J. I. Packer helpfully defines providence as ‘the unceasing activity of the Creator whereby, in overflowing bounty and goodwill, he upholds his creatures in ordered existence, guides and governs all events, circumstances, and free acts of angels and men, and directs everything to its appointed goal, for his own glory.’ A shorter definition has been given by Jerry Bridges: ‘God’s providence is his constant care for and his absolute rule over all his creation for his own glory and the good of his people.’ Note the words ‘unceasing’, ‘all’, ‘constant’ and ‘absolute’.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus referred to God’s power in connection to what we may regard as mundane things. For example, he refers to God’s feeding the birds (Matt. 6:26) and growing of grass (Matt. 6:30). He refers to God’s control of the weather (Matt. 5:45). Elsewhere, Jesus mentions God’s control of the demise of every sparrow (Matt. 10:29). The truth is that we call ‘acts of nature’ are actually ‘acts of God’ in his providence.
With regard to his intelligent or rational creatures, God’s power governs every isolated action and also the way all these actions affect each other. Every action that a person does is an effect of a previous one and a cause of a subsequent one; not only do they affect the person himself, they affect others in various ways.
We can take a example. Later this year there is going to be an election in Scotland in which thousands of people will vote freely [or not bother] for their preferred choice. Yet each person will come to that decision through a wide range of influences (opinions of the media, personal benefits or losses, etc.). Each of these influences was sent or allowed by God, and each person will vote exactly as to how God decreed he or she should vote.
From a spiritual point of view, there are other aspects in providence. Some actions will be good, others will be neutral, and others will be evil, yet they are all under the control of God. When Jesus was due to be born in Bethlehem, God ensured that a political decree would cause Joseph and Mary to be there at exactly the right time. When Saul of Tarsus was about to be converted, the Lord allowed him to resolve to go to Damascus with the intention of harassing Christians.
The prayers of God’s people are also connected to providence. We ask God to bring individuals to conversion. Yet we don’t know in what way God will bring about that conversion. But if God has decided to say yes to our prayer, then every thing that happens to such persons, every thought that he or she may have, every influence that comes along, is part of the process of answering that prayer.
God’s power in providence is seen in the way he controls evil, be it the actions of the devil or the activities and intentions of humans. One of the obvious ways to see this is the opposition that is raised against the church. Yet despite all the malice of the devil, he is over-ruled by God every time.
When we think of God’s power in providence, we should recall three aspects. First, we are to remind ourselves that he is invincible, that he cannot be defeated. If there were a single event in the entire universe that could occur outside of God’s control, it would mean that we could not trust him fully. Second, we are to remind ourselves that his ways are often inscrutable, that we usually cannot see what he is doing and often we do not understand what he is doing. Third, he is neverindifferent to our situations.