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 (Romans 9:5).
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 (Hebrews 12:10).
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 the world.
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 — and suddenly.
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 greed.
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 Louisville, Kentucky.