One of the basic characteristics of genuine Christians is their faith in God’s providence. This certainty is the remedy for many illnesses and for every temptation that befalls us. Our faith is not something abstract and subjective that enables us to cope slightly better with the various problems we encounter in our lives, but a revealed truth. It is a truth revealed by Christ and lived by all God’s saints down through the ages.
Christ said, “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work” (John 5:17). The miracles performed by Christ demonstrate God’s providence. According to the holy Fathers, the Triune God actually directs the world personally, and it is due to divine providence that every person comes into this life and lives.
1. What is Divine Providence?
St John of Damascus, defining divine providence, states, “Providence is the care that God takes over existing things. And again: providence is the will of God through which all existing things take their appropriate course.” Thus divine providence is God’s care for the whole of creation and God’s will for everything that exists. According to St John of Damascus, God is the Maker and Provider of everything. He willed that all things should be and they came into being. He still wishes the world to continue, and it does, “and all that He wills comes to pass.” Also, as St John of Damascus says, all things that are out of our hands are the work of divine providence, because “those that are in our power are outside the sphere of providence and within that of our free-will.”
The holy Fathers put great emphasis on the existence and importance of God’s uncreated providence. There are two basic doctrines concerning the relationship between God and the world. One is that the world was created out of nothing and the other is that God does not govern the world by created means but through God’s direct personal intervention. It is well known that Christianity differs from the views of philosophy on these two points. The holy Fathers regarded these two dogmas as closely linked. One does not make sense without the other.
God’s personal intervention in governing the world is as important as the creation of the world out of nothing. God did not create the world and then abandon it. Nor did He put certain natural laws in place when creating the world. Instead, He Himself personally directs it. When certain events are repeated it is not due to natural laws but to the reliability of divine providence.
So when miracles happen it does not mean that so-called natural laws have been suspended, because that would be as if God were suspending His own action. Rather, it is a sign that God wills at that particular moment to act in this way. God’s providential energy, like His creative and life-giving energy, is uncreated, which is why we teach that God personally directs the world. As St Isaac the Syrian says, “God takes very great forethought for men, and… there is no human being who is not under His providence.”
2. The Purpose of Divine Providence
The purpose of divine providence is to direct the world, to maintain its existence. St Maximos the Confessor says that, because all things that exist are created, they have within them the potential to shift from being into non-being. It is the uncreated providence of God that keeps everything in being and does not allow it to return to non-existence. Another purpose of divine providence is to unify what is divided. God is concerned, says St Maximos the Confessor, “to unite by means of true faith and spiritual love those separated in various ways by evil.”
God reveals the true faith and guides people towards attaining spiritual love, in order to achieve the unity of human nature. This is the work of Christ, because through His Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection He united human nature and gave every human being the possibility of perceiving this unity and communion with God. The ultimate aim of divine providence is man’s salvation.
St John of Damascus says that God did not create us for hell, but wants us all to be saved. “It should be borne in mind that God’s wish from the beginning is that all should be saved and come into His Kingdom. For it was not for punishment that He formed us but to share in His goodness, as He is good.” Thus God provides for man’s existence and salvation, but also for the existence of the entire creation. “God makes provision for all creation and makes all creation the instrument of His help and training, often even the demons themselves” (St John of Damascus).
3. The Healing Work of Divine Providence
It is very important for us to be aware of God’s providence in nature, history and the whole of our personal life. This awareness is a sign of spiritual health. Only someone who is healthy can discern the uncreated providence of God that is present in everything that happens in life. Usually when various trials befall us we think that God has abandoned us, that He does not take care of us or provide for our life and salvation. That is wrong. Even during great temptations God directs our life through His uncreated providence.
According to Abba Dorotheos, monks and all Christians ought to prepare themselves in such a way that when temptations come upon them they are neither surprised nor disturbed, “believing that nothing happens outside God’s providence.” Wherever the providence of God is, “whatever happens is good and beneficial for the soul”, since God does everything for our own benefit “and because He loves us and spares us.”
St Isaac of Syria goes so far as to teach that not even the demons or ravaging beasts or men hardened in evil can ruin and destroy as they wish, “unless the bidding of Him Who governs permits it.” Someone who has faith in God and His wonderful providence continually says, “I have a Guardian watching over me, and there is not a creature that can even appear in my presence, unless a command should come from on High.”
Nothing bad can befall a person unless God allows it. Those who completely abandon themselves to God are aware that God shows them greater concern and affection. St Isaac the Syrian says, “The man who always goes to bed with rumination upon has gained Him as his Chamberlain; and he who desires the fulfilment of God’s will, will have the angels of heaven as his guides.”
