The Flow of Divine Providence
In former chapters, we have considered God as Creator, Redeemer and Savior. We are now to think of God as Providence. The divine providence can be defined as "God controlling the universe for the benefit of us, his children." He is caring for us, training us, and giving us all we need for our spiritual well-being and development.
False Ideas about ProvidenceMany people deny that there is any such thing as providence. They believe that life is just haphazard; that if anything does come out well, it is through luck or their own cleverness. Such people inwardly deny God. Others concede that providence may perhaps be controlling the big events of history, but not the little things of every-day life. Yet big things are made up of little things! Another general idea is that if something happens unexpectedly in our favor, it is "providential," whereas the general run of events is not. Yet all things of life fit together; so, if a single event is providential, everything must be providential. As Jesus said: "Not one sparrow is forgotten before God; and even the hairs of your head are all numbered." (Luke 12:6-7.)
If providence is over everything, why does God not protect us from trouble and danger, except in special cases? Why doesn't he keep us healthy? One would think it would be impossible to miss seeing God around, if he were really here! But the point is that God has a different end in view than what most of us have for ourselves. We want to be prosperous and successful in this world, well thought of and important, and we work ceaselessly towards that end. The Lord wants us to become spiritually good men and women, and eventually angels in Heaven, working ceaselessly towards that end.Think of a school. It is traditional in a school for some children to regard the teachers as their enemies; this is because what the teachers want for them is different from what they want for themselves. The children just want to have a good time, and would be very content if there were no tiresome lessons to learn or duties to fulfill; but the teachers are trying to prepare them for the day when they will leave school and go out into the world. By analogy, we are all of us here in a school for the preparation of angels. The conditions of life on earth have been planned by the divine schoolmaster to give us the best possible opportunity to develop our characters along heavenly lines. Providence supervises every detail of the system so that it will work with maximum efficiency. The world may be a very unsatisfactory place in other respects (we know how unsatisfactory it is!) but it is perfectly adapted to its main purpose: the preparation of angels for Heaven.
Free ChoiceWhen we say that "providence is over everything," we must understand this in the same sense that a good schoolmaster is over everything that takes place in his school, although he gives the students certain areas of responsibility as part of the training program. Obviously, if the teacher controlled everything and did everything, the students would learn very little. So in our worldly life, the Lord gives us whole areas in which we must exercise free choice and take over control. In these areas we can make a mess of things if we act foolishly; for if we had no chance of going wrong, how should we ever learn to go right? Providence places alternatives before us, and we must choose between them. According to the way we choose our characters grow. Not all choices, of course, are equally effective in character building. For example, a good choice made against strong opposition is far more effective than the same choice made when circumstances are favorable, which is one reason why providence permits us to have so much opposition!
All the evils of the world result from the misuse of freedom of choice by someone who has failed in a test. The possibility of failure is an essential part of the process by which angels are made, so it would be surprising if there were no failures or mistakes! Note also that "no man is an island," (John Donne) as we all interact with one another. One person's sin spreads outwards, like ripples on a pond, and many are affected, which again is part of our lesson in responsibility. It is not God's will, of course, that things should go as badly as they do. People flout his will, commit crimes against one another, and make this world a little hell. Is the Lord powerless to interfere? He certainly could interfere, if necessary. Often he does interfere, when he sees he must. (His coming into the world as Jesus was an "interference," though handled in such a way that nobody recognized it as such.) But if he forcibly vetoed all evil, he would destroy the whole system, which would be a much worse thing. The laws of "cause and effect" must be permitted to operate. We humans can only be taught the nature of evil if we see it resulting in misery and the general dislocation of society, as, for example, in wartime.
Sickness and Disease
Even physical sickness can be the result of the misuse of freedom by somebody somewhere—though not necessarily by the person who is sick. If there had been no sin in the world, it is possible that there would be no sickness, and death itself would be simply the falling away of an outer body that is no longer needed. But, unfortunately, there is a Hell, peopled by men and women who, in past generations, chose evil rather than good, and are still full of malice. Influences from Hell are pouring into this world in the form of germs and bacteria and into our physical bodies as cancerous growths and other morbid conditions. We ourselves add to the pile of trouble by producing what doctors call "psychosomatic" ailments, and we willfully expose ourselves to influx from Hell by cherishing resentments, anger, jealousy and such-like negative states. Much of this mess could be cleared up if we had a right attitude towards God, our fellows, and ourselves. (This is the aim of what is called "spiritual healing.") However, granted that humanity is unregenerate, and there is a Hell on the other side of the veil, we shall always have some sickness in the world, enough to give excellent opportunities for service by doctors, nurses and the clergy! Providence can work through them all.
Accidents and Laws of Nature
How about accidents, which seem to happen to good and evil people alike, through nobody's fault whatsoever? How about so-called "acts of God?" Lightning may strike your home, a storm may lift the roof off, a branch may fall from a tree and break your leg.... Why does the Lord, if he loves us and is all-powerful, permit such things to happen?The point here is that these things happen because of the working of what we call "natural laws"—the laws of nature or science. The earth is cooling and shrinking, which causes earthquakes; it is spinning very fast, which causes cyclones; static electricity is created by the rising of water vapor, which causes lightning or thunderbolts. A tree branch falls when the wood is so weak from decay that it can no longer resist the pull of gravity. God allows nature to operate in these ways for very good reasons; it is all part of his wonderful creative plan. By studying the laws of nature, and working along with them, we can develop a sense of responsibility for his environment. The whole situation would become chaotic if God kept changing or suspending or interfering with his own laws, in order to prevent some favored individual from being physically harmed. I think things are best as they are!
