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The Divine Attributes Retreat
The Attributes of God
The Providence of God (Part 1)
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
God as Creator is closely related to God as Provider; in other words, creation and providence are closely interrelated. Creation answers the question where do we come from; providence tells us where we are going. Needless to say, we had better know both.
What then is divine providence as the Catholic Church understands it? We are to be very clear in that God made the world, since the God we believe in is not the god of deism, some impersonal force. No. God did not make the world, as it were, wind it up, and then let it go. No. God did indeed make the world, but God remains in the world. Let's be clear. God is not the world, but God is within the world, guiding, directing, governing, in a word, providing. We may therefore say that God's providence is his eternal, all-wise plan directing all his creatures according to their different natures to the end or purpose or destiny for which they were made.
There is one statement, part of our infallible faith in the Church's teaching, which describes providence in these words: "By his providence, God watches over and governs all the things that he made, reaching from end to end with might, and disposing all things with justice; for all things are naked and open to his eyes, even those things that are bound to occur by the free action of creatures." (The description of divine providence by Vatican I.) With that as a background, we will try to briefly explain what we mean or should mean by divine providence.
The Church tells us to say "by his providence," meaning that God, who made the world out of nothing, not only keeps it in existence, but directs this world, God's world, down to the smallest and most minute detail. God is active in every atom, in every proton, in every neutron. God is active in every thought we think, in every desire we have. All, all is part of his providence.
What does God do by his providence? He watches over. Over what? Over the whole wide world; everything comes under his divine scrutiny.
God watches over, but God also governs. In other words, he not only knows what is going on, he is directing what is going on. Before this retreat is over we will climb at least to the lower heights of the Himalaya. How else begin to begin to know what we mean when we say, as we must say, that God by his providence governs everything in this world.
And yet, mysteriously, though he is governing everything, the creatures that he made nevertheless do not cease to be creatures with the power and ability as us human beings with a mind and a will of our own. Do you mean that God governs the world and within that world governs us, governs our thinking, and God governs our willing? Yes. God governs everything, including our own wills. Now who is doing the willing? Is it God or me? Talk about mystery! Both.
By His providence, God watches over and governs all the things we know. Everything? Everything. From the furthest creatures of the most distant star, to the bowels of the earth, and from the great achievements of human history over the centuries to the thoughts you and I are now thinking, he watches over and he guides everything, reaching, the Church tells us, from end to end; a dramatic way of indicating that nothing, simply nothing is independent of the providence of God, nothing. From the highest to the lowest, from the most sublime to the most unimportant, with God there is nothing that is unimportant.
The same almighty power, the same omnipotence that brought the world out of nothing into being, that same omnipotence is constantly being exercised by God in watching or and governing the world by his providence. What consolation that should give us. God is always in control.
"And disposing all things." God has a purpose in everything: a purpose in the table at which I am sitting, in the watch to my right, in the machinery in front of me; a purpose in the weather outside; a purpose in some one of the community who kindly shoveled the snow from where I was staying to where I was going. God is behind that shovel; he is behind the hands that pushed it.
The Church tells us, God's almighty providence, God's almighty power governs the world with gentleness. God is mild. God is not loud or boisterous; he governs the world with gentleness. Our only danger is to not see his hand, to be deceived by his mildness to not realize that behind that mildness is omnipotence; in other words, it is divine power tempered by love. My favorite definition of gentleness: power tempered by love.
"All things are open to his eyes." He sees everything; he had better see everything otherwise nothing would even continue to exist. God is the divine chess player; every move he knows exactly what to make.
The Church tells us that God's providence spans everything in the universe including what we are liable to overlook or say it can't be, including those things that are going to occur by the free actions of his creatures. God's providence, you see, is not only for the past: what had occurred. Here is part of God's providence that a little publicized occurrence took place when we were conceived and born. When I talk on this subject I like to see empty pews or empty chairs from where I am speaking. It is God's providence for the past. And the pews you are occupying and the chair I am sitting on should have a human being.
God's providence spans not only everything that is now going on; God makes sure that I say what he wants me to say, at least to give you a chance to practice patience. "Oh, not him again."
But the hardest object of our faith in divine providence is not only that he watches over and governs what has occurred, or what is going on, but everything that will occur, everything that will occur willingly, voluntarily. God knows what choices we will make five minutes from now, five months from now, and if we are still on earth, five years from now.