God is the steward of the faithful Christian and the faithful Christian has God as his helper in life. This accords with the words of Christ, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matt. 6:33).
According to St John of Damascus, some of the works of God’s providence result from His good pleasure, whereas others He allows to happen. God wills some things and others He permits. Everything that accords with His good pleasure is completely good, whereas things that happen by permission are of many different kinds. God allows someone to fall into misfortunes so that his hidden virtue may be displayed, as was the case with Job. Sometimes He permits something seemingly inappropriate to happen in order that something greater may be accomplished, as when the salvation of humankind was brought about through the cross. At other times He allows a saintly person to suffer, as did the Apostle Paul, to prevent him from losing His grace and becoming arrogant. One person may be temporarily forsaken in order that another may benefit, as was the case with the rich man and Lazarus in the parable. Another is abandoned for a while so that God may be glorified, as happened with the man who was blind from birth. Again, someone may be permitted to fall in order to correct another passion; for example, God may permit someone who suffers from arrogance to commit fornication so that he may repent and go to confession. When we are unable to grasp how terrible pride is, God allows us to fall into another sin that we can understand, so that we may be cured of another hidden passion and so be saved.
St John of Damascus goes on to say that there are two forms of abandonment by God. One is “providential abandonment for the purpose of training”, in order to restore, save and honour the sufferer, as an example to others and to the glory of God. The other is “complete and hopeless desertion”, when, despite everything God has done for our salvation and all His kindness towards us, we remain by our own set purpose insensitive and incurable. Such was the destruction of Judas. St John of Damascus also says that the methods used by God’s providence are many, and they cannot all be interpreted rationally or grasped by our nous.
In general the saints teach that, for those who accept them with gratitude, all calamities “contribute to their salvation and are to their benefit” (St John of Damascus). The faithful Christian who trusts in God and whose nous is oriented towards Him benefits from all the misfortunes that befall him. By contrast “He who does not resolutely bear trouble, endure affliction, and patiently sustain hardship, has strayed from the path of divine love and from the purpose of providence”, according to St Maximos the Confessor.
4. The Awareness of Divine Providence
The problem is that we are not aware that God provides for us because our nous is often darkened and we cannot see things clearly. If we were able to ascertain God’s will and providence accurately, we would endure temptations and dangers.
St Isaac the Syrian teaches that, “God’s protection and providence encircle all men, yet they are not seen except by those who have cleansed themselves from sin and who continually keep their attention on God, and on Him alone.” The only people who can clearly discern the providence of God are those who cleanse their hearts and discover their nous, which is able, once healed, to see God’s energy within creation.
St Nicholas Cabasilas, interpreting the exhortation in the Divine Liturgy, “Let us commend ourselves, and one another, and our whole life to Christ our God”, says that it is not enough to make this statement – that we commend ourselves to God – “It is necessary that God should accept us.” This is an expression and outcome of boldness towards God; and such boldness comes from a clear conscience, when our heart does not accuse us of anything and when we neglect our own concerns “so as to care for what is His.” In order to see and experience the providence of God, a person must be released from the domination of fallen reason and set free from relying on his own judgment.
Abba Dorotheos says characteristically, “In everything that has happened to me, I have never wanted to act according to human wisdom, but always to do what little lies within my power and to leave everything to God.” In other words, we ought to do what we can, then commit everything to God’s providence.
Usually we fail because we put our own judgment and will at the centre of our life instead of the will of God. Our life focuses on human beings and not on the God-man Christ. That is why we are disappointed and despair.
The Gerontikon relates a story from the life of Abba Daniel. When the barbarians came to Scetis, the Fathers left and the Elder said, “If God does not look after me, what is the point of living? And he passed through the barbarians and they did not see him.” He abandoned himself totally to God and God kept him safe. However, he did what he could as a human being.
The fact is that we are dominated by various ideas. Most of all we are held captive by death. Death and the passions for acquiring glory, money and power and enjoying ourselves fill us with anxiety and insecurity. When we get rid of the fear of death and other thoughts linked with the passions, it is easier for us to face life’s problems. If our attention is directed towards God, if we develop our trust in Him and believe in His providence, we shall always be tranquil and calm under difficult circumstances. We shall be free from spiritual, psychological and physical disorders. We shall be able to repeat the words, “He careth for us” (1 Pet. 5:7) and “The Lord knoweth them that are His” (2 Tim. 2:19).
extract from The Science of Spiritual Medicine