Christ’s Teaching on Providence
But the very hairs of your head are all numbered — Mat_10:30
What Is Providence?
The word providence is often on our lips, though perhaps not always with a clear conception of its meaning. It may be well, then, to ask ourselves what we mean by that familiar term. It is not, by the way, a Biblical term. You will only find it once in the New Testament. It is used by the orator Tertullus in the Acts, not of God but of the high priest Ananias. But though the word is not a Bible word any more, let me say, than character or sacrament, the Bible from its first page to its last is charged with the thought which the word carries. What then is the literal meaning of the word providence? It is nothing but the Latin word for foresight. Yet it always includes a little more than foresight. It includes the conception of forethought as well. And so the providence of God is just God’s wisdom, shaping and guiding and ordering all things, acting today in full view of tomorrow, and conducting everything to wise and holy ends. It is thus the very opposite of chance, which is the unpurposed happening of things. And it is equally opposed to fatalism, in which everything that issues is inevitable. For the doctrine of providence speaks of a living God who works not above law but through the law, and to whom law is but the timely minister to execute the freedom of His will.
Providence in the Old Testament
Now the Old Testament, as you are well aware, is a great storehouse of providential dealing. It is not only a record of the soul; it is also a record of God’s providence. We see that providence throughout the realm of nature, for the cattle on a thousand hills are His. We see it in the guidance of the nations, and in the provision made for journeying Israel. We see it also in individual lives, in David guarded amid a thousand perils; in Joseph who could review the past and say, “It was not you that brought me hither, but God.” It is to this same belief in overruling providence that we owe some of the noblest of the Psalms. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” — what is that but a providential hymn? For just as the shepherd is the living providence of his helpless and hungering sheep, so God has been the providence of the writer.
Jesus Assumed and Illustrated Providence
Now, when we pass to Jesus Christ we find that doctrine of providence assumed. Christ does not argue about it, or discuss it. He takes it for granted as a common ground. Here, He and those whom He spoke to were at one. They all believed in the providence of God. In its broad outline and its general bearing Christ and the Jews cherished a common creed. And yet when you come to read the words of Jesus you feel at once you are breathing a new atmosphere. Here is the old, and yet it is not the old. Something is altered—a new light is here. And what I wish to try to do is to find what providence meant for Jesus Christ and what is peculiar in His teaching of it. In other words, what are the fresh elements that Christ has brought into our thoughts of providence, and in what ways do these new views of providence become in daily life a power for action?
Christ Deepened the Mystery of Providence
First, then, what elements are new in the teaching of Christ on the providence of God? And first is this, however strange it seem, that Jesus deepened the mystery of providence.
It is one of the features of Christ’s touch that it adds to the mystery of what it falls on. Things always appear deeper and more awful when they have passed through the consciousness of the Redeemer. Whatever Christ may explain, or not explain, He never explained anything away. He never thought to satisfy the heart by a word of comfort that ignored the difficulty. He went to the very depths of every question, and looked at every fact full in the face, so that often, as we brood upon His teaching, it is first the deepened mystery which we feel. Think of what joy had meant to the old pagan with its light suggestions of laughter and of wine, and then compare that with the joy of Christ, so serious, and with traces of weeping in its eyes. Think of what death meant to the old world—the natural and inevitable end; and then contrast that with the Christian doctrine that casts the shadow of sin upon the grave. Christ never heals the hurt of His people slightly—never cries, “Peace, peace, when there is no peace.” Deep calleth unto deep, the deeps of God to the deeps of His unfathomable heart. So, often when we study Jesus’ words it is not a feeling of relief we first experience; it is a feeling that things are more mysterious, more awful, more full of import than we dreamed.
Providence and Calamities
Now, that is particularly true in regard to Jesus’ teaching upon providence. The doctrine of providence had been very simple once. On the lips of Christ it was no longer simple. You know the views of the comforters of Job—those spokesmen of accepted commonplaces. If a man was good, he might expect prosperity. If he was blighted as Job was, he was bad. And though it was seldom that men announced their views so harshly and so cruelly as they did, yet that was the undercurrent of belief that shaped the judgments of an earlier Israel. Even in Jesus’ days these views were prevalent, especially in the case of great calamities. If a tower fell and men were crushed by it, these men were being punished as great sinners. If a man were blind, it was God’s judgment on him. That was taken for granted by them all; the only question was, who had sinned—was it this man or his parents?
