When I think about it, I find the notion of providence the most difficult of Christian doctrines. But I also find it in practice completely indispensable.
Providence is the belief that God is at work in events, both in the big events of world history and in the smallest events of our own lives. We believe in providence whenever we thank God for what has happened. We believe in providence whenever we pray for a good outcome to situations. In both cases we are believing that God plays a decisive part in what happens in the world.
I am quite sure that without such a belief Christian experience of God would be greatly impoverished. Seeing God's hand in the events of our lives and the lives of those around us, feeling gratitude to God for the unexpected ways in which things turn out for good, trusting God in the face of an uncertain or threatening future, praying for God to intervene in situations of great need - these are indispensable aspects of what it means to live one's life for God and with God. They are ways of knowing God in the realities of actual life. They are what providence means in practice.
But believing in providence has its difficulties. There seem to be two big problems. One is the problem of evil and suffering. If we attribute the good things to God's providence - praying for him to do them, thanking him for them when they happen - must we not equally attribute the bad things to God? If we give thanks to God for the seeming miracle of peaceful change in South Africa, what can we feel about the horror of genocide in Rwanda? If we are glad to hold God responsible for one, must we not also hold him responsible for the other?
The other problem is reconciling providence with human freedom. On the human level, recent changes in South Africa resulted from a very large number of decisions and actions by people who could have decided and acted otherwise. If we believe in providence, are we denying their freedom? Are we saying that God coerced them in order to ensure the result for which we thank him?
These two problems are not unconnected, because the easiest Christian response to the problem of evil and suffering is to appeal to human freedom. God, we say, could only prevent the evils of Bosnia or Rwanda by suppressing the freedom of those who are perpetrating them, and God so values human freedom that he will not do this. But if we use that response, what becomes of providence?
I do not believe there are easy answers to these problems. The mystery of freedom and the mystery of evil are two of the insoluble mysteries of life. No one has solved them yet, and no one is likely to. Only superficial minds imagine otherwise. Christian faith does not explain these mysteries, it does something much more important: it respects their mystery, along with the mystery of providence.
The tensions between providence, freewill and evil are not in practice the conundrums they seem in theory. In real life those who live their real lives with God know how to live with these tensions. Real life always involves living with tensions.
But a few reflections may help. First, on providence and human freedom. It is worth remembering that nothing that happens is the straightforward result of someone choosing to make it happen. Few things turn out exactly as anyone plans. Even those that do, do so because circumstances were favourable, because none of the many things that could well have prevented that result actually intervened. Our own decisions and actions play a part in what happens, but they are very far from determining what happens. Many people worked for change in South Africa, but the way it actually happened surprised everyone.
It is in this constant surplus of what happens beyond what we are able to achieve that we see the hand of God. Human freedom plays a part in what happens, but so does God's greater freedom. This is why what often makes people specially aware of providence is a specially remarkable coincidence. Coincidence brings home to us that what happens is not what we plan.
But then we have only to think about it to realise that all of life involves coincidence. It is coincidence that weaves the threads of human actions into the tapestry of actual life. The more we realise this, the more we can see how God's providence is constantly making something worthwhile out of our own small contributions to life.
Secondly, on providence and the problem of evil. To believe in providence we do not have to say that God brings about the slaughter of children in Rwanda. When humans intend good, God's providence works to prosper their actions, but when humans intend evil, providence works to limit and contain their evil. Characteristically providence also always seeks to bring good out of evil - with sometimes remarkable results.
This is no solution to the problem of evil, but it shows us where to look for God's providential action - not in causing evil, but in limiting it, overcoming it, redeeming it.
Finally, I think we get providence wrong when we imagine God sitting up in heaven controlling what happens on earth. Providence does not mean that we are simply enacting a script that God has already written, still less that we are mere puppets whose strings he controls. Providence means that he is involved with us in the course of our lives and in the history of the world. It means that God cares and participates.
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