Rev. Key is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Randolph, Wisconsin.
Our Heidelberg Catechism defines God’s 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.”
What a profoundly blessed truth!
But there is one aspect of this truth that demands our further attention. It involves a matter that we have a difficult time understanding.
If God’s providence embraces all things, does that mean that God is also behind those events that we would call evil? “The Lord is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works.”1
Is the good God the One who sends hurricanes and earthquakes, diseases and deaths, wars and social upheavals? Must we say that the God who is love is also the One who is behind such terrible events as those that destroy and bring suffering and ruin and death?
And what, then, shall we say about the sin that is evident in all the world? Are we also going to say that God’s providence sovereignly encompasses even sin?
We boldly and without wavering give answer to these questions. The answer is, “Yes, God is the One who governs and controls all things.” With our Belgic Confession we confess that “nothing happens in this world without His appointment.”
It is precisely at this point that many stumble over the truth of God’s providence. I have faced the argument of some, even within the Reformed camp, that God Himself does not bring affliction into the lives of His people, but that all things which would be classified as trials, tribulations, or afflictions, come from Satan, our adversary. That has become a rather common conception in the Christian church, even within Reformed church circles.
Superficially considered, there may even be something attractive about that position. For they use such arguments as: “Listen, you are a father; would you kill your children? Would you inflict your children with debilitating disease? Of course not! Therefore….” And so they draw their conclusion. Or they point at the love of God — which they insist is a love for everybody — and says, “A loving God cannot bring affliction and torment and death upon those objects of His love.”
I say, superficially considered there may be something attractive about those arguments.
But there is one problem, a rather serious problem at that. Those arguments fly directly in the face of Scripture, opposing what God Himself reveals to us concerning the nature of His love toward us.
Scripture teaches that not only does God permit, but He wisely orders trials and afflictions as a necessary good for His people. The Belgic Confession, in stating that nothing happens in this world without God’s appointment, supports that single statement with no fewer than 25 Scripture passages! This is a truth that is woven like a thread throughout the whole Bible!2
That God appoints unto us our afflictions is often taught in Scripture as a truth of great comfort for the children of God.
The believers in the Old Testament recognized that great truth. Taking the words of Psalm 66 as their own confession, they sang, “For thou, O God, hast proved us: thou hast tried us, as silver is tried. Thou broughtest us into the net; thou laidst affliction upon our loins…. Come and hear, all ye that fear God, and I will declare what he hath done for my soul. I cried unto him with my mouth, and he was extolled with my tongue. If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me: But verily God hath heard me; he hath attended to the voice of my prayer. Blessed be God, which hath not turned away my prayer, nor his mercy from me.”
Going back still earlier in the Old Testament, righteous Job recognized that the Lord was the One who had appointed his affliction. By faith he recognized that, and confessed it. “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” What a profound confession in the face of the heaviness of Job’s trial!
But the same truth is maintained in the New Testament.
In Acts 14 we find Paul and Barnabas returning to those cities where they had previously preached the gospel. Their purpose in returning was to nurture those who had just recently come to faith in Christ. They knew that those who professed faith in Christ would find their faith severely tested both by persecution and by the trials that mark the Christian life. So Paul and Barnabas would exhort them to continue in the faith. But then in verse 22 of Acts 14 we find that they also had a second point of emphasis in their nurture of these new Christians.
Not only were God’s servants found exhorting them to continue in the faith, but, we read, “and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (my emphasis). Through many afflictions — and that is the word translated “tribulations.” We must — that is unavoidable. We must through many afflictions enter into the kingdom of God. So it is also for us. If we are to enter the kingdom of God in all its glory, we will do so only through the pathway of many afflictions. That is God’s way for us.
II Corinthians 4:17,18 sheds comforting light upon this truth. “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.”
This is a very beautiful text, worthy of extended exposition. But one significant truth set forth in this text is this: Our affliction works for us.
What an amazing thing!
Our afflictions are working for us!
It is not just that some day we shall exchange our cross for a crown. To face our affliction in the light of Scripture is not just a matter of looking forward to the time when our affliction is over and glory begins. But the apostle would have us understand that right now, in the midst of our afflictions, God, in an altogether mysterious way, is working our glory.
God uses affliction to make us beautiful ornaments of His grace, fit to decorate His house of many mansions.
It is not for us to try to figure out the “why.”
We are called to take God at His Word and believe it. Affliction is for the benefit of everyone who believes. So says the psalmist: “It is good for me that I have been afflicted.”
Our afflictions, as the handiwork of God, the outworking of His providence, are His way to lead us to glory.
To use a figure: Our heavenly Father does not cause His children to grow to maturity in the protected environment of a greenhouse. He puts them out where they are exposed to the rains, sometimes extremely heavy rains; to the winds, sometimes gale-force winds; to the bite of winter and the blasting heat of drought. And in that set of circumstances, albeit controlled circumstances, God prepares us for our place in glory.
Our flesh would love the greenhouse treatment, wouldn’t it. If only we were protected from all trials. If only we were surrounded by thick plexiglass panels that would shelter us from the heaviest storms, that would protect us from the hailstones, the gale-force winds, and the driving rains. If only the watering which we receive could be ever so comfortable for us — never too wet and never too dry. If only the humidity was just right and the air filtered from all unwanted germs.
But God knows that such an environment would be absolutely devastating to any true growth in grace.
God knows what is best for us.
Affliction is an instrument in His hand, to work for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.
The psalmist recognized that great wonder of God’s handiwork in our afflictions, when he wrote in Psalm 119:75: “I know, O Lord, that thy judgments are right, and that thou in faithfulness hast afflicted me.” Will you join him in that confession?
Oh yes, there are many, many details in the handiwork of God’s providential government that we cannot understand. “Why must I suffer this affliction? Why must this agony last for so long? Why?” We sometimes ask those questions. We must be careful that we do not ask such questions from an attitude of rebellion against God’s way with us. The simple fact is, we don’t have to know “why” in order to experience the truth that God governs these things for our spiritual profit. But we do have to walk by faith in order to confess these things.
We speak about God’s handiwork in our afflictions, as believers in Christ Jesus. The almighty and everywhere present power of God is also that which sends afflictions to the wicked. No question about that.The affliction of the wicked works their damnation. It renders them helpless in all their pride and self-love. It shows them their total dependence upon the God whom they reject. It leaves them without excuse. But for us God works our blessedness even through affliction.
We speak of that which Scripture reveals. These things are not seen with the natural eyes. This truth is seen with the eyes of faith. It is a beautiful thing to be able to look upon the things that are not seen. To be able to see the reality of things, as all is for Christ’s sake — that is a beautiful thing. Because that sight, that spiritual understanding, is God’s wonder work of grace in us.
Receive the instruction of Scripture. And in everlasting glory God will give you to see how His way was the best way, the only way, for you. And we shall praise Him for bringing us safely home.
1 For a biblical exposition of this text, Psalm 145:9, see the meditation in the Standard Bearer of October 15, 1995.
2 In this article we treat only God’s providence in affliction. We shall return in another article, the Lord willing, to consider the relationship between God’s providence and sin.