Wrong Turns and the Providence of God

Southwest Trip 317The following is, in part, a response to a comment posted earlier today. It seemed worth sharing more prominently, since not everyone reads comments.

These are some thoughts on the Providence of God and its work in our lives.

I think there is absolutely such a thing as Providence (not that we have much of a clue as to what God’s plan is in our life). Rather Providence is the trust that our lives are in the hand of a good God who is working all things together for our salvation (even when we sin and take a wrong turn). There is a common understanding of Providence, common in our culture, that would tend to see only one highway for our life [God’s plan] and that would argue that wrong decisions can only be corrected by returning to the previous point and starting over. Thus when we take a wrong turn – we must go back and correct it and get back on the previous route.

This reminds me of the GPS unit in my car which occasionally, having run out of “on-the-map” solutions, says, “If possible make a U-turn!”

There is another understanding of Providence, more common in the Eastern Fathers, in which God’s work in our lives is seen as far more creative. There is not one route, but one destination. Thus if we make a wrong turn, God is quite capable of continuing to bring us to union with Him. The problem is not that of a route, but of our heart.

Repentance is not the correction of the path in our life (which would tend to make history utterly immutable and the real “god” in our life). Repentance is having a heart with which God can do something. The best example I can think of in this is King David, whom the Scriptures describe as a “man after God’s own heart.” Of course, he was also complicit in the death of Uriah the Hittite whose wife he had taken in an adulterous affair. Murder and adultery are clearly quite wrong. However, when the Prophet Nathan confronted David with his sin, he did not seek to defend or excuse himself. I’ve often thought that he could have argued that he wasn’t directly reponsible for Uriah’s death, etc. Instead, David is a man after God’s own heart. Faced with his sin he repents – in sackcloth and ashes – in fasting and prayer. And he finds mercy from God (though a difficult mercy). Later a child from that union would be in the line of the Messiah. Such is God’s Provident mercy. We cannot say that God willed for David to murder or commit adultery.

Providence is the mercy of God displayed in history. It redeems history – gathering the whole of it into the renewal and recreation of the world in His glorious resurrection. If you choose wrong – choose God. Even history is redeemed by Him.

I was tortured for a number of years over several decisions in my life that, like many decisions, were irrevocable and seemed wrong in retrospect. The adversary tormented me and I found it depressing. Coming to understand God’s Providence in the manner I’ve described has allowed me to bless God and give thanks to Him for all things (including my wrong decisions – for by His mercy even these things have been used to His glory and for my salvation). I would not be where I am, doing what I do, etc., except for those wrong decisions. But I do not see my present circumstance as a result of wrong decisions, but the result of God’s mercy which has redeemed all things. He is the “glory and the lifter of my head.”

And so we can truly say, “Glory to God for all things!”

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14 Responses to “Wrong Turns and the Providence of God”

  1. Erin Says:

    Thank you for this. Exactly the words I needed today.

  2. Justin Says:

    Awesome answer. It gives me some hope in my own life. I think a lot of people think of God’s Providence as a sort of Predestination but you point out that it is something more profound than that. God gives us free will and because He is good he tries to bring us to salvation even when we sin and think we have gone wrong. I spent close to ten years as a Buddhist and than out of the blue came back to Christianity. In that moment I felt like God had really been there with me the whole time, even when I, by practicing a godless faith, had sort of denied Him. That level of forgiveness is unreal, and now I see(I hope) that God is real and that He really wants the best for me. Thanks for the awesome blog and the great explanation for Providence.

  3. Mule Chewing Briars Says:

    Please pray for me. I lost my job recently and we are maybe a month from the streets.

    I do not have a good relationship with my family, and have completely failed as a husband and a father.

    Its hard to believe in Providence right now, except for an austere one.

    Lord have mercy.

  4. Elizabeth Says:

    Thank you Father. This is a great help. I lost my job in the 5th week of lent and am now taking a different turn but the encouragement to trust God in the midst of it is of great comfort. I too ask your prayers.

