INVITATION INTO THE WONDERS OF PROVIDENCE
Article by John Piper, Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org
It is a tragic fact of the modern world that most contemporary, scientifically minded people think it is more true and significant to speak of the technicalities of photosynthesis than to say, “God makes the grass grow” (see Psalm 104:14; 147:8). This is not just a sentence for children. It is a sentence — a reality — desperately needed by the soul-shrunken modern man whose world has been reduced from a theater of wonders to a machine running mindlessly on mechanical laws.
Modern science has made us more aware of patterns of causality and regularity in nature, which we call “laws of nature.” But the picture in the Bible reveals God’s ongoing relation to nature in such a way that no natural process or event is so insignificant that it lies outside his pervasive and purposeful providence.
Of course, a God-entranced Christian may happily go about his scientific work on photosynthesis and put technical names on the ways of God. But woe to us if we follow the secular spirit of the age into a frame of mind where God is out of sight, out of mind, and out of our everyday conversation about the wonders of growing grass.
God does not intend for us to see ourselves, or any part of the world, as cogs in the wheels of an impersonal mechanism. The world is not a machine that God made to run on its own. It is a painting, or a sculpture, or a drama — and God is the painter, sculptor, director. The Son of God holds the world in being “by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3; Colossians 1:17), and governs its smallest details (Matthew 10:29; Proverbs 16:33).
Jesus said to look at the birds because God feeds them (Matthew 6:26) and to consider the lilies because God clothes them (Matthew 6:28–30). Jesus’s aim was not aesthetic. His aim was to free his people from anxiety. He really considered it a valid argument that, if our heavenly Father feeds the birds and clothes the lilies, how much more surely will he feed and clothe his children.
This is simply astonishing. The argument is valid only if God really is the one who sees to it that the birds find their worms and the lilies wear their flowers. If birds and lilies are simply acting by natural laws, with no divine hand, then Jesus is just playing with words. But he is not playing with words. He really believes that God’s hand is at work in the smallest details of natural processes. This is even clearer in Matthew 10:29–31,
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.
God does not just feed the birds and clothe the lilies; he decides when every bird (countless millions every year) dies and falls to the ground. His point is the same as in Matthew 6: “He is your Father. You are more precious to him than birds. Therefore, you don’t need to be afraid.” That kind of pervasive providence, combined with that kind of fatherly care, means he can and will take care of you. So, seek the kingdom first, with radical abandon, and don’t be anxious (Matthew 6:33).
This God-entranced view of the world was not peculiar to Jesus. The psalmist sings to the Lord of his specific care for the creatures he has made:
These all look to you,
to give them their food in due season.
When you give it to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die
and return to their dust.
When you send forth your Spirit, they are created,
and you renew the face of the ground. (Psalm 104:27–30)
God’s involvement in nature is hands-on — the kind of closeness that causes the biblical writers to make declarations like, “He makes grass grow on the hills” (Psalm 147:8). “The Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah” (Jonah 1:17). “The Lord God appointed a plant” (Jonah 4:6). “God appointed a worm that attacked the plant” (Jonah 4:7). “He . . . brings forth the wind from his storehouses” (Psalm 135:7). “He it is who makes the clouds rise . . . who makes lightnings for the rain” (Psalm 135:7). “He . . . rebuked the wind and the raging waves” (Luke 8:24). This is not poetry for God-excluding naturalistic processes. This is God’s hands-on providence.
Seeing the Rising Sun
I will never cease to be thankful that in my college days Clyde Kilby was one of my literature professors. He gave a lecture once on the awakening of amazement at the strange glory of ordinary things. He closed the lecture with ten resolutions for what he called “mental health.” Here are two of them:
I shall open my eyes and ears. Once every day I shall simply stare at a tree, a flower, a cloud, or a person. I shall not then be concerned at all to ask what they are but simply be glad that they are. I shall joyfully allow them the mystery of what [C.S.] Lewis calls their “divine, magical, terrifying, and ecstatic” existence.
Even if I turn out to be wrong, I shall bet my life on the assumption that this world is not idiotic, neither run by an absentee landlord, but that today, this very day, some stroke is being added to the cosmic canvas that in due course I shall understand with joy as a stroke made by the architect who calls himself Alpha and Omega.
