragedy.

John Comer was one of the earliest Baptist ministers in America. He was born in Boston, Mass., on Aug. 1, 1704. At the time he pastored, there were only 26 Baptist churches in America with a little more than 2,000 total members. (The Diary of John Comer: p. 114)

In his diary, John Comer tells how his stepfather spent 200 pounds of his money left to him by his biological father for his education. When this man was confronted by Comer’s grandfather, he left the family. Two years later, Comer’s stepfather was leaving his own home after dark to check on his horse. He tripped over a log and lodged the stem of the pipe down his windpipe. He died three days later. Comer’s explanation goes as follows: “Thus ye Lord found out a way in his Providence (tho awful) to meet with him. I always thought it was a judgement.” (p. 17)

In his introduction of Comer’s diary, James W. Willmarth states: “It was a way of the times to regard every calamity as a judgement, and to look upon many natural phenomena with fear, as portents of wrath, rather than with scientific inquiry and with admiration of God’s wonderful display of power. This was no doubt an error. Yet who shall say that John Comer was not right in his questioning belief in God’s providential control of the world, and that his mental attitude was not far nearer the right than the less believing and more flippant temper of this generation?” (p.8)

One of the more well-known stories about God’s providence in the Bible is about Joseph, the dreamer. One has to follow this story from beginning to end to finally see the hand of God at work because there are too many twists and turns, too many pieces to the puzzle. Only in the end can the reader finally exclaim, “Wow! Look at the handiwork of God!”

An excerpt from a sermon published by the great preacher Charles Spurgeon in 1908 makes the point that although there are many parts of God’s providential work, in the end it is all pulled together into one tapestry by God.

“It is a great truth, though hard for us to grasp, that Providence is one. Just look at the case of Joseph. God has it in his mind that Joseph shall be governor over all the land of Egypt: how is that to be done? The first thing to be done is that Joseph’s brethren must hate him. O, say you, that is a step backward. Next, Joseph’s brethren must put him in the pit. That is another step backward, say you. No, it is not: wait a little. Joseph’s brethren must sell him; that is another step backward, is it not? Providence is one, and you must not look at its separate parts. He is sold; he becomes a favorite: so far, so good. That is a step onward. Anon, he is put in a dungeon. Wait and see the end; all the different parts of the machinery are one. They appear to clash; but they never do. Put them all together. If Joseph had not been put in the pit, he never would have been the servant of Potiphar: if he never had been put in the round-house, he never would have interpreted the jailor’s dream; and if the king had never dreamed, he would not have been sent for. There were a thousand chances, as the world has it, working together to produce the exaltation of Joseph. Providence is one: it never clashes.”

Joseph saw this tapestry of God in his life. Perhaps he had reflected often on his powerful position and the unlikelihood of his story — how a once enslaved Jew had risen through the ranks of the Egyptians, second only to Pharaoh, and had helped orchestrate a plan to save grain over a seven-year period that saved hundreds of thousands of lives over a seven-year drought.

However, it’s not until his brothers come to Egypt looking for food and are eventually confronted by their brother that we see a glimpse of Joseph’s understanding of providential theology. Speaking to his brothers about their decision to sell him into slavery, Joseph said, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” Gen. 50:19-20 (NIV)

Does this mean that God condoned the evil of Joseph’s brothers? Does this mean that God directed or orchestrated their evil in an effort to guide Joseph toward Egypt? That’s a part of providence I cannot accept because I do not believe it is taught by the Scriptures. God would not promote evil to eventually promote good even if it could be argued that the good eventually outweighed the evil. God is holy. Evil cannot be promoted by a holy God. Thus, when I hear people who attribute horrible, terrible, and even sinful acts as the providential hand of God, I cringe. It is true that people reap what they sow, but that does not mean that God is the first mover of their destruction where evil and sin are involved.

This is not to say that God cannot take horrible, terrible, and sinful acts of humanity and use them for His own purposes, redirecting them and channeling them into his providential plan for the world. The Scripture tells us: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28 (NIV)

Perhaps the greatest example of God’s providential work in this manner is how he took the cross and turned it into our means for finding salvation. On Calvary, God took the most evil of mankind’s actions and redirected them into the most glorious of resurrections. He defeated death so we might have life. Though Jesus knew what was going to occur, as evidenced in his comments to his disciples about dying and rising from the dead on the third day, comments to Judas at the last supper about doing what he must do, to Peter about how he would deny him three times before the rooster crowed, none of the events of the Passion were choreographed by God to the extent that people had no free will. God’s providence leaves all the room necessary for us to exercise the freedom of choice that’s so crucial for our humanity. It’s the same freedom of choice that we must use to embrace the divinity of Christ and proclaim him as our Lord and Savior.

In being disciples and journeying with the Lord, we are often given a vantage point whereby we can look back and see the handiwork of God. God’s providence is often viewed from the back side of life. More times than not, much of the working of God is actually hidden from us. But when it is revealed, we do well to simply acknowledge it and to worship God. It’s like the poem about the footprints in the sand, when we look back and see only one set of footprints in the sand and wonder where God was, we come to realize that they were the footprints of God as He carried us through our crises.

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” (1 Cor. 13:12 KJV)

In all due respect to Rev. Robertson, I believe many people are turned off by that fact that he claims to see so much more clearly than most of us into current events which he so quickly connects with the providence of God. He is right that God is actively working in this world. His providential hand is upon us all. However, that hand is often mysterious and not so clearly seen. The evidence of it is often seen more clearly from the back side of life, not so much at the moment that it happens. But one day, we will get a heavenly vantage point and much of what didn’t make sense here will all come together. We will all bow down and worship the King of Kings because then we shall know even as we are now fully known.

The Rev. Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie.

React to this story:


Recommended for you