A millennial, she introduced herself to me as my server at one of my favorite restaurants where I’m a regular. I asked her a few questions about her background to get acquainted, one of which was: “Where are you from?” She said she was from Upstate New York, an answer that prompted my follow-up question: “What precipitated your move to North Carolina?” She replied, “Well, you might find this hard to believe, but I was eager to move away and experience the world. So I closed my eyes, randomly pointed to a place on the map and it turned out to be Raleigh.” “Wow,” I replied, “That was a gutsy thing to do.” I then welcomed her to the Tar Heel state and said, “I’m glad providence led you here.”
“Providence?” she said, “What’s that?” As I was trying to explain the meaning of Providence, she interrupted me, saying, “Oh, now I know what you mean. You’re talking about fate.” I wanted to tell her that providence is more than just impersonal fate, something much more, but the conversation was cut short by her need to serve other customers.
“Providence? What’s that?” Her question was a disturbing reminder of the biblical illiteracy of our times. Providence is such an invaluable concept to know and understand. Merrill F. Unger wrote, “Belief in the providence of God, according to the whole purport of Scriptures, is of the highest importance, because of its connection with a life of trust and gratitude and patience and hope.”
The Thanksgiving holiday is upon us. How can anyone understand this celebratory time aside from gorging themselves on a traditional Turkey dinner, and gathering with friends and family, without apprehending the unceasing activity of a benevolent Creator God? It is from His bounty and goodwill towards us that he upholds and sustains us in an ordered existence, guiding all of life’s events, great and small, directing each to its appointed goal, for his own glory and the good of those who trust and believe in Him. This is providence.
Our lives are not simply the result of chance and unintentional forces. There is meaning behind it all. God categorically rules over everything natural and the human race does only that which He has ordained; yet we are truly free agents, in the sense that our decisions are our own, and we are morally responsible for them. Nevertheless, a good God in his sovereignty is never complicit with evil, but superintends over the whole lot and uses it to accomplish his own gracious and perfect ends.
This is the space we live in – a world of providence – something of which most are completely unaware. J. Wallace Hamilton has brilliantly described our unfortunate common condition, saying:
“Actually we are in the midst of a providential arrangement all the time; every moment is sustained by providence, whether we recognize it as such or not.
‘Oh, where is the sea?’ the fishes cried,
As they swam the Atlantic waters through;
‘We’ve heard of the sea and the ocean tide.
And we long to gaze on its waters blue.’
“All around us are little fishes looking for the sea; people living, moving, having their being in an ocean of God’s providence, but who can’t see the ocean for the water. Maybe it is because we call it by another name. The ancient Hebrews from whom the Bible came were a religious people. They thought in religious patterns, they spoke in religious phrases, they saw in every event the direct activity of God. If it rained, it was God who sent the rain. When crops were good, it was God who yielded the increase. But that is not our language, nor the pattern of our thought. We think in terms of law – chemical, natural law. When it rains, we know that it is the natural condensation of vapor. When the crops are good, we credit it to the fertilizer. An amazing thing has happened in our way of thinking. In a world that could not for one moment exist without the activity of God, we have conditioned our minds to a way of thinking that leaves no room for Him. So many of our wants are provided by what seems natural and impersonal forces that we have lost sight of the great Provider in the midst of providence…thus our sophistication steals away our sense.”
What is behind this prideful sophistication that diminishes our sensitivity to God and his providential ways? It is our unrighteousness. In our rejection of his absolute rule over us, our consciousness of his endless graces becomes dull. Hamilton also notes that “the unrighteousness of men is the bottleneck of providence.” In other words, if we set ourselves against God’s order, then we only work against ourselves. God will overrule our sin to accomplish His purposes in the earth. Nonetheless, we will tragically impede and obstruct the way God’s divine decrees were meant to function for our eternal joy.
True thankfulness depends entirely upon our view of God. As is our God, then so is our gratitude. If we embrace the evolutionary, naturalistic, and secularistic understanding of life, then everything that comes our way is just the luck of the draw, and there is no reason to be grateful. If we think of God as a cold and distant spirit in the cosmos and not actively engaged with a personal interest in our lives, then all we can do is hope for the best and prepare for the worst. If we see ourselves as the sole arbiter of our present and future, then we are as limited as human reason and resolve, which more often than not leaves little or no reason for which to be thankful.
But it is the Gospel of Christ which informs us that there is a big God of amazing grace that has always remained upon his throne. His kindness and generosity stooped from His majestic place of holiness and unequivocal power to the humility of the Cross of Jesus Christ. He did this to save us from our sins and harmonize our lives with a destiny of spiritual fortune and eternal bliss.
Whenever we repent of our rebellion to God’s sovereignty, then we are awakened to see His providential mercies in the common and everyday experiences of life, His doting intentions in the dark hours, and His redemptive reign in everything. We see that we belong to Him and He is perfect love. And from this soil of the heart, the truest and deepest gratitude springs.
Unger has also written, “Broad observation and right reason preclude the idea of a government of the world by chance or blind force, and sustains the belief that ‘there is a power in the world that makes for righteousness.’” This power is indeed unlimited and includes everything that takes place in the universe, every natural event, every creature, every person, and every nation. This power can never be defeated and justice and godliness will prevail in the end forever and ever.
This is providence! Belief in it is essential to even the most basic attitudes of virtue and goodness, none of which are more important than Thanksgiving.
Happy Thanksgiving! God is good all the time. All the time God is good.