I yield to thy sovereignty all that I am and have;
do thou with me as thou wilt.
Thou hast given me silence in my heart
in place of murmurings and complaints.
Keep my wishes from growing into willings,
my willings from becoming fault-finding
with thy providences,
and have mercy on me.
– Excerpt from The Valley of Vision
Whenever disaster strikes, such momentous times inevitably afford the opportunity to think about the bigger questions in life–you know, the kind of questions we typically ignore in the day-to-day rush to triviality. Questions like, “Is God really in control over everything?” or “Why does bad things happen to good people?” or “If your God is a good God, then why does he allow such evil to occur?” Questions like these we cannot overlook, though we often do when it is only partly cloudy with a gentle breeze.
Such a question came about from an anonymous commenter on the UUEmergency blog yesterday. While not knowing the sincerity or motivation of such a comment, I think it is something onlookers, perhaps non-Christians, are asking. The person asked,
“What did you do to incur His wrath?”
Now, the context of this question was entirely inappropriate, given the website and specific post were about addressing immediate needs of the UU community, and while it wreaks with the insensitivity of a drive-by commenter seeking to upset readers, I want to take a moment to use it as a platform to talk about something we have been hearing a lot during the last 24 hours and which happens to be the topic of our Puritan Paperback reading this month–God’s providence.
So when storms like Katrina or the 50+ tornadoes that spiraled through the heartland of America come, are we to play the role of Job’s three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar by asking, “What have you done? What sin have you committed against God?” Let’s be honest. It is tempting to play the conspirator, prosecuting through presumption, as though we know exactly what caused the events to occur. Yet as Christians, we are not allowed to entertain such thoughts, for at least a couple of reasons.
First, Scripture tells us that God’s ways are not our ways, and therefore the posture we must take is not one who must have God figured out, or even to think we have answers to all of the questions. We know in part, and we must remember that the secret things belong to God. However, we can take great comfort in knowing that we are fully known by God, who is intimate with all our ways. As we learn from the life of David, there is no question or cry that God is not desiring to hear, and while we cannot explain why everything happened, we can demonstrate that our God is a refuge, a very present help in time of trouble. Surely he will help us say with Job, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Second, there are examples in Scripture where circumstances were not the result of sin or of any wrongdoing, but purposed by God. For instance, when Jesus was queried with the man born blind, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” A little later, when Jesus gets word that Lazarus is sick unto death, he responds, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
But perhaps the most vivid picture of this reality is in the life of Joseph. Thrown into a pit by his brothers, sold into slavery, lied about by Potipher’s wife, and eventually imprisoned–Joseph was the recipient of all these acts done by evil men. He had done nothing wrong, nothing to deserve such treatment. Yet, as we understand the big picture through the words of Joseph himself who said,
As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.
All through the course of his life, there were people who meant to do evil against him. And yet at the same time, God had another meant that could not be understood with simply a snapshot or moment in time. God’s purposes are great and oftentimes mysterious, and while we may not understand why everything is happening, why tornadoes strike here and not across the street, we know that God has a meant that we can take comfort and assurance that his will will be perfected even when our lives are lived in pits and prisons. While the question, “Why?” may not be immediately answered, let us not have faulty premonitions about the “Who?” question. Rather, let us pray and participate in the work God has given us, that he might be glorified in us, even if that means “letting goods and kindreds go.”
So what then? How are we to make sense of what just took place at Union University and across the country? Consider how Dr. Dockery and Tim Ellsworth explained their gratitude for God’s providence. In his open letter to the UU community, President Dockery wrote,
At this time, we want to thank everyone who has given help, provided service and offered ongoing prayer on behalf of Union University. We thank God for His providential care. With the help of God, we will move forward together.
Baptist Press provides another excerpt from Dr. Dockery:
“By God’s providence, no lives were lost,” Dockery said. As many as 3,300 students had been on campus earlier in the day before classes dismissed.
Tim Ellsworth, whom I have mentioned my earlier posts and is the public relations spokesperson for UU, shares his thoughts on the “most intense day” of his life. Consider this excerpt:
To walk around the campus and survey the damage, there’s only one logical conclusion: that God’s providence is the only reason nobody was killed. It is staggering to see these buildings now and wonder how everyone got out alive. Thanks be to God for His kindness to us.
What you see in these few comments is a manifestation of a firm belief in God’s providence. These are not just talking points from an evangelical in a press release; they are windows to the heart of the Christian faith, that we know God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” and “causes all things to work together for good” to those called according to his purpose. The truths of God’s providence are a sure foundation for Christians whose lives have been uprooted by the storms of life, an anchor for the soul when the sea billows roll.
Perhaps there is not a sweeter word of God’s providence than from the lips of William Cowper, a man who knew great personal suffering in numerous “frowning providences” by felt the hidden smile of God in the midst of every circumstance.
“God Moves in a Mysterious Way”
by William Cowper
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.