Below you will find chapter two of my book The Generous Soul. It is free for you to read or reference in teaching, but not to print or download in any format. Note that footnote references appear as full sized numerals in the text rather than superscripts.
providence is not just a city in Rhode Island
“O LORD, how manifold are Your works! In wisdom You have made them all. The earth is full of your possessions.”
Psalm 104:24 (NKJV)
“Who has given to Me that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heaven is Mine.”
Job 41:11 (ESV)
People see God every day; they just don’t recognize Him.
“Dad, I’ve been in an accident.”
The first time you hear those words, the immediate mental response runs to every form of injury ever witnessed on COPS or one of those Japanese full body cast game shows. Then you think, “Wait, he’s on the phone. This isn’t a police officer calling. He must be OK.” The second time you hear those words you think, “There go my insurance premiums.”
In June 2010, my son had an accident that totaled his car. We were thankful that he walked away unscathed, literally without even a seatbelt burn. No other car was severely damaged, but his radiator and front grill was pushed back into the engine. The repair would have been far more than the car was ever going to be worth so we scrapped it and walked away with two hundred dollars. When we cancelled the insurance on it we got a few dollars in refund money.
I kept it all. It was not much and it only went to other expenses, but I kept it. It was “his car,” but he never saw a dime of that money.
Many parents have the experience of “giving” a child a car while retaining ownership. The name of one or both parents is on the title, the insurance and the tag. The parents pay the payments, the maintenance, the repairs, and some if not all of the gasoline. At the same time, the parents say, “That is Sarah’s car,” or “Ben, will you please wash your truck?” What it really means is that Sarah and Ben have many of the privileges of ownership while we retain almost all the responsibilities of ownership.
What parent has not said in a moment of frustration or discipline, “Don’t forget who owns that car! It is my name on the title. I pay the insurance and maintain that car. I can take it away if you don’t do what I say.” It is a common sentiment, one that some young drivers need to hear regularly.
And it’s true. I claim ownership of the car because I maintain it.
God as sustainer
God’s ownership of this world is claimed not only because He created the universe, but also because He maintains it. He does not fight with man, angels, demons, or Satan over ownership. Paul reminds us that Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Godhead, maintains this physical world. “By Him everything was created, in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him, He is before all things, and by Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16, 17; HCSB). The writer of Hebrews said that God made the universe through Jesus and that Jesus “sustains the universe by the mighty power of his command” (Heb. 1:3; NLT). The same word of God that created the universe sustains the universe. If God were to remove His sustaining power, the universe would either explode into debris or implode into nothingness. Either way, it would not be a very pretty sight.
God’s sustaining power is seen, for instance, in the use of “Almighty” and “mighty” with His name. Martin Luther writes, “The word ‘mighty’ does not denote a quiescent power, as one says of a temporal king that he is mighty, even though he be sitting and doing nothing. But it denotes an energetic power, a continuous activity, that works and operates without ceasing…as Christ says in John 5, ‘My Father is working until now, and I am working.’”28 God is not like a self-indulgent king sprawled across a throne being cooled by servants waving palm fronds all day long. Nor is He like Luther’s image, looking out a window bored out of His skull. He is active, powerful and mighty.
Thomas Oden recounts the scope of God’s sustaining power (what he and others call providence) saying, “No creature is so great as to be beyond the need of God’s care (Ps. 103)…No creature is so small as to be overlooked by God’s care: ravens (Ps. 147:9), sparrows (Matt. 10:29), lilies and grass (Matt. 6:28, 30), and the hairs of our heads (Matt. 10:30). God’s providential sustenance embraces the physical world (Job 37:5), animal creation (Ps. 104:21), the affairs of nations (Isa. 40:ff), [and] justice in societies (Job 12:16-25; Amos 5)…Nothing is beyond God’s providence.”29 Since God’s providence is responsible for sustaining every single thing in creation, even the grass in my front yard belongs to Him; or, in the case of desert dwellers, the cacti growing there.
God’s sustaining power has also been called preservation by other writers and theologians through the years. A.H. Strong, for instance, writes,
“Preservation is that continuous agency of God by which he maintains in existence the things he has created, together with the properties and powers with which he has endowed them…Preservation is not a mere negation of action, or a refraining to destroy, on the part of God. It is a positive agency by which, at every moment, he sustains the persons and the forces of the universe.”30
In other words, God’s sustaining power is not simply that God does not do something, like destroy the world with a large piece of space flotsam, but that He positively promotes and provides for His creation.
I remember as a child hearing people say things like, “Yes, I’ll be at the meeting if I am not Providentially hindered.” That to which the person referred was God’s sustaining power over His creation, His providence. If, in the working of God in the world the person was allowed to be at the meeting, he or she would be there. “I do not have any other plans,” they could have said, “but God might. My attendance depends on my plans and His.”
It is worth noting that God’s sustaining is not merely a tyrant’s claim on something He owns. Instead, He interacts with His creation and, specifically, humanity. Eugene Merrill reminds us, “The core, unifying theme of Old Testament theology is the reigning of God…The Bible presents him as independently sovereign, answerable to no one and in need of nothing or no one outside himself. But it also presents him as in vital contact with all he has made, especially with mankind, that part of the creation made uniquely as his own image.”31 We need look no further than the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ to see this interaction personalized and intensified in the New Testament. No more “vital contact” could be desired than that God would become a man and live among humanity for thirty-three years. It is this caring (and redemptive) interaction with humanity that keeps the sustaining power of God (His providence or preservation) from degenerating into the faceless, impersonal mythology of the fates. Que sera, sera32 is not what will be; what God sustains and oversees will be.33
Are we not talking about miracles?
Many Christians and unbelievers alike are familiar with the miracles recorded in the Bible. A miracle is generally thought of as a time when God suspends physical laws to meet a need (as in providing manna) or to demonstrate His power (Elijah calling fire from heaven).34 The crossing of the Red Sea,35 making the sun stand still,36 the slaughter of Sennacherib’s army,37 and the feeding of the five thousand38 are where our minds tend to turn when we think of miracles. If a miracle is God’s special intervention, providence may be thought of as God’s non-miraculous guidance. It would be this sustaining, providence, and preservation that the author of the proverb referenced when writing, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD” (Prov. 16:33; NKJV).
God is able to provide this kind of consistent and ongoing providence because—and only because—He is the owner of all that is. He need not run to another for permission since His ability is within His infinite being. The psalmist could thus observe, “I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread” [Ps. 37:25; NIV].
The Fatherly God
There is in this a clear parallel to good parenting. Good parents sustain their children by purchasing food, clothes, school supplies, and other needs. Children brought into this world bring parental responsibilities. “I helped create this little life so I have a responsibility to sustain this little life.” The same holds true, of course, for adopted children. Jesus used the metaphor of God’s fatherhood in the context of prayer and provision. In Matthew, He taught, “You parents—if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead? Of course not! If you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him” (Matt. 7: 9-11; NLT). If we are able to sustain our children, how much more is God able to do so? If you are God’s child through faith in Jesus Christ, then you are not excluded from the faithful fatherhood of God.
So, the Scripture teaches that God is owner by virtue of creation, and His ownership is repeatedly confirmed by His providence. The proper response to God for His ownership of all things is a right relationship to those things, but a battle ensues over those allegiances.