In last month’s initial article on this subject, we began to discuss the identity of strangers and pilgrims. We noted that by this description the life of God’s people in the world is pictured. That life has a beginning: through the new life of regeneration, we come from God himself. That life also has an end: heaven is our destination. However, the emphasis in this figure is not on the beginning or the end of our journey of life, but on the trip itself. More specifically, we are different from the world in that we are strangers and sojourners. As sojourners we are those who have no permanent abode in this world, but are only passing through; we are campers, living in tents, and from time to time moving ever onward toward our destination. As strangers we do not fit in this world, but are foreigners; although from an outward viewpoint we are apparently similar to the world, we are different in an essential and spiritual way because of the work of grace in us.
We said that in future articles we will explore various facets of what it means to be strangers and sojourners, with specific application to our young people. This we will do.
But before we embark on this journey, there is one fundamental truth that we must have clearly before our minds. If we do not, then our journey will have no destination. To that journey there will be no purpose or definite direction. Instead, it will become an aimless wandering; we will follow trails that have no end and travel roads that lead only to dead ends.
Concisely put, there will be no purpose in our lives because we have no assurance that we will ever attain the goal toward which we are striving; then all is useless and without meaning. But if we know, understand, and apply this truth to our sojourning and our strangering (if I may turn a noun into a verb), then everything makes sense, and our lives have meaning and purpose.
That truth is the truth of providence. Briefly we must understand what it means and how it is related to being sojourners and strangers.
The Heidelberg Catechism defines providence as “the almighty and everywhere present power of God, whereby, as it were by his hand, he upholds and governs heaven, earth, and all creatures; so that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, yea, and all things come not by chance, but by his fatherly hand.”
The work of providence follows from the work of creation. In contrast to the wicked and God-denying theory of evolution, we all know and believe that God is the creator who has made all things by the word of his mouth. But his work concerning everything he made did not cease with creation. If it had, all things would instantly have dropped out of existence. He continued his work by upholding and governing all things he had made.
The basic idea of providence is God’s omnipresence, which means simply that by his power he is everywhere present. There is no place in the whole universe where he is not. Omnipresence in turn implies two other ideas.
The first is the truth of God’s immanence, which means that he is near to all his works. We find this idea in the language of the Catechism: God upholds and governs all things “as it were by his hand.” God is so near to everything that he can reach out and touch it. Everything is within his divine reach. This should be of great comfort and encouragement to us as sojourners and strangers. God does not create us and then forget about us. He does not form us, place us on the pathway of life, point us in the general direction of heaven, and give us a push. If this were the meaning of providence, or if there were no such thing as providence, we would be in deep trouble. But the truth is that God is very near us; he walks right alongside us on our journey; if we stumble, he has only to reach out his hand to steady us; being in close proximity, he guides us and keeps us on the path that leads to our goal.
The other is the truth of God’s transcendence, which means that he is highly exalted above all his works. There is an infinite difference between the being of God and the essence of the creation. This points us to God’s absolute sovereignty over all things. Again, this ought to be a source of encouragement to sojourners and strangers. There is nothing outside of God’s control; there is nothing that can oppose him, frustrate his intent or his action, or even challenge him in any way.
As the omnipresent God who is both immanent and transcendent, he both preserves and governs all things. That he preserves all things means that he continues their existence according to his counsel and purpose for them, no matter what part of the universe we can mention. That he governs all things means that he rules them by his everywhere present power in such a way that everything in the universe fulfills his will.
Noteworthy is the comprehensive list of examples mentioned by the Catechism. The various elements are easy to understand and need no explanation. But together they include all aspects of God’s creation and our lives. This means that we may not distinguish between things or events that are providential and those that are not, between things that are supernatural and those that are natural, or between things that are planned and those that are random. Sometimes we hear it said, “Stuff happens.” No, stuff does not happen. Everything is under divine control, and takes place according to God’s wise governing.
When we say that God governs all things, this implies that there is a purpose in his control of all things. In the deepest sense this goal is his own glory; this is always God’s purpose with everything. But this is not just an abstract idea, bearing no relation to the creation that he preserves and governs. Rather, God achieves his glory through all aspects of history, from creation and the fall to the final consummation. More precisely, he reaches that goal through the salvation of his elect people. This he does by redeeming them in the way of sin and grace, in the way of their being strangers in a strange land and sojourners of the antithesis, for election always implies reprobation; always the wicked oppose the righteous and seek to destroy the cause of God in the world and deprive him of his glory.
Thus all things, all creatures, and all events, providentially understood, serve God’s purpose of salvation and therefore of his glory.
The question then is this: Understanding what providence is and how it works, and believing in God’s providence, what does it mean for us? How does this help us as sojourners and strangers. This is exactly the question posed by the Catechism: “What advantage is it to us to know that God has created, and by his providence still upholds all things?” The Catechism gives a threefold answer.
First, that we may be patient in adversity. Adversity is anything that from our viewpoint is against us; it is negative, something that we do not like, something that works against us, something that gives us trouble. Life is full of adversity. Because you have not lived for many years, you young people have not yet experienced a great deal of adversity. But even you undoubtedly face difficulties. Maybe school is not going well for you; maybe you are in conflict mode with your parents or your friends; maybe you can’t find a decent job. The specific circumstances are not important; what is important is that you will increasingly encounter adversity as you become older, because life is full of adversity for sojourners. What is our reaction to adversity? We want it to go away, preferably right now. Why? Because we don’t think adversity is good for us. We do not see that God sends adversity for his purpose, which is always good because he does only good to his people. This is why the Catechism says that we must be patient; we must wait for God in his time and in his way to remove the hardship or even to continue adversity for our good.
Second, we are called to be thankful in prosperity. When prosperity characterizes our lives, everything is bright and sunny and going well. Sometimes this is our lot in life, even if it is only temporary. When this happens, we are to be thankful. Why? Because we are not inclined to be thankful. We are instead quick to give ourselves the credit for our prosperous situation. We easily forget that the same God who sends adversity also sends prosperity, again for our good. Therefore it behooves us to be thankful to our sovereign God when our path of life is smooth.
Third, the benefit of providence is that in all things we place our firm trust in our faithful God and Father, that nothing will separate us from his love. God’s love is the key point: he has loved us from eternity, and therefore loves us every step of our pilgrim sojourn on this earth. Even when he sends what we consider to be evil, he is doing us good. In this faithful God we put our trust, knowing that he works all things together for the good of those whom he loves.
Guided by the providence of our covenant God, we walk ever onward as sojourners in the assurance that he is with us on our journey and that he will surely bring us to our eternal destination, where we will be no longer strangers but heirs of everlasting blessing.