God is always looking ahead. He uses, (that's the verb we have to use), he uses even our voluntarily chosen actions. Even our free decisions are part of God's providence. And what will be harder and hardest to believe: in part of God's providence is the voluntary decisions that other people make when they choose to sin. If we had our choice we would never want those people to choose to do what they did; but in God's providence even, we have to say this, even the sinful decisions that people make - what a mystery! - are part of the providence of God. And we are to believe that everything, including the choices that we, his followers, make are governed by him, for and by him, for the eternal purpose that God from all eternity had in mind.
We are going to look now at the witness of Sacred Scripture. Believing as we do in divine providence, how do we know for certain that there is a divine providence? We could, dimly and shallowly, concede from reason that if God made the world, somehow, somehow he must be running the world, otherwise known as exercising his providence. But it took the Holy Spirit in both Testaments, and it took Christ the Son of God to teach us there is a providence, and what is much harder, to live our faith in God's providence. We can believe it with the mind; because we don't fully understand it anyhow, we might just as well believe. But it is to live it, to act every moment of our day on the conviction that everything is part of God's will.
What needs emphasis, as we now look at the teaching of Sacred Scripture on divine providence, is that the scope of God's providence is not only to provide for our temporal welfare here on earth; we believe, because God has revealed it, that God's providence especially provides for our eternal destiny in the world to come. As a matter of fact, God's providence in the temporal world is only a means for providing for his divine providence into eternity. Divine providence began at the dawn of creation and will continue into the endless reaches of eternity.
I would like to quote from two parts of the Bible, first from the Old Testament and then from the New. Almost every verse of the Old and New Testaments God is teaching us that there is a providence, and urging us to trust him. My choice from the Old Testament is from the Psalms. Before coming here, I went through the psalms; every one of them the longest to the shortest, somehow has to do with divine providence. I chose psalm sixty. I am using the Vulgate translation.
"Here, O God, my cry; listen to my prayer! From the earth's end I call to you as my heart grows faint. You will set me high upon a rock; you will give me rest, for you are my refuge, a tower of strength against the enemy. Oh, that I might lodge in your tent forever, take refuge in the shelter of your wings! You indeed, O God, have accepted my vows; you granted me the heritage of those who fear your name. Add to the days of the king's life; let his years be many generations; let him sit enthroned before God forever; bid kindness and faithfulness preserve him. So will I sing the praises of your name forever, fulfilling my vows day by day." (Ps 61)
I have to go on to the next psalm. "Only in God is my soul at rest; from him comes my salvation. He only is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold; I shall not be disturbed at all. How long will you set upon a man and altogether beat him down as though he were a sagging fence, a battered wall? Truly from my place on high they plan to dislodge me; they delight in lies; they bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse. Only in God be at rest, my soul, for from him comes my hope. He only is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold; I shall not be disturbed. With God is my safety and my glory, he is the rock of my strength; my refuge is in God. Trust in him at all times, O my people! pour out your hearts before him; God is our refuge!" (Ps 62)
And so we could go on. Psalm after psalm keeps telling us: no matter what the problems in your life, there are no problems. That's the message of the Holy Spirit. There are no problems in life, none; they don't exist; they are figments of our imagination. What we call problems are acts of providence. What does God want us to do? He wants us to trust; trust in the loving God that everything finally comes from him and that provided we rely on his strength, on God our Rock, strong, firm, unshaken, he will see us through.
So much for the Old Testament, now the New. Same thing from beginning to end. Do you remember the way Luke's gospel begins? The angel appearing to Zachariah and giving him a message about his aged wife bearing a child. What was Zachariah problem? He complained: "I don't get it, whoever you are;" (it happened to be an angel from God) "listen, I know Elizabeth too well; old women don't become pregnant; don't tell me, I know better." He didn't trust in God's providence.
And all through the New Testament in book after book, chapter after chapter, we are told that God mysteriously provided for the founding of the Church; though Christ, as we know, was hounded by his enemies from almost the day of his birth; Herod tried to kill him. And then John's apocalypse, chapter after chapter, predicting the sufferings and trials and opposition. The persecution that Jesus endured in his life - this is John predicting under divine inspiration - his followers would experience until the end of time. We've got to trust, trust in the providence of God.
