I made a comment recently that we should be readers of three books in particular: the book of Scripture, the book of Creation, and the book of Providence.
This was off the back of a holiday which took us across the States and into Canada—so enabling us to enjoy some of the glories of God’s creation, whether it was the mountains around Seattle, the islands off Vancouver, the sheer might of Niagara Falls, or the beauty of sunsets. We saw God’s artistry in a new way. Added to that were many experiences of God’s providence as we travelled—from misplacing tickets and missing a train (which ended up saving us money!) to a stranger offering to carry a suitcase down four flights of stairs (which enabled us to catch a bus to the airport to make a flight) to many, many more—which filled us with a sense of our heavenly Father’s care.
So in preaching I said we should be good students of these three books, and in particular we should note down God’s providences so that we can see the regular care of our Father for us, and learn to marvel at his kindnesses. This way we train ourselves to see his hand at work, but more than that, we reinforce in our minds that he really does have every detail under control, so that when days of trouble come we have a reinforced confidence in God’s loving, wise sovereignty. We need to become better at recognising it as it happens, not just in the big things, but in the small, almost insignificant, things for those show us how our Father delights to delight his children, not simply take care of the big issues for them. A good father doesn’t simply sort out the crises, but does a thousand and one other things, blowing bubbles with soapy water, stopping for an ice-cream, bringing treats home—simply because he delights to delight his children. We need to take time to recognize those gifts.
A wise listener commented that it can be difficult to read God’s providences, especially the hard ones—the ones where prayer isn’t answered, or sickness comes. And that’s absolutely right. I’ve been pushing the whole idea around in my mind and teasing it out:
Reading God’s providences is like reading God’s sentences. Ah, but these sentences aren’t typed like scripture—fixed and clear in its wording. Nor are these sentences like the brush strokes of creation. These sentences are in God’s handwriting. Handwriting in a journal, in a live book.
Some of the sentences aren’t finished yet… We read the start of them, but we can’t figure out where they are going. We try to finish them in our minds, but we can’t figure it out. They start with dark storms and thunderous overtones, and we can’t see where the light gets in. These unfinished sentences are some of God’s hard providences where he hasn’t unveiled the end or purpose of his actions. We wonder over them. Of course, he has told us the end of the story (Rom 8:28) but not the end of the sentence, and so we ponder… But maybe it’s best to stand back and let the author finish his sentence his way, rather than for us to try to read his mind. We know his heart and we have to leave the sentences there with him.
Some of those sentences will get their full stop in several decades time, and then we will be able to read them—maybe. Some of those sentences won’t get their full stop until we stand in glory, and only then will we be able to read them. Some I suspect we will need to hear read in the author’s voice (I love audiobooks narrated by the author—they are so much more revealing—they know where the emphasis lies) for us to fully grasp their intent.
Some of the sentences in the book of providence are finished but complex. They are hard to figure out. They are not stand-alone sentences but deeply embedded in their context. They interweave with so many other threads of the story that they are hard to untangle. It may only be from the vantage point of eternity, where we will have time to trace the threads, that we will marvel in depth at the author’s skill and wisdom.
Some sentences in the journal of providence are long—longer even than sentences John Owen would have written—with many sub-clauses. They too can be harder to read, sometimes because we haven’t got to the end of the sentence, and even though there seems to be a break, the flow of thought isn’t finished. Hang on and keep reading.
But some of the sentences are short and crisp. They are simple enough for us children to read. And they are finished (at least to our inexpert eye—for great authors have a way of picking up insignificant details and weaving them later on into something far bigger). These finished sentences—the missed train which saved us money, a missed boat which led to a far better holiday experience—these are the sentences we should copy into our records of God’s providence. It is in these completed and clear sentences that we see our heavenly Father’s wisdom, love and delight set out more clearly.
As we read providence we become better at reading God’s handwriting, at spotting it in the unfolding barrage of words that shape our lives. We start to see his signature on events where before we would have missed it. We pick up sentences of his providence that we just took for granted. As we reread those sentences, and read them to each other (telling the wonder of God’s providence), we strengthen our trust for the other more complicated sentences.
And as we become better at reading the short sentences, we occasionally get better at reading longer ones, or stringing sentences together to make a paragraph of providence—seeing how they connect to form an even more wonderful testimony to our Father’s skill and wisdom.
So make it your practice to read the clear sentences of God’s providence, collect them, and reread them. And continue to wait in hope for the time when the long sentences, and the complex ones, become clear.