Because of Kilby’s eye-opening influence, and because of what I now see in the Bible as an all-embracing, all-pervasive providence, I live more consciously in a God-entranced world. I see reality differently. For example, I used to look at sunrises when I was jogging and think, “God has created a beautiful world.” Then it became less general and more specific, more personal. I said, “Every morning God paints a different sunrise.” He never gets tired of doing it again and again. But then it struck me. No, he doesn’t do it again and again. He never stops doing it. The sun is always rising somewhere in the world. God guides the sun 24 hours every day and paints sunrises at every moment, century after century without one second of respite, and never grows weary or less thrilled with the work of his hands. Even when cloud cover keeps man from seeing it, God is painting spectacular sunrises above the clouds.
God does not intend for us to look at the world he has made and feel nothing. When the psalmist says, “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1), he does not mean this only for the clarification of our theology. He means it for the exultation of our souls. We know this because of what follows:
In [the heavens] he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy. (Psalm 19:4–5)
What is the point of saying this? When we look at the handiwork of God in creation, we are to be drawn into bridegroom-like joy, and into the joy of an Eric Liddell running with head back, elbows pumping, smile bursting in Chariots of Fire, basking in the very pleasure of God.
Ten Thousand Unthanked Providences — Daily
I can’t help but pause here to make an observation about the way the world responds to God’s providence. If there is a storm at sea and an ocean liner is sunk, or if a hazardous weather condition brings down a commercial airliner and lives are lost, there is often an outcry — both publicly and in the personal grief of family members — about the failure of God to prevent this disaster (“Where was God?”). Intense grief is real and painful and understandable from all who experience loss in these disasters. And very often, even the most mature saints speak ill-advised words for the wind (Job 6:26). Wise counselors let them pass without judgment in the moment of crisis.
But where is the corresponding emotional intensity, or even mild recognition, of God’s providence when one hundred thousand airplanes land safely every day? That is roughly how many scheduled flights there are every day in the world. And that does not include general aviation, air taxis, military, and cargo. Where is the incessant chorus of amazement and thanks that today God provided ten million mechanical and natural and personal factors to conspire perfectly to keep these planes in the air and bring them to their desired destinations safely — and most of them carrying people who neglect and demean God every day?
Even when a plane with no functioning engines lands on the Hudson River, and every passenger walks out on the floating wings of this 80-ton airliner, or when a plane with 97 passengers crashes in Mexico and bursts into flames after every passenger and the entire crew are safely off the plane, where is the public outpouring of thankfulness to the God of wonders? Where is the heart’s cry of thankfulness to God that we hear in Psalm 107:31 for the rescue on the sea?
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wondrous works to the children of man!
The world and even thousands of Christians give no praise and thanks to God for millions of daily, life-sustaining providences because they do not see the world as the theater of God’s wonders. They see it as a vast machine running on mindless natural laws, except where our heart’s rebelliousness and self-exaltation find a suitable opportunity to find fault with God and justify our blindness to a billion acts of kindness toward his defiant creation.
Creator, Sustainer, Treasure
Jesus, the psalmists, and the rest of the biblical authors do not want us to think or talk like modern naturalists, who think of the natural world as formed and sustained by mindless physical processes. Whether with clouds, grass for the animals, or eyes and ears for man, God’s providence is up close and powerful in his ongoing creating and sustaining.
“The hearing ear and the seeing eye, the Lord has made them both” (Proverbs 20:12). All the billions of eyes and ears on this planet were made by God — not just designed at the beginning of the world, but made in the womb. “You formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13). The biblical view of the world is that grass and rain and springs and ears and eyes are the work of God’s hands as they come into being and do their God-appointed work.
God’s aim is that in all that he has made “his eternal power and divine nature” might be glorified from thankful hearts (Romans 1:20–21). His aim is that we might turn to him from the wonders of his world and say,
I invite you into this God-entranced world.
John Piper’s book Providence releases in February. You can now preorder the title from our friends at Westminster Books for just 19.99. We’re thankful for their partnership and encourage you to order through them as you consider supporting faithful, independent Christian booksellers.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Providence.