The Providence of God
Bethlehem Baptist Church
Two things are on my mind by way of introduction before I pray and get into the meat of the matter. One is to read a text from Jeremiah, which I’m reading from my devotions right now, and the other is to tell you a story from lunch today, which I had with some pastors.
The text is Jeremiah 14:22, which says,
Are there any among the false gods of the nations that can bring rain?
Or can the heavens give showers?
Are you not he, O Lord our God?
We set our hope on you,
for you do all these things.
First he poses the question: Are there any gods who can bring rain? His answer is no. The second question he asks is: Can the heavens give showers? Well, scientifically, surely everyone would say that sure, where else does rain come from but the clouds, the heavens, the sky? He’s so pressing the issue as to say, “Well, sure, rain falls out of clouds.” We all know that. They didn’t have a scientific worldview, but they knew when it got dark overhead, rain came down. It’s obvious: when it’s blue it doesn’t rain, and when it’s dark and grey, it rains. So, they knew where it came from: rain came out of those big clouds up there somehow. He says, “Nope, that’s not where it comes from. It comes from God. God makes it rain, and there is no rain apart from the will of God. That’s the first observation. The second observation is: “We set our hope on you.”
Another thought comes to my mind before I tell you the story of lunch today. When I went to speak at the Providence Conference at Grand Rapids, two or three weeks ago, R.C. Sproul was speaking. And when R.C. Sproul speaks, my heart genuinely burns within me. Especially if he takes a text, like he did a couple of times, and unpacks it.
He commented that he watched on TV the Civil War series. I did not see it, but it was a whole bunch of sessions on the Civil War. He said what struck him as this man did this meticulous research is that when you read the correspondence from the soldiers to home, 135 years ago, he was pointing out how dramatically different the mindset in America is today than just 135 years ago. He said that almost all the letters would say from the front lines was, “Today, Providence protected me. Tomorrow, it may be that Providence will take me home.” The word providence was everywhere in these religious boys’ letters as they sent them home to Mom or Aunt or Dad or whomever. They had no doubt who would control whether they got hit by one of those balls and drop dead. It was the bloodiest war we’ve ever known; it was a horrible war. Providence was woven into the minds, 135 years ago, of all 18-year-olds; it was on their lips. If they were to speak about their destiny, whether they lived through this battle tomorrow, they used the word Providence — capital P — and they meant God’s reign over cannonballs.
Today, it’s gone. The word is gone. Nobody uses the word providence today. Now, it’s “good luck.” Even Christians say good luck and every manner of thing except providence. I’ll give you some biblical illustrations of that as we move on tonight. That was a very powerful illustration, and he was just dramatically illustrating the milieu in which we live out our Christian life today.
David Livingston and I, driving back from this pastors’ thing today, we were saying, Why in the first three centuries of the Christian era did the gospel and the Christian church explode in a new-age environment of cultural diversity with a vengeance? Why? Why? Today, we wring our hands and say, “Oh, there’s no Christian consensus in America anymore.” And, “Oh, we’ve lost our Christian nation.” And, “New Age is taking over and diversity is everywhere, and you’ve got to respect everybody’s religion.” All we’re doing is re-creating the first century. That’s all we’re doing. The gospel spread like wildfire; it exploded. Within 300 years, it was the empire religion from nothing. Why? How did they then live? What were their priorities? What were their passions?
Providence is gone — gone out of our minds; it’s gone out of our vocabulary. Soldiers today, when they write back from the Middle East, they don’t write back about providence. Take heart — if Christ could triumph in the paganism of the Roman world with its gods . . . When Paul walks into Athens, there are so many gods he can’t even count them. They’ve got a nameless god, just in case they miss one. That’s the milieu in which he lived, and increasingly, that’s the milieu in which we live. If God wants to get glory, maybe he’s just got to re-create the first century, and then turn up the heat of Christian passion.
