6/9/2020 [Thematic Message 114] www.lifechurchmissions.com
The Providence of God Vs Naturalism <Gen 50:19-20; Ro 8:28; Deut 8:1-5>
Prelude: In Christian theology, there is a very important term called “the providence of God”. The so-called providence of God refers to the invisible God managing the entire world with His complete righteousness, love and wisdom. Therefore, strictly speaking, nothing in this world happens by chance or coincidence, and nothing is accomplished solely by humans setting their minds to it. Everything happens by the sovereign will of God. Indeed, God is the One who created and leads the spiritual and physical worlds <Gen 1:1>. He is also the One who controls all national and state affairs <Ps 66:7>. He also determines the destiny of man <Gal. 1:15>, man's success or failure <Lk 1:52>, and of course, He is the God who protects and blesses His people <Num 6:24>. Now, the opposite of this entire belief is “naturalism”. Naturalism does not believe that behind everything that happens, there are the invisible hands of a God, but it believes that everything happens by chance or by the possibilities within the natural law. It is similar to us asking why is Singapore so prosperous? People who believe in naturalism would say we are fortunate to have a very capable and resolute figure (the founding father of Singapore) who emerged with boldness, and by chance, met a group of likeminded people to build the country with him. Heroes are born out of the right circumstances, hence they succeeded. Or when people ask why is this novel coronavirus now infecting the whole world? The answer is, because unfortunately, in this place in Wuhan, China, the virus spread unbeknown to humans from animals. These answers all originated from naturalism, and they are the viewpoints of people who do not believe in God. The so-called naturalism holds the view that everything happens because of natural characteristics and causes. It could be because of a certain situation, a certain person thinks so, and a certain person does this, and then it becomes the current result. In naturalism, people believe that everything is a “possibility”, but under the providence of God, we believe that everything is “definite”. Nothing goes out of God's control and permission. In fact, a true Christian should fully believe in the providence of God, but in accepting this view, believers often face two concepts that are difficult to unravel. The first is because we know that God is good. Therefore, when we say that everything is by the providence of God, we inevitably ask if the sins of mankind and so much injustice in the world are also the providence of God. Therefore, it is easy for us to attribute good or positive things that happen to people to God’s providence. As for the bad or sinful things, we blame them as the work of Satan. The most common example that we often see is believers thanking the Lord because of their health or their illnesses being healed. But when facing illnesses, they would cast out sickness or spirit that causes pain and illness in the name of the Lord Jesus. Therefore, we attribute the negative to Satan and the positive to God. This is actually the concept common among believers. But think about it, if a believer only has such a concept, how can he live in peace under the ruler of the kingdom of the air and in a world filled with sin and evil? He would have the idea of “what if” in his heart, like, “What if something bad happens to me, then what would I do?” Or, how does he explain and respond to some unoptimistic things that happen to him? How can he still praise the Lord's grace despite his illness, suffering, failure and weakness? In addition, in accepting the complete providence of God, another barrier for man is because he lives in a visible world. When he opens his eyes, he sees the worldly environment and the activities of people who create various environments. Therefore, once a phenomenon occurs, it is difficult for people to attribute it to spiritual factors. Therefore, many believers do not have the habit to observe and confirm everything by the truth of “God’s providence”. Only in times of crisis, we earnestly plead, hoping that God will quickly rescue us from the predicament, or change the current situation that is not optimistic, but in general living, we act, behave, and make decisions without using God’s providence as the basis of our judgment. We see God as though He is a passive spectator, watching everything that is happening in the world. Think about it, if our faith has such a vague understanding of the providence of God, how can we solely call upon the Lord amidst the various dangers and tribulations we face in this world? How can we become a person who trusts in the Lord for everything and surrenders everything to His good sovereignty?
1. Know God’s absolute providence, then can enjoy absolute assurance
1）God’s absolute providence – the supernatural in the natural
<Ro 8:28> is the most direct and clearest verse in explaining divine providence. Because when Paul was explaining this verse, he was like proclaiming an absolutely sure truth. He did not say, “Everything should be alright!” or “I believe all will be well.” He said, “We know that...” This is a promise without a doubt. Regardless of whether we see anything good or evil, positive or negative, beneficial or disadvantageous to us in all things...because of divine providence, all these will work together for our good. In God’s providence, what is most beautiful is God performs “miracles in the natural”. He brings together everything that happens within the natural law, and brings about the outcome which most benefits us. In God’s providence, God does not go against the natural realm; instead, He brings us unimaginable blessings based on the natural law. Think about it, Joseph went through troubles at the age of 17 till he became ruler at the age of 30. In the midst of these 13 years, God did not interrupt the natural world to suddenly make Joseph a figure in the limelight. Instead, God brought together all the things which happened in the natural world, and fulfilled His plan on Joseph step by step. This also includes Joseph learning to be a slave, prisoner and in the process, how he was framed and forgotten by people. However, all things worked together for good, such that Joseph received the most beautiful benefits. Eventually, Joseph told his brothers who threw themselves down before him, “Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” <Gen 50:19-20>. Here, we see that because of God’s providence, He could bring good out of human evil. Not only so, but God’s goodness did not merely prosper one Joseph, but He wanted to save the lives of one nation (Israel) and one generation. This is like how God used Judas’ betrayal of Jesus and Jews’ killing of Jesus, but eventually fulfilled the salvation which saves all peoples. But why must divine providence be done this way? Why did God not miraculously bestow His blessings on saints? This is because only those who truly believe in God can see the blessings that come from God.
