A Broad Horizon and a Meager Meal

JANUARY 2012: NOT MY OWN: REFLECTIONON THE HEIDELBERG

by Leanne Van Dyk

Question 27: What do you understand by the providence of God?

Answer: The almighty and ever present power by which God upholds heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that leaves and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and unfruitful years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, and everything else, come to us not by chance but from God’s sustaining hand.

It is really hard for me to believe, every day, in the providence of God. Some days, the evidence seems heavily stacked against such a belief. The big “alternatives” to confidence in God’s providence, like fate or luck or merit, seem much more plausible. Each of these alternatives has a large following, of course. For some, it is fate that determines the world’s events; for others, it is pure chance or luck; for others, it is the result of cause and effect. The Christian affirmation of God’s providence dramatically veers away from all these options. It claims, in a reach as broad as a Montana horizon, that all things flow from God. This is a doctrine that shelters me when the gale-force winds of life threaten and when the questions of “why, Lord?” haunt and nag.

The scope of Q&A 27 of the Heidelberg Catechism is very broad. In fact, there is nothing, nothing at all, that escapes God’s providence. It covers heaven and earth and all creatures. It covers vegetation and weather patterns and agricultural seasons. It covers the basic needs of food and drink. It covers illness and disease and radiant health. It covers economic ups and downs and the effects of these on human lives. Then, in case anything was forgotten, the Catechism says that “everything else” to us from God’s sustaining hand.

The sheer size of this claim—nothing at all happens without God’s direct and continuing involvement or permission—is what captures both my gratitude and my doubt. Both jostle around in my life of faith. The gratitude reaches way back in my childhood memories. I remember camping vacations when our family station wagon would head out West to the mountains. We would drive through the night, us kids asleep in the back, my parents talking softly in the front. I remember drifting off to sleep with a feeling of deep peace and safety, the rhythm of the road as my lullaby. And, perhaps because I was reared on the Heidelberg Catechism, I also remember connecting that feeling with God’s care and love for me. God’s providence was experienced in the bones of an eight-year-old.

Doubt bumps up against the gratitude, though. The inescapable realities of pain, suffering, violence, hunger, poverty, betrayal, loss, and illness—these too come from God’s sustaining hand? The Catechism says yes, but this is a hard thing to absorb. Theological definitions, nuances, and clarifications help a bit. But I have discovered in my life that seeing the shape of God’s providence often has a much longer shelf life. I perceive providence ex post facto. I see God’s sustaining hand in retrospect. I see the big arc of God’s guidance and care from the perspective of time. God’s providence has a story in each life, sometimes not perceived until time has passed, wounds have healed, and hope is rekindled.

The question of Q&A 27 reveals, quite apart from the answer, an insight into the life of faith. “What do you understand by the providence of God?” The question suggests that this is not a test of doctrine; this is a process, a path. It asks, what, at this time, is your understanding? How do you puzzle this through? What is your story? For me, I would answer, “I am trying to understand my life as a story of God’s leading, comforting, calling, and nourishing. I am trying to understand the lives of others, even the existence of the whole world, from quarks to galaxies, as a story of God’s creating, governing, and sustaining.”

In days of gratitude, this is enough. In days of doubt, it is a meager meal. I struggle, along with many others, to comprehend how it is that God’s sustaining hand sometimes holds hard challenges, terrible losses, and massive global wounds. I wonder where answers to prayer are lurking. The cries of “why, Lord?” and “how long, O Lord?” sound from the psalmist and echo in our daily lives. In such times, I have learned to look around for glimmers and traces of God’s providence. God does not always give me what I want. But I hope and pray that God gives to me that which will lead me, sometimes even drive me, into what I truly need and ought truly to desire, that “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is heaven.”

 

Leanne Van Dyk is vice president of academic affairs and professor of Reformed theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, and a contributing editor of Perspectives.