Two Minutes to Eternity
The thing that happened at the luncheon today. Well, Carey Olson is the pastor down at Bloomington Baptist. If any of you live down in Bloomington and it’s too far to drive, go to Cary’s church. You get the same theology, and he’s a great preacher. He said that he was at this meeting, and one of his classmates was Marshall Shelley, who is now one of the vice presidents for Christianity Today and oversees Leadership magazine and Partnership magazine and the new one that they’re putting out now, Books and Culture. He’s a bigwig down there. Marshall has suffered a lot. He had a child born who was profoundly disabled and lived two years and died. Then he had a child that lived two minutes and died — same as some of the people in this church.
Marshall’s written about it. They just asked him to stand up and tell us a word. And they didn’t know what they were going to get. Carey said it was the most profound moment at a reunion he’s ever been to. Noël has told me some profound moments at reunions that she’s had. It’s funny, these things that go on in people when they go to 20- and 25- and 30-year reunions, and they’re asked to just say something about life; it’s so different than when you were 18.
What he said was, “Life is hard; God is good.” Life is hard; God is good. Then he told the story of this little two-minute baby. I read the article about three years ago. And I said, “I’ve got to get this article for some families in our church.” Because I remember he was wrestling with this: Why would God design a baby to live for two minutes? See, Marshall Shelly didn’t even ask the question of whether God did it. Marshall is just so saturated with the sovereignty of God that he asked the next question: Why would God design a baby to live for two minutes?
The answer he gave was: He didn’t; he designed him to live forever. Two minutes is not that much different from 70 years when you consider forever. Now, think on that. Think on that. We don’t believe in eternity most of the time when we’re murmuring about why we lose this or that. Two seconds is not much different. Picture the width of this building as eternity. If this is eternity, a tiny, tiny fraction is 70 years and a tiny, tiny fraction is two seconds. Just think on it. God didn’t create that baby to live for two seconds. Well, that’s one answer and there are others. There are others.
This life, folks, is not the main thing. This is not the main thing. This is preparation, testing ground, laying up. What’d Jesus say? “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:20). He talked like you’ve got a few years to invest, invest right, because then you spend. We’ve got a totally different mindset. We’ve got 70 years to spend and then it’s over. We really need to listen to Marshall. We need to listen to people like that.
Origins and Definitions
Now, we’re going to do some review for a few minutes and then we’re going to dig into the inanimate objects or the weather and things like that, which God is providentially in charge of. Here’s what we’ve seen.
The origin of the word providence. We’ve seen that and suggested that it points to God’s “seeing to” —for example, seeing to the universe. “I’ll see to that.” God sees to the universe.
Some definitions of providence: for example, one of the best comes from the twenty-seventh question of the Heidelberg Catechism. The providence of God is:
The almighty, everywhere-present power of God, whereby, as it were, by his hand, he still upholds heaven and earth with all creatures, and so governs them that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, yea, all things come not by chance, but by his fatherly hand.
R.C. Sproul’s second-newest book is called Not a Chance — meaning, chance doesn’t exist. He told a story of talking to one erudite professor who said, “I think things just happen by chance.” Sproul said, “What’s that? “Well, just chance, just chance.” “Well, what is it? How high is it? How wide is it? How much does it weigh? What are its dimensions?” “Well, it’s not like that kind of thing; it’s not a thing. He said, “It’s not a thing?” He said, “It’s a no-thing? Say it a little faster: it’s a nothing?” It was a very powerful illustration. It is a no-thing. Chance is a *no-thing; it doesn’t exist, it has no power, it can’t do anything. Nothing happens by it. It has no instrumentality in the world, but by God’s Fatherly hand.
If this sounds new or odd to you and you have access to a concordance or better yet, a computer concordance, where you can just tell phrases and things to pop up, do like I did today: I narrowed my search to Jeremiah and I told the computer to show me every verse with the words “I will” in it. I think there were 256. Now, I didn’t have time to see how many were God, but the vast majority of them in Jeremiah have God as the subject. If you believe the Bible and go and read the rest of those sentences, you will simply bow down and say, “You do it all. You do it all.” We’ve seen the definition, and we see biblical texts on the upholding or sustaining providence from these texts here, we’ve seen that: “He upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3).
