The past year has been difficult for many people. The question that many are asking in light of all the difficulties and suffering is related to God’s providence. Scottish theologian John Murray explained the dilemma well: “When adversity comes into our lives we tend to react in one of two ways. We may say that it is from a source other than God and He has no power to stop it; or we may say it is an evidence of God’s anger against us. Either way we are guilty of casting aspersions on the character of our Father and consequently of perverting our attitude to Him.”1John Murray, “Behind a Frowning Providence,” 2. The Bible does give an answer to the question of where God is in the midst of our suffering. The answer is found in the doctrine of God’s providence.
What is the Doctrine of Providence?
The Bible teaches that God is the Creator of the universe, is sovereign over creation, and is independent from all things. But it also teaches that God is involved in creation, working in the world and in the lives of human beings. God is not aloof and uninvolved in the world, as deism teaches. Nor is God surprised by suffering and evil in the world, as open theism argues. God is transcendent over all things (Psalm 113:1–6), and yet He is still active and involved in the world (Psalm 113:7–9).
The doctrine of providence unites both the transcendence of God and the immanence of God. It can be defined this way: Providence is God’s active sovereignty and involvement in every aspect of our lives at all times for His glory and our good. Let’s highlight three parts of divine providence to understand it further.
1. Providence is fine-tuned. God’s providence is not a general control over all things. Instead, providence is very specific and finely tuned. We see this in creation. If gravity or the axis of the earth was off by the slightest degree, we would not be able to function in this world the way we do right now. If the earth were any closer to the sun, we would all burn up. If it were any further away from the sun, we would all freeze. If the earth were not in its precise location within the galaxy, life would not be sustainable as it is on earth. Examples of God’s providence abound in creation.
We also have biblical examples of God’s providence. One of the clearest is found in Matthew 10 where Jesus said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:29–31). The doctrine of providence is so fine-tuned that Jesus can say that God is in control of the animals and He even knows the number of our hairs. This means that he knows what your circumstances are right now. He knows if you are lonely, sick, or afraid. He knows whether a loved one has just died or if you are currently in a financial crisis. But God is also providentially involved in all of these things and has not abandoned you. Your trials have come from the hand of your loving heavenly Father. The question is whether you will let your emotions rule you or whether you will trust Him.
2. Providence is well-timed. Not only is God’s providence finely tuned, it is also perfectly timed. We see the greatest example of this in the crucifixion of Jesus. The apostle Peter tells us that everything that happened to Jesus was “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). The crucifixion was “predestined to take place” (Acts 4:28). The worst evil in human history was timed perfectly and according to God’s plan.
3. Providence is grace-filled. God’s providence is not harsh or unloving. Rather, it is full of grace. Most Christians are familiar with Romans 8:28. Providence leads us back to God and it reminds us that God is using all of the trials and the difficulties for good. Whether we can see the good or not (or whether it feels good), we must choose to believe that God’s providence is full of grace toward us. Sometimes we do go through difficult trials so that the idols of our hearts are revealed and purged, but God always intends it all for good. When Israel wandered in the wilderness, God intended to humble Israel and reveal the idols of their hearts (Deuteronomy 8:2). But what seemed unfair or painful at the time was actually full of grace, as it was meant to be a blessing to Israel. God determined Israel’s suffering in the wilderness, “that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end” (Deuteronomy 8:16). God’s discipline in providence does not always feel good, but it is always intended for good.
How Can We Endure Dark Providences?
I first became aware of the term “dark providences” when I was reading a little booklet by John Murray called, “Behind a Frowning Providence.” In this booklet, he reminds his readers that their suffering comes from the hand of God for their own good. This concept of providence was helpful to me when I was really sick for years with Lyme disease. Even though it does not feel good in the midst of it, much like the story of Job, God has a purpose to demonstrate His glory through it all. How do we endure these dark providences in our lives? If we are to endure difficult, trying providences, we must remember and meditate on the following things:
- Remember the unchanging character of God towards you (Psalm 77:8–13).
- Remember that God has not abandoned you (Psalm 37:28; Lamentations 3:31–33).
- Remember that God is using this for good (Genesis 50:20; Deuteronomy 8:16; Romans 8:28).
- Remember that you are not God and do not fully understand God’s ways (Isaiah 55:8–9; Romans 11:34).
- Remember that God may use your suffering in unseen ways to bless others (Genesis 50:20; 2 Corinthians 1:3–4).
- Remember that the universe does not revolve around you (Psalm 33:10–11; Psalm 135:6).
- Remember that there are many reasons for you to be thankful, regardless of your circumstances (Psalm 106:1; Psalm 136; Psalm 138; Colossians 3:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:18).
- Remember that your situation is not exclusively unique to you (1 Corinthians 10:13).
- Remember that the remaining sin in your own heart is a bigger problem than your circumstances (Lamentations 3:39–40; Hebrews 12:5–11; James 1:2–4).
- Remember that God may be preparing you for future usefulness and blessing (Genesis 45:7–8; 2 Corinthians 1:3–4; 2 Corinthians 4:16–18).
- Remember that it is your responsibility to continue to fight sin and pursue God, regardless of how you feel (Ephesians 6:10–13; 1 Peter 1:5–9).
- Remember that Christ alone perfectly sympathizes with you in everything you are going through (Hebrews 4:15).
- Remember that Christ is coming back, and waiting for Him should motivate you to live properly (Philippians 3:20–21; 1 John 3:2–3).
- Remember to pray, even though it may be hard to do so right now (Psalm 86:6–7; Romans 12:12; Ephesians 6:18; 1 Thessalonians 5:17).
If you are currently struggling with some trial or difficulty in your life, and you would like additional help, I would encourage you to read John Murray’s booklet “Behind a Frowning Providence.” The Crook in the Lot by the Puritan Thomas Boston has also been very encouraging to me recently. Jerry Bridges’ book Trusting God is another great book. You could even memorize Isaiah 26:3–4, study the attributes of God, and/or write a list of all the things that you are thankful to God for. These steps may help you to trust in God’s providence more.
The hymn God Moves in Mysterious Ways was written by William Cowper, who suffered with significant trials and depression all of his life. Two stanzas of that hymn have always provided fresh encouragement for me through my own trials and suffering:
Ye fearful saints fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence,
He hides a smiling face.