Prosperity May Not Mean the Favor of Providence
Now it was just here that Jesus Christ stepped in with His widening out of the mysteries of providence. Let a man be a blasphemer and a reprobate, and the sunshine may still smile upon his head. “He maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, he sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” “Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.” And “suppose ye that these Galileans were sinners above all the Galileans, because they suffered such things?…except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” Now this is not to simplify the problem. This is to deepen it a thousandfold. It robs us of the readiest explanation and bows us down before a God of mystery. And that is exactly what Jesus meant to do, and to teach us that there are heights and depths in providence that we shall never fathom in their perfect wisdom until we know even as we are known. I remember a young girl in the North who was a helpless cripple with rheumatism. And she said to me, “Ah, what a sinner I must be when God would put such suffering upon me.” She was still living, you see, in the Old Testament, as far too many of our Highland people do, for that is exactly the thing we dare not say if we believe in the revelation of the Lord. No longer can we say a man is good because he enjoys the sunshine of prosperity. No longer can we say a man is bad because he is visited by dire calamity. All we can do now is to bow the head, and say God moves in a mysterious way, and believe that in the gladness of the morning we shall bless the heart that planned.
Providence and Little Things
Then again it was another feature of Christ’s teaching that His view of providence embraced the least. In the smallest and most unnoticeable thing it recognized the ordering of God. There is a well-known sentence in Cicero in which he speaks about the gods neglecting small things. The gods, he says, have a care for what is great, but they have no concern for what is small. And such a view of the attitude of providence is so natural, and so kindly to the heart, that we are not surprised to find it prevalent, both in the old world and in the new. It is always easy to think of God as active when any mighty event is on the stage. It is fitting, it seems to us, that a great God should be the moving power in great actions. Hence men have been ready to acknowledge providence in things of importance and of magnitude, but far less ready to discern it in the sphere of what is lowly and obscure. This is generally true of pagan nations. It is equally evident in the Old Testament. The God of providence in the Old Testament is a God who works on the majestic scale. It is in the storm one hears the music of His voice; it is in the destruction of Pharaoh that He triumphs; it is in girding Cyrus for the battle that He shows the divinity which shapes our ends.
Now the moment we turn to the teaching of our Lord we are conscious that the accent has been shifted. Now we feel in minimis Deus Maximus, in the least things God is greatest. We hear very little of the earthquake now, and of the voice of Jehovah shattering the cedars. It is the lilies springing in the grass that are the seals of providential care. And are not two sparrows sold for a farthing and not one of them shall fall to the ground without your Father? And the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Had you asked David, long centuries before, wherein he found the providence of God, I think he might have answered, “In that hour when there fell before me the lion and the bear.” And Jesus Christ would have agreed with that, for He believed in signal interventions, but with faith as ardent He believed that there was a providence in the falling of the sparrow. No longer was the thought of providence confined to things that were momentous and impressive. The providence of God was now revealed in things that were little, lowly and obscure. And though that be a commonplace to us now, to the first hearers it was such a revelation that they looked at one another in amazement, and said, “Whence hath this man this wisdom?”
Jesus Based Providence on Fatherhood
The one other feature I wish to note is this, that Jesus bases providence on Fatherhood. That is thought so new, so full of meaning, that to me it is the most remarkable of all. You see, how all the worth of providence depends on the kind of God who is behind it. If God were a tyrant, cruel and capricious, it was better to have no providence at all. According to your idea of God, so is your providence. If He is harsh in your conception, then providence is misery. But if He is merciful and full of love, then providence is bearable and kind. Now, to the Jew, who was the God of providence? He was the wise and holy and eternal God. He was of purer eyes than to behold iniquity. He dwelt in the light to which no man could approach. Brethren, with such a God as that, so mighty, so incomprehensible, I do not see how providence could mean all that it means for you and me today. But the new thing in Jesus Christ is this, that He always bases providence on Fatherhood. It is your heavenly Father who clothes the lilies. It is your heavenly Father who feeds the Ravens. And when a sparrow is struck and falls upon the ground a tiny bundle of disheveled feathers, Christ does not say “God sees its fall”; He says “it cannot fall without your Father.” That is to say that at the back of providence Christ sees a Father’s hand, a Father’s heart. In all the planning and shaping of our lives it is a Father’s wisdom which is active. And that is a thought of such comfort and such power, that for every man who has the faith to grasp it the thought of providence is revolutionized, and softens into the kindliness of home.