Now, we turn to biblical texts on the various parts of the creation over which God rules by his providence. Tonight: inanimate parts. We’ll get closer and closer to human consciousness and human will, which creates the most theological problems.
Texts on Providence
Biblical texts on God’s Providence over inanimate objects, especially the weather and all its effects:
Praise the Lord from the earth,
you great sea creatures and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and mist,
stormy wind fulfilling his word! (Psalm 148:7–8)
The picture of the psalmist here is that when a stormy wind blows in Pensacola, Florida, or St. Thomas Island, it is fulfilling the word of God. Be wary of solving that problem by becoming a deist who says God started the world running, built into it some natural laws, stood back and then watched it go haywire — out of control. Beware of solving problems that way. That does not accord with Scripture and it doesn’t honor the Lord Fire — I think that means lightning. Hail, snow, clouds, stormy wind fulfilling his word.
In the Deeps
Whatever the Lord pleases, he does,
in heaven and on earth,
in the seas and all deeps. (Psalm 135:6)
I’ll stop there for a minute. It’s a marvel to me: God does according to his will in the deeps. Do you have any idea what’s going on down there? Not a clue. We don’t have any idea what’s going on down there, it’s a world. It’s just another world down there in the deeps. We’ve cataloged a few thousand species of weird fish, but we don’t have a clue. God rules the bottom of the Pacific Ocean for his good pleasure and not ours. He’s just in charge of all those weird fish. They swim this way because he says to, and they swim that way because he says to. It’s a marvel to me that God is ruling the top of mountain ranges in Asia that no man’s ever been to. He’s ruling the bottoms of oceans; he’s ruling the outer reaches of space, all for His own good pleasure. And maybe the angels are watching and enjoying.
I don’t get it anymore, but I used to say that Ranger Rick was my favorite theological journal, and if I still got it, it probably still would be because Ranger Rick recorded (even though he had an evolutionary bias with a vengeance) as many of those weird wonders down in the bottom of the sea and up at the top of the mountains that humans stumbled upon. God is a real person and gets real delights from the wonders that he creates and controls in the deeps, where nobody else is watching.
Wind, Waves, and Lightninng
He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth,
who makes lightnings for the rain
and brings forth the wind from his storehouses. (Psalm 135:7)
I’ve always loved thunderstorms. I can never remember as a child being afraid of a thunderstorm. The closer it cracks, the better. I love it. We were driving back from the airport when I picked up Noël on Monday night, and across town to 24th Avenue it was dark; the electricity was out. We were driving through there, and I thought, “How did I miss the storm? There must have been lightning; only lightning puts things out like this.”
“Who brings forth the wind from his storehouses.” So, there again: this wind here and this wind here is coming from his treasuries. We mentioned this last week: In Luke 8:24, the disciples came to Jesus and woke him up on the sea when he was in a boat, sleeping. Sleeping. If you believe in the providence of God — that life is hard and God is good — you can sleep.
“Master, Master, we are perishing!” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and the raging waves, and they ceased, and there was a calm.
God speaks. He speaks, he rebukes, with his word. So, you can’t do this, and I can’t do this, but if it’s blowing too hard, he just says to the wind, “Slow down, slow down.” Just like a dog, just like a pet: “Slow down, stay, come, fetch, attack. God commands the wind.
Remember, I told you last week that Elihu is a good guy in Job, I believe, he’s not rebuked like Eliphaz and Zophar in the last chapter. Here’s what he has to say about the weather or the natural world:
For to the snow he says, “Fall on the earth,”
likewise to the downpour, his mighty downpour.
He seals up the hand of every man,
that all men whom he made may know it.
