I can imagine the widow of Nain walking beside the casket of her son, her only son. Her support now gone, she trembles from the aching loss and the fear of insecurity. Or think of Jairus. His daughter near death, his only aim in life was to bring Jesus to her bedside. But before that happy meeting could occur, she was gone. Scripture is succinct. Its descriptions are concise. The widow wept and Jairus was obviously ready to fear. The responses are not uncommon. We perhaps know them well.
But is there help for those who suffer a difficult providence? It may surprise some to discover that the chapter on providence in the Westminster Confession of Faith provides pastoral guidance for those who encounter difficulty along the way, and it is a wonderful word to those who have ears to hear. But before the balm can be applied the Divines are eager to help us answer one simple question, how far does the providence of God extend? (WCF 5.4) The answer may unsettle the reader, however that is by design. By telling us that the providence of God extends to the first fall “and all other sins of angels and men” we are being told that nothing, whether good or ill, escapes God’s sovereign appointment. But how does that help?
First, in section five, we are reminded of God’s character. Notice the way God is described: he is wise, righteous, and gracious. This is the first thing a person who endures a difficult providence must be told. Why? Because he may infer that God resembles his hard experience. Such is not the case. God knows better, God judges better, and God is kinder than I can possibly imagine. But if I lose sight of these things, I begin to see God through the skewed lenses of a difficult providence. Phone filters can make our complexion look wonderful, they can give us cartoon features, or they can distort our features. A hard providence can be like a filter that distorts our view of God. Thus, the divines are making sure that we begin aright, with who God really is.
Second, the divines want us to take note of the nature of our experiences. They are “only for a season” or temporary, they are “manifold” or varied experiences, and because of the use of the language, it appears that they are fatherly, since fathers “chastise” their children. The selection of descriptors is instructive. Here we are reminded that hard providences will not last. They will eventually come to an end. This may seem difficult to the person who has suffered the loss of a loved one. Nevertheless, the hope of the resurrection reminds us that even separation caused by death is only for a season. And though experiences may vary, we are to remember that we are not alone. This common pool of experiences has been shared by others, even brothers and sisters in Christ. And, perhaps most importantly, the father has an eternal purpose in it.
Third, let me share some of the fatherly purposes we find in this section. We cannot interpret the meaning of a providence with any level of certainty (only God can tell us what He himself is doing!), but we can make use of the circumstances He appoints for us. In other words, a providence may uncover “the hidden strength of corruption”, which must be mortified. Or we may be humbled and so become more dependent upon God. And third, these are transforming opportunities, which is to say, they make us more “watchful against all future incidents of sin.”
We may never know why God brought a particular providence into our lives. But we do not need to know. What we need to know is that God is wise, righteous, and gracious. What we need to remember is that even hard providences work out for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. What we need to do is fix our eyes on Jesus Christ, the author and finisher of our faith. He alone came to reveal the Father and, along with the Father, give us His Spirit. He is good and faithful, trust Him in hard providences. You will not find Him wanting.
Jeff Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is a pastor (Grace RPC, graceingibsonia.org) and NT professor at RPTS in Pittsburgh, PA. He is also editor at placefortruth.com.
This article was written for the Gentle Reformation Blog. Check it out here for more thought provoking articles from a Reformed Perspective.