God’s ways at times seem baffling. As the Apostle Paul says, they are inscrutable (Rom. 11:33). That’s why as Christians we often encourage each other to trust in God’s providence, to remember His invisible hand, and to rest in the knowledge that He orchestrates all things for our good (8:28). We call on providence when God’s ways are “past finding out” (11:33, KJV). When tragedy strikes. When joy surprises. When sorrow overwhelms. When opportunity knocks. When circumstances push us to the edge. When we have no answers. Somehow. Some way. As Christians, we know the solution lies deep in the providence of God.
The appeal of providence is that it places each moment of our lives—good, bad, and everything in between—in bold relief against God’s plan for all things. We tell ourselves that God is in control. Yet we still struggle to connect the chaos of our lives with the certainty of God’s design. As finite and fallen creatures, we often fail to trust that God will lead, guide, and direct us according to His good and sovereign will. One reason Christians have long spoken about providence is to bolster our faith amid life’s uncertainties.
As I was working on this article, I took a walk around the campus of Reformation Bible College, where I teach, and looped back to my office by way of our coffee shop to purchase an afternoon latte. While I was waiting for my coffee, I asked one of my students about something in his life. Unaware that I was writing an article on providence, he began reflecting on the difficulty of not always knowing God’s ways. He gave me a helpful illustration. When traveling by car, he told me he prefers having the map on his smartphone open so that he knows at all times where he is, where he is going, and how he will get to his destination. But, he confessed, he doesn’t like traveling when he has no map to follow but only a friend or family member to navigate the journey one turn at a time. His point was well made. He knows that he is to trust in God’s providence, but he wishes he could see the map that details the coordinates of his life.
In his classic work The Mystery of Providence, the Puritan John Flavel states, “It is the duty of the saints, especially in times of straits, to reflect upon the performances of Providence for them in all the states and through all the stages in their lives.” Flavel, in other words, urges Christians to meditate on God’s providence at every juncture of life and even to talk about His ways with fellow Christians. But to reflect in any meaningful way on “the performances of Providence,” we need to have a clear understanding of what we mean by the term providence.
There are few better resources for summarizing the Bible’s teaching on key doctrines than the Westminster Confession of Faith. In chapter 5 of the confession, we have one of the most precise definitions of providence in the history of the church. For the remainder of this article, we will examine the first four sections of chapter 5 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, which detail the biblical doctrine of providence.
The opening section of chapter 5 relates providence to the outworking of God’s eternal decree (see WCF 3) in the realm of God’s creation (see WCF 4). It states:
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. (WCF 5.1)
In Truths We Confess, a splendid guide to the Westminster Confession, Dr. R.C. Sproul calls this paragraph an “unequaled summary of Reformed theology.” To begin with, notice that the confession connects providence with God’s work of creation. Since God created all things, He governs all things. God is not aloof or disengaged. He is actively involved in the world that He made, directing everything great and small according to His sovereign plan. Dear reader, God is not unconcerned with the events of your life. He is not surprised or taken off guard by your suffering. The God who made the galaxies knows the hairs on your head, the fears of your heart, the events of your life, and the details of your future (consider Matt. 6:25–34; 10:26–33).