October 20, 2004
Mysterious ways

Jennifer and I have been emailing back and forth about divine providence lately, and now I see she's brought the subject to her blog.

Discussions on this subject tend to get very abstract, but to me it's more than an intellectual puzzle. Most Christians I know don't get direct communications from God, so many of them interpret things that happen to them as expressing God's will in one way or another, and expect me to do the same. I'm very leery of those interpretations, however. In my experience there are basically two ways they get into trouble.

One is when people fall into fatalism, viewing even terrible things that happen as God's will, and therefore they should be accepted as right. That was probably more common in the past than it is now, and certainly the Old Testament has a lot of that going on. But that ultimately runs up against the New Testament idea of fallenness and redemption -- that God's will is not fully expressed in the world as it is now, but in the world to come. To get carried away with seeing God in the present world, I think, is to risk justifying evil.

That way of reading Providence was more common in the premodern era, since Westerners lost a lot of their fatalism in the industrial age. If anything, as Marvin points out, Christians today tend to overestimate their control over their lives. The problem I see more often with providential thinking among Christians I know is to assume that everything good that happens must be God's work, but "good" means good for me. So, for instance, I have heard people praise God for getting them the job they needed at the right time, or for delaying them somehow so they narrowly escaped a big car crash, without asking what Providence means for those other, unsuccessful applicants for the same job and those folks who were in the car crash because the Christian wasn't. It does not exactly reassure me that God is acting in the world.

Some people even let their lives be directed by such interpretations, assuming that some chance meeting or coincidence must be a communication from God about what he wants them to do. I just don't have much confidence that the will of God is really that easily discerned. Yet I can see why they do, because Christians were assured that the Spirit would be blowing among them. But not everyone gets a Pentecost, or anything so dramatic.

Posted by Camassia at October 20, 2004 10:33 PM | TrackBack

A couple of decades ago, an Amy Grant song was popular on the radio, called "Angels Watching Over Me." I loved the beginning, a dramatic retelling of Paul's escape from prison. But the chorus was painful for me to hear: "A reckless car ran out of gas before it came my way." And I was hearing this right after a drunk driver had hit and killed the man I loved. Not especially easy to hear anything valuable about God's providence in that song.

Posted by: Lynn Gazis-Sax on October 21, 2004 08:07 AM

I thought about this during the hurricanes, when so many Florida who survived with minimal damage to their houses stated confidently that God had protected them. Oh? Why them and not the mobile home next door, or in the next town? My family has a house on Fort Myers Beach that suffered only minor damage, while the town of Punta Gorda 25 miles or so north was flattened. Is this something to feel complacent about, like God loves us and not the Punta Gordans?

At the end of WWII my husband survived and escaped a Soviet prison camp in the Ukraine coal mining region of the DONBAS (he wrote a book by that name), while thousands of other prisoners, including his own sister, died. Is it any wonder that he objects when people say to him, "God was protecting you"?

My sister-in-law Elizabeth Randall, an Episcopal priest in Denver, once talked to me about the problem that "God cannot be both all-good and all-powerful, so which is it?" Elizabeth said, "All good -- of course!!"

Posted by: amba on October 21, 2004 09:06 AM

As I was thinking about this, it occurred to me that a lot of the problem here is that people are thinking of providence individually. In the Bible, God never seems to do something to somebody just for the sake of that person -- there's always some larger, communal purpose behind it. Like when God saves Paul, everyone takes this as meaning that God has some use for Paul in the church, not that God randomly decided to save this nasty Pharisee for some mysterious reason. That doesn't resolve the overall question, of course, but it is a bit reassuring that these modern solipsistic ways of seeing Providence aren't actually biblical.

Posted by: Camassia on October 21, 2004 09:21 AM

Recently on a message board I saw someone chastised for speaking out against the war because, if the war was happening, it must be that God wanted it to be that way.

That kind of thinking disturbs me enormously--we end up with a world where, by definition, nothing bad can ever happen, and it's not much of a leap from there to either apathy or the idea that you're wrong for feeling grief or sorrow because the world is the way God wanted it to be.

