Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 10 - God’s Providence
Question 27: What do you understand by the providence of God?
Answer 27: God’s providence is
His almighty and ever present power,
whereby, as with his hand, he still upholds
heaven and earth and all creatures,
and so governs them that
leaf and blade,
rain and drought,
fruitful and barren years,
food and drink,
health and sickness,
riches and poverty,
indeed, all things,
come to us not by chance
but by his fatherly hand.
No one thinks it is a coincidence when his alarm clock goes off exactly at the time that had been set, or that a door gives a bang when it is closed quickly, or that his bicycle moves forward after a push on the pedals. Much can be predicted with certainty: when I do this, then that will happen. That gives a sense of security in life.
We go to sleep quietly, because we trust our alarm clock and we count on our bicycle. We avoid noise by closing the front door carefully. In our daily activities, we assume numerous certainties. Coincidence is not one of them. In this way we can also make our plans.
There are fixed laws. God made them. He calls them his ordinances or appointed orders.1 They are the fixed rules by which he regulates nature. We may say that they contain and obey the will of God. That a stone thrown upward falls back to earth with the same speed is because God wills it. That a well-constructed bridge can handle the heavy amount of traffic is no accident, but a matter of taking into account inherent mechanical laws. But those are God’s laws. It is God’s will that such a bridge continues to function properly. And we know that will.
Coincidence, After All?
Not everything is predictable or calculable. We get to deal with windfalls and setbacks. People try to map out the future. They make forecasts. But they remain estimates. Prosperity and adversity, health and illness cannot be predicted infallibly. And disasters happen that cannot be explained, or only imperfectly, even in retrospect. Coincidence? The Catechism says that all things do not come to us by chance. God’s providence governs and permeates everything. By providence is meant God’s almighty (=omnipotent) and ever-present power.2
Where do we find this power? The first instance the Catechism mentions is, surprisingly simple, foliage (leaves) and grass (blades)! A lawn and a tree, and there we have exhibit A. There God is present with his power. In every leaflet; in every blade of grass. With all his divine interest: he continues to follow and to direct everything closely. Nothing is left to chance. We count all kinds of things but we consider the counting of our hairs a hopeless and useless task. But God thinks it is worthwhile. He does it. And why? Because every hair falls under his providence. He even knows the sparrow that fell on the highway and that every motorist drives over without noticing.3
But God does more than simply be present with his power in leaves and blades and hairs. He drives the flow of all events toward a goal. The earth is not a stationary car with an idling engine. It is on the road and going somewhere. This is why, in addition to the rather quiet verb “upholds” the Catechism uses a second one in which there is more momentum and planning: he “governs”. God is moving toward a goal. And he does so according to his plan. There is no room for coincidence. But does that get us anywhere? Because — coincidence or no t— we apparently have absolutely no idea what will happen to us. I like to believe that God is governing, but he can give me sickness as well as health. Hopefully I will receive prosperity but adversity might be in store instead. So what do we gain by knowing that nothing happens by chance? What do we gain when we believe that God’s providence is involved in this incurable disease or in that deep sorrow?
More Than a Father
No one will have trouble with the image of Hebrews 12:5-11, where God is compared to a father who disciplines his child and gives him or her a hard time if necessary. At the time of punishment you really might be in trouble but later on the child reaps the benefits, see verse 11. When God does not give us smooth sailing in our lives he does so out of fatherly love.
However, this is not an easy or quick explanation of all that God gives us. Because a good father does not cause his child to become sick. The measles or the flu do not come from his hand. The very thought! A child who is ill feels the father’s hand as he sits beside the bed. It knows for sure that father is doing everything possible to get him or her better.
