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Have you ever heard a non-Christian say, “Everything happens for a reason”? I have, and probably more times than I can count. I’m not sure what to think when I hear it. On the one hand, I’m glad when a non-Christian expresses doubts that purposeless things happen. After all, one can quickly move from belief that some things have no purpose, to belief that life has no purpose, to sheer nihilism that bears fruit in suicide or sociopathic behavior. On the other hand, I know that when most non-Christians confess that everything happens for a reason, they do not have the right reason in mind. Usually they are just admitting belief that blind, impersonal fate controls everything. But of course, how can blind, impersonal fate have a reason for everything? Purpose comes only from personal agents who make a plan and follow it. If everything happens for a reason, something—or rather, Someone—must decide the reason for it.

As Christians, we know that everything happens for a reason because the personal triune God has created all things and has a plan for everything that happens. He is sovereign over all such that even a sparrow cannot fall to the ground apart from His will (Matt. 10:29). He works out all things, not just some things, according to the counsel of His will (Eph. 1:11). This, essentially, is what theologians mean by providence—God has a plan and a purpose for the world and governs history such that everything from the least to the greatest contributes to the achievement of that plan and purpose. He isn’t merely a passive observer of history; rather, He has designed history to achieve a particular end and He directs history so that it will surely reach that end.

No Such Thing as Chance

All Christians have some doctrine of God’s providence because the Bible teaches clearly that God rules over all things. I do not know any professing believer who denies that the Lord is in control over the big things such as presidential elections, hurricanes, or world wars. However, in the biblical doctrine of providence, we’re not limiting God’s control to only the major things of history. We’re talking about even the smallest things, even the roll of the dice. Proverbs 16:33 says, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.” A roll of the dice, which would be the rough modern equivalent of the ancient practice of casting the lot, seems to have a totally random result. But this is not so. The results of the roll are exactly what the Lord ordained.

But of course, for God to get the results of the dice roll He ordained, lots of things have to happen. It has to be thrown with just the right amount of force. Too much and the dice will tumble past the ordained number. Too little and it might not tumble at all. So, God has to regulate the dice thrower’s arm to get the result He wants. What if there is a slight breeze or the dice are being thrown under an air conditioning vent? Well, in either case, the force of the air is going to play a part, however slight, in the outcome of the dice roll. That is something else for the Lord to direct in order to get His chosen outcome. But the movement of the air is related to the temperature of the room, which is related to the movement of the air molecules, which is determined by the atoms in the molecules and ultimately by subatomic particles. They have to move in just the right way to create just the right temperature to create the conditions necessary for the dice to give the number the Lord has chosen. And that is a vast oversimplification—once you get down to the subatomic level, things get really complicated.

All Christians have some doctrine of God’s providence because the Bible teaches clearly that God rules over all things.

All that is to say, as Dr. R.C. Sproul so frequently reminded us, that there is not one “maverick molecule” in all creation operating outside the sovereign control and direction of the Lord. There can’t be, for if the tiniest thing were to go astray, the cascading effects could change everything. Ultimately, as Dr. Sproul also reminded us, there is no such thing as chance.

Everyday Providence

Understanding that there is no such thing as chance should dramatically reframe our view of everyday life. Let’s face it—most of us are not very important people in the eyes of the world. We’ll have a lasting influence on maybe a handful of individuals, and we’ll be quickly forgotten after we die. Because of that, it is too easy to think that our actions do not matter or that God is not all that involved. We might think He is involved in the affairs of world leaders, but certainly He doesn’t pay much attention to the rest of us as we change diapers, try to keep our teenagers out of trouble, work long hours to pay the mortgage, chat with neighbors, struggle to make it to church each week, put our feet up in the evenings, play the same game with our toddler for the umpteenth time, cram for the next exam, and so forth.

The truth of God’s providence tells us otherwise. For one thing, providence means not only that He is governing and directing all things but also that He is sustaining all things. Hebrews 1:3, for instance, reveals that God, through His Son, “upholds the universe by the word of his power.” God not only created all things but He preserves all things (Neh. 9:6). As I have been telling my children recently, if the Lord were to stop sustaining the existence of the world, everything—including us—would immediately vanish into nothingness. At every moment, we are completely dependent on God’s continuing to sustain His creation. The universe does not continue on in its own power.

From the truth of God’s sustaining providence, we may rightly infer that the Lord thinks there is something awfully important about everything in creation, even the things we consider the most mundane. Our Maker is not one to waste His time and energy, as it were, on trivial things. The very fact that He sustains everything, including our ordinary lives and decisions, means there is value to these things. This value, of course, does not come finally from us; rather, the value is found in how God works all things together for our good and His glory, in how He weaves everything together in His sovereign plan (Isa. 43:6–7; Rom. 8:28). As Romans 11:36 expresses it: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”

So, God’s governance and sustenance work themselves out in the comparatively little things of life. Our choice to have chicken and not fish for dinner, our selection of flowers to plant in our front yards, our preference for football over baseball, our decision to take the scenic route and not the more direct highway, our request to have the stylist cut half an inch instead of a whole inch off our hair, our opting for our daughters to take ballet lessons instead of soccer—everything is ultimately governed and directed by the Lord and thus has value in His plan. This truth is not meant to paralyze us. We are not going to cause God’s kingdom to go off the rails if we choose chicken over fish. In fact, a decision such as that one, all things being equal, is indifferent. It is neither inherently sinful nor inherently righteous to eat chicken or fish. Nevertheless, the choice we make in even such an apparently insignificant matter has ramifications for the kingdom that we cannot fathom.

