Expect Providence to Surprise You
Learning the Rhythm of God’s Ways
Article by David Mathis, Executive Editor, desiringGod.org
One year ago today, a novel coronavirus in China was just becoming news in the United States. On February 3, 2020, the U.S. government declared a public-health emergency, but it wouldn’t be till three weeks later, on February 25, that the Centers for Disease Control would announce that COVID-19 was heading for pandemic status. On March 11, the World Health Organization made that formal declaration, and two days later, the pandemic became a national emergency in the United States and prompted a travel ban on non-U.S. citizens from Europe.
Now, what do we even begin to say about all that has transpired in these last eleven months? Such unexpected twists and turns just in our personal lives often prompt us to ask, and rightly so, “What is God up to?” — and all the more when the unexpected is so global. Few events in our lifetimes, if any, have been so global. And so, in the last year, perhaps as many of us as ever have paused to ponder, What is God up to in this global pandemic?
Whether we’ve used the word or not, we are asking about providence.
Providence in Our Uncertain Experience
When we speak of divine providence, the particular focus is not as much on the absolute power of God but on his purposes. Providence, according to John Piper, is God’s purposeful sovereignty: “In reference to God, the noun providence has come to mean ‘the act of purposefully providing for, or sustaining and governing, the world.’”
For Christians, the word of God and the providence of God go hand in hand. God has spoken into our world, through his prophets and apostles, and climactically in his Son, and captured his words for us in writing (the Scriptures). He tells us that he is indeed “sustaining and governing” the world — and that he does so with purpose. Providence emphasizes his provision, that he not only rules over and foresees all that happens, but that he sees to it that his purposes ripen in his perfect, world-confounding ways, and on his timetable.
God is always sovereign, and always purposeful in his sovereignty, not just in the unusual, but also in the everyday. Yet it is often certain glimpses of his providential hand, in particular surprising twists and turns in life, that prompt us to ask, What is God doing? What is he up to?
We remain uncertain about the particular meanings of such providential events. What is the meaning of this global pandemic, for instance? What is God saying to the world, and to our nation, and our church, and our family, and to me? In other words, how do we interpret the fingerprints of God in various providential acts today? What can we comprehend about providence, and what can we not?
What We Do Not Know
As we glimpse God, in his providence, “seeing to it” in our lives, and in our world, we should take care how much stock we put in our own seeing and interpreting beyond what we know from God’s word. As William Cowper wrote in “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” “blind unbelief is sure to err” — and so is any pretense on our part to know for certain any meaning he has not revealed in his word. “God is his own interpreter,” said Cowper.
In love, we will want to be careful not to presume or put pressure on others, or make demands, based on what we think we see in God’s seeing to. As we move from observing his providence, to ponder the meaning, we apply it first and foremost to ourselves. “The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God” (Romans 14:22).
We also will want to take care that our eyes aren’t just seeing affirmations of our own desires and calling them “providence.” When we have some growing desire — say, about a next step in life, whether whom to date, what job to pursue, what city to move to, or a major purchase to make — it can be all too easy, in the many layers and complexities of reality, to seize upon a few aspects that align in our partial eyes and mind as providential confirmations of what we wanted all along. We will do well to ask ourselves, when we think we see providence most clearly, how convenient it is to our flesh. Are we willing to follow the leading of providence when it trends in the opposite direction of what seems easiest?
Which brings us to the question of what we might know of God’s pattern in the world and in our lives.
What We Do Know
In our uncertainty about various particular meanings in the providential circumstances of our lives, we do know with clarity and certainty, from God’s word, that there are some purposes he is always pursuing.
We know, for example, that God is always calling the world to repent, and giving opportunity to turn to him (Luke 13:1–5; Acts 17:30). He is always building his church, saving and sanctifying his people, intensifying their worship, shattering hopelessness, strengthening faith and courage, giving joy in affliction, and creating love in their hearts (Matthew 16:18). And he is always humbling the proud (1 Peter 5:6), including putting to shame the principalities and powers (Colossians 2:15).
These purposes, and many more, God tells us ahead of time, in his word, so that as he acts in history, as in a global pandemic, we can know many precious truths about what he is up to. We are not left in the dark. Yet beyond these, there is also a divine logic, or a rhyme and rhythm, of God’s purpose in the world, even amid the many unexpected twists and turns of providence.
The tune of providence, we might say, plays to the beat of Isaiah 55 and 1 Corinthians 1.
Who Understands God’s Ways?
In Isaiah 55, the prophet presses a larger truth into the service of a specific, surprisingly wonderful reality. Unlike humans, who might presume God would have only condemnation for the unrighteous, the prophet implores the wicked to turn from their thoughts and ways, while there is still time, because God is compassionate. “Let him return to the Lord . . . for he will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:7). Then comes the larger truth that applies to providence as well:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8–9)
As prone as we may be to presume that God is like us, he is not. His thoughts are not human. His ways, not human. His plans, not human. His ways and thoughts are not just different; they are higher — “as the heavens are higher than the earth.” And so must we keep that in mind, in our lowly human thoughts, as we observe God’s providence and try to speculate about meaning. Oh, there is meaning! Make no mistake: his sovereignty is indeed purposeful. Filled to overflowing with purposes. Bursting with countless purposes, far beyond our ability to appreciate. And one of his purposes is to show, again and again, just how wonderfully different he is from us.
Who Gets the Praise in Providence?
We could turn elsewhere in the Scriptures, but the end of 1 Corinthians 1 might be the most appropriate place to land. In fact, 1 Corinthians 1:28–29 might be the single most important statement in all the Bible for learning to read God’s providence and discern his meaning:
God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
In seeking to discern God’s purposes in providence, do we ask, “How is God making it so that no human being — including myself — might boast in his presence?” Is he magnifying his wisdom and power and grace, in the person of his Son, for the weak eyes of his creatures to see him more for what he really is?
First Corinthians 1:20–31 casts a vision of a God who is turning the patterns of the world upside down. He gives space for human wisdom, power, and nobility to come into their own — that they might be overturned. As he closes the long arcs and completes the purposes of his providence, he makes foolish the wisdom of the world, and weak the world’s strong, and low the world’s noble. He makes the “things that are,” according to human standards, into nothing — and makes something from nothing — “so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”
So, with every effort on our part to look for God’s meaning as we observe various aspects of his providence, we might ask ourselves, “Does this meaning make much of me, or does it make much of God? Will his meaning lead me to boast in self, or to boast in some other mere human, or will it cause me to boast in the Lord?”
We surely know very little about all that God has been up to in a year like the last one — or any year for that matter — but we do know this: those who have the best pulse on his providence marvel at the counterintuitive wisdom of his ways, learn to expect surprise, and boast in him alone.
David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor for desiringGod.org and pastor at Cities Church in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is a husband, father of four, and author of Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus Through the Spiritual Disciplines.