God Will Provide!
“God will provide!” These words were the reply of a trembling father to his son asking who will take care of the victim for the sacrifice. Abraham going up Mount Moriah (the location of the present Temple of Jerusalem) almost choked with anguish as he spoke, simply fulfilling the strange command of God to sacrifice the son of the promise. This was certainly the Test (Sacred Scripture always uses the term “temptation” to mean test) which God imposed on him, and his “faith was reputed to him as justification.” This pivotal event in Bible history raises questions on the matter of Providence. If Abraham did provide one thing and God substituted for it something else, does that mean that God changed His mind? Could Abraham resist God’s formal command? Did God move his will with infallible knowledge and efficacy? Virtually any event in one’s life can raise such question on the workings of divine Providence.
God Is Providence
We Christians can hardly evoke God without thinking of Providence. He would be no God at all if He were an unproviding God, like the one described by Voltaire as caring no more for men than the ship’s captain cares for the rats in the lower deck.
Providence touches on prudence and refers to the verb providere, which has two correlative meanings. In common language, providere translates as “to provide, to care for.” It evokes a certain order of things so as to direct the future in a good way. But pro-videre—to foresee—suggests also foresight or knowledge of the future.
Providence has close ties with the idea of government. “O Lord, You govern all things by your Providence!” (Wisdom, 14:3). The subtle theologians explain that God’s providence compares to the divine government pretty much as the legislative power compares to the executive. Providence is the abstract plan in the lawgiver, and government is the practical putting into effect. God is provident, that is, He orders the destinies and orientation of all things, high and low, to their end, which is perfection of the universe.
This succinct definition brings out some elements essential in the workings of providence. There is no providence without knowledge of all things under one’s care, and foreknowledge of the future. No more can there be providence without the command and power to direct things at will. This is what any CEO enjoys at the head of his company.
God’s Ways and Men’s Ways
Yet God’s management radically differs from that of an executive agent in a large factory. Our reason and our faith teach us that the destinies of each and all things are included in the First Intelligence. God knows all things because He causes the being, living, and acting of all things. God knows in as much as He has a bearing on being itself. Yet this raises the question of the future. How can God know what will be but is not yet being.
The future is non-existent for us men, but it is part of the whole creation, which includes time and space and anything which has been, is, or will be. Sailors can tell the weather by looking at the sky, as they foresee the effects in the cause, but they cannot tell what their wives will do today since these ladies have not yet made up their mind. But what sailors do not know, God knows! God does not live in time, but above it. His knowledge of things is not successive and unfolding as the events unfold in real time. God sees His work in one simple and eternal gaze, as the mountain climber embraces at once many things taking place in the valley before his eyes.
Foreknowledge of things future is the first mandatory condition of providence. Yet God could not be provident unless He were also able and willing to provide. His word is a sovereign will which sets laws to creation: “He said, and they were made!” This divine will is not to be confused with the self-will of an arbitrary king. His power is just, loving, and merciful. He gives to each creature its due according to it nature. Each has its place in the whole orchestra of creation. After He lifted all things from the void, which is the supreme misery, His love provides them also with all their needs.
Is Providence Unchanging?
Although we have traced the blueprint for a well-geared providence, we soon come across serious difficulties as to its exercise. In this conception of divine government, all events in life are fixed, preordained as well as foreseen. If everything is subject to providence, nothing can escape from it anymore than God can escape from Himself. If everything is included in the book of life which contains our eternal destinies, all is written in marble. If it admits of no strikeout, no derogation, what happens to God and to man? Do they lose their freedom of action?
Here, perhaps, the greatest objection comes from God’s standpoint. Reading the Scriptures, it seems as if God often did change His mind regarding man, as when He is said to have “repented of having created mankind” (Gen. 6:7), and repented of having made Saul king and sought for David to replace Him. These acts of repentance are metaphorical forms of language meaning His will to punish men for the sins He knew they would commit. God is immutable in that He knew everything which was to take place. And so He willed—or rather permitted, since the primitive Hebrew language does not have two such terms—the change of Saul from good to bad king. The difficult biblical texts can best be answered by stating the following: To will a change is not to change one’s will, but to incorporate the change itself within God’s all-encompassing will.
