I was recently given the assignment to articulate what the Bible says about God’s providence. It would seem to be a pretty basic question, but part of the difficulty in approaching a seemingly basic question like the providence of God is the nature of the Bible itself. The Bible is like a mosaic or symphony. Its many images and sounds are brought together to create something beautiful—a description of God. The images and sounds are sometimes contrasting, making it difficult to see the larger picture or hear the song in its entirety. The contrasting complexity also makes the sight and sound more rich and full. The nature of its composition, then, does not lend itself to simplicity or easy answers. Nor does mature biblical reflection on human experience produce effortless answers to questions about God’s interaction with his creation. Oversimplification will not adequately address a difficult question which must be answered by such a complex resource.
Within a Christian framework there have been two extreme descriptions of God’s providence. On the one hand, there is a view that puts God in control of everything. In this view, God is behind every action and activity that occurs in the universe. On the popular level, this thinking sounds like, “God has a purpose for everything” or “Everything happens for a reason.” On the other hand, there is a view of God that accepts him as the creator who put things in motion then stepped back to watch it work out. This second view, for all practical purposes, denies the interaction of God within his creation. While most people would not articulate their theology this way (which is called deism), in terms of practice, that’s what they believe. They don’t expect God to intervene or interact in real life. Neither view, in my opinion, is an accurate depiction of God’s providence.
The difficulty of these two extremes is that each one seems to have some biblical support. To deny the sovereignty of God is to ignore overwhelmingly frequent descriptions of God in the Bible. There can be little doubt that, throughout the Bible, God is portrayed as an enthroned ruler (1 Kgs 22.19; Isa 6.1; Ezek 1.26; Dan 7.9; Rev 4.2; cf. Ps 11.4; 45.6; 47.8–9; Heb 12.2). His dominion extends over all the earth in concerns both small and great (Exod 15.18; Ps 47; 93; 96.10; 97; 99.1–5; Prov 16.33; Dan 4.34–35; 5.21–28; Mt 6.26; 10.29–31; Col 1.16–17). He knows the future (Isa 46.10) and has unchanging purposes and character (Heb 6.17; 13.8). These true depictions of God, without being read in the larger story, might lead one to conclude that God’s hand is directly behind everything.
In contrast, the Bible also indicates that God is open to the future and portrays his specific actions as contingent on human response. There are numerous examples, Prayer is effective to actually change God’s mind and actions (2 Kgs 20.1–7 = 2 Chron 32.24 = Isa 38.1–22; cf. Jer 26.19; cf. Lk 18.1–8; Rev 8.3–5). God relents of his wrath at the behest of petition (Exod 32.14 = Deut 9.13–29; Num 14.12–20; Amos 7.1–6). He tells his people that if they repent he will change his course of action (Jer 18.7–11; Jer 26.2–6; Ezek 33.13–16). There are times when God seems surprised when things turn out different than he might have expected (Jer 3.6–7, 19–20). Furthermore, there are passages that describe God testing people to discover whether or not they will be faithful to him (Gen 22.12; Exod 16.4; Deut 8.2; 13.1–3; Judges 2.20–3.5; 2 Chron 32.31). God will even occasionally express his grief over how his free creation has acted (Gen 6.5–6; 1 Sam 15.10, 35; Ezek 22.29–31). Saul is an excellent example of how human choice influences God’s interaction with mankind. Saul, the chosen king of Israel, pales in comparison to the importance of David in Biblical history because of his disobedience. Though Saul is chosen as God’s anointed king (1 Sam 9–10), his failures cause the Lord to reject him. Samuel even indicates that had Saul been obedient then God would have established his reign over Israel forever (1 Sam 13.13–14). Instead, God chooses David to be the house established forever (2 Sam 7.4–16). God somehow limits himself in his interaction with mankind to allow for their freedom—even the freedom to reject him.
How do these seemingly contrasting truths fit together? Some dismiss the descriptions of God changing as merely figurative. It is argued that while the Bible seems to portray God as changing, this is not because it is actually how God is, but because it is the only way for humans to understand his sovereign activity outside of time. Unfortunately, this dismissal makes these passages meaningless. “What do all the passages that explicitly say God changed his mind mean if God doesn’t, in fact, change his mind?” Furthermore, God’s incarnation indicates that he limits himself in order to relate to finite creatures. The limitation cannot be just a metaphor any more the cross can be just a metaphor. Dismissing either God’s sovereignty or his willingness to interact and change based on free human agents will not do. These contrasting images require explanation and systematization to think through what it means to speak to a good and powerful God in such a wicked and broken world.
The next few posts here will focus on how to reconcile God's sovereignty with the existence of evil with a special emphasis on how we should pray. The next post will focus on why the question matters for everyday life. After that, I will give my understanding of why evil exists in the world. After that I will offer my reflection on how praying can be the exercise needed in seeing evil for what it is and trusting the God who promises to redeem all of creation.