Ques. 28. What advantage is it to us to know that God has created, and by his providence doth still uphold all things?
Ans. That we may be patient in adversity; thankful in prosperity; and that in all things, which may hereafter befall us, we place our firm trust in our faithful God and Father, that nothing shall separate us from his love; since all creatures are so in his hand, that without his will they cannot so much as move.
Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 10.
Our Catechism can be so very demanding. Already in the previous Question it required us to do some real soul searching. Not content simply to ask, “What is meant by God’s providence?” our fathers demanded of us personally, “What dost thou mean by the providence of God?” Listening to the voice of experience out of the past we answered, that the almighty, everywhere present power of God touches every phase of our lives constantly. We experience that very really in, rain and sunshine, meat and drink, health and sickness, and all other happenings. Rather shamefacedly we admitted that we do not always live in the consciousness of this hand of God touching our lives every moment, yet by faith we rest assured that we are in the palm of Father’s hand and under His watchful eye at all times.
Our book of instruction can not be satisfied with that, but demands still more soul searching. The fathers say, as it were, “look at your daily walk of life and ask yourself what it means to you personally that every happening is directed by God, so that no creature stirs apart from His sovereign will.” The ant that scurries across the sidewalk in front of you does not just happen to be there, but was brought there at that moment by God Himself. Somehow the insignificant hair of your head that falls to the ground serves God’s eternal purpose, as well as tornadoes that leave devastation and death in their wake. The hearts of presidents and popes, the schemes of wicked men are all a part of God’s eternal decree. Our faithful and merciful Father directs absolutely everything for our salvation, and through our salvation to His glory.
By faith in God’s providence we confess with the church of all ages that we will be patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity, and will trust in our God for the future, come what may.
Patient in adversity.
The term ‘adversity’ looks at life from the point of view of our unhappy experiences, calamities, and misfortunes. The word as it is used in Scripture has various shades of meaning. Sometimes the Old Testament uses the figure of limping or halting. Sometimes adversities can refer to dire straits or sore distresses. Sometimes the reference is to the ill treatment, oppression, or plague of the adversary. Adversity, therefore, can refer to physical suffering and also spiritual trials. Always, we notice, the word refers to our own bitter experiences, for in the absolute sense of the word there are no adverse circumstances in the life of the child of God. We say with Paul, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).
Nevertheless these bitter experiences are very real in our lives. Physical pain, especially severe pain of long duration with no relief in sight, mental stress, depression, suffering the loss of a dear one, and many other afflictions can sorely distress us. Our flesh cringes under suffering. We complain that we cannot take it. It is more than we can bear. The harm it does to us and to those closest to us seems to outweigh by far any good that could be derived from it. We feel forsaken of God, caught in the whirlpool of God’s displeasure.
No man is naturally patient. Patience is God’s gracious gift to us. It is faith in action, faith that has the endurance, the elasticity to bear up under afflictions. While our natural tendency is to succumb under the load (and afflictions become temptations which bring out the worst in us), patience triumphs over every fleshly weakness with strong endurance. Patience is silence unto God.
A beautiful example of that you find in Psalm 39. In the first part of the Psalm David says, “I was dumb with silence, I held my peace, even from good; and my sorrow was stirred.” The man of God feared that he might say the wrong thing, so he said nothing. That gave no peace. Then he went to God in prayer, and found a better motive for his silence, “I opened not my mouth, because thou didst it.” This is an echo of Job’s confession when he lost all his possessions and his entire family of ten children, “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” There is a silence of submission.
We take note of what the Psalmist says in Psalm 61:2, “When my heart is overwhelmed: lead me to the rock that is higher than I.” That is, when I wander about aimlessly in deep distress, lead me to the eternal rock as my refuge, whose thoughts are higher than my thoughts, and Who Himself is too high for me to reach. And then follows in Psalm 62:1, “Truly my soul waiteth upon (literally, is silent unto) God: from him cometh my salvation.” We are reminded that Paul prayed on three different occasions to be delivered from the thorn that had become virtually unbearable, and thereby learned to say, “Thy grace is sufficient for me.” The thorn remained, but the apostle received grace to bear it. In the midst of fiery trials we learn to confess, “Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” We are silent in hope.
