The Invisible Hand: Coming to Grips With God’s Providence
February 2, 1997
Do all things really work together for good?
Consider the following:
- A little baby is born with no brain, only a brain stem. The doctors tell the parents that she has no chance of surviving. Somehow she stays alive for sixteen months. The parents struggle to take care of her. When she gets sick, the doctors tell the parents, “Don’t bring her to the hospital. There is nothing we can do for her.”
- A seemingly healthy 12-year-old girl develops severe migraine headaches. On Friday she is taken to the hospital; on Saturday she dies. Her father calls her “the sunshine of my life.”
- A man and a woman meet while attending Bible college, fall in love, and get married. Feeling called to the mission field, they end up serving the Lord in a remote stretch of the Amazon River in northeastern Peru. While on a routine flight back to their houseboat, the Peruvian Air Force mistakes them for drug smugglers and shoots their plane out of the sky. One bullet rips through the mother and into the head of their infant daughter who was sitting in her lap. Both are killed instantly.
- Another man is a policeman. One day he stops a man known to be a drug dealer. It happens on a busy downtown street and a crowd gathers to watch the unfolding drama. There is a struggle and somehow the drug dealer grabs the officer’s gun. Someone in the crowd yells, “Shoot him, man.” And he does, at point-blank range, in the face. The officer was in his early twenties.
These stories are all true. The first happened to dear friends in Texas, the second to a well-known political leader, the third to missionaries Jim and Ronni Bowers, the fourth on the streets of Dallas. And those who read these words would have no trouble adding stories of their own.
I received a message from our missionaries Greg and Carolyn Kirschner in Nigeria:
The news came swiftly and unexpectedly: Dr. Ologunde was dead. Our 34-year-old Nigerian colleague, who was serving at our sister hospital in Egbe, Nigeria, had been found in his bed. He had last been seen late the night before, caring for patients in his usual, careful way.
Dr. Ologunde was a remarkable man. He had trained in the General Medical Practice residency at Evangel Hospital, and had stayed on as consultant and eventually the director of training. When we began hospital work at Evangel, he carefully considered where he could best be used by God—and agreed to answer a desperate need at Egbe Hospital, in the southwest region of the country.
His decision to work at Egbe was not to be taken lightly—for Dr. Ologunde had sickle cell anemia. In fact, when he first began his medical training in Jos he had an acute sickle crisis requiring intensive care treatment. He quietly suffered in daily pain—and was a role model for how far patients with this disease in Nigeria could go.
In addition, Dr. Ologunde was to marry—on February 11. So the blow of his death came hard—to Egbe and to Jos. Here was our brightest and best, a representative of all that our residency program is about. Here was a role model, a husband-to-be, a source of pride to his family and hope to a town—GONE.
Why? Why? Why do these things happen?
And why do they happen to good people, decent people, Christian people?
There is a doctrine that helps us understand. If it does not answer every question, at least it provides the only possible foundation for understanding. It is the doctrine of the providence of God. In English the word “providence” has two parts. It’s “pro” and “video” put together, literally meaning “to see before.”
Though the word providence is not found in most modern translations of the Bible, the concept is certainly biblical. It refers to “God’s gracious oversight of the universe.” Every one of those words is important. God’s providence is one aspect of his grace. Oversight means that he directs the course of affairs. The word universe tells us that God not only knows the big picture, he also concerns himself with the tiniest details.
Here are five statements that unfold the meaning of God’s providence in more detail.
He upholds all things.
He governs all events.
He directs everything to its appointed end.
He does this all the time and in every circumstance.
He does it always for his own glory.
The doctrine of God’s providence teaches us several important truths: First, God cares about the tiniest details of life. Nothing escapes his notice for he is concerned about the small as well as the big. In fact, with God there is no big or small. He knows when a sparrow falls and he numbers the hairs on your head. He keeps track of the stars in the skies and the rivers that flow to the oceans. He sets the day of your birth, the day of your death, and he ordains everything that comes to pass in between. Second, he uses everything and wastes nothing. There are no accidents with God, only incidents. This includes events that seem to us to be senseless tragedies. Third, God’s ultimate purpose is to shape his children into the image of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29). He often uses difficult moments and human tragedies to accomplish that purpose.