Then the beasts go into their lairs,
and remain in their dens.
From its chamber comes the whirlwind,
and cold from the scattering winds.
By the breath of God ice is given,
and the broad waters are frozen fast.
He loads the thick cloud with moisture;
the clouds scatter his lightning.
They turn around and around by his guidance,
to accomplish all that he commands them
on the face of the habitable world.
Whether for correction or for his land
or for love, he causes it to happen. (Job 37:6–12)
This is a little theodicy here in verse 12. Theodicy means the justifying of the ways of God to men. So, there’s three possible answers to the why question of why it blows the way it blows and it rains the way it rains and snows the way it snows.
Coming to Know God
Let’s go back up to verse 7: “He seals up the hand of every man, that all men whom he made may know it.” A sealed hand, I presume, is a closed hand or a hand that can’t open and reach for anything — helpless hand. It can’t hold onto anything. The context, to me, seems to indicate that if God controls snow and rain and wind, then the working hands of man that are his means of making a living and producing and getting, are really very dependent on God. He’s a farmer and this is an agrarian society. His hands are just going to close up if God holds rain back. There’s two ways you can keep something out of a hand: one is take it away and the other is lock up the hand. You could try to grab it and you can’t do it, or you go for it and it gets taken away.
I think that the sealing up of the hand here is simply the providence of God over man’s productivity, so that if he has eyes to see, we will say, “God’s doing it. I am not God. I am not God.” As long as we think that our hands have control or can take into themselves everything they need and rule for us, we won’t acknowledge God as the sovereign over the world. But if our hands are suddenly sealed, then we really have to come to terms with whether we are utterly dependent or not. That’s the best I can do anyway with this verse.
The reason it’s so interesting is because it shows that in all of this talk about weather and in all of God’s providential activity in the weather, the issue is coming to know God. Coming to know him. Snow is meant to help you know God. Minnesota winters, with blue painful fingers, are meant to help you know God. The heavens are telling the glory of God: winter heavens, summer heavens, dark heavens, and everything under the heavens are meant to declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:1). God is very eager for us to awaken to him. Who thought up such amazing things?
Another word or two about these last purpose clauses here: Why does God do this? Why does he guide the lightning and the moisture and the clouds and the ice? He says for correction, so there’s a rebuking, correcting thing going on; for his land or his world; and for kindness. Isn’t that interesting? I’m not sure what the difference between all these are, these three, what the difference in them is.
Wonders to Perform
I wrote “Cowper” here in the margin because of a story that Helen Glegg passed onto me from her devotional reading, I suppose, from a little book called Streams In The Valley. The poet, William Cowper, was subject to fits of depression. One day he ordered a cab and told the driver to take him to London Bridge. Soon, a dense fog settled down upon the city. The cabby wandered about for two hours, he thought he could find the way home. He admitted he was lost, and Cowper finally asked him if he thought he could find the way home. The cabby thought that he could, and in another hour, landed him at his door. When Cowper asked what the fare would be, the driver felt that he should not take anything, since he had not gotten his fare to his destination. Cowper insisted saying, “Never mind that. You have saved my life. I was on my way to throw myself off the London Bridge.” He then went into the house and wrote, “God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform; he plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.” Maybe that’s an illustration of love and kindness.
It works the other way too. The Titanic had another experience with fog, right? At least you can say this: the biblical writers believe there is purpose in it all. That’s the least you can say. Whether we understand how God is correcting. Who could say what the millions of ripple effects are in 1,500 families from the perishing of the people on the Titanic.? Who can say? Who can say what that did in world history? What kinds of correctings and lovingkindness and blessings were coming, who can say? Who can say? There’s no doubt where the fog comes from.
‘Not to Us’
Now, this is God talking, not Elihu, and he’s rebuking Job and querying him. Keep in mind, as I read it, that these are the kinds of questions that God asked Job that shut his mouth and caused him to despise himself and repent in dust and ashes and say, “Who can thwart your will?” (Job 42:2). In other words, you don’t have anything to do with where this comes from, you don’t have a clue as to how I do this, you’ve never been my counselor. You are not in charge here.
