Ordinary Providence

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on March 29, 2020.

And he said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you (Luke 12:22–31).[1]

When considering the pain and suffering of this life, many people make one of two assumptions about God. He is either good but not all powerful, or he is powerful but not all good. If God is good, then he would never allow anything bad to happen (especially to me!). And yet, bad things do happen, so then there must be limits to either God’s power or goodness.

In contrast to this reasoning the testimony of Scripture is that God is supremely good and omnipotent. Furthermore, God is not a mere spectator of his creation but is actively involved in every aspect of life. We call this the providence of God.

Theologians classify providence into categories to better understand it. For example, there is extraordinary providence, such as when God parted the Red Sea for Israel’s exodus from Egypt. There is supernatural providence, such as the angel of the Lord’s slaughter of the firstborn in Egypt. But the providence that you and I witness daily is called ordinary providence, God’s active involvement in everyday life.

Yet, in the midst of trials and tribulations, theological classifications don’t help much, do they? We are prone to worry. If the hoarders take all the rice and beans, what will I eat? If Marshall’s remains closed, what will I wear? Have you noticed that worry is relative to your situation? There are things that worried you a month ago that don’t worry you at all, and vice versa. But ultimately, what is worry? While we may not want to admit it, worry is a lack of faith in God’s good and powerful provision. And, worry over the necessities of life disregards ordinary providence.

Meaning of Providence

The Westminster Confession of Faith defines providence as: “God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will, to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy” (5.1). Distinguishing between general and special providences, the Confession adds that God takes special “care of his church, and disposeth all things to the good thereof” (5.7). Such a distinction led Jerry Bridges to craft an abbreviated definition of providence as God’s “constant care for and His absolute rule over all His creation for His own glory and the good of His people.”[2]

Using this definition, what would be an example of God’s constant care for and His absolute rule over all His creation? Jesus says, “Consider the ravens.” Is there anything special about a raven (except for a creepy poem by Edgar Alan Poe)? No, a raven is a common bird of prey. And yet, Jesus says, “they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them.” Perhaps now would be a good time to turn off the TV and go outside and watch the birds.

Or, what about a common field flower, a lily. What is their daily beauty routine? What accessories are needed to enhance their charm? Do they require the retinue of Solomon’s Court, which left the Queen of Sheba breathless? No, nor do they require the regal robe of a king. They are in themselves beautiful. Perhaps now would be a good time to put down the phone and go outside and look at (not flowers on Instagram) real spring flowers blooming.

What is the message of the raven and the lily, and even the grass of the field? The ordinary providence of God. God sustains creation, as the psalmist teaches, “He covers the heavens with clouds; he prepares rain for the earth; he makes grass grow on the hills. He gives to the beasts their food, and to the young ravens that cry” (Ps. 147:8-9). And God governs creation, as Nebuchadnezzar confessed, “He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: “What have you done?’” (Dan. 4:35 NIV).

And in the meaning of providence, as witnessed in the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, there is great encouragement. God feeds the ravens: “Of how much more value are you than the birds!” And if God clothes the field with flowers, “how much more will he clothe you”? God constantly cares for and rules over all of creation for his glory and our good. And, he does this through the means of his providence.

Means of Providence

True or false? God grows the lilies of the field. This is a true statement. True or false? Water and sunshine grow the lilies of the field. This too is a true statement, isn’t it? But how can they both be true? The first statement is one of God’s sovereign care and rule. The second statement is one of the ordinary means by which God cares and rules.

Consider, for example, what we pray in the Lord’s Prayer. Drawing from Martin Luther, Gene Veith writes,

When we pray the Lord’s prayer… we ask God to give us this day our daily bread. And He does give us our daily bread. He does it by means of the farmer who planted and harvested the grain, the baker who made the flour into bread…We might today add the truck driver who hauled the produce, the factory workers in the food processing plant, the warehouse men, the wholesale distributors, the stock boys, the lady at the checkout counter… All of these were instrumental in enabling you to eat your morning bread.”[3]

Therefore, when we pray for God’s provision, while he could rain manna from heaven, he provides through ordinary means. In fact, God uses you and me as his means of love in serving our neighbor.

