Deism is the view that God created the world in the beginning but, like a clockmaker, set it to the correct time and left it running without any further attention or intervention. Some Christians, who fail to recognize the difference between the signs and wonders God used to confirm the validity of His human messengers in Bible times and how God works today, deny any divine activity taking place in today’s world, equating any intervention by God with miraculous activity.
Yet the concept of providence presumes that God is still at work in the world He created. “Provide” is at the root of the word “providence.” God does provide good things for His people, and His loving care is always behind His every action on our behalf. We are to cast all our anxieties on God because He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7).
God Keeps His Promises
Scripture makes several promises to God’s faithful that, if true, require that God is still at work on behalf of His children today. They include the following:
- “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33 esv).
- “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:29-31).
- “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
- “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).
- “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’” (Hebrews 13:5-6).
If God does not affect anything currently occurring in the world, these promises are all meaningless or false. Some will ask, then, “If God turns calamities into assets, provides a way of escape to accompany every temptation, and is always protectively with us, how is that different from miracles?” The answer lies in the nature and purpose of biblical miracles.
The Miracles of God
The term “miracle” is used very loosely in common conversation today to refer to any wonderful thing from childbirth to surviving an accident that produced severe injuries. That leads to an unfortunate misunderstanding, for when we say, as the Bible teaches, that God is not working miracles today, we are often understood to be saying God does not do any wonderful things today. That is clearly false and not at all what is meant.
John’s favorite word for miracle in his gospel was “sign.” Biblical miracles were events that could not have occurred naturally: a withered arm immediately restored, a man born blind given immediate sight, a dead person raised. John’s word “sign” reminds us that miracles had significance. They signified something. Specifically, they demonstrated conclusively that the person working the miracle had the approval of God in what he said and taught.
Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, recognized the significance of the miracles of Jesus. He said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (John 3:2). After recording Jesus’ resurrection to demonstrate that Jesus was the promised Anointed One of God, John wrote: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31).
It limits God, however, to say that if He works, it can only be through a miracle.
Providence Beyond Miracles
Part of the penalty King David faced, as predicted by Nathan the prophet, because he had Uriah killed “with the sword of the Ammonites” and had taken Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, to be his wife was that “the sword [would] never depart from [his] house” (2 Samuel 12:9-10). Partially fulfilling that curse, David’s son Absalom rebelled against him, raising a sizable army and forcing David to flee Jerusalem. David was particularly disheartened by the news that his most trusted counselor, Ahithophel, had joined Absalom’s rebellion. “Now in those days the counsel that Ahithophel gave was as if one consulted the word of God; so was all the counsel of Ahithophel esteemed, both by David and by Absalom” (16:23).
When David was told “Ahithophel is among the conspirators with Absalom,” he prayed, “O Lord, please turn the counsel of Ahithophel into foolishness” (2 Samuel 15:31). God did not answer David’s prayer by confounding Ahithophel’s mind and making him give bad advice. On the contrary, if Absalom had followed Ahithophel’s counsel, he likely would have won the kingdom. However, Absalom had another counselor, Hushai the Archite, who gave opposite counsel. “And Absalom and all the men of Israel said, ‘The counsel of Hushai the Archite is better than the counsel of Ahithophel’ ” (2 Samuel 17:14), and they rejected Ahithophel’s advice.
We would not know just from the recorded events that the Lord was in anyway involved and was answering David’s prayer. There was no miracle. It is not at all out of the ordinary for a hotheaded young man to reject wise counsel. Absalom did and was ultimately defeated, but not without the help of God’s providence. We know this because Scripture says so: “For the Lord had ordained to defeat the good counsel of Ahithophel, so that the Lord might bring harm upon Absalom” (v. 14).
Through a favorable set of experiences that resulted in my knowing and being known by most of the churches of Christ in Mississippi and my having had academic teaching and administrative experience, I became president of Magnolia Bible College. I believed, as did several others associated with MBC, that the providence of God had worked to prepare me for that task and bring me there. The work at Magnolia went very well, but there was more than a little opposition from outside the college based on misrepresentations and untruths. Time and resources needed elsewhere were spent refuting the erroneous charges.
What we could not do, however – and here is the point of this recital of history – is say: “God has placed me here providentially. He would not have prepared me for this in the way He has unless He approved this work. Fighting Magnolia Bible College is therefore fighting against God.” Providence cannot be as certainly known to be God’s work as is restoring a withered arm. Providence, therefore, cannot be a sign of God’s approval as is raising someone from the dead. Miracles are a “sign” of God’s endorsement. God’s providential working is not obvious enough to serve as such a sign.
God Is Always Good
God’s providential care does not always work in ways we think best. Sometimes circumstances we might never think of as providential may actually serve a providential purpose.
A faithful Christian has an automobile wreck; his car is totaled, but he comes out unscathed. “The Lord was with him,” it is said; “God is good.” And it is true that God is good. But if a faithful Christian has a wreck and is crippled for life or is killed, it is still true: “The Lord was with him; God is good.” For the faithful child of God, that is always true.
Faithful Christians serve together on a battlefield in Afghanistan. They are prayed for fervently by their families and fellow Christians back home. One comes home safely; another does not. In His providence, God was with both. God is always good.
How do we know with whom the Lord rides? According to a story sometimes told, a preacher was traveling along a mountain road and came up behind a man driving very erratically. The preacher followed him for a while, worried the man might cause a serious wreck. Finally, he decided to pass him.
Just as he did so, the man swerved toward him. The only way for the preacher to prevent a wreck was to wrench the steering wheel violently, and when he did, he went careening off the mountainside. The erratic driver stopped his car and stumbled down the hill, obviously intoxicated, in time to see the preacher crawl out of his wrecked car.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“Yes,” the preacher gratefully said, “the Lord was with me.”
“Well,” the drunk said, “next time you better let Him ride with me. You’re gonna get Him killed!”
God is always good, but we may not always understand His ways. On an occasion a number of years ago, God was with a faithful gospel preacher’s godly grandson and his Christian family when the grandson died; God is good. God was with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, saving them in the fiery furnace; God is good. God was with Job as he scratched his sores with a broken piece of pottery in the midst of his sudden poverty and loss of all he had; God is good.
The writer of Hebrews named a number of individuals and the great things they accomplished by obedient faith (Hebrews 11). Then he added some others without specifying their victories: “And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets – who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection” (vv. 32-35). Obviously, God was with each of them; God is good.
Sometimes, however, we forget about “others.” The Hebrews writer did not. “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated – of whom the world was not worthy – wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth” (Hebrews 11:35-38).
Make no mistake; God was with them, too. The writer said, “And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:39-40). Even in death, torture and seeming defeat, God was providing and blessing. Some providential actions of God are not apparent until the after-life.
The truth is as stated by three Hebrew young men when Nebuchadnezzar was about to throw them into an overheated furnace: “If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up” (Daniel 3:17-18). Likewise, we can confidently say: “Our God whom we serve is able. But if not, by the providence of God, we will be victors either way.”