Fate or Providence?
By Jon Pratt
One of our local sportswriters described Sergio Garcia’s victory at the 2017 Masters golf tournament as a triumph of fate. Similar attributions to blind chance frequently find their way into sports columns. Why did the Chicago Cubs finally win the World Series after 108 years of waiting? Baseball gods. Or Michael Phelps winning multiple gold medals at age 31? A freak of nature. The Vegas Golden Knights making it to the 2018 Stanley Cup finals in their first year of existence? Dumb luck.
We expect such fatalistic descriptions of trivial things like professional sports, especially when unsaved people are doing the describing. Yet, how often have you heard a believer refer to an accident, disease, tragedy, or other difficulty of life in similar ways: “Whatever will be, will be”; “Life has been hard on her”; “It is what it is”; “It just wasn’t meant to be”; “Nature cooked up that storm.”
Whenever believers talk in these ways, they unintentionally assign the events of our world to some type of impersonal force or blind fate. But is this the way biblically informed people ought to speak and think? Not at all. Ephesians 1:11 reminds us that God “works all things according to the counsel of his will.” Psalm 115:3 states, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.” And similarly, Daniel 4:35 declares, “[God] does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth.”
Indeed, God controls, manages, and oversees everything and everyone in the world He has made. He controls the weather (Ps 148:8), the animals (Mt 6:26), human beings (Prov 21:1), nations (Job 12:23), “random” events (Prov 16:33), the future (Acts 1:7), and even evil (Isa 45:7). Theologians describe this all-encompassing work of God in His created world as “Providence.” The Heidelberg catechism defines it this way: “Providence is the almighty and ever-present power of God by which he upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty—all things, in fact—come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand” (Answer 27).
Knowing and affirming divine providence is one thing, but grasping the implications of it proves to be a lifelong pursuit for believers as we wrestle with the problem of evil and the reality of suffering in our sin-cursed world. I have been encouraged to think biblically about providence by a number of authors through the years (e.g., Bruce Ware, Layton Talbert, James Spiegel, and Christopher Ash), and most recently, John Piper’s massive tome, Providence (Crossway, 2021), has provided more food for thought.
But knowledge about providence needs to be applied in real life. In the space that remains I would like to share some ideas regarding our response to God’s providence. How should believers, who acknowledge God’s absolute sovereignty over all things, live? I offer the following ideas, knowing that many more could be added.
First, our speech matters. We should excise words such as luck, fate, chance, and impersonal force from our vocabulary as descriptions of the events that take place in our world. Furthermore, we should be more willing to say, “Lord willing,” when speaking about future plans. While this can become a trite phrase, it must become our life perspective as James so clearly argues (Js 4:13-18; also see Acts 18:21; Rom 15:32).
Second, we can trust God’s heart as we come to terms with our past. As Psalm 139:13 reminds us, God has been our loving heavenly Father even as He has shaped us physically, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually. Pastor Ash in Where was God When that Happened? (Good Book Company, 2017) writes (50), “I am not who I ought to be, nor who I will one day be, for God is determined to change me and make me like Jesus . . . ; and yet, with all my struggles, the person I am now is the person a loving heavenly Father has shaped me to be at this point in time. I may trust him.”
Third, we ought to recognize God’s hand in the ordinary circumstances of life. We can be tempted to think that the “normal” events of our day are not divinely ruled such that we only acknowledge God’s presence and activity when He answers a direct prayer or does something that appears “miraculous.” But we must remember that God is as much at work in the mundane (providing a safe trip home for my 20-mile commute) as He is in the most extraordinary.
Fourth, we will be comforted in our times of sorrow. Do trials, accidents, and problems catch God by surprise? Did Satan get the upper hand when the events of 9/11 occurred? No. Our heavenly Father ordains all that comes into our lives. Frances Havergal recognized this in “Like a River Glorious” (stanza 3): “Every joy or trial falleth from above, traced upon our dial by the sun of love.” And this knowledge reminds us that, just as God ordained the sufferings of Christ for our good, He also lovingly ordains our pain and hurt for our good and His glory (Rom 8:28; Heb 12:10-11).
Finally, we have hope for the future. Because God ordains all future events (Isa 42:9), we can trust Him. Psalm 112:7-8 reminds us that believers have no reason to fear the challenges of the future, whether they be smiling or bitter providences, for we know who controls the future. And we know that our God is loving, wise, and sovereign so that we will look in triumph over our enemies as the psalmist promises.
I know that I will never be contemplating what club I should use to hit out of the woods at Augusta National golf course, but if I ever were in such a situation, it would not be fate that directed my shot. For God’s hand directs every event of my life from the insignificant to the magnificent, and He does so in the lives of every human being. May God help us to live in light of the wonderful knowledge that our Heavenly Father reigns over all things with wisdom, love, and power.