  5. fatherstephen Says:

    Mulechewingbriars,
    You and your family indeed have my prayers. May God preserve you in such circumstances and redeem it for you. May He indeed have mercy!

  6. Henry Says:

    Divine Purpose from my blog I apologize for the length but thought you might enjoy it.

    Divine purpose or what we are more likely to call the will of God is number 3 on my list of 7. Some of you might find this the most controversial thing I am likely to post on this blog, but please stay with me on this one. I think you might like what I have to say.

    Before we set our goals, I think we should check in with the God of the universe and attempt to determine what is in our best interests. Clearly, a criminal can set the goal of becoming the most powerful drug lord in his city. If he then pursues this goal with ruthless congruence, self-confidence, a counterfeit of faith (number 5 on my list), and then shares his ill-gotten gains with his gang members, he can achieve his goal. But if our desire is to live in harmony with the universe, with what is good, and true, and right, then I believe that asking God in prayer for direction in our life is a good place to start. At my age, I do not expect to get very much out of God on a given day. However, I believe that if I persevere with patience, eventually a path will become visible in the confusion of life.

    I am very uncomfortable with the term “ the Will of God” as I have heard it taught in many of the churches I have attended. In my mind, it is a term that is front loaded with all sorts of unpleasant emotional baggage. I have heard over and over, that God has this “wonderful” plan for my life and if I am not utterly obedient, I will miss the mark and my life will lie in ruins. Those of you who are old enough might remember the television show, Let’s Make a Deal with Monty Hall. On this show the contestants would win really nice prizes, like a new color TV. Then Monty would give them the opportunity to trade what they have for what might be contained in a large box or hidden behind a curtain. Everyone knew that sometimes the prize behind the curtain might be an expensive new car or it might be a pet goat. Sometimes preachers have made me feel like God is Monty Hall, playing a cosmic game of Let’s Make a Deal with my life.

    A couple of years ago I realized the will of God doesn’t quite work that way. A young woman I care for very deeply was considering a return to college. Earlier, she had dropped out of school after suffering from a terrible case of burnout. She didn’t know if it was God’s will for her to return to school. She didn’t know what school or what major. She was terribly afraid that she would miss “God’s perfect will for her life,” and as a punishment she would trade everything she had for a pet goat.

    I observed that I was not God. Knowing me as well as she does, she quickly concurred with that observation. I went on to ask her a series of questions.

    “If you never complete your degree and become a wife and a mommy, don’t you think I will want to bless you and be a part of your life?”

    “If you return to the University of South Carolina and complete your degree in music or English, don’t you think I will want to bless you and be a part of your life?”

    “If you take Internet courses and finish your degree at Regent University, don’t you think I will want to bless you and be a part of your life?”

    I observed that if someone with my shortcomings and character defects could feel that way about her and her life, didn’t she think that perhaps her Heavenly Father might love her and care for her far beyond any level that I could ever possibly hope to achieve.

    If you are interested my personal preference would have been the University of South Carolina, a perfectly good, inexpensive, public university not nine miles from her house. She choose Internet courses at Regent and after transferring her credits from other schools went on to graduate. She racked up a year and a half of a perfect 4.0 grade point average and is now attending graduate school. I am so proud of her I can hardly stand it.

    I love the story of the Prodigal Son and have studied it in some depth during a week long silent retreat. I learned a lot. I learned I have a bad case of the elder brother. I learned it is not the parable of the prodigal or the parable of the elder brother. It is the parable of the Father, of our Heavenly Father.

