|Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries||About God|
The Mystery of Providence
By Fr. Stephen Freeman
Among the most troublesome thoughts to my modern mind are those surrounding God’s Providence.
A popular morning prayer from the Elders of Optina reads:
O Lord, grant that I may meet all that this coming day
brings to me with spiritual tranquility.
It is easy to read this and wonder if we have any freedom at all. Or, it is equally easy to wonder if this means that we should do nothing at all. In truth, it means neither of these things. What it does mean is essential both to the faith and to our sanity.
Providence is the belief that God is at work in all things for our salvation and the salvation of the world. It is not a belief in determinism. If anything, it is the belief that the end of all things is already purposed in Christ, and that He is ever and always drawing all things to Himself (Eph. 1:10). But the providence of God is not a belief in God “forcing” history and its outcomes. God’s “power” is the power of the Cross.
Our general understanding of the world suggests that the outcome of things is controlled by those who use coercive power most effectively. Our faith contradicts this: the Cross is not a coercive power. It is a self-sacrificing power that empties itself in the face of all things. It triumphs over evil, but in a manner that defies worldly power.
“Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will save it.” (Lk. 17:33 NKJ)
Our temptation is to presume that the work of the Cross in history is finished, that having completed that work, God has now left us to get on with fixing a broken world. But the Cross is not only the means of our salvation, once-and-for-all, it is the means and manner of our salvation at every moment, for all time. As noble as we might imagine coercive power to be, “if only used wisely and rightly in a good cause,” it is not the means of our preservation and salvation. Even the extreme examples of noble causes, such as the defeat of Hitler, was the result of providence, not of allied victory. Anyone who fails to see the constant and miraculous hand of God bringing about the downfall of that evil regime is ignorant of the details of that war. We are equally ignorant of His constant providence at work in all things.
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” – attributed to Edmund Burke.
This sentiment requires that we renounce the providence of God. Evil will not triumph because it has been defeated by the Cross of Christ, and will always and ever be defeated by the Cross of Christ. Whether we do good or not, evil will not triumph.
This is no way implies that we do nothing. We are commanded repeatedly by Christ to do good. And His commandments reveal the character of that action:
Love your enemies.
However, in doing good, we cannot know the outcome of our good actions. The outcome belongs to God, whose providence works good in all things.
We have the wonderful story and teachings of the Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica. He was a Serbian monk during the many of the years of the Communist regime in Yugoslavia, though he lived into the 1990’s. He was imprisoned under the Nazis and persecuted under the Communists. He very candidly spoke about his struggles with anxiety and worry, to such an extent that he suffered two breakdowns.
As he related many years later to one of his spiritual children, at the time of this inner battle he suffered two nervous breakdowns as a result of the warfare against the temptations of fear, anxiety, and worry. His whole body trembled and he was, overall, in a very bad state. He took this as a warning from God and resolved to change his way of life and drop all earthly cares and worries. “I realized that we all worry about ourselves too much and that only he who leaves everything to the will of God can feel truly joyous, light, and peaceful.” Thus, having learned to leave all of his cares and those of his neighbors in the hands of the Lord, he patiently bore the cross of serving as abbot at the Patriarchate of Pech for the next six years. (From Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives)
Of course, we can read his story and think, “Great. He was a monastic. Monks can ignore the world.” This is a naïve assessment of the monastic life. We imagine ourselves to be responsible for the whole world (that is part of modernity’s propaganda). We are addicted to information which is itself often unreliable, highly selective and aimed towards purposes other than information. Our primary response to our information-laden lives is to cultivate “sentiments.” We “care” about the things we feel are significant. We develop theories of management and solutions as though our primary job were managing the crises of the world. Very few do anything more than express their thoughts (social media is an ideal place for our sentiments). At most, we vote, and perhaps send token amounts of money along (though rarely). Our primary response to our information-laden lives is the development of anxiety and its related symptoms.
We can accept the fact that our lives will be hounded by anxiety and frustration, or, like the Elder Thaddeus, we can leave everything to the will of God – who alone holds the outcome of all things. We need to admit that, for all of our worry and anger, we have not changed nor influenced the course of history. The universe is unfolding according to the good will of God, and there is nothing we can do about it: it’s not our job.
Our “job” is aptly described in the commandments of Christ. The “smallness” of His commandments seems to be important. The modern world’s fascination with the management of history is a distraction. It tempts us to pay attention, and treat as important those things over which we have no control, and to ignore the many things in our lives for which we are directly responsible. Who hasn’t been miserable and angry over some distant political event and shared our misery with everyone around us? The aggregate of this modern lifestyle is a miserable, depressed, angry society that increasingly assuages its insanity with medications, pornography and mindless entertainment.
The average American spends over 10 hours a day consuming media. The same people will complain that turning the world over to the providence of God will dangerously neglect important issues. This is madness and delusion.
Embracing the providence is God is nothing more than the direct application of the Cross in our lives. St. Paul says, “You are dead…” (Col. 3:3) St. Cyril notes, “The entire mystery of the economy of our salvation consists in the self-emptying and abasement of the Son of God.” That same self-emptying is the nature of the Cross in our lives. St. Paul adds the observation, “Your life is hid with Christ in God.” We never find that hidden life until we find it within God’s providence.
Acquire the Spirit of Peace, and a thousand souls around you will be saved. – St. Seraphim of Sarov
Article published in English on: 27-11-2006.
Last update: 22-04-2018.