Divine Providence


-“Triumph of Divine Providence”, Pietro da Cortona, 1633-1639, Baroque fresco, Palazzo Barberini, Rome, Italy (please click on the image to see greater detail)

Hopefully, Divine Providence is not a passe’ or outdated Christian concept, although we don’t really hear a lot about it these days, do we?  Dare I?  Even at Mass?  As much as we should?  Rather, “My will be done, my kingdoms come!” is more the mantra?

In my experience, listening to the spiritual experience of others, never ever intending to prematurely infer one is more positive than another, this is THE realm of the Holy Spirit after all, I can’t help but notice there “seems” to be more “intentionality”, or effort, in what they are doing?  Particularly the younger the seeker?  Now, never to judge, but it seems easier the way it happens for me?  I feel like I am in a state of perpetual prayer?  He is always with me?  Weird.  Very weird.  I am at peace, usually.  I am.

I do intentionally pray, always, please don’t get me wrong, but mostly it seems, at most usually like I have to give Him a knowing look?  He has been SO good to me!  More than I could ever imagine or wish.

I mean, He already knows, right?  Everything?  What I need, all of us need?  Before we know we need it?  More what we actually need, even if that is a cross, than the shallow happy-happy we keep fantasizing we need?  Or, think we want?

I keep hearing others say, “Carve out twenty-five minutes of prayer a day!”, or some such, and I would never debate the necessity of intentional or actual time set aside, and prayer is life breath for me.  Without it, life would be impossible.

But, is there a lack of trust here?  On my part?  On the part of others?  I love to ask other Christian seekers, “What was Adam/Eve’s sin?”  I expect the answer will be, “They ate the apple!”  When I explain the game I am playing I say I am more fascinated by our progenitor’s duplicity in wanting to pervert the natural order, and be gods, or God’s peer, or closer to that end.  It is my humble understanding and belief this is THE root of all sin; to pervert, to invert the relationship between the Divine and ourselves.  God gives and takes life, we should not, etc.

And so, I have come to the beneficial approach that every problem, every tragedy, every question must begin, and I use these words exactly, “You are God, I am not.”, and I approach the situation, gently, like that, having faith that the indescribable power of the Divine can and will do far more about the situation than any mere creature that I am might ever rationally hope to effect.  It is this fundamental perspective that brings me great peace.  This attempt at, in the most laughable  of ways, of undoing that first temptation to not recognize the reality of our relationship and proportion with the Divine?

I am also aware, from my training, that God has a positive will, that which He actually does and intends; and a permissive will, that which He allows…for our good.

“The heavens declare the glory of God;
the firmament proclaims the works of His hands.” -Ps 19:2

Have mercy, Lord, on this ant of a creature of Yours!  Mercy!


– from “The Will and Providence of God” | Fr. Wilfrid Stinissen, O Carm | From Chapter One, “Accepting God’s Will”, of Into Your Hands, Father: Abandoning Ourselves to the God Who Loves Us

“A problem many people have today is that they no longer recognize God’s will in everything that happens. They no longer believe in a Providence that allows all that takes place to work for the good of those who love God (Rom 8:28). They say all too easily and superficially: “But it is not God’s will that there are wars or that people starve or are persecuted….” No, it is not God’s will that human beings fight with each other. He wills that we love one another. But when evil people (Ed. having chosen evil, through free will) who are opposed to His will hate and murder others, He allows this to become a part of His plan for them. We must distinguish between the actual deed of someone who, for example, slanders us and the situation that comes to us as a result of the deed, which was not God’s will. God did not will the sinful act, but from all eternity He has taken into account the consequences of it in our lives. He wills that we grow through those very things that others do to us that are difficult and painful.

There is a deeply rooted tendency in human beings to look at others and their failings. In doing this, we miss what is most essential: to accept and assent to God’s will in our lives, a will that is largely formed by the opposition of others to God’s will. We need only look at Jesus. It was not the Father’s will that His Son be killed, nor did he inspire anyone to kill Him. He did will, however, that Jesus would freely be the sacrifice for the sins of mankind. He willed that Jesus would let Himself be put to death. Jesus did not say, as we often hear today: “But this is not God’s will, this cannot be God’s will.” He said: “Abba, Father, all things are possible to You; remove this chalice from Me; yet not what I will, but what You will” (Mk 14:36). For everyone of us there is a chalice that the Father offers us to drink. We have difficulty recognizing it as coming from Him, since a great deal of its contents comes from other people. Nevertheless, it is the Father Who asks us to drink the bitter cup. It was so for Jesus, and it is the same for us.

“Your Providence, O Father, Guides!” (cf. Wis 14:3)

God has everything in His hand. Nothing exists outside the sphere of His influence. Nothing can upset His plans. Augustine formulates this very radically: “Nothing happens that the Almighty does not will should happen, either by permitting it or by Himself doing it.” [1] To let something happen is also a decision of God.