Grafted onto this seeming change in God’s will is the thorny question of man’s salvation. Some texts allude to universal salvation: “Christ died for all” and “we hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers” (I Tim. 2:4; 4:10). And others, on the contrary, will be damned, as we know from faith that not all men are saved: “many are called, but few are chosen.” Here is how the Church saves God from injustice: “That some are indeed saved is the gift of Him who saves them; but that some are in truth lost is the fault of those who perish” (Denz. 318).
The answer to this quibble lies in distinguishing two moments in God’s will. Absolutely speaking or prior to the consideration of circumstances, God wishes the salvation of all men. But, conditionally—“if the sinner repents”—and in view of the concrete circumstances, God wills the unrepentant sinner to be punished forever. This is best explained by St. Thomas Aquinas:
“Thus that a man should live is good; and that a man should be killed is evil, absolutely considered. But if in a particular case we add that, if a man is a murderer or dangerous to society, to kill him is a good; that he live is an evil. Hence it may be said of a just judge, that antecedently he wills all men to live; but consequently he wills the murderer to be hanged” (Summa, I, 19, 6 ad 1).
Providence, Chance and Liberty
Divine providence raises other major issues: chance and liberty particularly. Can one reconcile an all-encompassing providence with chance? If providence means order, any disorder is outside its reach and undoes it, or does it not? This is a black and white view, but reality admits another option. Chance is a fact of nature as much as necessity is a fact without which there would be no chance. Take an example. Rain necessarily falls upon earth; the grass necessarily grows: no room for chance here. But if it rains too much, the grass rots by chance because it does not occur usually according to the laws of nature. Both accidents and the laws of nature are complementary. Both are God’s children; both His servants and execute His providence.
But does not foresight cancel the fortuitous encounter? Does not foreknowledge destroy chance? To think thus is to think things in human terms as we often babble as babies when dealing with God’s working in creation. God is Creator and, as He creates, He causes everything in His creature, not only its existence and DNA, but also all of its properties, high and low, some necessary, some fortuitous, as that a man be born blind, too tall, or redheaded. In other words, God’s will produces not only its effects, but also the very manner in which the effect takes place, some necessarily, some others by chance. One example will clarify this principle.
Let us suppose that, suddenly, God creates before us a workshop where we see a weaver sitting at his loom and making his material. God has created everything: thus, He is responsible for all of it, including details. Show the walls, show the craftsman, show the loom and the frame, show the material which is being produced and show the final product: everything bears God’s signature.
Does this prevent the man from dealing, not only with things necessarily connected with his trade, but also with some chance events which he will have to set straight? Everything functions as if there were no God, and perhaps he does not think of it, which is so often our own case. But, without God, there would be nothing. He sets all things in existence. But doing so, He does not perturb the running of things because His action is over and above that of creatures and man.
Liberty falls into the same principle mentioned for chance: God’s will produces not only its effects, but also the very manner in which the effect takes place. All intelligent creatures, angels and men, are necessarily endowed with freedom: they cannot choose to be free! Yet here again, God’s activity does not prevent man’s liberty. Let us return to our previous example. My complete workshop immediately created by God contains some freedom at work. The craftsman is working freely, as freely as if God did not exist. Yet God creates him in every instant, at every step of his thought and will, in all the moments of his acts. In other words, far from restricting his freedom, God’s causality is the ultimate cause of it. It is because God creates him that man exists. It is because God makes him a man that he is a human being. It is because God creates him free that he can make decisions. It is because God creates him actually using his freedom that he is acting freely.
This Christian view of providence suggests a God quite distinct from, say, the Moslem God, Buddha, or the Hindu Shiva. Ours is a paternal God, “Our Father,” who watches over and cares for His creatures without taking anything away from their talents and perfections. His creatures act in various ways. Some exist shut up within themselves, content to exist in their cocoon, others are more active. Man is enjoying the ability to move things within and without. He has been endowed with the ability to work on other creatures more than any animal has. He is gifted with the dignity of cause and teacher and master. All animals follow blindly their inborn instinct; man acts freely. But freedom in man, synonym of responsibility and decision, is the gateway to a moral life which is open upwards as well as it can lead downwards, and to merit actual graces and even his eternal salvation. Human freedom means huge risks, but the rewards are also proportionate to the stakes.