Have you entered the storehouses of the snow,
or have you seen the storehouses of the hail,
which I have reserved for the time of trouble,
for the day of battle and war? (Job 38:22–23)
Let me just give you a living illustration of what that verse just said. Joshua 10:10–11 says: it’s Joshua fighting the Gibeonites, as he’s attempting to take over the Promised Land. This is what it says:
And the Lord threw them into a panic before Israel, who struck them with a great blow at Gibeon and chased them by the way of the ascent of Beth-horon and struck them as far as Azekah and Makkedah. And as they fled before Israel, while they were going down the ascent of Beth-horon, the Lord threw down large stones from heaven on them as far as Azekah, and they died. There were more who died because of the hailstones than the sons of Israel killed with the sword.
“I have reserved the hail for the time of distress and for the day of war and battle” (Job 38:22–23). Here’s an illustration: Henry IV is a Shakespearean historical drama, and it tells the story of King Harry, the English king, going over to France and fighting the French. And he was vastly outnumbered on this one particular battle. I think the numbers were just incredibly imbalanced. One of the scenes has Harry kneeling down and beseeching God that his providence would have mercy upon them. The next day, the battle engages and it’s a bloody scene, and as it ends, the British are triumphant. If I remember correctly, the numbers were something like 25,000 French dead and a couple of dozen English dead.
King Harry makes his soldiers swear that they will not boast in this victory because it is so manifestly a work of providence, and a man will be shot with bow and arrow if he boasts. The two scenes at the end just so gripped me. One was the scene of him meeting with his soldiers, hearing the numbers, and saying, “God has wrought a great victory for Britain today.” The other was the song that the soldiers began to sing. This was the most powerful moment in the movie for me. As they begin to walk across the field, just strewn with bodies and blood, they began to sing, non nobis domine no nobis sed nomini tuo da gloriam. That’s from 115:1. This is a secular movie — powerful. “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory.”
Now, the theological significance for providence of this is a scene earlier during the battle. You’ve got these utterly outnumbered soldiers and the way they set themselves up is that the bowmen are on their knees like this, with their bows way behind the lines, as the horses are smashing into others like this, and those horrible battles that existed before there were nice clean bullets to shoot — just hacking each other to pieces in those early wars. The bowmen could not see; they just knew there were enemies out there. So, the leader would instruct to fire. And what you saw on the movie was it looked like 5,000 arrows, like rain, just go and landing at random on the enemy. Twenty-five thousand died. Who decides where arrows land? Who decides? King Harry knew who decided, and he would not let any man boast of this victory. “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord” (Proverbs 21:31).
Every Arrow’s Path
I’ve got a biblical story like that here. I know Shakespeare might have made some of that up. There’s some historical root to it, but I don’t know how much. This is biblical. These are biblical arrows we’re talking about here now. This is the story of the prophet Micaiah. Boy, to be a prophet of God in the Old Testament was a thankless task, I’ll tell you. This poor fellow, I don’t know how long he stayed in prison, but he may have rotted the rest of his life in prison. Here’s an example of random arrow doing God’s bidding.
The king of Israel wants to hear some prophetic words about a battle. So, he got all the prophets together and all the prophets said, “Go up, go up, you’re going to have the victory.” He said, “Fine.” Then the king says, “Aren’t there any other prophets here?” The king says, “Well, yeah, there’s Micaiah, but he always prophesies evil against me.” So, they call Micaiah and Micaiah comes and says, “Go up, go up.” The king says, “I know you’re not telling the truth. Tell us what you really think.” He says, “If you go up, you’re going to die.”
