Baby Jack, our 3-month-old grandson, was rocking away peacefully when terror struck. Our daughter-in-law thought a tornado was hitting them. What she really heard was a multi-ton, mighty tall oak tree cracking and crashing onto their old, wooden house, directly and immediately above baby Jack. What she saw, when she got outside, brought convulsive waves of shock and awe. After I, too, calmed down, I was left with an insatiable desire to ask just what do we mean by "providence"?
First conclusion: When ascribing providence to God, I am confessing his Lordship---specifically his governance of things. Providence sees God present and at work through the laws of physics, the predispositions of people, the timing of events, the "now and later" duality of purpose in everything good and evil that unfolds. Providence is God conducting his own affairs through all of our affairs.
Second conclusion: The phrase, "the mystery of providence" is most fitting. While we see his good purposes at work in providence sometimes, just as often we don't. And we never see how God makes things happen with no violation to human dignity, volition, or moral responsibility. But he does. Providence does not a puppet make. But I don't know how this works. It is a mystery.
Third conclusion: A loving sense of providence is life changing. Trusting in providence has made me live much more boldly than my nature would predict. I have done a few things marked as bold or chancy precisely because I believe these actions actually can lead me to the right place to meet the right person. I endure disappointment and hurt far more graciously when I am tethered to divine providence. I am an unholy mess otherwise. Most of all, I simply ponder Him more giddily than I would otherwise.
Consider the book of Esther. It just so happened that Esther was taken by force into the cruel world of sexual exploitation and politics, of harems and international intrigue, and made to serve as queen. At that time, it just so happened that the wicked Haman plotted the murder of Esther's guardian, Mordecai, and the extermination of her people, the Jews. About that time, it just so happened that Mordecai overheard an assassination plot and saved the king's life. It just so happened that just as Haman was about to hang Mordecai, the king got insomnia and decided to read. It just so happened that he turned to the exact spot in his official records where it was recorded how Mordecai saved his life. The gallows prepared by Haman became for Haman. Lots had been cast to decide the day all the Jews would be killed (9:24). But God "flipped the script" or as the text says, "on the very day when the enemies of the Jews hoped to gain mastery over them, the reverse occurred: the Jews gained mastery over those who hated them" (9:1).
It means something; no it means everything that God is never mentioned in the book of Esther. We are being taught to see God through the lens of providence. Providence is, I think, the normative lens through which we "see and savor" the invisible and inscrutable God of the gospel as a daily experience.
Providence, of course, always has a natural explanation. For many, "it just so happened" is sufficient by itself. In the case of the tree, it just so happened that the tree struck first with a glancing blow, on the single strongest point of the house, the chimney. Absorbing the blunt force of tons of weight, bricks crashed down and rolled into the Ensor living room. Next, the tree hit the roof at precisely the angle where the roofline splits in two and the tree could hit evenly and at the same time the upper and lower roofline, further displacing the weight. Third, it appears that the limbs and branches of greater and less flexible strength further absorbed the blow, like a hundred shock absorbers at work. The roof held. Baby Jack merrily click-clacked away in his swing. His mommy cried like a baby. Lucky? Yes, you might say so. Providential is more to my liking.
But what if it had been a tragic outcome---if the tree had fallen a mere two or three inches to the right of that wonderful old brick chimney? Oh, how we would be weeping this week. The question "Why?" would stick like a shiv in our gut. But the question works both ways. Why was Jack spared? At least part of the answer to either question is found in Psalm 57:2: "I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me." Jack was saved because the Lord has not yet fulfilled his purpose for him. If he had been crushed, though our hearts would be crushed as well, we would take a measure of comfort in knowing that evidently all God's purposes for Jack's life here on earth were fulfilled in three months.
There are complexities, bi-directional, even multi-textured joys and sorrows set within God's providences. But they all together trend in one direction: the goodness of God in the face of Jesus Christ glowing in the hearts of His people. Today I rejoice that God is a God of inches and angles as much as eons and consummating events. That makes me want to get up in the morning and see what the day will bring.
John Ensor serves as vice president of Heartbeat International, a ministry providing leadership development and support for the Pregnancy Help Center movement worldwide. His most recent book is Doing Things Right in Matters of the Heart (Crossway Books, 2007).