Friday, April 23, 2010

Examples of Providence

The last few years I’ve been doing a midlife exploration of the Bible. Here is a list of narratives I found concerning God’s provision. The Bible does not spell out details of how God works, the Bible is clear that God does work! These stories arise from different narratives and sources within the Bible.

· Hagar has given up hope after her water has run out and leaves Ishmael to die. But the angel of God comes to her and gives her divine assurance. At that point, she realizes she has been close to water all along, and God remains with them (Gen. 21:15-21).
· Jacob is about to face his brother after many years, and he is greatly afraid. He prays to God for deliverance (Gen. 32:9-12). His prayer is touchingly answered when he meets his brother and unexpectedly is embraced lovingly by Esau (Gen. 33:1-11). Not only that, but Jacob experiences his unanticipated time of testing as he wrestles with … who? A man? God? An angel? (Gen. 32:22-32).
· Joseph experiences the betrayal of his brothers, the betrayal by Potiphar, yet another betrayal by the chief baker, and years of imprisonment before he interpreted Pharaoh’s dream and became a ruler in Egypt (Gen. 37, 39-41).
· Tamar schemes and presents herself as a prostitute in order to finally become pregnant—by her father-in-law Judah. One of her offspring, Perez, is ancestor of Jesus (Gen. 38).
· David slays Goliath with what seems an extremely ineffective weapon (1 Sam. 17:4ff).
· Saul, on the other hand, has excellent means to slay David but is prevented from doing so (1 Sam. 19:10).
· Solomon becomes king of Israel, amid the scheming of his mother and even of the prophet Nathan (1 Kings 1-2).
· Elijah prophesies concerning Ahab’s death (1 Kings 21:20f). Ahab dies when an Aramean soldier simply shot an arrow at no one in particular, and the arrow struck Ahab in a vulnerable place between his armor (1 Kings 22:34).
· Elisha’s servant Gehazi cheats Naaman of money. Although not present at the time, Elisha knew and cursed Gehazi and his descendents with leprosy (2 Kings 5:19b-27).
· Ahithophel gave better advice to Absalom, to pursue David. But God led Absalom to also seek the advice of Hushai, who advised Absalom not to be hasty. Absalom followed Hushai’s advice, which sounded better but contributed to his (Absalom’s) downfall (2 Sam. 17:1-23).
· In that same story, a woman hid Ahimaaz and Jonathan, and then lied to Absalom, which allowed David to escape safely (2 Samuel 17:15-22).
· Esther, a Jewish woman in the Persian king’s harem, becomes queen of Persia and, with her guardian Mordecai, is able to save her people from massacre.
· The Assyrian king Sennacherib taunts the people of God and blasphemes God. God’s angel struck down 185,000 Assyrian soldiers (Isa. 36-37; 2 Kings 18:13-19:37).
· Jeremiah is cast into a cistern to die. He is saved only because an Ethiopian eunuch, Ebed-melech, heard about it, and the king happened to be at a place where Ebed-melech could speak to him (Jer. 38:1-13).
· The thief on the cross has not believed in Jesus and scarcely has what we’d call faith. But with the barest amount of belief he reaches out to fellow “criminal” Jesus with a word of compassion and regret. The man gets more grace than he would’ve dreamed (Luke 23:39-43).
· You could argue that the two fellows walked to Emmaus had less faith than the penitent thief. The thief knew Jesus would come into his kingdom, whereas the two fellows thought the promised kingdom was no more, now that Jesus was gone. They too, get “extra grace” (Luke 24:13-35).
· The Ethiopian eunuch studies Scripture by himself, when Philip encounters him and helps the man discover Jesus. The Spirit had merely instructed Philip to go to Gaza, and after meeting with the eunuch, Philip doesn’t even proceed to Gaza but is sent elsewhere (Acts 8:26-40).
· Peter is able to evangelize the centurion Cornelius thanks to the Holy Spirit’s “cross-referencing” of visions (Acts 10).
· Peter is imprisoned, and his friends pray fervently for him. Subsequently an angel releases Peter from prison, but when he returns to his friends’ house, they don’t believe (Acts 12:6-17).
· Paul and Timothy had success in Lystra and Iconium, and then as they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, “having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia,” they tried to go into Bithynia. But the Holy Spirit forbade that, too. So they went to Troas, where Paul had a vision to go to Macedonia (Acts 16:6-10).
· Paul and Silas are released from prison because of an earthquake, which also led to the conversion of the jailer and his household (Acts 16: 25-34).
· Paul glorified God when God raised Eutychus from the dead; but Eutychus had died because he drifted off during Paul’s long sermon and fell from window (Acts 20:7-13).
· Paul wanted to go to Rome and preach; he would’ve been released by King Agrippa but Paul had appealed to the emperor (Acts 26:30-32); so Paul was sent a prisoner to Rome, but when he arrived, the Roman officials had received no charges against him (Acts 28:21). See the whole dramatic story: Acts 21:17-28:30.

These stories require prayerful interpretation on our part, for some are violent, untoward, and strange. Others are closer to our own experiences of serendipity Does the Bible spell out God’s role in these events? Not always! In some, God is scarcely mentioned, if at all. But the Bible witnesses to or implies a mysterious but real and strong guidance amid the very human course of things.

The Bible also gives us confidence in God’s ability to use us. The Bible is filled with characters God used. We should never raise ourselves to the stature of Moses, David, Gideon, Nehemiah, Mary, Peter, Stephen, Paul, and others. Remember that these people had specific roles in the history of God’s salvation, greater than our comparatively small place in God’s scheme. But, as we seek a deeper relationship with God in Christ, their stories give us confidence in God’s ability to use different people in astonishing ways. Although I strongly dislike that expression “One person plus God is a majority”—the saying sounds too much like “God is on my side, therefore I’m right and you (and everyone else) are wrong”—the expression points to the deep truth of God’s power to accomplish his will.

Be forewarned! God may use us for purposes beyond us, and that his purposes far transcend our personal agendas. God may accomplish great things in our lives, but he may use us for great things in other people’s lives; or God may use times of trouble and failure in order to bring about important things down the way. God’s providential signs and wonders happen within a context beyond our comprehension (Eph. 3:20). As we look to Christ and his Spirit, we open ourselves to God’s love and amazing possibilities.

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