October 2008 Issue
History His Story
by Russell D. Moore
My three-year-old son was sitting
on my lap as I told him a story the story of how his mother
and I met. He looked up at me with a curious expression as I told
him of how my cousin kept telling me about her friend, and how
she wished I would give her a call. I told him how I hadn't been
interested in tracking down a "blind date" with some
unknown high school senior (I was a sophomore in college). My
cousin had stopped nagging me about it, until one day sitting
in biology class I just decided to scratch out a note asking my
cousin to set up a time for me to meet this girl. I stamped the
letter and took it to a curbside post office box. I hesitated
at first, and almost pulled back the letter, before letting it
fall into the mailbox. It was too late. I couldn't retrieve it.
And my whole life was changed.
I met the girl my cousin told me about, and she was everything
she'd promised, and more. I loved her, married her, and can't
imagine my life any other way. As I told that story, I looked
into this little face and realized that one more half-second of
hesitation and I probably never would have mailed that letter.
I would have never met this girl. This little boy wouldn't exist
at all. A nanosecond decision in a biology class has resulted
in not just my personal happiness, but, potentially, entire generations
of people who never would have lived otherwise. Thank God I wasn't
interested in the lecture that day.
One's life story is typically made up of such little decisions.
Think about how different your life would
be now if you hadn't made a decision, maybe one you came to in
a matter of seconds. Think about all the decisions made for you
that you probably never noticed or thought about
that have formed who you are and what you're doing. If your grandfather
hadn't noticed that girl at the picnic, or if he'd been too shy
to say anything about it, you wouldn't exist. All of us can think
of similar "what if" situations. Who knows? History
moves along by the seemingly small and insignificant decisions
of billions of people, and by the seemingly random forces of nature.
Christians have a unique perspective on the unfolding of history
whether on the broad, cosmic level or on the small, personal
level of our own stories. We believe that God is King, and that
He governs the flow of events around us. As Southern Baptists,
we confess our belief with other Christians in what we call divine
providence in this way: "God as Father reigns with providential
care over His universe, His creatures, and the flow of the stream
of human history according to the purposes of His grace."1
The Goal of Providence
It is far too easy to confuse providence with a pagan vision
of "fate" or "chance," as though God were
an impersonal force driving history along. Our confessional statement
rightly though sums up the Christian consensus by noting that
God rules "as Father." God's purposes in history have
a goal, and that goal is not a "what" but a "Who."
The goal of history has a name, a face, and a blood type: JESUS.
Paul told the church at Ephesus that God works out everything
in agreement with the decision of His will (Ephesians 1:11).
He also told them what that decision was about to bring
everything together in the Messiah, both things in heaven and
things on earth in Him (Ephesians 1:10).
This is why the history of Israel is so significant. It's not
just about an ancient people. It's about all of us. The Apostle
John saw in his vision on the island of Patmos the whole sweep
of cosmic history as a woman giving birth, with a dragon seeking
to devour her baby (Revelation 12). Satan warred against Israel
through temptation to evil, through enslavement, through
bloodthirsty enemies but why? God protected Israel
sometimes through miraculous intervention (the parting of the
seas) and sometimes through seemingly less extraordinary means
(the storing of food in Joseph's Egypt) but why? Satan
raged, and God oversaw because from Israel, in the fullness
of time, came the Messiah, who is God over all, blessed forever
The same is true in our individual lives. Paul told the church
at Rome: We know that all things work together for the good
of those who love God: those who are called according to His purpose
(Romans 8:28). This isn't a cheery "What doesn't kill you
makes you stronger." The Bible doesn't identity everything
as good. It says that every aspect of our lives is part of a goal
to move us toward glory. That glory is itself part of a larger
goal, that we'd be conformed to the image of His Son, so that
He would be the firstborn among many brothers (Romans 8:29).
Every believer's story includes circumstances designed by God
for our sanctification, to strip away from us everything that
isn't modeled on the image of Christ. That's why, if we're children
of God, He disciplines us through the events of our lives for
the purpose of our benefit, so that we can share His holiness
That's why God didn't deliver Israel immediately from Egyptian
bondage into the Promised Land perhaps by some teleportation
portal. They would have trusted their own power and forgotten
their dependence upon their God (Deuteronomy 8:17). They would
have then turned to other gods and lost their inheritance (Deuteronomy
8:19-20). The suffering they endure wasn't God's indifference
to them. In fact, all these circumstances are instead God purposing
so that in the end He might cause you to prosper (Deuteronomy
8:16). This is exactly what Jesus understood when He waited for
His Father's provision rather than forcing it from Satan's hand.
All of human history is staging ground for the revealing of
Christ whether it was the caravan of travelers that stumbled
across Joseph in a pit or the rise of the Roman Empire. In the
same way, all the events of your life are pulling you toward conformity
with Christ, for life in His Kingdom.