And the king of Israel said, “Seize Micaiah, and take him back to Amon the governor of the city and to Joash the king’s son, and say, ‘Thus says the king, “Put this fellow in prison and feed him meager rations of bread and water, until I come in peace.”’” And Micaiah said, “If you return in peace, the Lord has not spoken by me.” And he said, “Hear, all you peoples!” (1 Kings 22:26–28)
That’s the last we hear of this poor fellow, and he goes to jail. It’s like those poor guys who took an oath and said, “We’re not going to eat until we kill Paul” (Acts 23:12). That’s the last you hear of them. They deserved to starve to death, but poor Micaiah, he didn’t deserve to die in prison, and I don’t know whether he did. Here’s what happens at the battle.
But a certain man drew his bow at random and struck the king of Israel between the scale armor and the breastplate. (1 Kings 22:34)
This is not marksmanship here we’re talking about; this is a stray arrow fulfilling prophecy.
Therefore he said to the driver of his chariot, “Turn around and carry me out of the battle, for I am wounded.” And the battle continued that day, and the king was propped up in his chariot facing the Syrians, until at evening he died. And the blood of the wound flowed into the bottom of the chariot.
How does God fulfill that prophecy? This solider from who knows where launches this arrow and God says, “There’s the spot.” Dead. God rules the flight of every arrow, including the 4x4s that killed my mother on December 16th, 1974, flying off the top of a VW van. I’ve never doubted that. I cannot worship a God who does not control the flight of 4x4s, who can’t cause a blowout ten minutes earlier. There’s a hundred ways he could have stopped it. When I wept, and wept, and wept, I never said, “God, where were you?” I said, “Save my daddy,” because he was lacerated to pieces, and I said, “Thank you for letting me have her for 28 years.”
The rest of this story is that the blood in the bottom of this chariot goes back and they wash it down in the streets, and the dogs lick it and the comment is, and thus was fulfilled the word of the Lord that was made way before: that the dogs would lick the blood of this king. God said, “I’m going to get this king in the battle way up there, but I’ve got another prophecy that his blood is going to be eaten in the streets of this city. So, he will bleed in a chariot. They won’t leave the chariot out there; they’ll bring the chariot back to the city and wash it where I tell them to wash. Now, you’re getting close to human will being controlled, which, there’s no way to understand the fulfillment of prophecy without it. There’s a story that’s not written by Shakespeare, but by an inspired writer.
Father of the Rain
What is the way to the place where the light is distributed,
or where the east wind is scattered upon the earth?
Who has cleft a channel for the torrents of rain
and a way for the thunderbolt,
to bring rain on a land where no man is,
on the desert in which there is no man,
to satisfy the waste and desolate land,
and to make the ground sprout with grass? (Job 28:24–27)
The biblical writers just now and then like to talk about God doing things where nobody is: on a desert without a man in it. You know the first time I ever saw this was in a literature class with Clyde Kilby in the spring of 1968. He was reading Job to us day after day, saying “Isn’t it marvelous that God is doing his own thing out there where nobody is?
Has the rain a father,
or who has begotten the drops of dew?
From whose womb did the ice come forth,
and who has given birth to the frost of heaven?
The waters become hard like stone,
and the face of the deep is frozen. (Job 38:28–30)
Here’s what Matthew Henry comments, from his commentary on Job. I really recommend that if you don’t have a whole-Bible commentary, Matthew Henry is 300 years old, and so it’s not up to date illustrations, but I don’t know if there’s a better whole-Bible commentary. If you want something that’s just reflective on the theological and practical meanings of all the passages of the Bible, it’s in six volumes.
The providence of God is to be acknowledged, both by husbandmen in the fields and travellers upon the road, in every shower of rain, whether it does them a kindness of a diskindness.