Thankful in prosperity.
Prosperity is, often a relative thing. If every one around me has but one pair of shoes and one suit of clothes, or one dress, then I am comparatively rich with two pair of shoes and two suits. Prosperity in Jamaica, for example, is in many respects different from the prosperity that we know in our country. Prosperity may be defined as having sufficient and even a bit more than we need at the moment.
People who suffer adversities often imagine that it is far easier to be thankful in prosperity than to be patient in adversity. Yet not so! The miser clutches his hoarded gain with his bony fingers. The spendthrift boasts of his accomplishments and greedily spends his fortunes on himself with little or no consideration for God’s cause or the needy neighbor.
Thankfulness is, like patience, a gift of God. We can send a “thank you” card to a friend, but not to God. A benefactor may appreciate a formal expression of thanks, but God sees the heart; He demands our life, our all.
We turn to the last part of our Catechism that discusses the subject of our gratitude to God for delivering us from our sin and misery. Under that .heading our fathers speak, first of all, of ourconversion, reminding us that we can never show sincere gratitude to God without daily confessing our sins, our guilt, and our utter dependence upon God for all things, and thus acknowledge Him as our GOD, the infinite fulness of grace and blessing, from Whom all blessings flow. From the heart we confess, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.” (Psalm 103:2). Therefore thankfulness is not a matter of performing a few deeds ‘beyond the call of duty,’ or of flattering ourselves with the boast that we have repaid God for His gifts. Thankfulness is the evidence of Christ’s living in us, carrying out His work of salvation by His Spirit in our hearts. It is the conscious response of the love of God in us that seeks God as our highest good. Every sinful act is evidence of our unthankfulness, a failure to give God His rightful glory. Taking God’s law as our Guide, and traveling the straight course that He lays out before us, without deviating to the right or to the left in proud waywardness, is the expression of true thankfulness in our daily lives. “What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (Micah 6:8). The love of God in us spontaneously reaches out to the neighbor. Such ordinary things as giving poor Lazarus a cup of cold water, or a garment to cover his nakedness, or a bandage for his sores are an integral part of Christian living. This Lazarus is never hard to find, for, says Jesus, he is always at our doorstep, if only we are not so short-sighted that we fail to see him. An act of mercy to one of the least of Christ’s brethren is the expression of our love to Him.
The highest, richest, and most blessed expression of thankfulness is attained through prayer. Prayer is the intimate communion with our God. We need no appointment, no means of communication like a telephone or letter, for we have a direct line between God and us by having Christ in heaven and His Spirit in our hearts. True prayer is, not merely a folding of the hands and closing of the eyes to ask, to plead, to implore. It is that, but it is also worshipping, adoring, praising, with the desire that God will hallow His name in all His works, and also through us, that all praise may be His forever. Prayer is that, but prayer is also fellowship with God as friend-servants with our sovereign friend. We do not try to bring God down to our level, or blasphemously talk to Him as our equal, but we approach God’s throne through our Mediator Jesus Christ, deeply aware of our wretchedness and dependence and God’s holy majesty. We acknowledge God’s manifold blessings with thanksgiving and extend to Him needy hands for continued blessings.
Trust for the future.
Our Catechism speaks also of putting our firm trust in our faithful God and Father, Who has our past and present, but also our future in His almighty hands. We do not build our hopes on social security, pension plans, retirement funds, bank accounts, or stocks and bonds. These human inventions can fail us. What security do they give when cancer strikes or God suddenly requires our souls from us? Faith in God’s providence finds its expression in that powerful Song of Victory recorded in Romans 8, where the Holy Spirit brings us to the triumphant climax, “For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The day of tomorrow lies hidden before us. We do know that in the world round about us the measure of iniquity is filling rapidly. The man of sin makes his appearance on the horizon. The footsteps of our coming Lord are heard more clearly as they quicken their pace day by day. We ourselves walk in the midst of death as pilgrims and strangers on the earth with our home in heaven. We wend our way through the valley of the shadow of death spurred by the beckoning light of the eternal day. We have God’s promise that He will never leave us, nor forsake us. We rest secure in the confidence that He Who has begun a good work will surely finish it.