On Providence (or) Reflections on a trashed cookie
Two of our children with young families gave us a “Frameo”. It is one of those electronic picture frames which displays a sequence of images that can be updated easily from smart phones wherever our children happen to be. At last count, my wife and I have fifteen grandchildren, which reveals the main point of the Frameo enterprise.
One of my favorite pictures right now is of my grandson James, taken in late May when he was about one-and-a-half years old. James is standing next to a garbage can, with his hand outstretched to it, and looking up into the camera with a priceless expression of bewilderment and disappointment touched with anger. He had been thrilled to choose a mini-éclair as a picnic treat and, according to his mother, “he waddled around clutching it for about 20 minutes before he finally took a bite.” Then he dropped it, and it was so covered in dirt and mulch that she had to throw it away. The upshot? “He stood next to the trash can for five more minutes looking upset and trying to pull the lid off.”
And why not? James had been dispossessed of his treat by a higher power for a reason he could not fathom. This is a seriously relevant lesson in the workings of Providence.
Relevant, that is, to you and me. For we all frequently display the same emotions, in our hearts and minds and souls if not on our faces, when we find ourselves unhappy and confused over something that has gone wrong, some plan or hope or desire that has been thwarted: That classic combination of bewilderment, disappointment, and anger.
Consider the things we do as good parents of small children. We give and we take away—both objects and opportunities—in accordance with what is good for our children in the long run. We restrict and discipline them in all kinds of ways in the hope that they will avoid harm, learn to desire the right things, and steadily improve in their ability to make sound decisions. When they are very young they perceive only dimly (if at all) why these objects and opportunities come and go. In the process they express vexation in a great many ways, some fleeting and very childlike, others more painful and long-lasting.
When they are older—perhaps as teenagers—they will frequently respond in ways that suggest they are in denial. They know better while simultaneously refusing to admit that they know better. We have all experienced these conflicting tempers. Outgrowing them is one of the best fruits of maturity, enabling us to see things whole, judge rightly, and affirm these judgments honestly, at least within our habitual spheres of experience and activity. Eventually, either we do not need our parents to guide us any longer, or our parents can no longer help us anyway.
But we outgrow the immediate providential care of parents only to find ourselves puzzling over the continuous, higher—and far less obvious—providential care of God. Sadly, we far too seldom think of the progress of our lives as a matter of Divine Providence. As adults, striving and struggling, full of desire and frustration, we seem to understand our Heavenly Father’s providential love and care no more than we understood the providential love and care of our parents when we were two years old. Too often our lack of awareness is as astonishing as the bitterness of our disappointment.
At times like this, we need to remember that God is our Father—a perfect father who allows nothing to happen, in either his active or his permissive will, that can harm us unless we respond to it in the wrong way—like a wayward child.
Scripture on Providence
“What father among you,” asks Jesus Christ, “if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Lk 11:11-13) Or, as St. Matthew records it, “How much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Mt 7:11) In other words, everything that our Father in Heaven causes or allows to happen to us, no matter how naturally horrible it appears, comes to us with multiple aspects, the most important of which is a gift of goodness, a gift of the Holy Spirit.
Moreover, everything we accept in that same Spirit becomes just the gift we need. St. Paul explains: “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28). And in this light the preceding two verses powerfully convey God’s paternal closeness to us: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
The Old Testament is full of expressions of Divine Providence, as evidenced particularly in how God deals with Israel and all the other nations of the earth. When it comes to personal fortune and misfortune, Job was especially strong in taking his case before God, only to learn that he cannot “find the deep things of God” nor “the limits of the Almighty”, for God’s Providence is “higher than heaven” and “deeper than Sheol”. Indeed, “its measure is longer than the earth, and broader than the sea” (Job 11:7-9). It is no wonder then, that we are often taken aback. But through God’s Son we learn that we should not be troubled, even in the face of death itself:
I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear him! Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows. And I tell you, every one who acknowledges me before men, the Son of man also will acknowledge before the angels of God; but he who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God. [Lk 12:4-9]
We think of this passage as applying primarily to persecution. But really, it applies to every aspect of our lives. In other words, God’s Providence cannot be fully understood, but it can be lived fruitfully through trust in Him. We understand no more of God’s plans and purposes than little James knew of the untimely loss of his cookie. We can and should sympathize with the pain, but we need not be bewildered or disappointed or angered by things we cannot understand. We need only to persevere in trust.
We have a Father. Our Father is omniscient, our Father is omnipotent, and our Father loves us with infinite perfection. Two conclusions follow: First, there is nothing more important for us to understand than this. Second, if we accept our Father’s love, there is no future that can possibly be better than ours.
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