    I even concocted my own version of that story that takes place right here in Montgomery County during the late 1970s. The father in this story owns three car dealerships in the metropolitan area. He has two sons. The youngest rebels and asks for his share of the businesses. The father takes out a loan to raise enough cash to give the younger son the freedom that he desires. Of course the younger son moves to Miami and blows all the money on cocaine, prostitutes, and fast cars. He ends up in a Florida prison on drug charges. The elder son works 12-16 hours a day to help earn enough money to keep the car dealerships from going under during the recession of 1980. His wife even goes back to work so that the elder son can put more money back into the business. Of course, you know the rest. The younger son is released from prison and returns to beg the father’s forgiveness. The father runs across the parking lot to embrace his wayward son. Later that night when the father is throwing a party at an expensive Italian restaurant to celebrate his son’s return, he notices his eldest son is missing. The father gets in his car and drives around a bit before he finds him at the White Flint dealership, sulking in his office. Of course you know the rest of the story. In my version, like the original, there is a lot of hugging and crying.

    Jesus tells us that is the way the Father feels about us, Abba, Father, Daddy. He loves us and is always waiting for an opportunity to run towards us, embrace us, and bless us. He wants to bless us and He wants be a part of our lives. Because of Jesus we are his sons and his daughters. God is not Monty Hall and our lives are not some sort of a cosmic version of a sadistic game show.

  7. fatherstephen Says:

    Henry,

    Good stories – In God, love trumps everything and His will for us is His love.

  8. TheraP Says:

    Henry, I find my “understanding” of God’s Providence changing so much as I grow older – or maybe as I grow humbler. I’ve prayed at times for guidance. (especially as I grow more humble!) Once I felt led in a certain direction – which involved a huge and nearly immediate “turn” to follow an inner “call”. Then it seemed I was led into great suffering, though also given great graces, and I prayed for guidance. And it seemed I was told: “Be content not to know.” And I tried to persevere. And I wondered… has anyone ever had a “call” which God later rescinded or amended? And I thought of Abraham, told to go and sacrifice his son. And indeed, it seemed that down the road, I was led – this time to immediately “re-turn” – at God’s bidding. And again I thought of Abraham… that he followed an impossible road only to find that God had “other plans” – which “depended” upon his seeming initial detour. And for me, it was like that. Had I not taken “literally” what I first heard as the “call” I would not have benefited from all I had to learn along “that way” – which has laid a foundation for a “re-turn” with my heart in a new place, with a better understanding of my place as a simple “worker in the vineyard”. (but now seeing my “priestly” role there – though hidden – which is honestly the kind of longing I’d had anyway) I’ve found that sometimes a way appears “blocked” but that the blockage is itself part of the way. That one must transcend it – with God’s help – and find one’s true path.

    I’ve read that God makes crooked paths straight. And I’ve experienced that. I think also that God writes straight lines on broken hearts. That a broken heart, indeed, is a good place for God to write.

  9. Allen Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    I needed to read your post today. Past decisions have been torturing me and your words encourage me. Thank you!

  10. Victor Says:

    What I’ve taken to saying about God’s plan or God’s will is that it is more like a city bus than a moon shot. If you make a mistake and miss the bus, for whatever reason, there’ll be another one along in a few minutes.
    Yes there are ‘moon shots’ or big choices that we must occasionally make and doing the wrong thing in such circumstances can be disastrous. But even out of our disasters God can make good. If he can bring resurrection from crucifixion I’m pretty sure he can do something good in my life with even my worst sins and mistakes.
    If we can get into the rhythm of everyday ‘riding the bus’ we will find that the big things take care of themselves pretty easily. Having the confidence that God is looking for ways to bring us into His will is one of the things that will enable us to see His will and walk in it.

  11. Theo1973 Says:

    well said father. God help mule chewing briars

  12. The Texas Hulkster Says:

    Thank you, Father. Thank you very, very much.

  13. AlyssaSophia Says:

    “I would not be where I am, doing what I do, etc., except for those wrong decisions. But I do not see my present circumstance as a result of wrong decisions, but the result of God’s mercy which has redeemed all things. He is the “glory and the lifter of my head.””

    Agreed! Glory to God for all things!
    Alyssa Sophia

  14. suzy Says:

    Just wanted to say that I found your blog today and really appreciate your writings.

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