The Extent of Providence
Some of us think that God rules providentially over the broad
parameters, the "big things," but not over the incidental
details of history or of our lives. But, as I've noted before,
so much of history and our lives is itself detail
driven. The Bible tells us God raises up and tears down nations
and rulers the kinds of spectacular things we read about
in our history books and hear about in real time on CNN. But Jesus
also told us that a bird doesn't hit a window and break its neck
apart from the Father's care.
It turns out God saves the world through very minute and (it
seems) random details.
Think of all the biblical prophecies that are dependent on
the tiniest of details. What if Pilate had decided to whisk Jesus
off to Alexandria, to protect him from the crowds? What if Judas
had been murdered on his way to betray Jesus? What if the guards
at Golgotha had decided to break Jesus' bones to make it easier
to pull him down from the cross? What if Paul had drowned in his
first shipwreck because he wasn't paying attention to a tidal
surge, preventing him from taking the Gospel to the Gentiles?
We'd all be destined for hell right now. But God's purposes aren't
dependent on chance or luck. He works all things out according
to the counsel of His will.
The Mystery of Providence
Just because God rules over history, though, doesn't mean that
history is easy to understand. The Bible, for instance, presents
a real and mysterious tension between the free decisions of angels
and human beings, and God's overall purposes. People and angels
make real decisions they do what they want to do. Human
beings are not puppets made of meat. Joseph's brothers didn't
think they were saving the world by initiating God's plan to rescue
Israel through Joseph's sojourn in Egypt. They thought they were
disposing of an irritant. God turned these actions against them
though and even their evil was turned around for the good.
The same is true for Satan. He wasn't trying to accomplish God's
purposes when he assaulted Job with affliction, or when he entered
Judas to betray Jesus to the cross. Satan's evil intent was real
evil and he'll be judged for it. However, even the evil
he meant for wicked ends is thrown back at him, since the cross
Satan planned for destruction, God had already planned to save
Sin and evil can't overthrow God's purposes, the Scripture
teaches. At the same time, God is not the author of evil. I was
deeply impressed years ago by a sermon from Baptist pastor Mark
Dever in which he warned against the ungodly temptation to "push
evil all the way back into the heart of God." God is sovereign
and all-powerful; that's true. He is also light, and there
is absolutely no darkness in Him (1 John 1:5).
There's also a horrible danger for humans to try to read divine
revelation through the outworking of providence, rather than the
other way around. That's why the Old Testament is filled with
warnings not to assume that God is blessing the wicked man, just
because he's flourishing right now. That's why Peter warned against
dismissing the Day of the Lord just because it hasn't yet arrived
(2 Peter 3:1-13). God is patiently bearing with evildoers. He's
working out His purposes in Christ. But judgment will come
God doesn't explain why He allows things to happen the way
He does in our lives or in the broader scope of history.
It would be comforting, we might think, if God ended the Book
of Job with the familiar Footprints poem, showing Job all
the places at which God was "carrying" him along
with all the reasons why. Often we don't know why God is doing
what He's doing. But we know God. We trust Him and, sometimes,
we just shut our mouths and bow our heads (Job 42:5-6).
Challenges to Providence
God's providence is an obnoxious idea to those who don't want
a King, and to those who don't want a Father. All sorts of anti-Christian
and sub-Christian ideas move into the vacuum to replace it. Islam
wants a King but not a Father so the religion speaks of
providence in capricious, arbitrary, and impersonal ways. Revisionist
Christian theologies want a Father and not a King, so they often
speak of a God who loves you, but who can't intervene in the details
of your life. Some, such as Darwinists or Marxists or hyper-capitalists,
want neither a King nor a Father, so they replace providence with
the determinism of genetic material or economic forces or human
The major challenge to the Christian notion of providence though
doesn't come from a pipe-smoking heretic in a faculty lounge somewhere.
The most dangerous sub-Christian theology of providence I can
find is my own. It doesn't show up in typed-out discourses like
this one. It shows up when I worry about the future as
though God does not have my future planned for me. It shows up
when I'm anxious about how to pay for college educations or how
to avoid my family's genetic predisposition to heart disease or
whether my church is going to do well next year. My fretfulness
or my mistrust or my manipulation reveals a heart that doesn't
truly believe that God knows or can do what is best
for me. These also reveal a heart that doesn't yet fully get the
goal of divine providence conformity to Christ Jesus.
A Christian vision of providence ought to bring about a kind
of enraged tranquility. Because we know the goal to which God
is moving history and us we ought to cry out in anguish
when we see what doesn't please Him especially in our own
hearts. At the same time, though, we're not fearful. We know that
no one or nothing can harm us apart from the Father's permission
(John 19:11), and God's silence in the face of our suffering doesn't
mean God has forgotten us.
I'll probably tell my three-year-old and his brothers that
same story many times about how their parents met. And I'll probably
always wonder at the seeming "accident" of it all. I
can tell that story as I look into that little face. What I can't
tell him is what his story will be what the future holds
for him. I don't know that story. But I know Who does.
1 Baptist Faith
and Message (1963, 2000), Article IIA.
Russell D. Moore serves as a preaching pastor
at Highview Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and is Dean
of the School of Theology and Senior Vice President for Academic
Administration at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in
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