God’s providence operates in extraordinary matters to bring about His plan only if He also controls things in everyday matters.

To put it another way, God’s providence is very much an everyday reality. The Bible doesn’t reveal the god of Deism, who is mostly unconcerned and uninvolved with his creation. Scripture presents us with the one true God, who is close at hand (Jer. 23:23–24) not just in the sense that He is everywhere present with His creation but that He is present in and through the events of creation and the decisions of His creatures. He remains distinct from these things, but make no mistake, His hand is upholding these things and directing them as He works out all things—not only some things—according to the counsel of His will (Eph. 1: 11).

Extraordinary Providence

Our apparently insignificant choices are not going to throw God’s plan off course, but what about bigger and more consequential decisions and actions? These aren’t going to ruin the Lord’s plan either because His providence operates not only in everyday things but also in what we might call extraordinary things—those actions that more clearly affect the course of world history and the expansion of God’s kingdom. In fact, we may say that because the Lord’s providence governs the everyday things, it must also govern the extraordinary things.

Daniel 2:21 says that God “removes kings and sets up kings.” Few things are more directly relevant to the outcome of history than the world’s rulers. The rising and falling of kings constitutes one of the extraordinary things that must happen precisely according to God’s intent in order for His plan for history and for His people to be achieved. We will consider the ascension of King Cyrus the Great to the Persian throne in 538 BC to help illustrate this.

Two hundred years earlier, long before Persia was a major player on the world scene and before Cyrus was even born, before the exile of Judah into Babylon, the prophet Isaiah predicted that Cyrus would rise to power, conquer, and set the Judean exiles free to return to their homeland (Isa. 45:1–13). But of course, for this to happen, a vast number of events and decisions had to go in a particular way for Cyrus to become leader of Persia and rule in such a way that the Jews could go home. First, the Jews must be exiled to Babylon. But this can happen only if Babylon conquers the seemingly all-powerful Assyrian Empire, the reigning world power in Isaiah’s day. But Babylon does this only if the Assyrian emperors make a number of poor decisions and the Babylonians become more effective than Assyria on the battlefield. For this to happen, the right strategists have to come to prominence in Babylon and the Assyrian king will have to follow poor counselors or make bad decisions on their own. But you cannot have the right strategists in Babylon without those strategists’ receiving the right education and experience, which requires the birth of these strategists into the right families who can provide that education and experience. Then, these families are formed only by the right marriage decisions, and so forth. On the other side, getting poor counselors into place in Assyria requires a similar chain of events.

For Cyrus to come to power, he must first exist, so the right couple must come together to produce the child. To get to that point, two families have to agree for Cyrus’ mother and father to get married. Each parent must make it to childbearing age for Cyrus to be conceived, so his mother and father must each be protected from accidents, illnesses, and more that could kill them before Cyrus is born. And for that to happen, Cyrus’ grandparents must make the right decisions in caring for Cyrus’ parents as they grow up, which means that Cyrus’ great-grandparents have to make the right decisions in raising Cyrus’ grandparents, and on and on.

I am simplifying things here, but the point is that God can by no means ordain and control the rise of someone such as Cyrus and the release of the Jews apart from governing innumerable small details such as parental decisions and personal histories. This has to get down into even the genetic level, for Cyrus can come to power only if his immune system keeps him alive long enough for him to take power. If even the tiniest thing goes wrong at any point—say, he inherits a genetic proclivity to a fatal disease—then all is lost.

God not only created all things but He preserves all things.

Decisions made and actions taken have a cascading effect. Trace the history of the actors in an extraordinary event back far enough, and the event and actors become reality only after millions of tiny decisions made by countless different people converge to get the right person into the right circumstances at just the right time to make the choices that bring about the event. For the Messiah to be born of the line of David (Isa. 11:1–10), as prophesied, the line of David has to survive until the Messiah’s birth. And the line of David survives only if innumerable decisions by the members of David’s line as well as other factors outside the control of David’s line all contribute somehow, even in a small way, to the preservation of the line. That much is clear from the book of Ruth, where a series of seemingly chance events end in the marriage of Boaz and Ruth, forerunners of David. All this is to say that God’s providence operates in extraordinary matters to bring about His plan only if He also controls things in everyday matters. Everything happens for a reason because God arranges for everything to happen for a reason.

