In one of his books, Robert J. Morgan tells the story of Barnabas Shaw, a British missionary to South Africa. When Shaw arrived in Cape Town in 1815, intending to preach the Gospel and plant a church, he found city officials hostile to his efforts. Barnabas was banned from engaging in evangelistic work in the city.
Not knowing what else to do, he bought a yoke of oxen and a cart, packed his belongings, and headed into the countryside. One the twenty-seventh day of the trip he camped for the night near a party of Hottentots (a name disparagingly used to refer to the tribes of the Khoikhoi people) who were also traveling through the region. The Hottentots explained they were traveling to Cape Town, hoping to find a missionary to teach them the “Great Word.”
Morgan notes, “Had either group started half a day earlier or later, they would not have met. Had either traveled at a different speed or on a different road, they would have missed each other. God ordained this encounter and His providence led Barnabas Shaw to his appointed field”
The term “providence” is so often tossed around like a theological football, yet hardly explained. We may understand it intuitively, but not know how to put the doctrine into words. If we analyze the term etymologically, we find the Latin words for “before” (pro) and “see” (vide). In its most basic sense, God’s providence refers to His seeing something beforehand.
Providence is the means by which God directs all things — both animate and inanimate, seen and unseen, good and evil — toward a worthy purpose, which means His will must finally prevail. As the psalmist said, "his kingdom rules over all" (Psalm 103:19). In Ephesians 1:11 Paul tells us that God "works all things after the counsel of his own will."
Make no mistake about it, “He’s got the whole world in His hands.” From the greatest to the least, nothing is beyond the scope of His sovereign power and providential care. He makes the rain fall, the sun shine, the stars twinkle—in this and all other galaxies. He raises up people and kingdoms and He brings down both. He numbers the hairs on our heads and determines the days of our lives. In doing so, He weaves everything together into His design. Ultimately, the tapestry of His handiwork will be something to behold!
“But wait,” I hear someone say, “don’t you and I possess a will? We’re not robots, are we?” R. C. Sproul addresses this well in Essential Truths of the Christian Faith: “We are creatures with a will of our own. We make things happen. Yet the casual power we exert is secondary. God’s providence stands over and above our actions. He works out His will through the actions of human wills, without violating the freedom of those human wills.” God’s sovereignty and man’s agency is mystery, but not a contradiction.
One example is the remarkable providence of God is how baby Moses was protected and preserved down the Nile River (Ex. 2). The love of Moses' mother was great, but not greater than God's love for Moses. When Moses lay exposed in a basket, among the reeds of the Nile, think of all the danger around him—swift currents, hungry alligators, baking sun. Yet, the little basket was driven down the Nile by the unseen rudder of God’s providence.
Then God brought together a little baby's cry and a woman's heart when Pharaoh's daughter went to bathe. That was no accident either. The Lord pinched little Moses and he let out a yelp. The cry reached the heart of the princess, and God used it to change the destiny of a people.
Providence means that the hand of God is in the glove of human events. He is the coach who calls the signals from the bench. God is the pilot at the wheel during the night watch. As someone has said, "He makes great doors swing on little hinges."
So, take heart, my friend. God is in full control. Nothing is happening on earth that brings a surprise to heaven. Nothing is outside the scope of His divine radar screen as He guides us safely home. Things that seem altogether confusing, without reason, unfair, even wrong, do indeed fit into the Father’s providential plan. Nothing touches us that has not first passed through His hands. -DM