Understanding Providence in peace and joy
In a recent commentary I suggested that a new Italian translation of the “Our Father” indicated a difficulty in accepting the comprehensive character of God’s will. “Lead us not into temptation” was changed to “do not abandon us to temptation” (see The frequency problem in liturgical translations). Now I would like to address this difficulty more broadly. In other words, I want to talk about Divine Providence.
When it comes to the workings of Providence, Sacred Scripture opens perspectives which often startle us today, just as the clause “lead us not into temptation” vexed contemporary Italian translators. Perhaps the best way to open the discussion is to remind ourselves of the Book of Job. When God calls Satan’s attention to the constancy of Job, Satan responds by raising significant questions:
“Does Job fear God for nothing?...You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But put forth your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power; only upon himself do not put forth your hand.” So Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord. [Jb 1:9-12]
Later in the Book, in response to Satan’s further complaint, God even gives him permission to assault Job directly (2:6).
Now, suppose you are a father with a young child, and you have habitually prevented a bad man from influencing that child. But in time, this man comes to you and insists that if you want to know the true worth of your child, you should stop barring access to him. Thus your child will prove to be not faithful but faithless. Further, suppose you grant permission, and no longer restrict the evil man. In what sense would anyone say that the resulting temptation was beyond your control or outside of your will? Rather, as a human father, you would be held responsible for deliberately bringing moral trials upon your own child. You would have deliberately put your child in the way of temptation when you could have not only prevented it but prevented it by a mere act of will.
This example opens a window on Divine Providence by highlighting the importance for free creatures of God’s “permissive” will. There is often little or no distinction made in the Old Testament between what we recognize as God’s active will and His permissive will. For example, the author of Exodus (traditionally thought to be Moses) says that “the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (10:20,27; 11:10), which can only mean that God permitted Pharaoh’s heart to be hardened, and there are many such statements. This explains why, in the commentary cited above, I argued that it is wrong to be concerned that the translation “lead us not into temptation” teaches something false about God. Truly, given the nature of all the players, to permit the temptation is to ensure that it will occur. Therefore, this is part of God’s plan.
We see this same univocal Biblical grasp of Providence—this deep Scriptural sense that God is always in control, even in the midst of human freedom—expressed more positively in the tale of Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his brothers, and who ended up being purchased in Egypt: “[A]nd his master saw that the Lord was with him, and that the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hands…and he made him overseer of his house” (Gen 39:3-4, emphasis added). But when Joseph refused to lie with his master’s wife, she laid a charge against him, and he was put in prison: “But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him mercy, and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison…[who] committed to Joseph’s care all the prisoners…because the Lord was with him; and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper” (Gen 39:21-23, emphasis added).
While in prison, Joseph interpreted the dreams of two of Pharaoh’s servants correctly, and when Pharaoh had the famous dream of the seven good ears and seven sparse ears of grain, and of the seven fat cows and seven gaunt cows, Joseph was called to interpret the dream. He predicted the coming years of plenty and famine and explained how to deal with them, with the result that full authority over Egypt was placed in Joseph’s hands.
Clearly, therefore, while we need to realize the importance of distinguishing between God’s permissive and active will, in doing so we must not lose sight of the utterly comprehensive character of that will, which orchestrates everything for our good without violating human freedom. We call this comprehensiveness “Providence”. God is completely in charge not only of the universe as a whole but of all of human history. We often lose sight of this, tending to think that God is simply clever enough to play a trump card as needed to bring spiritual order out of the chaos when a person cries out to Him for help. On the contrary, every human action—even every human intention—is encompassed by Divine Providence to give each of us the maximum opportunity to be brought into union with Him.
Freedom ordered to God
Let us turn to a difficult and confusing passage from the New Testament in order to shed additional light. I am referring to St. Paul’s mysterious outline of the trajectory of God’s Providence in his Letter to the Romans:
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? [Rom 8:29-31]
I confess that this passage puzzled me until very recently, when a priest—so young that I might have (foolishly) presumed he could teach me nothing—took the trouble to explain at Mass that this description of God’s Providence always includes man’s free response. So God foreknows and predestines all, and calls all in one way or another, and certainly justifies all through the sacrifice of His only begotten Son, and then He glorifies all insofar as each is willing to accept that predestination based on the opportunities he has received.
