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Trusting God's Providence

A Message by R.C. Sproul

The rain falls on the just and the unjust; foxes have holes and birds have nests, while lilies adorn the fields. Everything in creation is under the providing care of God. Not only does God supply all things, but He arranges them according to His plan and for His glory. For Christians, this ought to produce peace and comfort even when it appears that all is against them. Dr. Sproul begins this series by exploring many of the different aspects of the Providence of God.

From the series: Providence: God in Control

Get the Providence: God in Control Series on CD and the Does God Control Everything? Booklet for a Gift of Any Amount

Further Study On This Topic

  1. article

    Providence and Contentment

  2. blog-post

    What Is Providence?

  3. devotional

    Trusting God's Wisdom

Providence and Contentment

R.C. Sproul

Blaise Pascal, the famous French philosopher and mathematician, noted that human beings are creatures of profound paradox. We're capable of both deep misery and tremendous grandeur, often at the same time. All we have to do is scan the headlines to see that this is the case. How often do celebrities who have done great good through philanthropy get caught up in scandals?

Human grandeur is found in part in our ability to contemplate ourselves, to reflect upon our origins, our destiny, and our place in the universe. Yet, such contemplation has a negative side, and that is its potential to bring us pain. We may find ourselves miserable when we think of a life that is better than that which we enjoy now and recognize that we are incapable of achieving it. Perhaps we think of a life free of illness and pain, yet we know that physical agony and death are certain. Rich and poor alike know that a life of greater wealth is possible but grow frustrated when that wealth is unobtainable. Sick or healthy, poor or rich, successful or unsuccessful—we are all capable of growing vexed when a better life remains outside of our grasp.

Scripture prescribes only one remedy to this frustration: contentment.

Biblical contentment is a spiritual virtue that we find modeled by the Apostle Paul. He states, for example, "I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content" (Phil. 4:11). No matter the state of his health, wealth, or success, Paul found it possible to be content with his life.

In Paul's era, two prominent schools of Greek philosophy agreed that our goal should be to find contentment, but they had very different ways of getting there. The first of these, Stoicism, said imperturbability was the way to contentment. Stoics believed that human beings had no real control over their external circumstances, which were subject to the whims of fate. The only place they could have any control was in their personal attitudes. We cannot control what happens to us, they said, but we can control how we feel about it. Thus, Stoics trained themselves to achieve imperturbability, an inner sense of peace that would leave them unbothered no matter what happened to them.

The Epicureans were more proactive in their search for contentment, looking to find a proper balance between pleasure and pain. Their aim was to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. Yet even achieving a goal in this arena can result in frustration. We might never obtain the aimed-for pleasure, or, having obtained it, we might realize that it does not bring what we thought it would.

Paul was neither a Stoic nor an Epicurean. Epicureanism leads eventually to an ultimate pessimism—we can't get or maintain the pleasure we seek, so what's the point? The Apostle's doctrine of the resurrection and the renewal of creation does not allow for such pessimism. Creation "will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (Rom. 8:18–25; see 1 Cor. 15). Paul also rejected the passive resignation of Stoicism, for he was no fatalist. Paul actively pressed toward his goals and called us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, believing that God works in and through us to bring about His purposes (Phil. 2:12).

For the Apostle, true contentment was not complacency, and it was not a condition, on this side of glory, that could admit no feelings of discontent and dissatisfaction. After all, Paul frequently expresses such feelings in his epistles as he considers the sins of the church and his own shortcomings. He did not rest on his laurels but worked zealously to solve problems both personally and pastorally.

Paul's contentment pertained to his personal circumstances and the state of his human condition. Whether he suffered lack or enjoyed material prosperity, he had "learned" to be content wherever God placed him (Phil. 4:12). Note that this was something he learned. It was not a natural gifting but something he had to be taught.

What was the secret to contentment that he had learned? Paul tells us in Philippians 4:13: "I can do all things through him who strengthens me."

In short, the Apostle's contentment was grounded in his union with Christ and in his theology. He saw theology not as a theoretical or abstract discipline but rather as the key to understanding life itself. His contentment with his condition in life rested on his knowledge of God's character and actions. Paul was content because he knew his condition was ordained by his Creator. He understood that God brought both pleasure and pain into his life for a good purpose (Rom. 8:28). Paul knew that since the Lord wisely ordered his life, he could find strength in the Lord for any and all circumstances. Paul understood that he was fulfilling the purpose of God whether he was experiencing abundance or abasement. Submission to God's sovereign rule over his life was the key to his contentment.

As we continue to wrestle with the desires of the flesh, we can be tempted to believe God owes us a better condition than we presently enjoy. To believe such a thing is sin, and it leads to great misery, which is overcome only by trusting in the Lord's sustaining and providential grace. We will find true contentment only as we receive and walk in that grace.

What Is Providence?

