Providence - A Comforting Doctrine (Blogging the Belgic Article 13)
A problem that every single person, every single belief system, and every single religion must consider and discuss is the problem of evil and the fact that we see bad things happen in this world. What is the cause and meaning of these occurrences, and how are we to live in light of their reality? Some religions will say that every bad thing happens because of something wrong that someone has done (karma). Others will even deny the reality of evil in this world, viewing it all as an illusion? Yet others will deny even the categories of good and evil by saying that is just the way that world is, that there are natural disasters and deaths that happen for natural reasons but no reason beyond that. Article 13 of the Belgic Confession discusses the idea of providence, which relates to this important topic of how God relates to the good and bad workings that we see in this world.
It begins by noting that God is good (our ultimate good) and that God has not removed himself from the operations of this world: “We believe that this good God, after he created all things, did not abandon them to chance or fortune but leads and governs them according to his holy will, in such a way that nothing happens in this world without his orderly arrangement.” Let me put positively what the confession puts negatively (as it uses the phrase “not”): God is still involved and active in the world, in that he is leading and governing history so that all things work according to his will. In addition, it notes that there is a plan (“holy will”; “orderly arrangement”). We see this in Scripture, such as Psalm 135:6 (“Whatever the Lord pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps”) Ephesians 1:11 (“In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will). As the article notes at the end of it, this fact means that the belief that things are left to chance is a false one, a belief that was held by the Epicureans in ancient times but also by people living at the time of the confession (whom the Reformers labeled as Epicureans) and in our day, as people think the world is just a random collection of beings and events or a place where God is no longer involved.
The fact that God leads and governs a world in which bad things happen, in which evil occurs, naturally leads to the question of whether God is therefore responsible for this evil. The confession makes this clear that God is not the author of evil: “Yet God is not the author of, nor can he be charged with, the sin that occurs. For his power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible that he arranges and does his work very well and justly even when the devils and wicked men act unjustly.” Again, this affirms what we see in Scripture, as we are told that God is not the source of temptation (James 1:13-15) and that the evils of this world do not come from God (1 John 2:16). The source of evil is not God but the devil and wicked humans, those who have been led astray by the devil. God leads and governs through the wicked deeds of this world, with the cross of Christ being a key example, as Jesus died at the hands of unjust humans but it is through that death that we are saved. The way that God can work through the evil, governing and leading through it, is mysterious but we find it true in Scripture. We see this in the life of Jesus, as his death was the plan of God but done by wicked humans (Acts 2:23).
What I love about how the confession continues is that it reminds us that we need to be humble and recognize that we might not always -- or at times ever -- under why the evil things that happen in this world do happen. “We do not wish to inquire with undue curiosity into what he does that surpasses human understanding and is beyond our ability to comprehend. But in all humility and reverence we adore the just judgments of God, which are hidden from us, being content to be Christ’s disciples, so as to learn only what he shows us in his Word, without going beyond those limits.” We know that Jesus died to save us. We know that Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery so that the people of Israel might be preserved in time of famine. But do I know why friends and family members have suffered? No. Do I know why a tornado hit a town? No. We don’t know unless God reveals it, and God typically does not reveal those things; at times, we will hear preachers on TV tell us that this happens because of this reason, but I am always hesitant to say that because I don’t know the mind of God. I don’t tell people suffering, “This happens for this reason,” because I don’t know. I weep and cry with people who are suffering because suffering is real and painful.
Yet in the midst of the knowledge that suffering is real and painful, we can also take comfort in the truth of providence, as the confession continues on to point out: “This doctrine gives us unspeakable comfort since it teaches us that nothing can happen to us by chance but only by the arrangement of our gracious heavenly Father. He watches over us with fatherly care, keeping all creatures under his control so that not one of the hairs on our heads (for they all are numbered ) nor even a little bird can fall to the ground without the will of our Father.” Following the words of Jesus himself, the confession talks about the hairs of our head and the birds of the sky, small details in the grand scheme of the world - but ones that God knows about, cares about, and includes in His plan. This should give us comfort. We effectively have two belief options when it comes to the tragedies of the world - either there is no plan or purpose in the world and this is just the way things are (in which case you should probably stop crying and just accept reality) or this tragedy comes because of the effects of sin in this world, which God has a plan to overcome and actually overturn.
When we take this latter option, it comes with this belief as well: “In this thought we rest, knowing that he holds in check the devils and all our enemies, who cannot hurt us without his permission or will.” Our good God is active and in control of this world that is ravished by sin, working in and through it to accomplish His will, which will be for our good and His glory. This truth of providence is not just one to be discussed or considered, but one to be embraced and experienced. The writer of the confession, Guido de Bres, experienced this, as we must remember he wrote these words not in the midst of comfort but throughout persecution that would even lead to his death. Like our brother in the faith that lived long ago, may we rest in the truth of providence, in good times and in bad.
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