But from God’s hand comes not only health but also sickness, without him explaining to us why this is useful according to his divine pedagogy or training. We have no explanation as to why a mother of a large family had to die. Why was this of benefit for her husband and children? Riddles remain unsolved. In time, this even led Job to the desperate thought that God considered him as his enemy.4 And yet, God is the very best Father there is. Jesus once compared his goodness to that of earthly fathers. At that moment there was a circle of such fathers standing around him. None of them would give his son, when asking for bread, a stone or a snake instead of the desired fish. Impossible — it did not even enter their minds! Then came the application: “You, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children; how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask (pray) to him for it!”5 Precisely when it comes to goodness, God wins gloriously over all earthly fathers! “More than a father does he care”.6
A Suffering God?
Many people will claim, “If God is such a caring father it is impossible for diseases and other calamities to come from his hand. God is on the side of the victim and not at the same time opposing him. He cannot caress with his one hand and strike with the other. Therefore, suffering does not come from his hand. It comes from another source. God himself suffers under all the grief and injustice. He is powerless to the extent that he too cannot simply change the situation. In his empathy he is a fellow-victim: just as powerless as the father at the sickbed of his child.”
But Scripture speaks differently. We can feel exhausted and powerless. The LORD does not. He cannot be compared to anyone.7
The same is true of his governance. Fathers do not send misfortunes upon their children. But when Satan had destroyed Job’s life, Job rightly said: “the LORD has taken” .8 When a cruel enemy oppressed Israel, in spite of its faithfulness to God, the psalmist said: you have delivered us up like sheep for slaughter.9 But at the same time, Scripture confirms that God is on our side, with a heart that is moved. No — not as the suffering God, but as our caring Father. More caring even than the best father in the world. For he does indeed see our misery and he knows our sorrows.10 This remains the truth in the midst of all our questions.
Question 28: What does it benefit us to know
that God has created all things
and still upholds them by his providence?
Answer 28: We can be patient in adversity,
thankful in prosperity,
and with a view to the future
we can have a firm confidence
in our faithful God and Father
that no creature shall separate us
from his love;
for all creatures are so completely in his hand
that without his will
they cannot so much as move.
Imagine the worst: murderers threatening your lives. “We are regarded as sheep for the slaughter”, as a psalmist cried out in agony.11 The executioners were already near. The sheep cried out to God. And then? The psalm ends with an urgent appeal to God’s love and faithfulness: “Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!” We are not told about the actual outcome. Or rather — we are, because Paul had full confidence in a happy ending. He took up the poet’s cry of distress: we have been counted as sheep for slaughter. But no panic! For, as he continued, “in all these things we are more than conquerors!”12
There is no greater contrast than between such a pitiful sheep, where the slaughterer is already stretching out his hands, and the proud conqueror who is being hailed. Even when his life was in severe danger, like that sheep, Paul calls himself more than victorious. Not only later when all the woes are past, but “in all these things”.13
Where did he get this courage? He drew it from the certainty that nothing can separate us from God’s love. Many things may happen — but not this. For all creatures are so completely in his hand that they cannot move against his will.
At one time the church at Jerusalem felt mortally threatened by the united front of Herod, Pilate, the Gentiles and apostate Israel. But in prayer the believers confessed: This whole terrible coalition is only carrying out to do whatever you, LORD, had decided in your power and whose course you had predetermined.14 This gave relief to the congregation. Those who threaten us are kept on a tight leash like angry bloodhounds, and they cannot move an inch beyond his will — no further than his love allows it.
What Can We Gather From the Facts About God’s Disposition?
In 1588, the proud Spanish fleet (the Armada) was destroyed through violent storms on the rocky coasts of Norway, Scotland and Ireland. A commemorative medal was issued by the States of Holland with the inscription, “God’s breath has scattered them”. This meant not so much that God did have a hand in this event but more that he had intervened in a saving way. Was that true? How could they know? Many more examples can be mentioned.15
Why did they recognize God’s mighty act of deliverance in the downfall of this fleet? They did not make this up based on the favourable fact in itself. Events that turn out rather convenient for us are not automatically proof-positive that God is well disposed toward us. In the same way, adversity is not automatically proof of his wrath. In this regard it is instructive to hear what God said through the prophet Amos.16 It concerned the exodus from Egypt. Every Israelite who looked back in history saw this event rising like a mighty pillar. There could be no doubt about this: the mighty God had intervened and rescued his people.
