17. The Invisible Providence
I suppose it is because of the insecurity of our times, that there has been a fantastic upsurge of interest in horoscopes, fortune telling, tarot cards, dream interpretation - anything that purports to enable us to catch a glimpse into the future. I have no doubt that the future is there, somewhere. We are assured that the Lord can see it. He, being outside time, can look into time at any point, past, present or future. He can see at a glance where you will be, and what you will be doing, in twenty years' time, or a thousand years' time. The Lord could easily let us see into the future if He wished. But He knows that if He did so, it would be impossible for us to grow and develop spiritually and become angels.
Just imagine what would happen to this world if everyone could see into the future. The human race would just about grind to a standstill. If you knew exactly what was going to happen to you, and how you would react, during the next twenty-four hours, and the next twenty-four years, all spontaneity would go out of life, and you would just act out the foreseen motions like a robot. You would drift along on the current of predestination, and how boring it would be! Like seeing a movie through the second or third time: it all seems rather pointless, since you know exactly how everything is going to work out.
What would become of our projects if we could see into the future? If Ben Franklin had known the laws of electricity beforehand, where would have been the thrill of his experiments with the kite? If James Watt had been familiar with steam engines, what interest would he have had in the bouncing lid of a boiling tea kettle? Where would be the spirit of adventure as we edged our way into the future, discovering things as we went? Just imagine a Presidential Year, with its campaigning and party Conventions: where would the fun be, if we all knew ahead of time who the next President would be? Not only would the fun go out of life, but, more important, we should lose our free will.
Man's development as a spiritual being derives from his exercise of freedom and rationality. Consider freedom for a moment. Of course we are not free to do just anything we like; but the Lord gives us definite areas of freedom, and our characters develop according to the way we choose to act within those areas. Maybe the Lord could have created us perfect: angels and archangels from the word "go," unable to think a mean or dirty thought, in love toward Him and in charity one with another. Perhaps God did make man like that in the beginning; but He also gave man freedom, and we know what man did with it, and where he has got himself with it at the present day. We are born on a dunghill, and each one of us has to decide for himself what he wants to become, and struggle upward back into the estate for which he was originally created, as a son or daughter of God. It needs to be done with man's willing cooperation, because forced love is no love at all. Man works within the areas of his free will, and the Lord then takes over and completes the job - tightening, loosening, adjusting, pulling down, building up, as required. Why doesn't the Lord let us see Him at work? Because, if we could see what He is doing, we should probably oppose it with all our strength, and hate Him, and turn away from Him. For, believe it or not, most of what the Lord does, simply negates what we have done! He turns our structures upside down, taking the emphasis away from where we have placed it, putting it somewhere else, and generally changing the character of our work till we can hardly recognize it.
We, being materialistically minded, think principally in terms of making a success of our worldly lives, getting our own way in everything, being admired and honored by our peers, and obtaining financial security for our old age. These are the aims we have in view, toward which we devote most of our time, effort and thought. But the Lord has quite different aims for us. To Him, these things are of secondary importance only. Obviously He wants us to stand on our own feet and develop wills of our own, but only so that we can turn to Him "as of ourselves," and freely renounce the fleeting pleasures of this world in favor of the inexhaustible joys of heaven. It is the heavenly treasure He wants for us, which is infinitely superior to the earthly treasure we seek. So, in many cases, though not all, Providence works in direct opposition to our wishes; therefore we deny Providence, attributing everything to blind chance or bad luck. Better that way, than that we should attack the wisdom and love of God!
Especially does the worldly man deny Providence when he sees the wicked flourish as the green bay tree. "There you are!" he says. "The unscrupulous get on in the world! Look at me. I'm strictly honest in my dealings. I'm a God-fearing man. And see what I get! If there's such a thing as Providence, why don't I get a bigger slice of the cake?" If such a man realized what was really good for him, he would see that he was far better off through failing in his worldly ambitions than he would be if he got everything he wanted.
People are like plants in a garden. Some flowers, nasturtiums for instance, thrive best in a rocky sterile soil with the minimum of nourishment. Others, such as vegetable marrows, need the richest possible humus. Roses have to be cut back, whereas other blossoms need to be left alone. The gardener knows the individual needs of each species and treats them differently according to their natures. So with us. But we have to be unconscious of what He is doing, or we should accuse Him of injustice and hate Him. There are some people who have a golden touch, who seem to succeed in everything they put their hand to, without even trying. If they enter a sweepstake, they always get a prize. They just sail through life, and we think "How happy they are!" Well, these are the ones who need an easy and pleasant life for their maximum development. There are others who labor from morn till night and seem to achieve nothing. But in their own way they may be progressing spiritually just as fast as the so-called lucky ones. All of us have our lives custom-built for us by the Divine Providence, to give us the maximum opportunity for spiritual growth.
Someone told me the other day that this doctrine of Providence was only a "Rationalization of failure." O.K., perhaps it is, if by failure you mean worldly failure. What it does is to reverse one's values, making very little of worldly success or failure, but a great deal of spiritual growth. There is no harm in seeking high positions for oneself or acquiring wealth. What is evil is the lust of power and dominion, or the lust of possessions. It is against these two hellish motivations - love of self and the world - that Providence is ceaselessly working. So He has to operate in secret, invisibly, because these evil loves are innate in us all.