Surely you have, like me, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon wanted to take a picnic, and so prayed for good weather, knowing that there’s a farmer somewhere praying against you because he hasn’t had rain for about three weeks. What does God do with those competing prayers? There are competing prayers ascending to heaven all the time. Do you know that? People want things to happen that would jeopardize another person, if they could only see it all — another person’s well-being. We don’t know it. God can sort that out; he knows what he’s doing. He doesn’t give a stone to either one. You ask God for good weather on Sunday afternoon, he never gives you a stone in return. It may feel like stone if you’re soaked and your bread’s all wet and the day is shot from your plan. It’s not a stone. It’s not a stone.
It is sin and folly to contend with God's providence in the weather; if he send the snow or rain, can we hinder them? Or shall we be angry at them?
I feel rebuked in that. I remember here at church, back when Steve Roy was here, it was December 2 or 3. It was four Sundays until the end of the year and we probably needed, $30,000 a Sunday back in those days to make it. It was the only one of two Sundays in 15years that we were totally unchurched, de-churched — it was over. The only people that showed up in this room that Sunday morning were those that walked from the neighborhood, and we had a great time together. He killed one of our $30,000 Sundays. We looked up that morning and said, “We need $30,000 today and there’s only 12 people here. Why’d you do that?
Steve Roy wrote the Star article the next week and explained why — namely, four Sundays was too many for God to get the glory that year. He called it the “Gideon Sunday.” “Gideon, you’ve got to get rid of these 10,000 guys, I’m not going to get glory with 10,000 guys, I want 300 guys” (Judges 7:7). I want three Sundays, not four Sundays, and we made it, and God got the glory. We really praised him that year.
‘If the Lord Wills’
Now, here is one of the most forthright, clear statements of the providence of God in your life that I know of in the Bible. Weather is implied, if not explicitly spoken about. This is James and he’s concerned with people who get angry at providence, get angry at weather and other things like that.
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit.” (James 4:13)
Well, what’s wrong with that? “I’m going to go to Duluth to do a business deal tomorrow afternoon.” What’s wrong with that? Well, what’s wrong with it is you need to put a maybe in there.
Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. (James 4:14)
How long does a vapor last on a winter morning? Two seconds maybe, three seconds, depending on how humid it is, I suppose. That’s it. That’s what our life is: three seconds. You’re just a vapor that appears for a little while, and then vanishes away.
Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. (James 4:15–16)
This is one of my spiritual concerns for teaching on the doctrine of providence. If you reject the doctrine of providence and presume to say, “I’m going to Duluth, and it isn’t dependent on God whether I have a heart attack in the car or whether fog causes me to run a red light.” I’ll tell you, I came so close to killing the whole staff one January. I still tremble thinking about it. It was foggy, and I was going way too fast. I would have been guilty. I was probably doing 40 or something like that when you couldn’t see 30 feet in front of you. Then next thing I saw was a red light and I was through it. I didn’t even know there were any red lights within 20 miles of where I was. I just thought, that was it, it was almost over because I don’t know whether a car went before me or after me, all I know is there was a red light about ten feet in front of me, and then we were through it. It wasn’t time for this whole staff to go down yet. It just wasn’t time. One of these days it’ll be time, and it’ll be the Lord. If you have to do a funeral for eight guys because we were all in a van heading somewhere and got hit by a train, or a meteor falls on us, or we do what that family over in Milwaukee did and run over a big thing and the thing explodes into flame, and there’s just eight cinder pieces up here, don’t you dare get up in this pulpit and say, “God wasn’t in it,” or “Where was God?”
I remember one funeral of a person I went to and the whole litany was built around encouraging anger in the congregation, encouraging them to express anger. Don’t do that — not for me. And I know the rest of the staff would say, “Put your hands on your mouth, put your arms around our wives, and say, ‘The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord’” (Job 1:21). Then the city will wonder and be amazed at your faith.
