Divine Providence: How Trusting God Embraces Our Purpose
A Need for Trust in God
In a world that’s inundated with natural evils, it’s no wonder why so many people rely on the providence of God. Without it, it would be hard to reconcile sickness, famine, violence, natural disasters, and any other hard fact of life. Even when it comes to tough questions, like deciding whether to take a different job, or discerning how many children God intends for us to have, God’s divine providence can reassure us in our decisions and reminds us that we are not in control.
The other day, I was discussing with a fellow Catholic the inner-workings of “just causes,” and we disagreed about what would be allowed, or not allowed, when choosing to use NFP for a given reason. I reasoned that, if a “just cause” could not be understood or met, one must rely on Divine Providence, that is, trust in God, to relieve ourselves of such a decision.
In my last post, I was going over the idea of conscience. Essentially, conscience is to be used in accordance with Church teaching in order to make a moral decision. Divine Providence, then, can serve as an “insurance” of sorts that allows us to resolve some of the impossible decisions that we face as Catholics; even moral decisions.
This is not to assume that this providence is a one trick pony, it isn’t. This is simply one way to understand something that would otherwise be infinitely complex (or infinitely simple to use St. Thomas Aquinas’ words). God’s divine Providence is limitless.
What is Divine Providence?
As defined by Fr. John Hardon’s Modern Catholic Dictionary, Providence is “God's all-wise plan for the universe, and the carrying out of his plan by his loving rule or governance.” It goes on to say, “[Providence] is infallibly certain because the ultimate purpose that God has for the universe will not fail. And it is immutable because God himself cannot change.”
The Providence of God is the first and foremost fact of our own existence. Had he not intended for us to exist, we simply wouldn’t exist. So, one can infer that we are not only created, but willed into existence; and if that’s true (and it is), then we should also have to assume that everything else that happens, and everything else that is created, is equally willed. After all, it wouldn’t make sense for God to be inconsistent in the way by which he creates. And although we are set apart from animals in our purpose, we are still bound to the same material from which we’re made.
As the most beloved creatures of God, we have been gifted with the blessing of free will. With it, we can freely choose to love and serve God, as we were created to do. Likewise, we are free to reject God, and live to love and serve ourselves instead. Many people assume that the idea of free will disproves the concept of Divine Providence. I mean, if we have free will, how can God be in control? More than that, if I can reject my own purpose, how is it also true that God’s will is done?
On the surface, it certainly appears as though free will and divine Providence cannot coexist. On the contrary, they are almost synergetic in the way they cooperate. Instead of being lifeless pawns who bend to the every beck and call of some dictator-god, we are permitted, and indeed encouraged, to take part in God’s divine plan; his Providence: “Divine providence works also through the actions of creatures. To human beings God grants the ability to cooperate freely with his plans” (CCC 323, emphasis added).
Whether we choose to partake in his plan doesn’t have any bearing on the ultimate outcome, but can certainly contribute to it in some way. Whether we choose to follow God, for instance, won’t change the fact that Christ will come back; but our actions may help others come to know God before the final judgment. On top of that, it certainly won’t change the fact that we’ll be judged on our actions. This means that God’s divine providence will always succeed.
Unfortunately, people try using divine providence all too often in order to make an unsound point, usually when arguing in favor of a morally questionable position. The argument usually goes something like, “If God wants me to get pregnant, I’ll get pregnant no matter what I do,” or “If God didn’t want me to feel this way, I wouldn’t feel this way.”
This is not a correct understanding of Divine Providence expressly because of its relationship with free will. Just as God can’t force us to submit our free will to him, we can’t impose our free will upon God’s providence. For this reason, these arguments don’t hold water.
Why is Divine Providence Necessary?
The providence of God is incredibly beneficial to us for a number of reasons; primarily, because it makes impossible decisions more palatable. In the instance of deciding on whether or not to take a new job, for example, we can’t always easily presume that this new job will be fulfilling or even stable. If that’s the case, then we need some other way of deciding what’s best for us, and for our family. If it isn’t clear that our decision is correct, and we can only surmise that it could be a good move, no amount of scrupulous discernment will lead us to a definite answer. What it comes down to is God’s plan for us; otherwise known as “Divine Providence.”
We can rely on God to help us when our own minds can’t fathom the possibilities of a given decision. In the more serious case of deciding when to use NFP (Natural Family Planning), for instance, it isn’t always clear whether or not we should really be using it. Within the Catholic community, people face this very dilemma all the time. Although each situation is unique to those involved, the decision usually involves a husband and wife who, for one reason or another, are discerning whether or not they should be using NFP to avoid pregnancy. To save time, suffice it to say that not all reasons are considered “just” reasons to use it (we’ll get into NFP in detail some other time).
