We call by the name of divine providence God’s preservation and government of the world.
1. God maintains the world, i.e., He preserves all creatures in existence as long as He wills.
A ball hanging from a piece of string falls to the ground as soon as the string is cut. So the whole world would sink into nothing if God were to withdraw from it His supporting power for a single instant. In order that creatures may continue to exist, He provides all that is needed for their sustenance: wheat, vegetables, the various fruits of the earth, etc. As soon as God wills it, they die. “When Thou shalt take away their breath, they shall die, and return again to the dust” (Ps. 103:29). If the sun were to cease to cast its rays upon the earth, all light would disappear from the world; so if God cease to support us in existence, our life at once fails us. When Our Lord says, “Heaven and earth shall pass away,” He does not mean that they will be annihilated, but that they will be changed into a better. St. Peter says, “We look for a new heaven and a new earth, wherein dwelleth justice” (2 Pet. 3:13).
2. God governs the world, i.e., He conducts all things in the world, so that they contribute to His glory and to our advantage.
What the engine is to the train, and the pilot to the vessel, God is to the world. He guides the stars according to fixed laws, so that the firmament proclaims His glory. He guides all nations (Dan. 4:32). We see His guiding hand in the lives of the patriarchs, in the history of the Jews, in that of the Christian Church. Yet we cannot understand God’s arrangements at the first glance; often we cannot understand them at all, and never shall till we get to heaven. Yet in our own lives we can trace again and again the good providence of God. But as to the world generally we are forced to exclaim, “How incomprehensible are God’s judgments, and how unsearchable His ways!” (Rom. 11:33.)
There is no one on the earth for whom God does not care, and provide for his welfare.
A mother would sooner forget her child than God would forget us (Is. 49:15). God cares even for the irrational creatures; for the beasts and birds and plants (Matt. 6:25-30).
God has a special care for those who are in humble circumstances, and are despised by the world.
God has made small as well as great, and cares equally for them (Wisd. 6:8). God loves to declare His glory by means of the little (1 Cor. 1:27). He chose poor shepherds to receive the first news of the birth of Christ; He chose poor fishermen for His apostles; a poor maiden for His Mother; it is to the humble that He gives His grace (Jas. 4:6). “He raises the needy from the earth, and takes the poor from the dunghill, that He may place him among princes” (Ps. 112:7, 8).
Nothing happens to us all through our lives without the will or the permission of God.
Hence the patriarch Joseph says to his brethren, “Not by your counsel was I sent hither, but by the will of God” (Gen. 45:8). Our Lord says that the very hairs of our head are all numbered, i.e., the providence of God descends to the smallest details of our life. Hence there is nothing that happens by chance. There are indeed many things, the causes of which we are ignorant of, but all have some cause, and God guides all. There are many things in the world that God does not will, and of which He is not the cause, e.g., murder, theft, and every crime. But God permits them, i.e., He does not prevent them. This is a consequence of His having given to man free will. Moreover, God knows how to bring good out of evil, and all evil He employs for His good purposes.
Even the evil that God permits is for our good.
God, in His love for us, has in all that happens to us the intention to make us happy. He turns to our good all temporal misfortunes, the temptations of the devil, the sins of other men. “To those who love God all things work together for good” (Rom. 8:28). We see this in the history of the patriarch Joseph; his imprisonment was the means of bringing him to high honor, and of saving Egypt from the horrors of famine. The captivity of the Jews was the means of spreading the knowledge of the true God among heathen nations (Tob. 13:4). The persecution of the early Christians in Palestine and in Rome was the means of making known the Gospel in the countries to which they fled or were banished; so, too, was the expulsion of the religious Orders from Italy, France, and Germany in modern times. So again the persecution of the Irish has done much to Christianize America and England. “The unbelief of St. Thomas,” says St. Augustine, “has been more useful to us than the belief of the other apostles.” The sin of Peter made him humble and forbearing towards others. The fury of the Jews against Our Lord was the instrument of the redemption of mankind. “How inscrutable are God’s judgments and how unsearchable His ways!” (Rom. 11:33.) The very means employed by wicked men against the saints were the means of bringing them glory and honor.
3. For this reason a pious Christian should resign himself entirely to the will of God.
Christ teaches us to pray: “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” St. Peter exhorts us to cast all our care upon God, for He cares for us (1 Pet. 5:7). Holy David says: “Though an army should stand in battle against me, my heart will not fear” (Ps. 26:3). We must not allow ourselves to be troubled about the arrangements of God’s providence, which we cannot alter, but must resign ourselves to the will of God, e.g., in sickness, loss of money, the death of those dear to us, persecution, war, etc. Above all we must resign ourselves to the will of God in the hour of our death. “He who dies resigned to the will of God,” says St. Alphonsus, “leaves in the minds of others the knowledge that he has saved his soul.” In order to gain the friendship of men we adapt ourselves to their humors and fancies; but we take too little trouble to win the friendship of God by adapting ourselves to His holy will.