I don't know. I have to protest the idea that everything happens because God wanted it that way, but not believing in Providence at all seems like a poor alternative.

Posted by: Emily on October 21, 2004 01:28 PM

I think that we don't, and can't, know the mind of God by inference. We know it only, rarely, by direct revelation. That said, there are some things happening in the world because God wants them to happen. There must be many other things happening, within the context of human history, that God *allows* to happen--for human beings allegedly possess free will. This need not mitigate the belief that anything good human beings do is attributable to the grace of God, which grace allows us enough wisdom to choose the good over evil.

Posted by: Rob on October 21, 2004 04:07 PM

Aha! The "larger design" idea makes more sense. People seem to sense that intuitively when they survive an accident or are spared in a disaster -- they say "God must still have something for me to do." Whether or not that is an accurate explanation for their survival, it is certainly a good conclusion. It reminds people that their existence is not their private property.

Posted by: amba on October 21, 2004 05:25 PM

I heard a story on the radio.

An old woodcutter was given a good horse. The townspeople said that this was a blessing from God. The man said that he did not know if it was a blessing from God or not - all he knew was that he had a horse. Only time would tell if it was a blessing or a curse.

The horse escaped, and the townspeople told the woodcutter that it was punishment from God. The man said that he did not know if it was a punishment from God or not - all he knew was that his horse had escaped. Only time would tell if it was a blessing or a curse.

The horse came back with 13 wild, young horses following it, and the townspeople told the woodcutter that it was a blessing from God. The man said that he did not know if it was a blessing from God or not - all he knew was that his horse had come back with many other horses. He did point out that the townspeople were awfully quick to judge. Only time would tell if it was a blessing or a curse.

While breaking one of the wild horses in, the woodcutter's only son fell off and broke both his legs.The townspeople told the woodcutter that he was right and it was punishment from God. The woodcutter started saving his breath, as he really didn't seem to be getting through to the people.

The king called up all the young men to fight in a useless war that they could not win. All the sons were called up except the woodcutter's son, who couldn't even walk yet.The townspeople cried to the old woodcutter and told him that he was so wise because he had been right all along, it was a blessing. The woodcutter simply mumbled something about the townspeople being impossible to talk with.

It sounded a lot better on the radio.

As a scientist, I think of God as being outside of time. From His perspective, past, future, and present simply are. Objects have length, breadth, heigth, and time - they are 186,282 miles long for each second they exist!

From inside space-time, we appear to have free will. To ask about predestination is to try to view the universe from within time. Relativity tells you that you can't simply mix reference frames. If you do, you get absurd results.

While I may be predestined from God's viewpoint, I need to behave as if I have free will from my viewpoint. I get the wrong answers otherwise.

I sort of wonder what would have happened if I hadn't gone to church today. God had something planned for me there. Would it have still been there if I'd skipped church, or was it only there because I went to church. See? It gets weird if you don't accept that you can only work with your own viewpoint.

Posted by: Rob on October 24, 2004 08:40 PM

Wait, I know that story ... ah yes, Huston Smith mentions it in The World's Religions as a Taoist story. Only it has a farmer instead of a woodcutter and, being Taoist, it doesn't mention God. If the story's been around a couple thousand years, however, I imagine it could have been adapted by various cultures.

Posted by: Camassia on October 24, 2004 09:57 PM

I used to have an almost Deist view of God since I was so allergic to the "God told me to do this" or "God gave me this job" mentality of many. But I've come to be a bit more faith-full, more aware of "Godincidences". I think it's easier to see in retrospect, because in retrospect you can see how His actions domino to others through you. My tendency is to see God's actions as utilitarian which might be a problem. For example, I once wondered if you pray for an ill person without them knowing it and that person gets well, how does God get the glory (which is the whole purpose)? I think that indicates a lack of trust in God on my part, since my part is just to pray and let Him worry about Him getting the credit. The healed person will know that God - and nature or the local physician - brought about the healing, if it is His will to even use a supernatural means.

Posted by: TSO on October 25, 2004 02:07 PM
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