A Frowning Providence – Why?

There are times in the Christian’s life when God’s providence is not pleasant. What I mean by this is sometimes God in his sovereignty allows hard trials to befall his people. The 30-year-old Christian man gets the diagnosis that he has lymphoma. A Christian mother has to go through the painful and heart-breaking experience of a miscarriage. A Christian wife is abused by her wicked husband. A teenager comes to faith in Christ and his family disowns him. The list goes on. Sometimes God’s providence is dark. He moves in a mysterious way and it happens that the dark clouds of providence hang heavy over our heads.

Why do these things happen to God’s people? Why? We don’t have all the answers. God doesn’t always tell us “why.” To be sure, there are some places in Scripture that do tell us “why.” That’s the subject of a book I suppose. For now, I want to point out a helpful sentence in the Westminster Confession that talks about this:

As the providence of God does, in general, reach to all creatures; so after a most special manner, it takes care of his Church and disposes all things to the good thereof. (WCF 5.VII)

 Here’s how A. A. Hodge commented on this phrase in the Westminster Confession:

These Sections [of the Confession] teach also that there is a relation of subordination subsisting between these several systems of providence as means to ends in the wider system which comprehends them all. …The providential government of God over mankind in general is subordinate as a means to an end to his gracious providence toward his Church, whereby he gathers it out of every people and nation, and makes all things work together for good to those who are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28), and of course for the highest development and glory of the whole body.

 Archibald Alexander Hodge, A Commentary on the Confession of Faith: With Questions for Theological Students and Bible Classes (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath-School Work, 1869), 143.

We might not always have the answers for why God allows his people to face tough providences. But we can trust him when we face difficult times in life because we know that he’s in total control. And we know he is sovereignly working all things for our good, the good of his church. William Cowper’s hymn, “Light Shining Out of Darkness” is applicable here:

God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill;
He treasures up his bright designs,
And works his sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence,
He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding ev’ry hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flow’r.

Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.

This hymn is found in William Cowper, The Complete Poetical Works of William Cowper, ed. H. S. Milford (London; Edinburgh; Glasgow; New York; Toronto: Henry Frowde, 1905), 455.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Pain and Suffering in the Christian Life (Carson)

How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil, 2nd ed. Carson, D. A. cover image

Some people do almost anything they can to avoid any kind of pain and suffering. If there’s any risk of pain or suffering some people will not take the risk no matter what. This is what has been called the great untruth of fragility: what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker (Lukianoff/Haidt). If a person believes this “untruth,” that person will believe he or she is fragile.

To be sure, we should not go looking for pain and suffering. If you have a migraine it’s OK to take medicine to help ease the pain. If the roads are super icy, it’s not wrong to stay off the roads. And there are more than a few accounts in the Bible of God’s people fleeing persecution.

However, we also have to understand that in God’s sovereign wisdom, he uses pain and suffering in the lives of his people to grow them in their faith. Here’s how Don Carson explains this reality:

There are at least three ways in which our pain and suffering, rightly received in faith, will contribute to our growth as Christians.

First, in the words of Richard Baxter, “suffering so unbolts the door of the heart, that the Word hath easier entrance.” We can be so busy working, enjoying life, pursuing our careers, even ‘serving the Lord,’ that we no longer really reflect on his Word, or take time to pray, or sort out our priorities before him. The popular song, ‘He washed my eyes with tears, that I might see,” may indulge in too much sentimental doggerel, but it expresses an important truth….

Second, illness, bereavement, and suffering actually shape us; they temper us; they mold us. We may not enjoy the process; but they transform us. …That truth is explicitly taught in Romans 5:1-5. Rightly accepted, pain cleanses us from self-centeredness, gives us insight into the nature of this fallen world, prepares us for death, makes us remember the suffering of Christ and of others.

Third, as a corollary to the previous point, experiences of suffering, illness, and bereavement engender compassion and empathy in us, and therefore make us better able to help others.

For the Christian, then, suffering and pain are not the worst things in the world. They are not to be avoided at all costs. God in his loving sovereignty can use pain and suffering in our lives to shape and form us more into the image of Christ. The world might see pain as pointless. We see it as productive: “Suffering produces perseverance…” (Rom. 5:3 NIV)!

The above quote is found in How Long, O Lord? by D. A. Carson, p. 108.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

By His Sovereign Will

In 1559 Antoine Chandieu and John Calvin wrote the first draft of the French Confession (also called the Gallican Confession). That same year the Synod of Paris edited and adopted it. In 1571 it was revised and adopted by the National Synod in La Rochelle, France; therefore sometimes this confession is called the “Confession of Rochelle.” It’s really an excellent Reformed confession. Here’s a comforting explanation of providence from article 8:

VIII. We believe that he [the triune God] not only created all things, but that he governs and directs them, disposing and ordaining by his sovereign will all that happens in the world; not that he is the author of evil, or that the guilt of it can be imputed to him, as his will is the sovereign and infallible rule of all right and justice; but he hath wonderful means of so making use of devils and sinners that he can turn to good the evil which they do, and of which they are guilty.