Now this has a huge bearing on our understanding of the joys and sorrows we experience here on earth, for as St. Paul explains in the verse he used to introduce this passage: “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (8:28). In other words, those who love God and accept His purposes in their lives find that absolutely everything is intended by God to be used to grow into an ever more intimate union with Him. Truly, by recognizing and responding properly to God’s providential will, it is as the Psalmist sings: “He that goes forth weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy” (126:6).
It is scarcely possible to overestimate the importance of our understanding of and trust in God’s Providence, which is nothing less than the reality that He guides everything in accordance with his purpose, a purpose often inscrutable to us, but firmly rooted in the Divine nature, which is Love. We, too are to be motivated by Love, and so we try both to mitigate suffering and, above all, to make everyone aware of the wonder of God’s providential care—in which we find the perfect and salvific response to whatever sufferings God chooses to send. This applies to the personal, material and spiritual trials of all men and women throughout the world, and throughout the Church.
What we must understand is that God actually wills (call it actively or permissively, but always deliberately) everything that happens to us. As such, we are to use each circumstance as He intends, to increase our union with Him, which is really the only way we can glorify Him. In other words, we must recognize God’s Providence, which is simply another way of accepting God’s will and trusting absolutely in His unwavering love. In case the problem of temptation still rankles, St. Paul explains another very important aspect of this Providential process: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1Cor 10:13).
Even within the Church
As I suggested above, if God’s Providence includes everything, then it also includes everything that happens within the Church, where we are right to think that evil is particularly abhorrent to God. But we are just as right to recognize that He permits evils to beset the Church for one reason and one reason only: His thirst for souls.
Although we know the Catholic Church is the great sacrament of salvation, the conduit for a constant stream of incomparable graces into this weary world, we do not know the ultimate spiritual consequences of ecclesiastical failings. A smoothly running Church is no guarantee of the salvation of individual souls, and a Church badly in need of reform is no guarantee of their damnation. We may be complacent when things seem to be running smoothly, and we may become more ardent when the Church is more visibly tottering. God’s Providence alone determines the ever-changing mixture, and everything we experience must be taken as an invitation to grow in His love.
By trusting God’s Providence, we do not learn a false quietism or a smug inaction. We learn to discern what God is asking of us in each situation, rather than simply assuming that our own trials prove that things must change, or that our own instant reactions or moods are the key to improvement. As always, we must pray for the light to discern God’s will and the strength to do it out of love. At length we must all learn the powerful lesson of Psalm 127:
Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain.
It is vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep. [Ps 127:1-2]
And again, by trusting God’s Providence, we learn to be at peace in all that we do, repeatedly depending on God’s love rather than on our own strength. With this deep peace will also come a deep joy, often evidenced by a relaxed Christian sense of humor. I think here of the story told of the great mystic St. Teresa of Avila who, having fallen into turbulent water when crossing a stream on a somewhat arduous journey, carried on an interior colloquy with her Lord:
Teresa: “Oh, my Lord! When will you cease from scattering obstacles in our path?”
Christ: “Do not complain, daughter, for it is ever thus that I treat My friends.”
Teresa: “Ah, Lord, it is also on that account that you have so few!”
And, since we have turned now to the saints to help grasp the importance of trust in Divine Providence, perhaps it is appropriate to close with a famous prayer written by this same saint:
Let nothing disturb you, nothing frighten you, all things are passing, God is unchanging. Patience gains all; nothing is lacking to those who have God: God alone is sufficient.
When we understand God’s will under its name of Providence, we can always find peace. Even in the midst of sorrow, we can without any bitterness orient ourselves toward a deeper joy. For this is what it means to say “Amen”.
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