2）Because of God’s absolute providence, believers can then have true assurance
Actually, what can most seriously plunge us humans into despair is still not the present misery, but the view that the misery is the final conclusion. Think about it, if Joseph did not know God or His absolute providence, he would only think that his situation was final. As a result, he would live his entire life in misery and bitterness, blaming all those who harmed him, and grumbled against every environment which was unfavorable to him. Today, how many believers grumble against heavens and people because of their situations? Their problem is not because their situations are too terrible, but because they do not clearly understand God’s providence, and they do not know how to view all their circumstances with this perspective. Think about it, if God does not have absolute providence, He is merely an onlooker, sitting one side to observe how people are doing, until the situation gets out of hand then He intervenes, thus we cannot enjoy absolute peace, we also cannot believe that we will receive the best. We can only keep living with fear and trembling, and wait for God to clear up after the mess. Even if there is only one in a million things in this world which is not in the hands of God but which is determined by the natural law, we also cannot have absolute peace. Because that one in a million chance can cause us to suffer innocently, and even worse, lose our salvation. However, because God has absolute providence, we know our lives are being elected and protected. Even if we have very severe terminal illness now, we know that terminal illness is not by chance, and the ultimate outcome will surely be for our good. Thus, even in illness, our understanding toward God’s providence can give us hope to wait upon the Lord. Even though we live in an evil world, and the evil one and evil people are stirring up troubles, we will also not feel aggrieved. Instead, we firmly believe all our encounters happen in the most beautiful timetable. Therefore, we will not fall into despair because of the present trials, but we will continue to obey the Lord’s will. If we have any grievance, we will not take our own revenge, but leave room for God’s wrath <Ro 12:19>. This is because we believe that since God can guard everything, He also can restore everything to make them right.
2. The world always uses three ways to explain everything that happens as purely under the natural law
1）View and explain everything that happens through carnal eyes (flesh)
When man’s spiritual life is dead in transgressions and sins, he already became flesh (natural). <1 Co 2:14; ESV>: The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. Therefore, when calamities and diseases strike, the natural person will only ask, “How can we escape from this calamity or virus?”, but he will not ask, “Why does this thing happen to us?” When this world is happy and safe, he will not ask, “Who is giving all these to us?” When we tell the natural person there is God, he will ask, “There are so much suffering in this world, where is God’s goodness?” Or when they see the evil people in this world continue to prosper, they will ask, “Where is God’s retribution?” Because they do not believe there is God, they also do not know God, self, demons, sin, the world, their own eternity, the consummation of history, etc, from the truth revealed by God. Thus, they can only explain everything that happens in this world by the natural law. They cannot see the God who cares for everything and leads every natural law to work. They cannot see the One who “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” <Mt 5:45>. They cannot see that God’s judgment is not slow, but He is patient with humans, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance <2 Pe 3:9>. Sometimes, when the church does not carefully teach and confirm the truth about God’s providence, we will see a deviated faith emerging in the church that only experiences God through eyes of the flesh or senses. At that time, what people want to experience is not the “supernatural in the natural” kind of grace and guidance of God, but they want to use their senses to directly experience God. From here, the church will slowly move toward an unnatural kind of supernatural faith.
2）Exalt human wisdom and will as the decisive factor to determine everything
Another way to deny divine providence is when man exalts his own wisdom and will to arrive at a position which is beyond what God has determined for him. Humans have wisdom and relative free will, able to choose between doing evil or good, choose to go right instead of left and vice versa. However, we must know that the human will absolutely subsumes under the providence of God. First, if the good God does not intervene, not one sinner is able to do good. If God does not fulfill, nothing that a person does can have everlasting fruits. <Prov 16:9>: In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps. <Ps 127:1>: Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain. Thus, when humans elevate their wisdom and will to be the decisive factor to determine the outcome, they will at the same time all the more view surrounding happenings as arising from the natural law. That seems to be human-driven – brought about by human thinking and doing. Sometimes, if believers are not careful, they will also be affected by such humanism, and gradually feel that if it is not for their zeal, serving, and efforts, then ministries will not progress. Such believers often put their own will before God. The characteristic of their serving is only to ask God to fulfill their will, instead of seeking God’s will.
