Recently, while reading through Genesis, I encountered the familiar story of Joseph. During my reading I became so engrossed in the story that I lost track of time and had to be interrupted to carry on the regular events of the day. I was caught up observing the many ways in which God intervened in Joseph’s life to carry forward His plan. We know the storyline: God protected Joseph when his brothers wanted to kill him and turned his slavery in Egypt into good for the seed of the nation of Israel, enabling them not to perish during the severe famine that came upon the whole earth.
We call this intervention in life, when God guides His plans to His intended outcome, providence. God directs the events and details of life in such a way as to bring about His will for us as believers (special providence) and for His creation (general providence). Sometimes people get hung up on the concept of providence because they aren’t quite sure what it means or how God accomplishes it.
Providence as Guardianship
Lately, I have been working through a piece by Athenagoras, an early church father, called On the Resurrection of the Dead, in which he lays out various arguments for the resurrection of mankind. I was surprised to encounter this gem which might help us with the concept of providence:
It is incumbent on those who admit God to be the Maker of this universe, to ascribe to His wisdom and rectitude the preservation and care of all that has been created…nothing either in earth or in heaven is without guardianship or providence, but that, on the contrary, to everything, invisible and visible alike, small and great, the attention of the Creator reaches.1
Athenagoras elaborates providence for us by using the word guardianship, which is something we all understand to some degree.
One of the arenas of life in which we observe guardianship at work is between parents and children. Parents are responsible for everything that pertains to their children, especially in infancy. Do they need food? The parents must provide. Do they need a diaper change? The parents must provide. Do they need someone to understand what they need even when they don’t understand themselves? The parents must understand and provide.
Human illustrations always break down at some point when they are applied to God and His dealings with the world, and the idea of guardianship breaks down, too—at least based on our observations of guardianship at work in this world. Parents know that they are imperfect guardians—they make the best decisions and provide in the best ways that they can. Or at least, they should. But not so with God; He is the prefect guardian. He created us; therefore, He knows perfectly what we need and how to provide.
Cultivating Dependence on God’s Providence
In graduate school, I wrote several papers on the biblical concept of providence, which later blossomed into the material for a retreat covering the same topic. In the course of my studies, I encountered John Flavel’s book, The Mystery of Providence. There are no writers like the Puritans for teasing out details and covering topics thoroughly, and Flavel meticulously explored providence!
While Flavel looked forward to the time when each of us will have a perfected view of God’s work in our lives in eternity, he knew that our imperfect viewpoint of God’s work now can be a stumbling block to our faith in God and our hope that He will fulfill His promises. As humans, we are prone to view our circumstances from a worldly perspective that affords us little or no cohesive meaning to the many experiences of life.
Flavel described this worldly imperfect view as the pieces of a watch dismantled and lying about on the workman’s bench and consequently useless for timekeeping. As believers, we don’t know what to do with the individual parts of the watch. But through careful study of God’s acts of providence in our lives, through attending to those acts that fulfill God’s promises in the Bible, through focusing on God as the source of all providence—both good and afflictive—and through responding with appropriate emotions to God’s work, we can cultivate an understanding of God’s activity, begin to find overarching purpose in the individual parts, and foster a deep dependence on God—the author and provider of everything.2 We can, as it were, put the watch back together and experience the purpose it fulfills when it is functioning.
Providence—Even When It’s Not Obvious
So, back to our familiar story of Joseph and God’s provision for him. We are versed in the ways God provided for Joseph as an individual, and that He provided for the future nation of Israel through Joseph. But last week, I observed some less obvious ways that I hadn’t noticed before. When Jacob sent Joseph to check on the welfare of his brothers while they were pasturing the flock, God provided a stranger to inform Joseph that his brothers had gone elsewhere (Gen 37:15). Joseph could have gotten lost or been attacked by bandits, but God guarded Joseph and through him, Israel. When Joseph came to power in Egypt and Pharaoh gave him the daughter of the priest of On as his wife (Gen 41:45), Joseph could have turned aside to worship this other god; the Old Testament gives us several infamous examples of powerful men who did just that due to the influence of their wives. But God guarded Joseph and through him, Israel. And when Joseph’s brothers arrived in Egypt to seek food for their families, Joseph himself could have imprisoned or killed them in revenge for their treatment of him as a young man. But God guarded Joseph, and through him, Israel.
I am reminded to attend to the ways in which God is working in my life. Sometimes they are obvious, like the Sunday-school take on the story of Joseph. Sometimes they are less apparent, like the new aspects that stood out to me on a fresh reading of Joseph’s experience. But as we look for God at work in our lives, He will reveal Himself, and we will begin to find that our storyline makes more sense than we sometimes give it credit for!
2 John Flavel, The Mystery of Providence (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1963).