Creation was God’s originating work; he brings things into being. Providence is his continuing relationship to creation. “By providence we mean the continuing action of God by which he preserves in existence the creation which he has brought into being, and guides it to his intended purposes for it.” (Millard Erickson, Christians Theology, 387). The Bible teaches that because God created the world, he reigns over it as king. “Our God is in the heavens; he does all he pleases” (Ps. 115:3).
The providence of God is usually explained as having two aspects. First, God preserves the existence of creation (sustaining providence), and second, God is actively guiding and directing the course of human events to fulfill the purposes which he has in mind. “He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings” (Dan 2:21).
God is the sovereign king over the lives of individuals. After receiving the child Samuel from the Lord, Hannah gives thanks and says, “The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts” (1Sam 2:6-7). And the Lord says to the prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jer 1:5). The Lord is even sovereign over things that seem like accidental occurrences. “The lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is wholly from the Lord” (Proverbs 16:33). Even the sinful actions of humans are part of God’s providential working. Probably the most notable instance of this is the crucifixion of Jesus, which Peter attributed both to God and to sinful men, “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23).
Knowing what providence is, how can the Christian go about meditating on the providence of God? John Flavel (c. 1627-1691) began his excellent book The Mystery of Providence this way, “It is the duty of saints, especially in time of straits, to reflect upon the performances of Providence for them in all the states and through all the stages of their lives” (based on Psalm 57:2). In the second part of his book, Flavel gives four directions for reflecting on the performances of providence for us.
First, labor to get as full and thorough a recognition as you are able of the providence of God concerning you from first to last.
- There is not such a pleasant history for you to read in all the world as the history of your own lives.
- Let your meditation be intensively full. Do not let your thoughts swim like feathers upon the surface of the waters, but sink like lead to the bottom.
- You may look upon some providences once and again, and see little or nothing in them; but look ‘seven times,’ that is, meditate often on them, and you will see their increasing glory.
Second, in all your observations of providence have special respect to that Word of God which is fulfilled and made good to you by them.
- The Word tells you that it is your wisdom and interest to keep close to its rules and the duties it prescribes (Deut 4:5-6). How have you seen the events of providence prove this true?
- The Word tells you that your departure from the way of integrity and simplicity, to make use of sinful policies, shall never profit you (1 Sam 12:21; Prov 3:5). How have you seen the events of providence prove this true?
- The Word prohibits your trust and confidence in the creature (Ps 146:3). It tells us that it is better to trust in the Lord (Ps 118:8). How have you seen the events of providence prove this true?
- The Word assures us that sin is the cause and inlet of affliction and sorrow (Num 32:23). How have you seen the events of providence prove this true?
- The Word of promise assures us that whatever wants or straits the saints fall into, their God will never leave them nor forsake them (Heb 13:5; Ps 91:15). How have you seen the events of providence prove this true?
- The Word of God is the only support and relief to a gracious soul in the dark day of affliction (Ps 119:50, 92, 2 Sam 23:5). How have you seen the events of providence prove this true?
- The Word tells us that there is no better way to improve our estates than to lay them out with a cheerful liberality for God, and that our withholding our hands when God and duty calls to distribute will not be for our advantage (Prov 11:24, 25; 19:17; Isa 32:8). How have you seen the events of providence prove this true?
- The Word assures us that the best expedience for a man to settle his own interest in the consciences and affections of men is to direct his ways so as to please the Lord (Prov 16:7). How have you seen the events of providence prove this true?
- The Word tells us that the best way to gain inward peace and tranquility of mind under puzzling and disturbing troubles is to commit ourselves and our case to the Lord (Ps 37:5-7; Prov 16:3). How have you seen the events of providence prove this true?
Third, in all your reviews and observations of providence, be sure that you eye God as the author or orderer of them all.
- In all the sad and afflictive providences that befall you, eye God as the author and orderer of them also. Set the grace and goodness of God before you in all afflictive providences. Eye the wisdom of God in all your afflictions. Set the faithfulness of the Lord before you under the saddest providences.
- I see my God will not lose my heart, if a rod can prevent it. He would rather hear me groan here than howl hereafter. His love is judicious, not fond. He consults my good rather than my ease.
Lastly, work up your hearts to those frames, and exercise those affections which the particular providences of God that concern you call for.
- As there are various affections planted in your souls, so there are various graces planted in those affections, and various providences appointed to draw forth and exercise these graces.
- Let us suppose the most afflicted and calamitous state a Christian can be in, yet why should sad providences make him lay aside his comforts in God, when those are but for a moment, and these eternal (2 Cor 4:17)?
- Mortify your inordinate affections to earthly things. This makes providences that deprive and cross us so heavy. Mortify your opinion and affection, and you will lighten your affliction. It is strong affection that makes strong affliction.
- Under all providences maintain a contented heart with what the Lord allots you, be it more or less of the things of this world. This grace must run parallel with all providences. Learn how to be full, and how to suffer want, and in every state to be content (Phil 4:11, 12).
* These four directions are taken from John Flavel, The Mystery of Providence, chapter 9.