That God allows so much to happen is a great stumbling block for us. Why is he so passive? Why does he not intervene? How is Auschwitz possible and the torture chamber and the threat of a horrible nuclear war if God is concerned with us? These questions torment us and are not easy to answer. In chapter 2, I will return to this and try to show why God endowed human beings with free will, though He knew that this very freedom would pave the way for terrible catastrophes.

Let us limit ourselves for now to the undeniable fact that the Father did not prevent the painful death of His only-begotten Son. This fact is a kind of archetype, which shows us two things very clearly. The first is that suffering and even total ruin do not signify a lack of love on the part of the Father. The second is that suffering is not in vain; it bears fruit and has redeeming power. Since Jesus has gone through it, suffering has become an instrument of salvation. This applies not only to suffering that is borne generously and heroically. Who knows how we would react in the torture chamber? It is enough that we try as best we can to accept suffering or that we merely allow whatever comes our way to happen. The Church regards the Holy Innocents as martyrs, even though they never consciously or willingly consented to their violent deaths.

God makes use of evil in such a superb way and with such skill that the result is better than if there had never been evil. For those of us who find ourselves in the midst of evil, this is not easy to swallow. We think that the price to be paid for these good results is far too high. But Saint Paul rejoices when he ponders the “mystery”, God’s magnificent plan, “hidden for ages in God” (Eph 3:9), where evil and sin also have their place. “God has consigned all men to disobedience, that He may have mercy upon all” (Rom 11:32). In this daring passage, which, strictly speaking, seems somewhat questionable, since it seems to place the initiative of sin on God, Saint Paul assures us that even the greatest catastrophe, namely, sin, contributes to the revelation of love. Nothing falls outside of God’s plan. That is why the tragedy of the world, despite all its terror, has no definitive character. All the absurdity of which mankind’s foolishness and blindness are capable is caught up in God’s loving omnipotence. He is able to fit even the absurd into His plan of salvation and thereby give it meaning.

In his stories about Hasidism, Martin Buber writes: “On the evening before Yom Kippur, the great day of atonement, Rabbi Susa once heard the cantor singing in the synagogue in a wonderful way: ‘and it is forgiven.’ He then called out to God: ‘Lord of the universe, this song could never have resounded in Your presence had Israel not sinned.’ ” [2]

“There is indeed much done against God’s will by evil men,” Augustine writes, “but His wisdom and power are so great that everything seemingly contrary to it, in reality, works toward the good outcome or end that He has preordained.” [3] In other words: “God accomplishes His good will through the evil will of others. In this way the Father’s loving plan was realized … and Jesus suffered death for our sake.” [4]

There is no need to distinguish carefully between what God positively wills and what He merely permits. What He permits is also a part of His universal, all-embracing will. He has foreseen it from the beginning and decided how He will use it. Everything that happens has a purpose in God’s plan. He is so good that all that comes in contact with Him becomes in some way good. God’s goodness is contagious and even gives evil something of its own goodness. “God is so good”, Augustine says, “that in His hand, even evil brings about good. He would never have permitted evil to occur if He had not, thanks to His perfect goodness, been able to use it.” [5] Who can dare to speak of chance? “Nothing in our lives happens haphazardly…. Everything that takes place against our will can only come from God’s will, His Providence, the order He has created, the permission He gives, and the laws He has established.” [6]

The distinction between what God wills and what He merely permits is extremely important on the theological level. When it has to do with real life, however, with unavoidable events and our reaction to them, we might wonder if speculation about the difference is not often a subtle form of escapism. If God does not will the evil that befalls me, I do not need to accept it. Then I may in good conscience rebel against it.

Job is not interested in such distinctions. The evil that afflicts him comes directly from the devil. Nevertheless, Job says: “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD!” (Job 1:21). Father Jean-Pierre de Caussade (1675-1751) writes to Sister Marie-Henriette de Bousmard: “Be profoundly persuaded that nothing takes place in this world either spiritually or physically, that God does not will, or at least, permit; therefore we ought no less to submit to the permissions of God in things that do not depend on us, than to His absolute will.” [7]



[1] Enchiridion de fide, spe et caritate, no. 24.

[2] Die Erzählungen der Chassidim (Zurich: Manesse Verlag, 1949), p. 387.

[3] De civitate Dei 22, 2, I.

[4] Enchiridion, no. 26.

[5] Opus imperf. contra Julianum, lib. 5, no. 60.

[6] Enarrationes in Ps I 18, v. 12.

[7] Rev. Jean-Pierre de Caussade, S.J., Letters, in Abandonment to Divine Providence (Exeter: Sidney Lee, Catholic Records Press, 1921), p. 127.

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