Providence is defined as ‘divine guidance or care’ and is a thread which runs through the whole Bible. It was God’s providence which led to Joseph being in the right place (Egypt) at the right time (famine) to provide for the nation of Israel. It was God’s providence which kept Moses from being killed as a baby so that in later years he could lead the nation of Israel out of Egyptian slavery in preparation for the fulfilment of His promise to give them a land flowing with milk and honey. It was God’s providence which led a foreign king (Cyrus) to look favourably on God’s exiled people and let them return to that promised land. God is always working on our behalf, even though much of this work may be behind the scenes and invisible to our natural eyes.
However, there is absolutely no doubt that Scripture teaches us that God’s providence moves in very mysterious ways! We need the benefit of hindsight usually to see what God has been doing in secret for much of our lives. Joseph could not possibly have imagined how being sold in slavery and then wrongfully imprisoned could be the path God was leading him on to become the deliverer of His people. Moses could not have imagined how forty years as a shepherd in Midian could prepare him for leading God’s nation out of slavery. The people of God who faced seventy years of exile for their rebellion and disobedience to God must have wondered about God’s love and compassion as they knew anguish and heartache.
The death of Stephen so soon after the death of Jesus must have seemed a massive blow to the early church. God had miraculously intervened to allow Peter and John to continue preaching the gospel and the church was seeing many supernatural signs and wonders, leading to explosive growth. The early chapters of Acts show us God doing marvellous things through His Holy Spirit, and then abruptly, suddenly, catastrophically, Stephen is killed. No wonder ‘godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him.’ (Acts 8:2) Such great persecution followed Stephen’s death that ‘all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.’ (Acts 8:1) I can imagine believers reeling, not understanding, wondering what on earth God was doing. The persecution was so great that both men and women were being imprisoned. (Acts 8:3) How could divine providence be seen in this twisting path?
And yet, with the benefit of hindsight, we see that Stephen’s death was ultimately instrumental in the conversion of the chief persecutor, Saul, who was to become the ‘apostle to the Gentiles’, responsible for church growth which made that seen hitherto in Jerusalem look like a minor church plant. Saul did not forget what he saw in Stephen’s death (he refers to it later in Acts 22:20, demonstrating the influence Stephen had on him even in dying). Moreover, the scattering of disciples away from Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria was to lead to the spread of the gospel into the whole world, just as Jesus had originally said (see Acts 1:8). With the benefit of hindsight, we can see how God’s providence used Stephen’s testimony, in word and deed, through life and death, to promote the church’s mission and how this apparently catastrophic happening (martyrdom) led to new life and a flourishing church.
In our own lives, therefore, we need to hold on to the fact that a twisting path which does not seem to be directly leading to the destination we assumed God had for us is not necessarily a sign of our sin or God’s displeasure. God is working out His purposes in our lives all the time, even at those times we would label as catastrophic or disastrous. Casting Crowns sing,
“So when you’re on your knees and answers seem so far away,
You’re not alone; stop holding on and just be held.
Your world’s not falling apart, it’s falling into place;
I’m on the throne, stop holding on and just be held.
If your eyes are on the storm,
You’ll wonder if I love you still,
But if your eyes are on the cross,
You’ll know I always have and I always will.’ (‘Just Be Held’, Casting Crowns)