You may recall the two large categories of attributes related to God: incommunicable attributes and communicable attributes. The former are the qualities or characteristics that reside in God alone, wherein in the strictest sense, He does not share them with humans. The latter are those qualities that are shared with creation. The lion’s share of “communicable attributes” congregate under the banner of God’s goodness. Love, kindness, beauty, joy, patience, etc. are all part of “God being good” and might be what you typically think about if you were to describe/define God.
God is goodness and He transfers goodness. There is much joy and happiness in the aforementioned truths.
One of the central features of God’s goodness is His providence. In one sense, providence encompasses sweeping aspects of God’s government, preservation, revelation, and concurrence. Those are five-dollar ways of saying that providence, in one large sense, speaks of God’s control and authority. The details of this control and authority have been debated for centuries. The amount of ink spilled over the fine details of God’s providence is enormous. Nevertheless, the point is this: A common manner of thinking about God’s providence is in terms of His control and authority. You may think of this massive God that holds the strings to hundreds of millions (or maybe billions and trillions) of activities/actions all throughout the history of mankind. Providence is a “big God” doctrine, meaning, it sketches a God that orchestrates both the major developments of the world and the smallest events in your life—think about the sparrows in Matthew 10:29.
But, let’s get personal about providence because there is a tension in this doctrine. We typically become more intimate with (i.e. sentimental or cynical about) God’s providence, or lack thereof, in the middle of difficulties such as coronavirus. I’d argue that the Christian’s understanding and appreciation of providence changes like the wind. In the frail human mind, we typically vacillate between belief in the degrees of God’s providence, based upon our immediate circumstances. Sometimes God is big when things are bad (because we “desperately need” Him) and He is sort of small when they are good (because we’ve “got it” under control). Conversely, God is small when things are bad (because of how messed up the world is due to sin) and He’s sort of big when things are good (because of His ability to “make things right” for us). Right? Do you have all that?
God is big and helpful when people are in need, yet small and unnecessary when things are good. God is small and incapable when things are bad because of sin, yet He’s big when things are good because He’s in control. So, which is it? I’d be a jaded muddle of bitterness if I were God and had to continually absorb all this shifting nonsense coming from the fickle human life. But that’s just the thing, we often imprint our own compulsions and whims upon God in order to define Him.
T.S. Eliot, in an essay entitled “The Perfect Critic,” puts it succinctly. He writes, “when everyone knows a little about a great many things, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to know whether he knows what he is talking about or not. And when we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts.” Amen. But, where does all this leave us?
It leaves us in a blooming mess, is where it leaves us. Unless….Unless…there is mystery in God’s providence and that mystery is what makes providence part of God’s goodness. Here is what I mean…
Mystery in Providence
First, as a natural instinct, Christians are always trying to interpret God’s providence. If you’re pursuing God and His purposes for your life, providence is a central segment within that pursuit. You want to know God’s will, and the “things” He has done around you are a natural piece to that interpretation. Yet, His providence is often cloudy in the moment. This is precisely why T.S. Eliot’s quote is an unlikely touchstone for interpreting God’s providence. When we lack knowledge, we wander off into our own interpretations, which are typically driven by emotion. Emotions are not always bad or sinful. However, we have to be careful with them and we have to make certain they don’t drive our knowledge of God and His purposes. We have to be resolved to accepting the mystery in providence, until it gets clear. Some of the mysteries clear up here on earth, others will not be clear until eternity. We do not get all the answers, nor do we deserve them.
God’s Goodness in the Mystery of Providence
Second, as miserable as it is sometimes (at least for me anyway), I’m affirming that the mystery in God’s providence is part of His goodness. In other words, the mysteries in God’s ways are sometimes His kindness, mercy, grace, love, etc. to us. That is an excruciatingly difficult sentence for me to write because, frankly, there are days I don’t believe it. And when I’m forced to believe it, in the moment when things are cloudy and thick, I’m kind of angry about it.
For example, I loathe being caught off-guard and not knowing all the facts. I want to know the facts. I want to be assured that the facts are accurate and within my comfortable margin of error. I want to know them completely and intimately. I want to know them upfront. I want to have the opportunity to plot my way through all the scenarios based upon those facts—the weaknesses, strengths, costs, exposure, etc. And, THEN take action. If you’ve ever witnessed me seethe with anger, it’s been because I was caught off-guard due to (1) the facts being hidden from me and/or (2) the “facts” being inaccurate.
If mystery is painful and trying for me (and maybe you too) how can there be any goodness in the mystery of God’s providence? It’s because God’s providence will bring you to the end of yourself.
B.H. Liddell Hart was a military thinker/strategist, and historian, that for decades has influenced thousands of military leaders all over the globe. You can find his books on the reading lists of men like the former Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis. I like Hart’s stuff. In his book, Why Don’t We Learn from History?, Hart asserts, “history shows that a main hinderance to real progress is the ever-popular myth of the ‘great man.’” He was writing about power in the context of war. He’s also alluding to the fact that real control by an individual is only perceived. Its like the phrase you might hear in the rural south and one I heard begrudgingly too many times as a boy— “Son, you ain’t got no say-so in it.” God’s providence will bring you to the end of yourself, and your abilities, in order that HE can actually get something done. Make sense?
There is goodness in that providence, because if left to our own devices, the whole execution of the “advancement of the Kingdom of God” and “sanctification for Christ-likeness” would be a wreck. We need God’s leadership, through providence, to navigate moving the gospel and living out the faith. And thank goodness we don’t know all the facts, or we’d probably (1) run for the hills or (2) create a debacle and botch the whole deal even still.
The hardest verses in the Bible to obey are often the simplest to understand. Proverbs 3:5 fits that assertion to perfection. The proverb reads, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” Solomon is telling us, in diplomatic terms, “Son, you ain’t got no say-so in it.” Very simple, yet very difficult. But, very good. Good because of our weakness and childlike mind. The mystery in God’s providence will bring you to the end of yourself, and that’s goodness to you from the Almighty God.
Hold the mysteries of God’s providence as goodness, stand firm, and be the people of God.