My choice, however, was from Christ's Sermon on the Mount, (Mt 6:25-34). Throughout the gospels, Christ is telling his followers not to fear, not to worry. In this context he is telling his contemporaries and through them is telling us, not to be anxious. Why not? Because God is providing for all our needs. Jesus, in the words we are going to quote, is talking about not being worried about food and clothing, shelter and bodily needs; but we know, and the Church tells us, Christ meant that we are to trust God in everything in our lives.
Let's put this into the context to which it belongs. This is the end of the sixth chapter of Matthew. By this time Christ had given many commandments to those who believe in him and want to follow him, and some were very demanding laws. Summarily, Jesus concluded: I want you to be concerned about only the things of heaven. Set you heart, he told his followers, only on keeping the laws of God. Seek only the kingdom of God and his justice, and then God will provide everything else you need.
I won't quote all ten verses, just the start and the end. "Therefore," says Christ, "I say to you, do not be anxious for your life, what you shall eat, nor yet your body, what you shall put on." And he forbids his followers to be anxious five times, I counted them, in ten verses. "Do not be anxious." And then that beautiful statement, if only we were courageous enough to follow it. "Do not be anxious about tomorrow; for tomorrow will have anxieties of its own. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble."
Christ had no doubt, none whatever, that to follow him faithfully it would mean trial, trouble and the cross. However, we won't deny the obvious: following the Master is demanding on human nature, so it is not easy; but, "don't be anxious, don't worry; trust me."
Our only concern should be to do the will of God, as Jesus told us, to seek only the kingdom of heaven and his justice. And then all these earthly things will be provided for.
One more aspect to our reflections on divine providence: a living faith in the providence of God. Although Christ spoke explicitly only about food, drink and clothing, he meant that we should not be anxious about anything in the world. Now to bring this home and to make sure that this is not a theological lecture but a retreat conference. What must we do?
First we must be sincerely detached from the things of this world. Our hearts must be open to do the will of God. I have given too many retreats, I've counseled too many souls, I've struggled in my own life with too many problems and crosses that the Lord in his mercy has sent me; one thing I know, and I share it with you, we must be absolutely, nakedly honest before God. "Lord, I want to do your will, and I mean it!" In other words we must be internally free from the tyrant of our natural desires and fears. All this talk about providence is not just sophisticated theology and how much less reading a novel; this is not fiction, it is fact. God IS running the world, he is in charge of everything. Part of God's providence is our exercise of prudence. God's providence over the sun, moon and stars, over the animals and trees, God's providence for them is quite different from his providence for us. If we are to live this providence and be able to trust God as the psalmist did, that he will provide, and he will provide, we must allow him to provide. We must master our natural sinful impulses. If we are to live out this providence in our lives, trusting him absolutely, and being anxious about nothing besides, then he will help us; but we must do it. We must shed ourselves of all our inordinate attachments and fears. You've got yours, I've got mine.
Second. If we are to live out our faith in the providence of God, we must pray. Constantly pray? Always. Why? Because we constantly need the grace only God can give us to put our faith in God's providence into practice. Anxieties will come but they must always been seen as temptations. Worries will come but we must not give in to them, rather we must use them as means for deepening our childlike trust in God. And every act of confidence in God's providence that we make strengthens us to face new problems, to overcome new troubles and anxieties that God will send us.
Let's close with a prayer of my confrere, Blessed Claude de la Columbiere, the spiritual director of St. Margaret Mary. "Loving and tender providence of my God, into your hands I commend my spirit; to you I abandon my hopes and fears, my desires and repugnances, my temporal and eternal prospects. To you I commit the wants of my perishable body. To you I commit the more precious interests of my immortal soul, for whose lot I have nothing to fear as long as I do not forget your care. Though my faults are many, my misery great, my spiritual poverty extreme, my hope in you surpasses all; it is superior to my weakness, greater than my difficulties, stronger than death. Though temptations should assail me, I will hope in you; though I break my resolutions, I will look to you confidently for grace to keep them at last. Though you should kill me, even then I will trust in you, for you are my Father, my God, the support of my salvation; you are my kind, compassionate and indulgent parent and I am your obedient child, who cast myself into your arms and beg your blessing. I put my trust in you and, so trusting, shall not be confounded. Amen."
Transcription of the retreat given in December, 1988
Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica
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