What, then, is the couple supposed to do if they truly can’t determine what the best course of action for their family? They must rely on God’s divine Providence. In fact, a popular Encyclical called Gaudium et Spes, promulgated by Pope Paul VI, says, “Thus, trusting in divine Providence and refining the spirit of sacrifice, married Christians glorify the Creator and strive toward fulfillment in Christ when with a generous human and Christian sense of responsibility they acquit themselves of the duty to procreate” (Gaudium et Spes, #50, emphasis added).
It is a good thing to trust in God. One of the greatest acts of love that we can offer our creator is the promise of our trust in his power, and in his willingness to help us whenever we need it:
“Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26, emphasis added).
To be sure, there are starving people in the world, and there are those who die of sickness or from natural disasters. But God’s divine providence transcends our understanding of justice and fairness. For that reason, observable evil cannot be a cause for distrust in God; certainly, it’s not a reason to reject the concept of Providence. Indeed, suffering humbles us (Deuteronomy 8:3) and can lead us to a life of devotion to God. Who are we to deny the means by which God seeks us?
What Does the Church Say?
We’ve already heard a little bit about divine providence in Gaudium et Spes as it relates to parenthood and the obligation to raise a family. Surely, it’s important to recognize the purpose of God’s providence in light of every aspect of our lives, not just parenthood and procreation. So, what does the Catholic Church say about God’s Providence? Well, It has a lot to say. For the sake of time, we’ll focus on some of those teachings that relate directly to Providence itself.
Right off the bat, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Divine providence consists of the dispositions by which God guides all his creatures with wisdom and love to their ultimate end” (CCC 321, emphasis added). Everything that God has created is predisposed to his loving guidance, even unto their “ultimate end.” And for us humans, it also means that we can accept or reject it because of that free will we talked about earlier. But as the saying goes, “Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.”
We are created with free will in the hope that we willingly foster a genuine love for God rather than a forced “love” for him. The Church even tells us that “Jesus asks for childlike abandonment to the providence of our heavenly Father who takes care of his children's smallest needs” (CCC 305, emphasis added). For this claim, the Church cites Matthew, which says, “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ …your heavenly Father knows that you need them all” (Matthew 6:31-32, emphasis added).
Is the Church saying that we are supposed to sit around like vegetables and expect God to do everything for us? Not in the least. But the Church does expect us to acknowledge our helplessness and humility. We are called to follow God and to do good works, we aren’t called to be God. For that reason, some things are simply not in our hands. When impossible situations arise, and we don’t submit to God’s providence, we end up lost, confused, or, sometimes, we end up committing sin.
If we reduce ourselves to be humble servants of God, we will be able to accept the life he’s given to us and we are less likely to succumb to the desires of our own will. That’s why it’s the duty of every baptized Christian to literally abandon ourselves to God’s providence, “The baptized person combats envy through good-will, humility, and abandonment to the providence of God” (CCC 2554, emphasis added). Furthermore, a doubt in God’s ability to take care of us is detrimental to our spiritual life. It’s one thing to have a healthy concern about the way our future is going to unfold, but it’s quite another to try to take matters of the future into our own hands.
Often, pushback from the idea of Providence manifests itself in the form of doubt. When I talk to someone about God’s plan, and about how we need not worry beyond our capabilities and understanding, I’m frequently met with opposition. Not because they don’t love God, but because they are afraid to submit to God’s divine providence. But it is expressly the will of God, and of the Church for that matter, that we truly relinquish ourselves to the protection of God's care. “…a sound Christian attitude consists in putting oneself confidently into the hands of Providence for whatever concerns the future, and giving up all unhealthy curiosity about it.” (CCC 2115, emphasis added).
Where Does That Leave Us?
When God created man, he created us well. It’s only by his love and desire for us that we were created. In the same way, we are subjected to his plan because his plan includes us. For this reason, it is fitting that we dedicate our lives to him and whatever plan he has for us and for the whole of creation. Although sometimes we are faced with impossible decisions, or are unsure about our future, we can rest assured in a God that has made abundantly clear his love for us, and his desire to provide for us. Thus, it is in our best interest that we avoid working against the will of God simply because we are doubtful, or even because we think we’re capable. It is no mystery that if we seek God, follow God, and trust God, we will be far better off than if we only seek to follow and trust ourselves.