Providence in and through Us

What this should tell us is that the choice between chicken and fish, while in itself not generally a moral decision or immediately consequential, is not ultimately inconsequential after all. It may, for example, play a part in creating an allergy in a future descendant, who then chooses to go not to the seafood restaurant but to the coffee shop, where he meets the local girl who loves the shop’s coffee and eventually marries her, and they give birth to the influential evangelist, judge, or president who shapes world history. And just think, the parents of this leader never would have met if their more remote ancestor had chosen chicken over fish or vice versa.

At the same time, while God’s providence governs all things, He is not a grand puppet master pulling all the strings in such a way that our decisions are not truly ours, that our motivations do not matter, and that we have no real impact on the course of history. The Lord works in and through our decisions, actions, and motivations in such a way that they remain our decisions, actions, and motivations while nevertheless working toward the fulfillment of God’s purposes. Our decisions, actions, and motivations concur with the Lord’s decisions, actions, and motivations in the sense that they work together, according to the nature of each respective actor, human and divine, to make happen what God has ordained. Theologians call this the doctrine of concurrence, and it is best explained by looking at a couple of biblical illustrations.

One of the classic illustrations is the life of Joseph, particularly as Joseph sums up his experience. After having been sold into slavery by his brothers, enduring mistreatment in Egypt, rising to the right hand of Pharaoh, and reconciling with his family, Joseph tells his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen. 50:20). When Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, they had only a sinful intent to do away with him. That was their motive and that was the reason for their action. The Lord, however, had a different plan. He wanted to get Joseph into Egypt so that Joseph could finally join the court of Pharaoh and save not only the world from famine but particularly the chosen line of Abraham. His means of accomplishing this good intent and achieving the beneficial outcome was to allow Joseph’s brothers to develop an evil intent and to act on their sinful actions so that Joseph could get into Egypt in the first place. God did all this without having an evil intent or doing evil Himself. But the intents and actions of the brothers and the Lord, while fundamentally different, concurred in such a way that Joseph was sent to Egypt.

God’s providence means that everything happens for a reason, both the big things and the small things, both good and evil.

Dr. Sproul in his teaching on providence would often also look to Job 1 to illustrate concurrence. In that chapter, Satan seeks to destroy Job, the Lord allows him to go after Job, and the Chaldeans steal Job’s camels. Everything comes together and Job suffers a great loss, but the actors all do different things and are differently motivated. Satan seeks to discredit Job as a faithful servant of the Lord, so he stirs things up against Job. The Lord seeks to vindicate Job as His faithful servant, so He allows Satan to act against Job. The Chaldeans do not know about the dialogue between God and Satan; they just see a wealthy man and desire his goods for themselves, so they steal from Job. All these things operate in different ways, but Job suffers no financial loss unless Satan wants to discredit Job, God allows him to work, and the Chaldeans see and desire Job’s wealth. These three elements concur to bring about Job’s suffering, but God remains holy and just throughout.

Probably the best illustration of concurrence is the crucifixion of our Lord and Savior. As we consider the different players in the event, we see many different motivations and actions. (Although, in the examples that follow, we note that the three persons of the Trinity ultimately share the same motivation and are each involved in the action of the others, in the outworking of salvation we can emphasize particular works associated with each person.) Judas betrayed Jesus because he was motivated by money. The Jewish authorities did not like the acclaim Jesus was receiving and were threatened by His critiques. The Roman authorities just wanted the Jews to stop arguing so that their dispute would not develop into a revolt. Satan wanted to put an end to the ministry of Christ and His attacks against the demonic kingdom. Jesus went willingly to the cross to atone for the sins of His people and to obey His Father. The Father sent Jesus to the cross to fulfill His promises to save His people. The Holy Spirit sustained Jesus on the cross so that effective atonement would be achieved and the Savior glorified (Isa. 53; Matt. 26:3–5, 14–16; 27:24–26; John 3:16; 11:45–49; Rom. 8:32; Heb. 9:14; Rev. 12:4). All the players in the greatest act of redemptive history had to act for the atonement to take place, and while each differed in motivations and actions, everything concurred to bring the plans and purposes of the Lord to fruition. God governed all this without doing wrong or violating the wills of the individual actors. As Peter said to the audience on Pentecost, “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23).

Everything for a Reason

God’s providence means that everything happens for a reason, both the big things and the small things, both good and evil. Ultimately this is for a good reason, for in providence God is working out all things according to the counsel of His perfectly good will (Eph. 1:11). Much more could be said and will be said in the succeeding articles, but we have seen the basics of the biblical teaching: God’s providential rule operates in both the everyday things and in the extraordinary things, and it operates in and through what His creatures do. Indeed, He is sovereign over all that happens, giving purpose to everything even if we cannot discern it. Moreover, His all-controlling sovereign providence does not make what we do meaningless. Without it, nothing has meaning.

In the Providence of God

God’s Providence Summarized in The Westminster Confession

Keep Reading Providence

From the February 2021 Issue
Feb 2021 Issue