It was shining proof of his special bond with this people. Yet in the days of Amos, the LORD suddenly acted as if that famous exodus was not so special at all. After all, he had brought their archenemies, the Philistines, out of Caphtor (Crete) just as well, and also the Arameans from Kir.17 In doing so, he unexpectedly fit that one exceptional exodus into a series of three. As if it was the same in all three instances. Why did he do that? In this way he made it clear to his people that they were not to regard the exodus in isolation. Of course, the conclusion then seemed irrefutable that Israel had a very privileged position above all the nations. But the LORD taught his people how their method to explain the exodus in this way was entirely wrong. For what did they do? They first drew a closed circle around the exodus and then they glorified that event as an act of deliverance by God. But that is not possible. For those who first isolate such great facts and judge them purely by themselves become stuck. Within the circles there is no longer any fundamental difference between the exodus of Israel from Egypt and that of African Negroes from Kir or of uncircumcised Philistines from Crete.18 All of this then comes to be equated with any displacement of peoples. These are all acts of God. He is involved with every nation and he directs their history. But the special thing is this: he made a covenant with Israel. He took it along on his way to a new future. In that context, the exodus from Egypt was proof of his love for Israel. But when this people broke the covenant in the days of Amos, they again aligned themselves with the Philistines and the Arameans. Thus, their rich past was once again on a par with that of all the nations. Their exodus remained a historical fact, but for the people of Israel of Amos’ days it was no longer proof of God’s unique affection. The exodus of the past no longer benefitted them, so to speak.
We cannot therefore see a direct link of how God is disposed toward us from what is happening to us, even if he leads us through the Red Sea to deliver us. The decisive factor is whether we are his people and want to be such. Where this holds true, faith may expect that his actions are intended for our salvation. Even when he tests us severely! In the lawful conviction that the LORD was on their side, our forefathers likewise were able to see and praise God’s saving intervention in the downfall of the Spanish Armada.
What Keeps a Christian In Balance?
Are Christians allowed to cry out in sadness? Or should it be their ideal to respond to adversity as joyfully as they would to prosperity? With the argument: all things come from his father’s hand and will turn out for (their) good? According to Ecclesiastes, there is a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.19 When Job had heard about four severe calamities he continued to praise God but at the same time he had become almost unrecognizable with his torn clothes and shaved head. And this was allowed, because in all this Job did not sin.20 The ideal image of the Christian is nothing like that of the resigned stoic who bears his suffering unflinchingly. We feel happy when a long cherished desire is fulfilled, but miserable when there is no improvement in our difficult existence. It is not as if we do not care whether we are healthy or sick. Yet it is not a difference such as between hope and despair, all or nothing. There is always hope. Therefore we can and may be sad, but not like other people who have no hope.21
Of course we react differently to adversity than to prosperity. The Catechism has found the right words to indicate that difference in reaction: patient in all adversity, thankful in prosperity. For a Christian, the two poles are not hope and despair but patience and thankfulness. Both of these poles are in the safe zone of God’s love. We remain in good hands. Patience and gratitude are therefore not even that far apart. They are not each other’s opposites. They can even go hand in hand. Paul wrote: give thanks in all circumstances, and not: for everything. Not for flu and unemployment, let alone major disasters. Job did not do that either. But it is the will of God that we give thanks in all things, under all circumstances.22
This gratitude provides a steady course and will keep us in balance. Even in sad or difficult days. Also, when a person is baptized do we not pray that he/she will bear his/her cross joyfully? We always walk at the Father’s hand. That implies we walk safely. For this we may be thankful, now already. Nothing can separate us from his love. Hard days demand much of our patience, but faith expects such patience to be rewarded. What will be left is pure joy.