Many verses in the Bible teach these truths, including Acts 17:28 (“in him we live and move and have our being”), Colossians 1:17 (“in him all things hold together”), Hebrews 1:3 (“sustaining all things by his powerful word”), Proverbs 16:9 (“in his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.”), and especially Psalm 115:3 (“Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him”).
The doctrine of God’s providence is really a combination of four other attributes:
Sovereignty—He is in control.
Predestination—He is in charge of how everything turns out.
Wisdom—He makes no mistakes.
Goodness—He has our best interests at heart.
In the words of R.C. Sproul, “God doesn’t roll dice.” Nothing happens by chance. Ever.
Predestination and Free Will
Now as soon as I write those words someone is sure to ask about predestination and free will. We’ll be dealing with that question in a later sermon so I won’t go into it very deeply here. But let me give you something I jotted down a few days ago:
He is in charge of:
- what happens
- when it happens
- how it happens
- why it happens
- And even what happens after it happens.
This is true of:
- all events
- in every place
- from the beginning of time.
He does this for our good and his glory.
He is not the author of sin, yet evil serves his purposes.
He does not violate our free will, yet free will serves his purposes.
We’re not supposed to understand all this.
We’re simply supposed to believe it.
I hope that clears up any misunderstanding! (Actually this statement—brief though it is—does summarize the Christian position on God’s providence as it has been developed over the centuries.)
With that as background, we turn to consider the story of Joseph. If you are acquainted with the Bible at all, you have heard his story somewhere along the way. It goes something like this. Because Joseph was the favored son of his father Jacob, he was the object of envy by his many brothers. One day his brothers conspired to sell him into slavery to the Midianites who happened to be passing by. They did that, and then splashed his “coat of many colors” with the blood of a goat in order to make it appear that he had been killed by a wild animal. They then showed the coat to Jacob, who believed their lie and sorrowfully concluded that Joseph was dead.
Meanwhile Joseph was taken to Egypt by the Midianites. There he was sold again, this time to Potiphar, who was head of Pharoah’s security force. Genesis 39 tells us that Joseph gained favor with Potiphar because the Lord was with Joseph to bless him. Eventually Potiphar put Joseph in charge of his entire household, which included the land, care of the property, and oversight of the other slaves. This was a signal of honor for a Hebrew slave. Because he was competent, confident, and good-looking Potiphar’s wife approached him about having a sexual affair. Joseph refused, pointing out that he could not betray Potiphar and he would not sin against God. The woman persisted, to the point that one day when everyone else was gone, she attempted to pull him down on her bed. Joseph fled from the scene, leaving his cloak behind. The woman was humiliated and accused him of rape. It was a false charge, of course, but Potiphar believed his wife and had Joseph thrown in prison.
From Prison to the Palace
And in prison Joseph prospered once again and gained the respect of his fellow prisoners and of the guards. This happened because the Lord was with him to bless him. Eventually the cupbearer and the baker were thrown in the same prison and Joseph befriended them. One night they both had dreams they could not interpret. But Joseph was able to interpret them with the Lord’s help. The dreams came true exactly as Joseph had predicted—the baker was hung but the cupbearer was released. Joseph asked him to remember him after he was out, but he didn’t.
Two years passed and Pharoah had a dream that he could not interpret. That’s when the cupbearer remembered Joseph’s amazing ability and mentioned it to the Pharoah who ordered Joseph brought before him. Joseph correctly interpreted his dream and was rewarded by Pharoah, who made him the Prime Minister of Egypt. Not bad for a Hebrew slave who had been sold into slavery by his brothers!
Eventually a famine settled on the Near East. Jacob told his sons to go to Egypt and buy some grain. They go and in the process meet Joseph—only they don’t know it’s Joseph. This happens twice. Then Joseph reveals his true identity. They are shocked and then scared because they betrayed him and now he is in a position to get even. But Joseph doesn’t do that. In fact, he stuns them with these words:
And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will not be plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God (Genesis 45:5-8).
