Doctrine Ch.17 - Providence

Romans didn’t believe that bad things happened by chance—they believed in a goddess called Fortuna or “Luck.” But what does the Bible say about random chance and divine purpose? And how does God work all things for good for his followers?

Florence Nightingale’s superiors were aghast when she ordered medical supplies for the Crimean War in advance by predicting the number of men who would become injured or diseased. They held the belief that because humans act with free will and, on top of that, God does what he wants, it was simply not possible for the future to be predicted. How could anyone forecast the percentage of men who would be injured in a cavalry charge, or the proportion who would get malaria? Nevertheless, Nightingale’s predictions were proved correct and, because of them, fewer men died. The importance of the study of medical statistics was recognized from that point on.

       Throughout history people have believed that things did not depend on mere chance. Ancient Greeks believed in the Fates, who had control of each person’s destiny, spinning the threads of one’s life and deciding its length. Ancient Romans worshiped the goddess Fortuna, though she wasn’t always helpful—she spun a wheel at random to determine good or bad circumstances for you. This “Lady Luck” remained popular even among Christians, who transformed the blessing “Good luck” into “Godspeed” (“spede” was Middle English for “luck”). From the time of Augustine in the fifth century, the church tried to suppress such phrases as superstition, but failed. In John Wesley’s journal for 1763, he records a group of ministers wishing him “Good luck in the name of the Lord,” and few Christians today would regard saying “Good luck” as pagan.

       The Old Testament writers believed that God was in charge of everything. Even throwing a lot (which was like flipping a coin) did not give a random result because they believed God was in overall control (Prov 16:33). However, they also recognized the opposite—that things did appear to happen by chance at times. When an arrow killed King Ahab, it looked like random bad luck. He was disguised as a normal soldier, so no one aimed at him in particular, and the arrow just happened to hit a vulnerable slit in his armor at the right angle to penetrate it. The original text says of the archer who killed him, “he drew his bow innocently”—which is as near as Hebrew can express the idea of an unplanned, random event (1 Kgs 22:34). Yet the reason Ahab was disguised was that a prophet had predicted that he would be killed in the battle—so this apparently random event was actually controlled by God.

       Does this mean that God decides where every raindrop falls and where every germ infects?

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Human freedom

Some Christian thinkers regard the world as completely mechanistic—that is, God set everything going and now simply lets things happen according to the laws of science. Others believe God may intervene with a miracle very occasionally. At the other end of this spectrum are Christian thinkers who say that God directs and decides every single event, down to the atomic level.

       But if God directs absolutely everything, it is difficult to find room for human freedom. It would seem pointless to pray, because God has already decided what he will do and even what he will make us want to pray for. And God would have determined exactly what we are thinking right now. (It all gets very confusing!) For such reasons, most Christian thinkers hold a view somewhere in the middle of these extremes. They believe that God works in the world alongside the laws of nature, while allowing human freedom; that he occasionally interrupts normality by doing something we regard as a miracle; and that he often works in the background in ways we usually don’t notice.

       Jesus appears to have had this middle view. This is, of course, a strange way to talk about Jesus, partly because this spectrum of thinking about providence wasn’t clear until much later and partly because we can’t pigeonhole Jesus! Nevertheless, in the Gospels Jesus assumed that God was involved in every detail, while at the same time he implied that effective prayer and human freedom are realities. He encouraged his followers to pray not only for big things such as healing but also little things such as daily food, because he assumed that God can influence everything.

       On the other hand, Jesus told his followers to pray that the predicted assault on Jerusalem wouldn’t be on a Sabbath, when it would be more difficult to flee (Matt 24:20). This implies that either the exact day wasn’t yet decided or Jesus didn’t know it. Of course, it is quite possible that he didn’t know this detail, because he was a real human with a finite brain, though presumably God could tell him any specific detail he needed to know. However, Jesus wouldn’t urge his followers to pray about something that was already decided, because that would be pointless. Or, if prayer was required to help bring it about, he would have told them which day to pray for it to happen on. This little command by Jesus gives us a valuable insight into how God works. He will achieve all his purposes, but he works alongside his people, and he reacts to what his enemies do, until his will is achieved.

       Jesus thought differently from most Jews of his day about this. They believed that everything was specifically purposed by God, but Jesus denied this—at least, he denied that we could know the purpose of most events. For example, when he was asked about the people who were killed when a tower collapsed in Siloam, Jesus’ answer was the opposite of what most would have thought: he said that those who were killed were no worse sinners than others (Luke 13:4-5). On another occasion, when he was asked whether a man was blind because of his own sin or his parents’ sin, Jesus said that it was due to neither, though his illness would bring glory to God; then, to prove it, Jesus healed him (John 9:2-7). In other words, the bad things that had happened were not part of God’s plan of reward or retribution, but we could still learn from them.

       Old Testament prophets said that God picks and chooses which towns to send rain on (Amos 4:7; Jer 14:22). However, this doesn’t mean that he always does this. The story of Elijah suggests that sometimes God creates a drought to show his displeasure or ends a drought to help those who trust him (1 Kgs 17:1; 18:1). Normally, though, rain falls indiscriminately, as Jesus said: God sends rain (and drought) equally on the just and unjust (Matt 5:45).

       However, the first Christians taught that even when things go wrong, God is with us and can turn it to good: “In all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Rom 8:28). That is, God can bring some good out of whatever happens—even out of the bad things. Some older Bibles unfortunately mask this message by translating “God works all things for good,” which could be interpreted as “God makes sure that only good things happen.” This interpretation is quickly proved wrong by real life—except, perhaps, for those who are very rich, very healthy, and very “lucky”! Another, and equally wrong, way this has been interpreted is to suggest that the bad things that happen to us are sent by God for some higher purpose that we won’t understand this side of eternity.

Bad things happen to everybody

Why do bad things happen? Is everyone, including Christians, subject to “bad luck” (i.e., random disasters)? The Bible doesn’t ultimately answer this, but we do learn that God is with us in all things. Paul pointed out that we live in a fallen world marred by sin, which is groaning in pain until Jesus comes, so we shouldn’t be surprised that things go wrong (Rom 8:19-25).

       Ever since Adam introduced disobedience and other evils, our lives have been different from what God intended. He wanted us to live forever, in Eden. God didn’t want any bad things to happen to us, but Adam sinned, and so do we. However, despite our disobedience, the world isn’t out of God’s control. He can help us get through bad times, and he can turn bad experiences into an important lesson or use it in a way to strengthen us. Sometimes he may miraculously rescue us. God is still in charge, because even though the world is fallen, he is still able to bring good out of evil. The cross is the ultimate example of this—the ultimate evil being turned by God into the ultimate good.

       The cross was not a matter of chance. God decided to rescue a planet-full of people, and he did so. Whether chance or human freedom exist, God will do what he plans to do. So perhaps wishing someone “good luck” is completely pagan, because this blessing is addressed to Lady Luck, not to God. It is much better to say “Praying for you!”—especially if it is true!

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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