With help from Kierkegaard I advanced some ideas last month about prayer to an unchanging God, and here I want to start some related thoughts about God’s providence. A theology with no theory of prayer is a study without a method. All real theologies describe and account for the function and object of prayer, and this always relates back to their theories of divine providence.
First principles should be simple and biblical, and I think a good theory of material providence can be founded on a saying of Jesus about the manner of God’s care for the birds.
“…look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them” (Mt 6:26).
Most importantly for any good principle of providence, this one does not rule out hard work. Because anyone who follows the advice of Jesus and actually takes a ‘look at the birds’ will see that they work their little tails off all day long seeking and finding all their free provisions.
An abundance of seeds and water, of insects and other prey are available to the birds by their habitual conformity to material laws as they find them. This kind of material providence doesn’t feature a ‘system’ designed by the birds nor a being who is propitiated by the birds. It is instead a system which supports the very possibility of material good. In my view, God’s perfect material providence works for us in the same way (I’ll get to the spiritual later, and the problem of evil).
Why does Jesus give no place in his material providence to purposeful (anxious) work such as sowing, reaping, and storage? Doesn’t God help those who help themselves? But sowing and reaping are not despised – Jesus built plenty of teaching material around the whole subject of agriculture. And yet no farmer brings in a good crop if his acts are not in conformity to the same unchanging laws as God has laid out for his feeding of the birds.
In the same verse Jesus asks, “Are you not of more value than they?”
Divine material providence (like competition between species) is one of those delicate situations calling for this kind of rhetorical question which invites us to join the teacher’s thought on the next level (i.e. we don’t take these words as justifying any dissing of the avian races ).
For Jesus I think ‘the next level’ is the level of our material anxiety, especially our vain hopes and false fears for tomorrow. But he’s not giving in to these.
1. He doesn’t suggest that we have in fact a claim on God’s love to bind him to special provisions of material needs.
2. He’s not suggesting that any laws are subject to change to suit these needs.
3. And in no way is he suggesting that special consideration is due to any farmer as reward for ‘good behavior’ that is not related simply to good farming.
This providence gives no place to ancient pagan beliefs – that a farmer or his priest may request dispensations of rain, or sunshine, good germination, absence of pests, tall corn, efficient harvest, and a fine excess. This providence suggests only gracious prayers of thanksgiving for God’s loving foundation of unchanging material and spiritual laws.
(to be continued)