The Pharaoh Meets Jacob
But that’s not the end of the story. The brothers go back to Canaan and tell their aged father that Joseph is still alive. He can’t believe it but eventually they convince him to come to Egypt with them. He makes the trip and is reunited with the son he had given up for dead many years ago. Then he meets the Pharaoh who offers to let Joseph’s family settle in Egypt for as long as they like. The family settles in Egypt and lives in peace there for many years. Finally Jacob dies at the age of 147. Now it’s just Joseph and his brothers. They fear that with Jacob’s death Joseph will be free to take revenge on them. So they tell Joseph, “Oh, by the way, before Dad died he told us to tell you to treat us kindly.” It sounds like just one more deception to cover their guilt.
Listen to Joseph’s response. These are the words of a man who believes in the providence of God:
Don’t be afraid. 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 (Genesis 50:19-20).
The King James Version translates verse 20 this way: “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” Both sides of that statement are true. “You meant it for evil”—what the brothers had done was indeed evil and Joseph doesn’t sugarcoat the truth. They are 100% responsible for their sin. “God meant it for good”—this doesn’t mean that evil isn’t evil. It just means that God is able to take the evil actions of sinful men and use them to accomplish his plans. Joseph saw the “invisible hand” of God at work in his life. He understood that behind his conniving brothers stood the Lord God who had orchestrated the entire affair in order to get him to just the right place at just the right moment in order to save his whole family.
At Just the Right Moment
Joseph is saying, “Though your motives were bad, God’s motives were good.” And though it took years and years for God’s purposes to be clear, in the end Joseph saw the hand of God behind everything that had happened to him.
Think about the implications of that statement:
At just the right moment his brothers threw him into the cistern.
At just the right moment the Midianites came along.
At just the right moment he was sold to Potiphar.
At just the right moment Potiphar’s wife falsely accused him.
At just the right moment he met the baker and the cupbearer.
At just the right moment the cupbearer remembered Joseph.
At just the right moment Pharoah called for him.
At just the right moment he was promoted to Prime Minister.
At just the right moment Jacob sent his sons to Egypt.
At just the right moment the brothers met Joseph.
At just the right moment Jacob’s family moved to Egypt.
At just the right moment Pharaoh offered them the land of Goshen.
At just the right moment they settled there and prospered.
All of this happened at “just the right moment” and “just the right way” so that the right people would be in the right place so that in the end everything would come out the way God had ordained in the beginning. God never violated anyone’s free will, yet everything happened as he had planned. That’s the providence of God in action.
That’s also what Romans 8:28 means when it says that “In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
Some Implications of God’s Providence
A. Providence frees us from bitterness.
This is clearly the message of Genesis 50:20. If ever any man had the right to get even it was Joseph. We get bitter because we doubt God’s goodness and we don’t see his invisible hand at work in our lives. We think God isn’t involved in our situation and that’s why we get angry and try to get even and hurt the person who has hurt us. If you really believe God is at work in your situation, you can just stand back and let God do whatever he wants to do.
B. Providence gives us a new perspective on our tragedies.
That perspective might be stated this way: God is involved with us even in the worst moments of life. I believe that in the great issues of life we will generally not have an answer to the question “Why did this happen to me?” That is, we won’t know why our mate got sick or why we lost our life savings or why God didn’t intervene when we were being sexually abused. Most of the time we are simply left to wonder why these things happen. Who would dare to say to a woman, “This is why your child was stillborn” or to the grieving people of the church in Nigeria, “This is why Dr. Ologunde died so suddenly”?
But it is at this point that God’s providence is so crucial. It doesn’t tell us everything we would like to know about the mysteries of life, but it does assure us that God is there and that he cares for us. He is somehow involved even in our darkest moments in a way we cannot see—and probably wouldn’t understand even if we could see it.
Because of God’s providence we can keep believing in God even in the face of many unanswered questions. He can bear the burden of all our unanswered questions.
C. Providence gives us courage to keep going in hard times.
Because God is there, we know that he cares for us, even when life is tumbling in all around us. Last Monday night I was in my study when a man suddenly knocked on my door and came in about 9:15 PM. He was weeping as he sat down. “It’s over,” he said, “It’s over.” I knew what he meant. He mentioned that he had been listening to WMBI. Recently they’ve been playing a song that has kept him going. It contains this seven-word phrase: “Life is hard but God is good.” Then he quoted Psalm 115:3, “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him.”