Swedenborg says that many people who are evil at heart speak favorably of God and Providence when they first enter the other world after death, presumably because they think they will get on better if they do so. But when they find that God and Providence are opposing their evil desires and intentions, they turn against God and blaspheme Him, and finally regard themselves as gods. So on earth men would oppose and blaspheme God if they were aware that He was working against their most cherished aims.
As an illustration of the secret operation of Providence, consider the human body. We are free to control our bodies to a certain degree. We can move our arms and legs, and perform wonders by the control of our hands and fingers. It is up to us what food we eat and what drink we imbibe - we can even become intoxicated if we wish! We can focus our senses; we don't have to take in sense stimuli if we don't want to. ("Two men looked out from prison bars; one saw mud, the other saw stars.") Certain of our emotions are more or less under our control. These powers are necessary in order that our bodies may be a projection of ourselves, able to take us around and do what we want to do. But, owing to the wise provision of the Creator, most of our bodily functions are not under our control. Our digestive systems, our blood and nerve systems, our heart beats, are all unconscious; even our breathing is only partly under our control. If we had the handling of the metabolism of our body, we should doubtless make a complete mess of it! As it is, we strain our bodies to the uttermost, and God has to put us to sleep for seven or eight hours every night, so that He can put things right again.
Even then God cannot always cure us, because our physical bodies come under the laws of nature, which operate strictly according to the principle of cause and effect. This raises another whole aspect of the subject, which must be taken into account when we are considering the doctrine of Providence. All of us are living within the framework of nature, which is predetermined and fixed in its processes and operation. In our illustration of the flowers in the garden, the garden itself functions according to its own built-in laws, the chemistry of the soil, the effect of sun, rain and air, irrespective of which plants are planted where. Then there are bacteria, molds, funguses, worms, insects of all sorts, contributing to what we call the balance of nature, which man upsets at his peril. It is of Providence that the laws of science (which God created) should operate in a constant manner, even if so-called "natural disasters" sometimes result; otherwise the whole setup would fall to pieces. God does not interfere with His own natural laws. He has ordained them for very good reasons; without them our majestic universe could not function. It is by discovering these laws and working with them, that man can develop a sense of responsibility for himself and his environment. The whole situation would be chaotic if God kept changing or suspending the laws of nature for special cases. This He will not do; but He does provide that each of us can have the maximum opportunity for benefiting spiritually from our contacts with our natural environment, in whatever situation we find ourselves. Evidently, then, the circumstances of our outer lives are not very important, one way or another. The important thing is OUR REACTION TO THEM.
Whether we are rich or poor, lucky or unlucky, healthy or ailing, strong or weak, clever or not so clever, there will be plenty of material available for the building up of an angelic character. And the Lord is with us, close to us, though mercifully out of sight, striving constantly to wean us away from our evils and draw us to Himself. The appearance is that we are doing it on our own, because only what we do in freedom, as of ourselves, can become part of us and have any permanent effect on us. We must act as if everything depended on us. We must take the initiative. We must exercise our best judgment in all things. Only when we ourselves are acting the best we know how, can Providence benefit us to the maximum degree. But: "If we do our best, God does the rest." We can safely leave the outcome to Him.
Man's inability to see the operation of Providence in the present and future was demonstrated to Moses when he wanted God to show him His Glory. God said, "I will put thee in a cleft of the rock as my glory passes by, and I will cover thee with my hand while I pass by. And I will take away my hand, and thou shalt see my back parts, but my face shall not be seen." (Exodus 33:22, 23) We can see God's back parts in the past if we want to, and the regenerating man takes delight in seeing evidences of Divine Providence in past events. One can see such evidences even in wars and natural disasters, which can contribute to the spiritual welfare of those who want to be regenerated. Particularly can one see the operation of Providence in one's own past life. But in the present? Hardly at all!
I say "hardly at all," because I do believe that, as we progress spiritually, a kind of intuition tells us that God is working with us. Though we cannot see His face, we feel the pressure of His hand upon us. We ask, "Which way, Lord?" and His hand seems to edge us this way or that. Thus, by waiting on the Lord over a considerable period of time, we become so aligned with Providence that we always act in harmony with it. This gives us an enormous increase of power and effectiveness, because it brings us into partnership with the force that created and runs the universe. "Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in Him, and He shall bring it to pass." As for the future, cannot we leave it safely to the Lord? It is a kind of insult to Him, at any rate a lack of faith and trust in Him, to be continually worrying about how things are going to turn out. Saul went to the Witch of Endor, and the gloomy forebodings he got from her so unnerved him that he lost the battle and tried to commit suicide. All too often, when people do get what they believe is a glimpse of the future, it is only some evil spirit tempting them to their undoing. Far better not to bother your head with such things! We are living in dangerous times: so what? Do the best you can in the present, and the future will look after itself. Even the time of our death is under control; the Lord knows when it will be, and all provision will be made for it.
The natural man is quite uninterested in seeing evidence of the operation of Providence in the past, but is desperately eager to see it in the future. On the contrary, the spiritual man delights to see Providence in the past, can feel it in the present but does not want to see it; and, as for the future, he prefers to leave that entirely alone, trusting in the goodness and wisdom of God.
So I will end by quoting Swedenborg's Recipe for Contentment, which, in a sense, is his rendering of our Lord's Sermon on the Mount, especially the part about lack of anxiety for the morrow.
Rx for Contentment