Is this clear or what? About God’s rule over whether you get to Duluth or not. When you get home tonight and all the ways you could not get there — “if the Lord wills, we’ll live.” There’s one reason you may not get there: you die. “If the Lord wills, we shall live.” God takes all life — all life. When anybody dies, God took them. God’s the one who gives and takes. Or, short of death: do this or that. You might have a flat tire and be late for your appointment. Today, Brent Nelson came in out to Minnetonka to our pastors’ prayer meeting, for the last 15 minutes. He drove all the way from Minneapolis to Minnetonka for 15 minutes of prayer. Why? Well, God intervened and did something; he had an emergency. I said, “Did you have a flat tire?” He said, “No, just a personal emergency.” He kept coming. He doesn’t doubt.
Providence Makes Us Sing
To me, this text here is just overwhelmingly persuasive that the rest of my life is in God’s hands. I want to show you how this truth that we’re talking about here has made the faith sing. It hasn’t made us mainly argue. I’m not into argument. I don’t want to teach things to argue; I want to teach things to sing. I want you to be a singing people and I want your songs to come from deep, rich roots. Let me share a few hymns as we close.
‘I Sing the Mighty Power of God’
There’s not a plant or flower below,
but makes your glories known,
and clouds arise and tempests blow
by order from your throne.
Every time we sing that I shudder, wondering on Sunday morning about the people we have all over the map spiritually. And I just wonder, Do they believe what they’re singing? That clouds come up and tempests blow by order from your throne?
While all that borrows life from you
is ever in your care,
and everywhere that we can be,
you, God, are present there.
The songs that are born out of this confidence are pretty rich.
‘O Worship the King’
O tell of his might and sing of his grace,
whose robe is the light, whose canopy space.
His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form,
and dark is his path on the wings of the storm.
These truths have moved people to write poems that God is in the storm.
If God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? (Matthew 6:30)
The reason I put that up there is because of this: God did this orange on these flowers right here. God did this white, that yellow. God did that and that’s more beautiful than anything Solomon ever wore because God is into beauty.\
Look at this: this is probably the most thoroughgoing statement of total providence in all the Bible from Proverbs 16:33:
The lot is cast into the lap,
but its every decision is from the Lord.
Which means that at the casino, down in Shakopee, every time they roll the dice, God’s deciding what comes up. God’s deciding that. What’s your favorite dice game? Every time you roll them, God decides. Now, if you believe that, it tempts you to pray every time. Noël and I, we don’t play any dice games, but we play Scrabble. You know how you choose your letters in Scrabble? They’re upside-down, so you can’t tell, but God knows what’s under there and he guides my hands. So, how do you pray when you play Scrabble? Or do you say, “It’s not worth praying about? You don’t pray during times like this.” You know what I say? Every time, for the last ten years, to myself (I don’t say it out loud), I say, “Lord, for the kingdom and for the family. If it’s good for her to win, make it a Q without a U, and if it’s good for me to win this time, for the kingdom and for the family, then do it. For the kingdom and for the family.”
‘Eternal Father Strong to Save’
These two verses were added in 1954, so you can include airplanes, but this was a pre-airplane hymn,
Eternal Father, strong to save,
whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
who bids the mighty ocean deep,
its own appointed limits keep;
oh, hear us when we cry to thee,
for those in peril on the sea!
This is sung by women whose husbands were out fishing or sailors.
O Christ! the Lord of hill and plain,
o’er which our traffic runs amain,
by mountain pass or valley low; wherever, Lord, thy children go,
protect them by thy guarding hand,
from every peril on the land!
We will talk a lot more about why one should pray things like that if, in fact, God rules it all. But let me just leave you with this: if God didn’t rule it all, there’d be very little point in praying because he couldn’t do anything about your prayers anyway. If you said, “Lord, please, my wife is flying from Tokyo to Los Angeles this afternoon, would you hold the plane up?” If God said, “I can’t hold the plane up; I just turned that over to physical laws.” I’d say, “Well, OK, I won’t bother you with that next time.” Only because God’s involved in the world can we pray. If he’s got plans for her death or life, what’s the point in praying? But there are answers to those problems, there are answers in the Bible. If you reject providence, you can close up shop on prayer, but I’m not, so let’s pray.