Painful and puzzling providences - an Easter reflection
It is a common thing to experience moments in life that appear not to make sense. For example, if I drive my car through a red light and have a collision it makes perfect sense. I did something dumb and I suffered as a result. But, what if I obey every road rule and someone disobeys a traffic signal then collides with me, with resulting damage to property and person? How does that make sense?
If we believe that the world is in the hand of bad forces or bad people, then none of this is a problem. The bad guy did bad things and so we stoically shrug our shoulders and move on or maybe seek revenge. Likewise if we believe the world is in the hands of mad and chaotic forces – a kind of cosmic lottery. Madness prevailed and again we stoically shrug our shoulders and move on, hoping for better luck next time.
However it is different for people who believe that a wise, loving, good and all-powerful God is the active Lord and that he moves all things according to his purposes (Eph 1:11). This is the doctrine of God’s providence. Where is this providential God when evils such as injustice and apparently random suffering come? Is he not Lord? Or is he not wise, all-powerful or all-good?
These are painful and puzzling providences. Providences because they come from God. Painful because they hurt. Puzzling because God has at least permitted them, if not decreed, within the will by which he rules all things.
Here’s an example. Someone was dismissed from a job in which they were regarded as having serving well for some years. There was good support for their continuance in the role, but underhand politics meant that a hostile minority prevailed and so they were sent off at personal cost and with a measure of grief.
Time passed. The person quickly gained a new post and successfully built a new career. Life worked out better than well and a friend commented ‘how far you have come along’ on an anniversary of the dismissal. In time they came to the point of thanking God for the fact of their dismissal and the good he wrought from it, even while still seeing the evil human deeds in its process. The puzzling and painful providence now made sense within God’s good and larger purposes.
Notice the time frame. It was only with the passage of time that the person could see how God kept his promise that for those who love God all things work together for good (Rom 8:28).
God’s goodness and the perfections of his providence may often only be seen through the rear vision mirror and not through the windscreen or side windows. That is, we rarely see how God is working for good when one of these painful moments approaches (the windscreen) or at the time it is unfolding (the side windows). Sometimes it may be a long-distance rear view and we may have to wait for an eternal perspective to see how God was working for good. In short, we see through the glass dimly in the here and now if we see at all.
So what do we do as the painful and puzzling providence unfolds and we wait to see how it is for ‘good’?
This is a time to cling to the faithfulness of God that is especially seen in Jesus’ life and death. To paraphrase the patriarch Joseph, Jesus’ persecutors meant it for evil against him, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today (Gen 50:20). As we consider the vast eternal and personal good that God wrought in the unjust, bloody and cruel death of Jesus, we see a painful and puzzling providence turned into a perfect one. The death of the one bought and brought life for many (Rom 5:15). That’s one good providence.
Hang onto that!
The death and resurrection of Jesus is the compelling example of God working all things for the good of those who love him. As we meditate on it, we have confidence quietly to stay loyal to the Lord as we wait to see the resolution of our painful and puzzling providence. The patriarch puts it well yet again, So do not fear, I will provide for you and your little ones (Gen 50:21).
The problem with puzzling and painful providences is really one of perceptions. They are painful and puzzling because we perceive only with the present and the natural eye. If we also look with the eye of faith and eternity, we have every reasonable basis to believe the presently puzzling and painful providence is perfect and that we will see it as such one day.