That’s what God’s providence does for us. It doesn’t answer every question, it doesn’t make our problems go away, and it doesn’t give us an easy road. But it does tell us that there is a pattern to the seemingly random events of life and that God is designing something beautiful out of that which now seems to be only a chaos of clashing colors. Life is hard—make no mistake about that, but God is good. Both those statements are true all the time for all of God’s children.
With Full Confidence
Earlier I read the first part of the message from Greg and Carolyn Kirschner about the death of Dr. Ologunde. Let me read the last few paragraphs they wrote:
And yet, even in this tragedy, we can rejoice. As one of our physician colleagues pointed out, Dr. Ologunde is not taking pain medication now—or will he ever again. If given the chance, he himself would not come back, for he is in a far better place. Dr. Ologunde was a man of spiritual maturity and integrity. His faith in Christ was intense and genuine—and a challenge to us. He encouraged a wholistic approach to patients that would never neglect the spiritual side of those who come to our hospital.
Can he be replaced? No—of course not. Will God’s plan for Egbe Hospital be carried out? Of course. Was it a mistake for Dr. Ologunde to have agreed to serve in that remote location? Never.
We count ourselves privileged to have worked for a short time with this man. It greatly enriched our first months in our medical ministry—and we will miss him.
Please remember to pray for the ministry of Egbe and Evangel Hospitals, and for their leadership. Pray that this sudden event will encourage many to re-examine their daily priorities, and to live with a sense of urgency about God’s work.
With full confidence in the resurrection of the saints,
The Kirschner family in Jos, Nigeria
“Full confidence in the resurrection of the saints.” That’s the doctrine of God’s providence at work in the worst moments of life. If God is not there as we lay our loved ones into the ground, if he is good even then, if his plan is not being worked out when our loved ones are taken from us, then there is no hope for any of us. But if he is there, then we can go on through life “with full confidence.”
D. Providence forces us to make a choice by faith.
The older I get the more I understand that faith is a choice, not a feeling. Many times we won’t feel like believing in God. But faith is a personal choice we make to believe that God is good and that he can be trusted in every situation. Faith rises above feelings to choose to believe even when our circumstances may argue against it.
E. Providence helps us understand why Jesus died.
Listen to these amazing words from Acts 2:23, “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” There you have both sides of the truth. Jesus died “by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge.” That tells us that the Cross was not an accident or some afterthought in God’s plan. But who crucified him? Remember that Peter is preaching to the men who participated in that evil deed. “You, with the help of wicked men, put him to death.” His death was no accident. God foreordained it from the foundation of the world. Yet the men who crucified him were guilty of the most heinous crime in human history. They were morally guilty, but what happened to Jesus happened because of God’s divine plan.
God’s providence leads us to Jesus and Jesus leads us back to the Cross.
He Maketh No Mistake
I close with a poem by A.M. Overton. Dr. Lee Roberson used to quote it often in his preaching. The poem is called “He Maketh No Mistake.”
My Father’s way may twist and turn,
My heart may throb and ache
But in my soul I’m glad I know,
He maketh no mistake.
My cherished plans may go astray,
My hopes may fade away,
But still I’ll trust my Lord to lead
For He doth know the way.
Tho’ night be dark and it may seem
That day will never break,
I’ll pin my faith, my all in Him,
He maketh no mistake.
There’s so much now I cannot see,
My eyesight’s far too dim;
But come what may, I’ll simply trust
And leave it all to Him.
For by and by the mist will lift
And plain it all He’ll make,
Through all the way, tho’ dark to me,
He made not one mistake.
In the end that will be the testimony of every child of God. Until that morning comes and the sunlight of God’s presence fills our faces, we move on through the twilight still believing that though life is hard, God is good. When we finally get to heaven, we’ll look back over the pathway of life and see that through all the twists and turns and seeming detours that “He made not one mistake.”
Until that morning comes and the sunlight of God’s presence fills our faces, we move on through the twilight still believing that though life is hard, God is good. And in the end we will say with all the children of God as we look back on our earthly pilgrimage, “He made not one mistake.”