3）Good at using worldly knowledge and information to capture people’s hearts and minds
In this pandemic, who tells us the reasons why God permits this virus? Why does God allow this virus to infect a country, a church or a family? Every reason is different. But at least if it happens to our church, we must hear and see God’s good, pleasing and perfect will. This is the work of God which we have been confirming these few months. Thus, those of us who have been attending church get more and more courageous each time, and we long to bring our beloved family members and friends here. However, what do worldly knowledge and information tell us? They tell us how seriously this virus can spread. Then regardless of whether you are rich or poor, have money or no money, have status or without status, whichever nationality, race, age, gender, cultural level, this virus will not let you off. The only solution is to wait for a vaccine. Think about it, if we hear this information day and night, we will only believe in scientific knowledge, then we will naturally become “slaves” to this novel coronavirus. Why? Because we are being bound by the natural law. But if we firmly believe in God’s providence and thus have the heart to seek God’s testimonies on each of us as well as on some figures of faith, then we will see God’s precise guidance. As believers, we should have acute sense of God’s providence. In particular, when people know more about science, medical science, economics, politics, psychology, philosophy, etc, people start to use these knowledge to explain everything that happens in this world. They use what people can see, hear and study to explain everything, but they all the more cannot see the invisible hands of God behind all these things. Therefore, in the modern scientific society, we rarely see the Christian faith which truly judges everything on the basis of God’s providence. Actually, science is not in opposition to God. If science subsumes under God’s truth, that would be the best way to make sense of them both. However, if science were to replace God, this scientific world will fall into a very pitiful state.
3. How to stand firm in the truth of “God’s providence”?
1）Train yourself to rely on God as you do the most ordinary and mundane things
When do the hearts of humans stray from the providence of God? That does not happen suddenly, but incrementally, as one enters into a habit of “living normally without relying on God” in his daily life. Slowly, our heart will develop an evil thought, thinking that many things are man-driven. Students think that since they study hard, they will naturally have good grades; those who are sick think that since they have been faithfully taking their medicine, their condition will get better; those working think that since they have fulfilled their responsibilities, they will be recognized by the company. Gradually, we forgot these are all a result of God’s providence. Actually, even in the smallest and most ordinary things, we must do them through prayer and reliance on God, instead of relying on our own wits. How did God train Israel, and impress His providence upon their hearts? He did that by making them travel around in the wilderness for forty years, relying on God for their food, clothing and movement.
2）Always choose the narrow path while following the Lord, as a form of undergoing God’s tough training
Some of the tough training are not optional. These are the trials God puts in front of us. We must endure them. This is like the tough training Israelites went through in the wilderness. God allowed them to be hungry and then provided manna, so that they cherished what God had given and engraved God’s provision in their hearts. However, some trials are not unavoidable, but for the sake of the gospel, we choose to accept. This is like how apostle Paul chose not to marry <1 Co 9:5>, and for the sake of the gospel, chose to be chained <2 Ti 2:9>. Are we willing to overcome challenges and hardships and bring our children to church meetings and continue to serve the Lord although they are still very young? Are we willing to spend precious time to serve even though we are very busy with work? Are we able to stand firm in our return to church and serve zealously although many people are fearful of the virus and avoid going out? Are we able to boldly witness for the Lord when the science of the world is unable to provide any security? Are we willing to visit and counsel those in need, or do we hide away like the people of the world? If we retreat every time we encounter hardship, inconvenience or costs in serving the Lord, we are not someone who lives in constant assurance of God’s providence. However, if we often choose to walk the narrow path, no matter how inconvenient, dangerous, costly, yet in the end we witness God’s amazing guidance, we will surely praise God’s providence.
3）After overcoming a challenge, do not forget God’s faithful providence, but continue to rely on the Lord for victory
We must not be contented with one-time victory. The one victory is to bring about subsequent victories. Sometimes, after we have gone through a lesson of faith, we immediately let down our guard. We must know, there is a greater battle ahead. After wandering in the wilderness for forty years, Israelites then had to overcome the giants of Canaan. When God helps us see His all-encompassing providence again and again, and helps us obtain victories one after another, let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith <Heb 12:1-2>. If God’s providence becomes our fixed perspective in all things, we will surely experience God’s grace upon grace in the natural world.