R.C. Sproul

One way in which the secular mind-set has made inroads into the Christian community is through the worldview that assumes that everything happens according to fixed natural causes, and God, if He is actually there, is above and beyond it all. He is just a spectator in heaven looking down, perhaps cheering us on but exercising no immediate control over what happens on earth. Historically, however, Christians have had an acute sense that this is our Father's world and that the affairs of men and nations, in the final analysis, are in His hands. That is what Paul is expressing in Romans 8:28—a sure knowledge of divine providence. "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose."

Immediately thereafter, Paul moves into a predestination sequence: "For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified" (vv. 29–30). Then Paul concludes: "What then shall we say to these things?" (v. 31a). In other words, what should be our response to the sovereignty of God and to the fact that He is working out a divine purpose in this world and in our lives? The world repudiates that truth, but Paul answers this way:

If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (vv. 31b–37)

One of the oldest sayings of the ancient church summarizes the essence of the relationship between God and His people: Deus pro nobis. It means "God for us." That is what the doctrine of providence is all about. It is God's being for His people. "What then shall we say to these things?" Paul asks. If God is for us, who can be against us, and who can separate us from the love of Christ? Is it going to be distress, peril, the sword, persecution, suffering, sickness, or human hostility? Paul is saying that no matter what we have to endure in this world as Christians, nothing has the power to sever the relationship we have to a loving and sovereign providence.

The word providence is made up of a prefix and a root. The root comes from the Latin videre, from which we get the English word video. Julius Caesar famously said, "Veni, vidi, vici"—"I came, I saw, I conquered." The vidi in that statement, "I saw," comes from videre, which means "to see." That is why we call television "video." The Latin word provideo, from which we get our word providence, means "to see beforehand, a prior seeing, a foresight." However, theologians make a distinction between the foreknowledge of God and the providence of God. Even though the word providence means the same thing etymologically as the word foreknowledge, the concept covers significantly more ground than the idea of foreknowledge. In fact, the closest thing to this Latin word in our language is the word provision.

Consider what the Bible says about the responsibility of the head of a family: "If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever" (1 Tim. 5:8). The responsibility is given to the head of the household to be the one who provides and makes provision; that is, that person has to know in advance what the family is going to need in terms of the essentials of life, then meet those needs. When Jesus said, "Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on" (Matt. 6:25), He was not advocating a careless approach to life. He was talking about anxiety. We are not to be frightened; we are to put our trust in the God who will meet our needs. At the same time, God entrusts a responsibility to heads of households to be provident, that is, to consider tomorrow and to make sure there is food and clothing for the family.

The first time we find the word providence in the Old Testament is in the narrative of Abraham's offering of Isaac upon the altar. God called Abraham to take his son Isaac, whom he loved, to a mountain and offer him as a sacrifice. Quite naturally, Abraham anguished under a great internal struggle with God's command, and as Abraham prepared to obey, Isaac asked him, "Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?" (Gen. 22:7). Abraham replied, "God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son" (v. 8). Abraham spoke here of Jehovah jireh, "God will provide." That is the first time the Bible speaks of God's providence, which has to do with God's making a provision for our needs. And of course, this passage looks forward to the ultimate provision He has made by virtue of His divine sovereignty, the supreme Lamb who was sacrificed on our behalf.

This excerpt is from R.C. Sproul's newest book, Everyone's a Theologian.

Trusting God's Wisdom

Today we will conclude our brief study of biblical wisdom by looking at three of the most neglected books of the Bible. For many Christians, the wisdom books Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, and Job remain some of the most enigmatic portions of Scripture.

Ecclesiastes. The book of Ecclesiastes addresses the futility of life apart from the knowledge of God. In many ways this book is one of the first examples of biblical apologetics as it forcefully argues that without God life is utterly meaningless.

Song of Solomon. In this book, we find a celebration of the love between husband and wife, particularly as expressed in their physical relationship with one another. Throughout church history, many have interpreted this book as an allegory of the love of Christ for His Church. And while the love of Christ for His people certainly has some parallels with the love of a good husband for his wife, the intent of this book is not primarily to show us such allegories. Rather, this divinely inspired poem shows us that God, in His wisdom, looks upon the love between husband and wife as something to be cherished.

Job. Of these three books, the book of Job is probably the most well-known. In the opening chapters, Satan comes before God and claims that Job will lose his faith if his prosperity is taken away. God allows Satan to take Job’s family, wealth, and health away and, contrary to Satan’s accusation, Job continues to believe in God’s promises. This does not mean that he does not question God, for much of the rest of the book tells the story of Job asking why God has allowed such horrors to come upon one who has not sinned. God never tells Job why He has allowed calamity to come into his life. Rather, He answers Job out of the whirlwind, reminding Him of His absolute sovereignty over all things and that much of His counsel is hidden from men.

Job’s response, as seen in today’s passage, is to submit to God’s wisdom and to admit that there is much he does not understand about God’s plans and purposes. Nonetheless, Job trusts God even though He does not completely understand God's ways. Such is the response of all wise people.

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