November 13, 2008

There is a Providence, Part I

For the next couple of posts I am going to be sharing one of my favorite books. Because most of us are walking through trials... no matter how small or big, we all need encouragement.  This book, "Behind A Frowning Providence" by John J. Murray, has been of great help to me in the darkest of storms and has been the steadfast reminder as to their purpose. 

My goal in doing this is to open up discussion with everyone that stops by to visit.  I was hoping for this to be kind of a topic of conversation for us all as we share our input, insights and experience in regards to each part.  

"One of the best known hymns is William Cowper's 'God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to preform'.  Cowper was subject to melancholy and knew more about the darker side of Christian experience than the brighter.  It was out of heart-felt experience that he composed his hymn and presented in it so many precious gems of truth as the often quoted lines,

Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

What is met by a 'frowning providence'?  Is this something that we are to expect in the Christina life?  If so, how do we cope with it?  Like you, I have sought answers to these questions.  

Providence is an old fashioned word and has a strange ring to modern ears.  Yet when we break it down into its parts the meaning becomes clear.  It comes from the Latin video 'to see' and pro 'before', meaning 'to see beforehand'.  In our lives we plan beforehand but we do not see what is going to happen.  God has planned everything for His creation and because He is the sovereign God everything will come to pass as he purposed.  Providence is that marvellous working of God by which all the events and happenings in His universe accomplish the purpose He has in mind.   

The Scriptural doctrine that God 'works all things according to the counsel of His will' is clearly set our in the Westminster Confession of Faith's definition of God's Eternal Decree:

God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established (Chap III, i).

The Shorter Catechism asks the question: "How does God execute His decrees?' and answers 'God executes His decreed in the works of creation and providence' (Q.8).  What about redemption?  It is included in the work of providence!  Is is the supreme work of providence.

In it God sent His Son into this world of the purpose of redeeming a people.  He set His love on hell-deserving sinners and chose them in Christ before the foundation of the world.  Those He foreknew He predestined that they might be 'conformed to the image of his Son' (Romans 8:29).  God has a plan for His Church that stretches from eternity to eternity.

In relation to that grand purpose, 'God has', according to Thomas Boston, 'by an eternal decree, immovable as mountains of brass (Zachariah 6:1), appointed the whole of every one's lot, the crooked parts thereof, as well as the straight.' As Job said in the midst of his suffering: 'He performs the thing that is appointed for me' (Job 23:14).  The plan of God extends to every detail in my life.  There are several important things that can be said of it:

1.  The plan is perfect.  Everything that God does is perfect.  It may not appear to me at times to be perfect but it is because it will ultimately lead to the greater glory of God.

2.  The plan is exhaustive.  It includes everything.  It is worked out in a situation where everything is under the control of God.  It extends to the smallest and most casual things.  'The very hairs of your head are all numbered' (Matthew 10:30).

3.   The plan is for my ultimate good.  Everyone who loves God has the assurance that 'all things work together for good' (Romans 8:28).  If God is for me who can be against me?  The opposition does not count.  The gracious purpose of God will certainly be accomplished in my life.

4.  The plan is secret.  God alone knows what is going to happen in advance because He has purposed it all.  Every detail is fixed before I was born.  God hides it from me until it happens. I discover it day by day as the plan unfolds.  This is the unfolding of His secret will for my life.

Although God has only one will we often speak about His secret will and His revealed will. The latter is made known in the Scriptures and is the rule of our duty.  The former is made known in His providence and is to be submitted to and observed.   This teaching is clearly set out in the words of Thomas Boston:

"Whoever would walk with God must be due observers of the Word and Providence of God for by these in a special manner He manifests Himself to His people.  In the one we see what He says' in the other what He does.  These are the two books that every student of holiness ought to be much conversant in.  They are both written with the one hand and they should both be carefully read by those who would have not only the name of religion but the thing.   They should be studied together if we would profit by either for being taken together they give light one to the other; and as it is our duty to read the Word, so also it is our duty to observe the work of God."

These words are taken from a sermon on Psalm 107:43:  'Whoso is wise and will observe these things, even they shall understand the loving kindness of the Lord'.  If we are to fulfill the duty of observing 'these things' the qualification required is wisdom but the benefit is that we will understand the loving kindness of the Lord.  We know how a human being stands related to us by his or her behavior.  If we study God's behaviours towards his children we will see His love... providence has its own language.

We need to observe the different kinds of providences.  There are uncommon providences, such as miracles, and there are what might be called common providences, like the refreshing rain. There are great providences, like the crossing of the Red Sea and there are what seem small providences, like a king not being able to sleep at night. There are favourable or smiling providences and there are what appear to be dark, cross or frowning providences.

If, as we believe, a frowning providence comes from the hand of the same Father as a smiling providence how can we reconcile these things?  How can we justify the ways of God with us?

My Past Writings