How God Uses Troubles for Growth
The remarkable thing is that when troubles do occur, the Lord over-rules them for good, and actually uses them to strengthen us in our growth towards angelhood. They come to us as blessings in disguise. We can learn far more from pain, disappointment, failure and loss, than we can from prosperity and success. When people admire and praise us, and we get everything we want, we tend to become like spoiled children. Self love and love of the world flourish in us unchecked. No one gets converted and regenerated that way! But when things go badly, and people ignore or insult us, or "take us down a peg," then our self love can more easily be broken and we can be made humble, which may be the best thing for us. Poverty, hunger, and loss, these can all help us to develop spiritually, if we react to them appropriately. On the other hand, these ills may have the opposite effect, making us bitter and resentful and indignant with God; then they are bad for us. We must learn to be thankful for our misfortunes, and welcome the strokes that fall upon us; then our troubles will help us to mount the steep upward path to Heaven.If you think along these lines, you will eventually come to realize that the circumstances of our outer lives are not really very important. The important thing is our reaction to them. Whether we are rich or poor, lucky or unlucky, strong or weak, clever or notso-clever, there will be plenty of opportunity in our environment for the building up of an angelic disposition. It is as if we were placed somewhere on an enormously high ladder. The vital thing is not where on that ladder we happen to have been placed, but whether we take a few steps upwards, or a few steps downwards, from the rung where we began. It is what we do with ourselves that finally determines our lot. But actually we are never left entirely alone. The Lord is always with us, doing everything possible to encourage our spiritual growth. But only what we do "as of ourselves" will have any permanent effect on us.
How Providence Acts
The Lord is, as we have seen, the perfect schoolmaster. He watches us closely. The instant we make our choice, he begins to set a thousand things in motion that follow it. That is his answer. If we choose well, then he rejoices, and gladly prepares the conditions under which we can take our next step upwards. He sets us another and more difficult lesson. This may involve us in greater frustrations and disappointments than ever, but it is worth it. ("As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten." Rev. 3:19) On the other hand, if we choose foolishly or selfishly, then we can believe he sorrows. At any rate, he immediately arranges things so that the least possible spiritual harm can result from our mistake, either to ourselves or to anyone else."All things work together for good to them that love God," wrote Paul. (Romans 8:28.) Spiritually speaking, the only thing that can harm you is your own misuse of choice. Everything else is over-ruled by providence for your good. Do not be afraid of anything or anyone, except yourself. All else is, as far as you are concerned, safely under his control.
You will realize that the problem is highly complex. There are millions of people, all free to choose good or evil, and a large proportion of them are frequently choosing evil. The Lord has to make everything fit together, so that each individual can benefit spiritually from everything except the evils they themselves commit. To work things out like that would be totally beyond our human ability. Nothing less than the divine love, wisdom and power could accomplish it. Providence, to work at all, must be Divine.
Providence Not Seen, Except in the Past
It is a rule of providence that we shall not be able to observe it in action; otherwise it would interfere with our free-will. But when we look backwards after the event, then we can see clearly how the Lord was over-ruling everything for the best. As he said to Moses: “I will take away my hand, and thou shalt see my back parts; buy my face shall not be seen." (Exodus 33:23)
Providence Sees into the Future
Because the Lord is outside our time-system, he can "see" into the future just as easily as he can "see" the past or present. He can "see" how we shall choose to act in tomorrow's situations, and precisely what we shall be doing in twenty-years' time. This enables him to plan for our future and make all arrangements so that the best possible advantage can accrue from all our choices and actions. However, (and please note this carefully!) he does not fix or determine our future, or interfere in any way with our free‑will. He simply foresees how we shall act. In a sense, he doesn't even "foresee" it. Rather, he goes into the future and sees it taking place! In other words, he does not see the future from the present, which would indeed fix it with a kind of predestination. Rather, he sees the future from the future, when we have made our choices.This raises the question: Is the date of our death fixed? The answer is no, because it depends to a large extent on decisions made in the future by us and by many other people. (For example, we could jump out of the window today, or put our head in the oven, and so fix the date of our death quite precisely!) However, the Lord, being outside time, can see very clearly when and how our death is going to take place. Likewise, he can see whether we shall end up in Heaven or in Hell. But this has not yet been determined. We shall go to whichever place we choose.
Swedenborg's Recipe for Contentment"Those who trust in providence, though they have care for the morrow, yet have it not; for they do not think of the morrow with solicitude, still less with anxiety. They are of unruffled mind, whether they have the things they desire, or not; nor do they grieve at loss. If they become rich, they set not their heart on riches; if they are raised to honors, they do not regard themselves as more worthy than others. If they are poor, they are not saddened; if they are lowly in rank, they are not cast down in mind. They know that, with those who trust in the Divine, all things follow on to a happy state in eternity, and everything that befalls them in time is conducive to that end." (Swedenborg, Arcana Coelestia 8768.)