The man who cheerfully resigns himself to the will of God obtains true peace of mind, attains great perfection, and will be blessed by God.
The soul resigned to the will of God is like the needle pointing to the North. The soul that submits itself to all God’s arrangements has already begun to live the life of heaven upon earth. If trouble comes, its peace is not disturbed; every trial is extinguished, like a spark that falls into the sea; it loves sufferings, because it knows that they come from God’s hand. A man resigned to God’s will has his cross carried for him. He who renounces his own will in order to carry out the holy will of God, soon attains to perfection. Thus the resigning of our will to God’s is the most perfect offering we can make Him. The man who is resigned is like a ship in the hands of the pilot; he is sure to arrive safely into port. A farmer whose fields bore better crops than those of others was asked the reason for it. He answered that he always got the weather that he wanted. When asked to explain himself, he replied, “I am always content with the weather that God sends. This pleases God and so He blesses my crops.”
Our Lord in the Garden of Gethsemani is a beautiful example of submission to the will of God.
Christ’s prayer was “Father, not My will, but Thine be done.” He was obedient to His heavenly Father even to death, the death of the cross (Phil. 2:8). The holy angels find their happiness in the fulfilment of the will of God. St. Mary Magdalen of Pazzi said, “I would bear with joy the heaviest troubles, so soon as I knew that they were the will of God.” So also said all the saints.
How are the Misfortunes of the Good and the Prosperity of the Wicked to be Reconciled with the Providence of God?
The answer is that these are only apparent, not real. Seneca says that the prosperity of those who are clad in purple is often like the splendor of the actor, who is dressed up in royal purple. The sinner after a time loses all enjoyment from his sins.
(1) No sinner has true happiness, and no servant of God true misery. For true happiness is impossible without inner peace and contentment; and this is possessed by the true servant of God, but not by the sinner.
The world, i.e., riches, honors, sensual pleasures, eating, drinking, etc., can never give us true peace (John 14:27). This can only be attained by following the teaching of Christ. True peace and happiness are the fruits of the Holy Spirit. The wicked have no peace; they are like the raging sea, which cannot rest (Is. 57:20). Peace and happiness do not come of riches, or of a high position, or of bodily strength, or of intellectual vigor; still less do they come from the wearing of fine clothes, or from the enjoyment of rich feasts, but from peace of soul and a good conscience. The beggar at the gate of the rich Dives was a happier man, even in this world, than Dives himself.
(2) Moreover the good fortune of the sinner is for the most part only transitory.
The prosperity of the wicked is like the cedar of Lebanon, which in a few hours is cut down and is no more seen. It is a building built on sand: the storms and winds soon lay it low. How quickly Napoleon the Great fell from the height to which his vaulting ambition had raised him at the cost of so many lives!
(3) The real recompense of man only begins after death.
Hence Our Lord says, “Many that are first shall be last, and the last first” (Matt. 19:30). Many rich and distinguished men will be far below those who have been beggars at their door. God has provided for His friends in the next life an enjoyment and happiness far surpassing any enjoyments on this earth. This is the explanation of the apparent injustice of the present life. Our Lord says to His disciples, “Amen, Amen, I say to you, that you shall lament and weep, and the world shall rejoice; and you shall be made sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy” (John 16:20).
Sinners are rewarded on this earth for the little good that they have done. The just on the other hand are for the most part punished in this life for the evil they have done.
Our Lord says, “Woe to you that are rich; for you have your consolation,” i.e., your reward for the good you have done is given you in this world (Luke 6:24).
How is Sin to be Reconciled with the Providence of God?
(1) It is not God Who is responsible for sin and its consequences, but man’s wrong use of his free will.
God created man free, and therefore does not hinder even those free actions which are evil. There are also many reasons why He should not hinder evil. If there were no evil in the world, man would have no opportunity of doing what is good; he would not have the choice between good and evil, and would not be able to earn the reward of good accomplished. Compare the parable of the cockle among the wheat. “God,” says St. Augustine, “would never have permitted evil if He had not intended to bring some greater good out of it.”
(2) God in His wisdom employs even sin for a good end.
The patriarch Joseph very truly said to his brethren, “You thought evil against me, but God turned it into good” (Gen. 1:20). God turned to good even the treachery of Judas; it contributed to the work of man’s redemption. The bee makes honey out of poisonous plants; the potter makes beautiful vessels out of dirty earth. God does something similar to this.
(3) Besides, it does not become us to pry into the secret designs of God; we poor miserable creatures must adore His wisdom and submit ourselves humbly to what He ordains.
What is true of sin, is true of all the suffering that is the consequence of sin.