About Providence, Divine Action and the Church

In this blog, Terry J. Wright posts thoughts and shares research on the Christian doctrine of providence. This doctrine testifies to God’s provision for all things through creation’s high priest, the man Christ Jesus. However, the precise meaning and manner of this provision is a perpetually open question, and this blog is a forum for discussion of the many issues relating to providence and the place of the Church within God’s action.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Questions with no Answers

Haydn J. McLean, ‘Thinking Out Loud: Pondering the Providence of God’, Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling 62:3 (2008), pp. 303–307

One of the recurring ideas in Jill Carlson Colwell’s essay on providence and security is that as God’s purposes are hidden, God’s will cannot be discerned by appeal to world events or personal circumstances. This, of course, assumes the validity of John Calvin’s approach to providence; but Colwell does have a point, even if I would modify it slightly to say that although God’s will can be discerned by appeal to world events and especially to personal circumstances, such discernment is actually an act of interpretation that must be made carefully and prayerfully. However, Haydn McLean’s short essay on providence – and to be fair, it’s not so much an essay as a deliberate and open musing on some of the doctrine’s implications for prayer – suggests that sometimes God’s hiddenness renders it difficult to pray at all with any real purpose. Consider this quotation:

In my prayer life and as I seek to understand or to access God’s providence, I am hampered by not knowing what God is thinking. When I pray about something that is of concern to me, I need to know if God is thinking, “Don’t sweat it; I’ve got it all under control,” or, is God thinking, “Stop sitting on your hands, get up, and do something for yourself”? Perhaps I first need to discern whether God is paying attention to me in the first place. (pp. 306–307).

It’s refreshing to read an essay that doesn’t attempt to answer the questions it raises. Starting from a position that sees God’s providence as ‘God’s activity in the world through which God moves people and events in a direction which will necessarily be good to and for us’ (p. 304), McLean notes the Old Testament’s varied stances on providence and Jesus’s assurance that God is intensely personal in God’s dealings with humanity. But even here, McLean is not afraid to speak plainly, and he lists a set of contrasts between what Jesus says and how real life actually transpires. Here is but one of these contrasts:

Ask, and it will be given us; seek, and we will find; knock, and the door will be opened for us (Matthew 7:7). […]
If we ask, seek, and knock, why are there people who pray with vigor and yet, having been disappointed in God, perhaps unable to forgive God for not granting their petitions in a time of desperation, turn from God and his faith community? (p. 304)

It’s a fair point. And so perhaps God’s relation with us isn’t as personal as Jesus implied. But McLean remains unconvinced by other possibilities – deism, predeterminism, even the idea that God acts through our genes – for they do not correlate to the picture of God Jesus painted. A more appropriate conviction, that God provides for our ultimate fulfilment in the end, still leaves open the question about God’s provision for us in the here and now.

McLean finishes his deliberations with no firm conclusions. And while refreshing, it’s also unsettling. Is it really possible that despite scriptural and ecclesial assurances that God loves us, is with us, and provides for us, the doctrine of providence is nothing more than a theological construct designed to scare away the spectres of despair, a rationalization of lament as a human practice?


  1. My apprecaition to Dr. Wright for his reflections on my article. Reflecting on my own work from the distance of a year or so, I remembered a conversation I had with a former religion professor, who remarked that Elizabeth Kubler Ross, MD, upon approaching the end of her life, expressed dismay and conflusion when she spoke of God in one of her last interviews. My professor remarked that Kubler Ross did not have a doctrine of God. I replied that, at one time, I did, but it went off the wall with Humpty Dumpty. My article previously reviewed by Dr. Wright is, in part, my attempt to put my doctrine of God back together again. I still stand in need of more glue.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Haydn. You'll see that I'm currently reviewing Vanhoozer's Remythologizing Theology, which addresses the doctrine of God. Maybe Vanhoozer will say things to help both of us put our doctrines of God back together!