And thus, confessing that the providence of God orders all things, we humbly bow before the secrets which are hidden to us, without questioning what is above our understanding; but rather making use of what is revealed to us in Holy Scripture for our peace and safety, inasmuch as God, who has all things in subjection to him, watches over us with a Father’s care, so that not a hair of our heads shall fall without his will. And yet he restrains the devils and all our enemies, so that they can not harm us without his leave.

 Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes: The Evangelical Protestant Creeds, with Translations, vol. 3 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1882), 364.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Afflictions as Medicine, Providence as a Whole (Manton)

Many Christians have memorized the great promise of Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (NIV).”  Although afflictions and trials usually cloud our judgment and cause us to sometimes second guess this promise, it is true despite our feelings. I appreciate how Thomas Manton commented on this verse:

It [the affliction] shall turn to good. This is the comfort of the people of God, that all that befall them is either good or shall turn to good: Rom. 8:28…. If we have even a little faith, we may know it for the present, and be assured of it before we see it; and if we have but a little patience, we shall know it and find it by experience.

All things work together for good; singly and apart they may be against us, but ‘omnia simul adjumento sunt.’ Poisonous ingredients in a medicine, take them singly, and they are destructive; but as they are tempered with other things by the hands of a skilful physician, they prove wholesome and useful. So all things that befall us, are tempered and ordered by God for good. There is no beauty in a building till all the pieces be get together. We view God’s work by halves, and then his providence seems to be against us; but all together it works for our good. How for our good? Sometimes for good temporal, usually for good spiritual, but certainly for good eternal.

Sometimes for our temporal good: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen 50:20 NIV)….

For our spiritual good. All affliction is made up and recompensed to the soul; it afflicts the body, but betters the heart: “It is good for me to be afflicted, so that I might learn your decrees” (Ps. 119:71 NIV)….

For our eternal good. Heaven will make complete amends: For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all (2 Cor. 4:17 NIV)….

The above quotes – edited and summarized – are found in Thomas Manton’s Works, Volume 15, p. 128.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Election, Providence, and “All Things for Good” (Sibbes)

  When God says he will safely bring his children to their heavenly home, he means it!  Sometimes the way home is rough and rocky, but the Lord will carry them through everything and safely bring them to his kingdom (2 Tim. 4:18). In theological terms, this means that God orders his providence for the good of his elect.  We’ve heard Paul’s words before: “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them” (Rom 8:28 NLT).  Whether he gives to us or takes from us, it all works towards our eternal salvation.  Here’s a great commentary on this truth by Richard Sibbes (I’ve edited it slightly):

Observation: Providence is serviceable to predestination and election

God in election has a purpose to call us out of the world and to save our souls. Providence is a general government of all things in the world. Election is in order to salvation; he has chosen us to a supernatural end and fits us for it by calling and sanctification.

Now, how does providence serve the decree of election? This way: whom God purposes to save he directs providence so that all things shall serve for that end.  Therefore he encourages them with outward things or takes outward things from them in his providence, as may serve his purpose in election to save their souls. He has a purpose to save them, therefore providence works all things for their good, Rom. 8:28. All things, by the overruling providence of God, are serviceable to a higher degree of love that God has for his children, to serve his purpose to bring them to heaven. Thereupon comes the dispensation of riches or poverty, honor or abasement. He takes liberty for outward things concerning this life, to give or take them as they may serve the spiritual and best good of his children.

Use/Application. Therefore God’s children, when they see God intends their good in taking away the things of this life, in letting them bleed, as it were, for their health, they should bless God as well for taking as for giving, as Job did, Job 1:21. And there is as great mercy and love hid in taking away blessings as in conveying of them. …Poverty of estate and poverty of spirit (the disposition of soul) come almost in one word, and indeed in God’s children they are joined together. For he sanctifies all situations and disposes himself towards them. When God has a purpose to save a man, everything shall help him homeward. And it is not a better outward argument to know a man’s state in grace than to see how the carriage of things serve God’s purpose to do good to his soul, when we ourselves are bettered in our inward man by whatsoever befalls us…. God’s children are as gold refined. Those that find themselves refined and bettered, it is evidence that they are God’s; because there is a providence serving their spiritual good, directing all things to that end.

 Richard Sibbes, The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 6 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; W. Robertson, 1863), 241.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54002