God’s providential wisdom.
Clinging to the assurance of God’s providence even in perplexing and panicked days.
Perhaps the most tenuous task which Christians are given, regardless of the era in which they exist, is the belief in God’s providential governing of all things. The Scriptures reveal that there is a providential wisdom which directs the order of things, purposing them according to the good and sovereign purposes of the Godhead (Rom. 8:28). However, such purposes very often seem to be jeopardized to the point of failure. One might be reminded of the havoc and furious trial which ensued following the martyrdom of Stephen in the early days of the church (Acts 7:54—8:3). As the church scattered, the providential plan of God was surely more difficult to discern, what with the nascent Christian assemblies enduring immense hardship for their newfound faith.
Luke’s account of Stephen’s death, however, offers a glimpse at the sustaining presence of God’s providence, even (and especially) in times doubt and hardship. As the mob hurled scoffs and stones at him, Stephen’s eyes were directed elsewhere. “But he full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God’” (Acts 7:55–56). This spiritual sight of heaven’s throne room serves as an enduring token that even then God’s purposes were not hindered. Indeed, even as Stephen’s carcass was laid to rest, the providence of God had not been impugned in the slightest. In all days, and in all ways, it is being effected in the perfection of God’s wisdom and grace.
This accords with what Millard J. Erickson identifies as the seven elements which demarcate the providential governing activity of God. (1) It is universal, that is, it extends over all things and all matters, whether good or ill. There is nothing that God cannot use to bring about his desired ends. (2) It is inclusive, which means that his providence is not restricted to merely his people. As Christ Jesus himself avers, “He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). (3) It is good. That God’s providence is good might seem to be a redundant proposition; however, it is the posture of faith to believe that God, either directly or indirectly, is purposing to manifest his goodness in and on the world. (4) It is personal, that is, God’s providence is not a paradigm of bureaucracy of personal investment. God knows each of those who are his and cares for each to the same degree (Matt. 10:29–31).
Furthermore, (5) it is accountable, which is to say that God’s providence is not a catalyst to laxity or nonchalance. “The certainty that God will accomplish something,” Erickson concludes, “in no way excuses us from giving ourselves diligently to bringing about its accomplishment” (376). (6) It is sovereign. God alone possesses such comprehensive and extensive providential capacity, which, likewise, means that understanding or comprehending the complexity of his providence is beyond human capability. Lastly, (7) it is unfolded. This implies that God’s providence is not always observable in the moment. Nevertheless, in faith, and by faith, the church of God clings to the promise and the assurance of his providence, even through perplexing and panicked days.
The scene of Stephen’s death is applicable, here. Indeed, it was the revelatory assurance of God’s providence which commended Stephen to the Lord’s will, even if that meant his own demise (Acts 7:59). Accordingly, grasping God’s providential governance of all things necessarily involves understanding that there are two threads of history which are continually being interwoven. There is the visible, tangible thread of experience, which often incorporates hardship and grief. But there is also the invisible, hopeful thread of faith, which is imbued with God’s word of promise that he, in grace, will bring about all things according to his purposes.
Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2013).