I heard an interview on the radio this week of a young man who is a delivery man for a tortilla maker. He said that recently he has been struggling with his significance as a worker, considering his work meaningless. But this week has been a different story. When he arrives with a fresh shipment of tortillas, he’s a hero! This is an example of God’s ordinary providence, answering our prayers for the provision of daily bread (or tortillas).

If God consistently provides for us through ordinary means, why then do we so often worry? Because we tend to focus on the means and forget (or even deny) our Provider. We go to the store and realize that there is still no toilet paper (or eggs!).  We fret over our just-in-time supply chain, wondering if the warehouses are empty. We go to bed anxious, wondering if our government will fix the problem, if the economy will survive, if we will lose our job or our savings.

To be clear, these are all legitimate concerns, and I’m not at all advocating a life of denial. But all of these examples are under the sovereign care and rule of God. So, don’t look to the means of providence as your provider; they are not.

Hard times are likely ahead for us in this country, but “do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.” Yes, it’s true that “all the nations of the world seek after these things,” but they are focused on the means of providence rather than the God of providence. Therefore, do not be deceived: Worry does not help you nor does it contribute anything. Instead, remember that God cares for and rules over his creation for his glory and our good. And, this is the purpose, or means, of providence.

Mean of Providence

The mean, or purpose, of providence is ultimately God’s glory but also our good. Contrary to popular belief, these are not antithetical. Jerry Bridges writes,

God never pursues His glory at the expense of the good of His people, nor does He ever seek our good at the expense of His glory. He has designed His eternal purpose so that His glory and our good are inextricably bound together. What comfort and encouragement this should be to us.…as certainly as God will allow nothing to subvert His glory, so He will allow nothing to spoil the good He is working out in us and for us.[4]

We may not always see or understand the “good,” but that does not change God’s providential purpose.

To be clear, we will never see nor understand God’s providential purpose by obsessing over the security of our temporal needs and wants. Rather, just as God is the sovereign King whose “kingdom is an everlasting kingdom” and whose “dominion endures throughout all generations” (Ps. 145:13), therefore we must “seek his kingdom.”

Jesus uses the verb translated “seek” twice, first to describe what not to seek and second what to seek. To seek something implies purpose and pursuit. What do you think about most, your daily wants and needs? Then, that is what you seek. Are you spending most of your day thinking about what you are going to eat or wear? Do you think most about how to entertain yourself or please yourself? If so, expect to be anxiety-ridden.

Why? Because the Christian has been saved by God’s grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. By grace through faith, we are not our own; we were redeemed with the price of Christ’s atoning blood (1 Cor. 6:20). God rules over us and in us by the indwelling presence of his Spirit. To seek anything other than his reign and rule over us should lead, indeed does lead, to worry, frustration, and despair.

Our worry then sends a wrong testimony to others and ourselves. As the nursery rhyme reminds us:

            Said the Raven to the Sparrow,

            “I should really like to know

            Why these anxious human beings

            Rush about and worry so.”

            Said the Sparrow to the Raven,

            “Friend, I think that it must be

            They have no Heavenly Father,

            Such as cares for you and me.”[5]

Christian, we do indeed have a Heavenly Father who cares for you and me. So, do not be anxious about your temporal needs. Take your eyes and affections off the cares and concerns of this earthly kingdom and place them on the heavenly kingdom. For, through the ordinary providence of our God, he constantly cares for and absolutely rules over all his creation for his own glory and the good of his people. Amen.

[1] Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

[2] Jerry Bridges, Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2008), 23.

[3] Gene Edward Veith Jr., God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002), 13.

[4] Jerry Bridges, Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2008), 24.

[5] Philip Graham Ryken, Luke (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2009), 2:675.

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