Providence Is Power for Action
Now, in the second place and very briefly, how is providence a power for action? What do we gain in actual experience from the providential teaching of our Lord? Three things at the very least help us to a better service, three things that are like voices in the silence rousing us to do and to endure.
Providence Brings Peace to Work
Firstly, we gain that repose which is so urgently needed for all work. We can lay aside those worrying anxieties that rob us of joy and power in our work. It isn’t work that kills a man; it is worry that is the rust upon the blade. It isn’t the eager mind that plays the mischief; it is the distracted and unsettled mind. If a man would bear his proper burden well he must lay aside unnecessary burdens, and there is no burden so crushing to the strength as that of anxiety and torturing care. The best work can never be performed without a certain leisure of the heart. Everything that is to be happily achieved demands a certain happy concentration. And the evil of anxiety is this, that it destroys that unity of spirit and draws the heart into unworthy wandering far from the quiet source of its power. Well do I know, brethren, that this is a theme on which a preacher cannot touch too tenderly. The hardest battle that some men have to fight is just the battle with their own anxieties. Yet if we just believe with all our heart the teaching of Jesus Christ on providence, we might gain now, and we need never lose, that peace which is so needful for the highest. If God is arranging the smallest and the greatest, and if the God who so arranges is our Father who knows all that we have need of, and is making it ready now against tomorrow, can we not throw ourselves into our work and have a heart at peace? Yes, we can “do the little we can do, and leave the rest to Thee.”
Providence Brings Dignity to Common Tasks
Then, in the next place, Christ’s view of providence touches with dignity our common task. It lifts the smallest into the plans of God and makes us fellow-workers in the least. How seldom are we summoned to great deeds. How few and far between are our great hours. It is not out of such things that the web is spun that bears the mystical pattern of our days. It is out of a thousand lowly common deeds of which no whisper passes to the street. It is out of a thousand sufferings and struggles that we should hardly mention to a friend. Brethren, if in all that there be no providence, then providence for us is but a name. If it only be at work in mighty scenes, what more meaningless than common days? But, once and for all, from that depressing thought we have been delivered by Christ Jesus, for not a sparrow can fall without our Father, and the very hairs of our head are numbered. Poor may your lot be, and very lowly, plying the needle or watching by the children. And the great city goes roaring by your gates, supremely heedless if you live or die. But God is there, and providence is there, and He is watching and guiding, and He knows, and you are as certainly the care of heaven as if your name were chronicled in story. Does not that dignify our common task? There is nothing common or unclean if God be in it. Christ hath put down the mighty from their seats and given providence to them of low degree. Once it was on the dwellings of the great that men would have written Emmanuel—God with us. But now we can inscribe Emmanuel above the lintel of the cottage.
Providence Embraces Suffering within the Sphere of Service
Lastly, the teaching of Jesus on providence embraces suffering within the sphere of service. For “neither hath this man sinned nor his parents, but that the works of God should be manifest in him.” Suffering, then, may be very far from punishment. It may not even be an interruption. It may be the pathway to a richer service which is waiting us in the providence of God. How ready we are to divide our lives into these parts of labor and of suffering. And we think of the one as alien from the other, standing apart as it were in bitter enmity. But the teaching of Jesus does not sanction that, for it catches up all we may have to bear, and works it into the value of the toil that we are here to render our brother and our God. “If any man will come after me, let him…take up his cross, and follow me.” All that in providence may be our cross is to be carried into the service of the best. So does all life become the grand sweet song, with the melody richer for its minor chords; so, in the ordering of perfect wisdom, the night is the preparation for the day.