Providence – what is the ‘good’ that God is working towards?
Providence teaches that God is not absent, but really is active in the world today. But ironically, one of the features that flow from a flawed understanding of providence is a relative quickness to attribute things to God’s hand.
Consider the following statements (drawn from examples given by Paul Helm):
“Far out, I almost got hit by a car on the motorway – I wasn’t really paying attention. God was really looking after me!”
“God has been kind to me. He prevented me from getting the ‘flu all winter this year!”
“You know, I missed my train today – but it meant that I met an old friend on the platform who now wants to buy 5000 units of our product! God made that happen!”
At the surface level, it seems innocent enough. After all, there is an acknowledgement that God is active in our world. And there is a thankfulness for good things come from his hands. What could be wrong with that? After all, in Romans 8:28, Paul promises that God will work in the world for our good!
Romans 8:28 (NIV)
The relative quickness in attributing good out of an event to God comes about because for this person, ‘good’ is simply defined in terms of material gain, physical well being, and social advancement. And so the moment these good things come, we can conclude that God has now worked his providence for our benefit. There is no need to wait because obviously, God has come through! he has brought about good in this situation!
However there are many problems with this approach to providence…
First of all, the good that God works towards is not material gain, physical well being, social advancement. And you can see that when you look at the very next verse that follows on from Romans 8:28. Because verse 29 defines for us the good that God is actually working towards – and it becomes clear that it is not merely about being saved from getting the ‘flu. Paul writes,
28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
Romans 8:28-29 (NIV)
Yes, God is intending to do good for believers in how he orders this present world – but it is not the kind of good that people usually imagine. In verse 29 the good that God works towards is for his people to be conformed to Christ. It is not in providing material well being for his people.
Secondly, the provision of material things and well being – such as a safe journey – these by themselves does not necessarily lead towards growth in godliness. By itself, those things are neutral. In fact it is often more the case that hardships and trials are more useful in producing the result of godliness, than physical safety and well being!
One can imagine that a person, having come down with the ‘flu, and being stretched in his ability to be patient towards others at home while nursing a headache, may have grown more in conformity to Christ because of the opportunity afforded by that ‘flu. By contrast, a comfortable lifestyle may in fact do very little to wean people off the world, and grow in them a longing for their heavenly home.
And thirdly, because growth in Christlikeness is a project that takes a lifetime, it cannot be clear how God intends to use one averted accident, or one business success towards that good goal. Who can say how this car accident or that business venture will lead towards Christlikeness?
Of course all things come about because of God’s sovereign will. But since the ‘good’ that God is working towards only becomes clear towards the end of a life, it should only be with great hesitancy that we read off what God is doing in the world, without the benefit of divine revelation. But if instead ‘good’ only amounts to material blessings – then it can seem that God has achieved his ends of doing ‘good’ the moment that unexpected order arrives.
There are a few more problems as well. But already you can see the main problem revolves around what is thought of as ‘good’. Essentially, people have gladly seized on that word ‘good’ in Romans 8, and have filled it up what they consider to be good: health, emotional wellbeing, family stability, financial prosperity.
It may seem like a very spiritual way to talk – and might be one we’ve grown up with. But the relative quickness to testify that God is doing this only makes sense if the ‘good’ we have in mind is the provision of material things and the protection of health. And as a result you end up with a God whose main preoccupation in the world is to show how strong he is by warding off cancer, preventing car accidents, and holding off the rain.
It’s a great thing that people want to give thanks for God’s providence. But it’s interesting to consider why those things in particular are seen as the ‘good’ that God is working to bring about. Could it be that those things are our idols? could it be that those material blessings vastly overshadow the hope of growing in Christlikeness? Are the same people as quick to identify God’s providence in ‘flus and car accidents – which may equally, if not moreso, lead to growth in Christlikeness?
And so listen out for when people are quick to ascribe God’s providence to something. Notice the kinds of things they ascribe to God’s providence. Notice the confidence they have that God has come through on his promise to do good to us. It may sound spiritual – but it may in fact reveal hearts that see material blessings and the protection of health as the ultimate good.