Chance and Divine Providence

“They’re funny things,  Accidents.  You never have them till you’re having them.”

Those who are familiar with Winnie the Pooh might recognize and appreciate the profundity of the above statement made by Eeyore, the melancholy philosopher.  We don’t like to believe there are such things as accidents and it is only after we have had an accident that we somewhat reluctantly are forced to acknowledge their reality.

It would seem that we as Christians have even more difficulty than others in facing up to the reality of accidents.  After all, we believe in divine providence.  Nothing happens by chance.  “We know that all things work together for good to them that love God” (Rom. 8:28).

The difficulty with this is that so much of life seems to be governed by chance.  We experience accidents.  Some people die of cancer, others don’t.  Some parents have children who are born healthy, while others must experience the pain and heartache of abnormalities.  Hail hits one farmer’s field, but misses the field right beside it.

This same problem is described so well in the poetry of Ecclesiastes.  “The race is not to the swift, or the battle to the strong.”  The wise and learned aren’t always recognized and rewarded as they deserve.  “But, time and chance happen to them all.”  Some men get “trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them.”  And all of us have to face the uncertainty of life.  “No man knows when his hour will come” (9:11-12).

The writer of Ecclesiastes, however, clearly indicates that there is another perspective from which we must view the seemingly accidental events of life.  Ultimately, what we do is in God’s hands (9:1).  It is God who has made both the times that are good and the times that are bad (7:14).

Christians believe in divine providence.  I want to suggest, however, that it is important for us somehow to do justice to the earthly dimension of our daily experience.  Here we find that much of life seems to be a matter of time and chance, even for the Christian.  We do have accidents.  Even if we believe in God, there still seems to be a chance component to life and we need to face up to this aspect of our experience.

The book of Ecclesiastes is instructive in that it interprets the events of our lives from both points of view.  From a human perspective, an accident is a matter of time and chance.  But there is another perspective – our times are in God’s hands.  Thus, in the passages referred to earlier, we find the writer of Ecclesiastes moving easily from talk about God to talk about chance, and even about accepting our lot in life (Ecc. 5:19).

He also explains why it is that life seems to be a matter of time and chance from a human perspective.  As finite human beings we cannot understand “the scheme of things” (7:24-28).  We are never in a position to see the total pattern of our lives.  It is because we see through a glass darkly that accidents seem to be the result of chance.  Really they aren’t, but they still appear to be so from our finite vantage point.

An honest recognition of the fact that much of life seems to be a matter of time and chance not only has scriptural warrant, but it is also the key to avoiding some very practical dangers.  The chief danger is that of pride.  We are constantly tempted to think that we are in complete control of our lives, that we no longer need to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.”  We need to keep reminding ourselves that we are not as secure as we think; that much of our life is beyond our control; that we are completely dependent on our Father in heaven.  The best antidote to pride is a mind-set that acknowledges the chance component to life.

This mind-set will further help us to cope with the tragedies of life.  Accidents are difficult to take, especially for those Christians who tend to focus more on God’s love and care, and who thus demand that each event of their life must make sense and fit into a pattern.  The problem is that we cannot see the total pattern, and to pretend that we do will only lead to frustration and despair.  The best preparation for accidents is to be in a frame of mind where we acknowledge the possibility of the unexpected.

A balanced emphasis on both divine providence and chance will finally help those of us who tend to be a little too cautious in life.  If life is not entirely predictable, we are encouraged to venture forth in our tasks boldly.  Just as a farmer sows his seed in spring, even though he is not guaranteed a crop, so we too must act in faith and risk things for God (Ecc. 11:6).

(This blog first appeared as an article in “A Christian Mind” column, in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, May 7, 1982, and is here slightly revised.)

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