God's Provision and Providence

Dr. Brian Allison

We often have unexpected challenges and trials that come into our lives, and sometimes we are not sufficiently prepared for them. These challenges and trials should affect us in at least two ways. First, we should feel more deeply our need of prayer; and second, we should examine more closely the providence of God. Romans 8:26-30 reads, "And in the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren; and whom He predestined, He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified." Three basic points may be found in this passage: first, the reality of human weakness; second, the assurance of the Spirit's help; and third, God's favourable providence.

The reality of human weakness

Human existence is marked by weakness and suffering—"And in the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness" (v. 26a). The apostle Paul here refers to what he has just considered in this passage. He previously considers the fact of human suffering and struggle. As long as we live in this world, we are faced with suffering and struggle—these help define the human condition. In verse 18, he mentions the "sufferings of this present time;" in verse 20, he mentions that the creation has been "subjected to futility," uselessness, vanity; in verse 22, he states that the creation groans. In verse 23, he states that we, as believers, are groaning. Groaning is simply the expression of our hearts when we feel the weight of the hardship of life. Suffering and struggle constitute the backdrop for the apostle's subsequent message of victory. Paul proceeds to consider the fact of hope. Though we are born into suffering and struggle, we are not to despair; we are not to live defeated lives. Paul says that Christians should eagerly wait for the coming glory. We are to patiently expect a brighter future. We are to live in hope.

Though we find our lives characterized by suffering and struggle, we are to persevere in hope; but not only are we to persevere in hope, we are also to persevere by the help of the Holy Spirit—"And in the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness." We are creatures of weakness. Sometimes we flatter ourselves on our talent, our ability, our ingenuity, our strength, our cleverness, our stamina, etc., but 'the best of men are mere men at best'. Our lives are characterized by weakness; that is not very flattering, but that is the truth. We are creatures of limitation, deficient in many areas, and often lacking the necessary resources. We get tired, we get exhausted, we get stressed out and frazzled. We often make bad decisions. We forget details; our minds fail us and betray us, especially as we get older. Recently, I was chatting with a friend, and he made reference to a former pastor-associate of mine. For a moment I had forgotten the associate's name. That was humiliating; and I was reminded of my appalling weakness. Daily we are confronted with our frailty.

The help of the Spirit

We are indeed creatures of weakness, but we are not to despair—"the Spirit also helps our weakness." The Spirit helps us in our weakness. It does not say that the Spirit removes our weakness; no, the Spirit comes alongside and compensates for our weakness. He manifests His power and glory through our weakness; and so, at the end of the day, we must cast ourselves upon God, and we worship Him in response to His strength being perfected in our appalling weakness.

The term 'help' conveys the idea of entering into a problem, a trying situation, and assisting in relieving the pressure or difficulty. For instance, you may get your car stuck in the snow; and you may attempt to push yourself out, by yourself—a formidable task indeed, given that you must also steer the car. But as good fortune would have it, a huge, muscular man may pass by and enter into your struggle and aid you by pushing the car out of the snow so that you may go on your merry way. Similarly, the Holy Spirit enters into our struggles and provides the needed aid. It is not that the Spirit overrides our weakness, but He reveals His power and His strength in our weakness.

Paul proceeds to point to a specific weakness, concerning which the Spirit provides help—"for we do not know how to pray as we should" (v. 26b). I mentioned earlier that when things get tough, when we feel the difficulties and problems of life, we should feel more deeply the need to pray, but often when we are driven to pray, we do not know exactly what to pray for. This verse does not say that we do not know how to pray, but rather that we do not know how to pray as we should, that is, in a way that will really address the situation according to God's will so that we may see the fulfilment of our prayer. Someone has said that many prayers should be cut short at each end and set on fire in the middle.

So, we often do not know how to pray as we should. That is true of the best of saints. When Paul was visited by a messenger from Satan, a thorn in the flesh, he prayed that it should be removed; but that was not according to the will of God. It was God's will that he remain in his suffering and struggle (for it had sanctifying value). We do not like these kinds of answers from God, but often that is how God answers us. It is often His will that we experience pain. Paul prayed three times, that the pain be removed. But God said, "No. My grace is sufficient for you" (2 Cor. 12:9). Sometimes we think that we are praying according to the will of God because it seems right and good from our perspective. We say, for instance, "It must be God's will that this individual be healed;" or, "It must be God's will that I be happy and fulfilled;" or, "It must be God's will that I have companionship and close friends by my side." Again, often it is God's will that we suffer because it is through the suffering that we are perfected and made more like Jesus. The issue should not be whether we are happy, but rather, whether we are becoming more holy. God is pleased to chasten us in order to make us holy so that we will be happy. Accordingly, when we go to prayer, we must go with an attitude of dependency, saying, "Lord, I do not know how to pray for this situation. I do not know what I personally need and what will be best for me. I do not know what Your will is. Spirit, pray in me, and through me. Reveal to me the will of God. Give me certainty of heart concerning the mind of God." The Spirit will bear witness with our spirits how we are to pray; and we will know that we are praying according to God's will when there is an accompanying peace.

Our encouragement when we personally do not know what to pray for, is that the Spirit does—"But the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words" (v. 26c). When young children begin to colour, usually there are a few things that characterize their experience. First, they are not sure what colour to use; and second, they have great difficulty staying within the lines of the drawing. The child will ask, "Mommy (or Daddy), what colour should I use?" After a colour is chosen, Mom or Dad may then assist him or her to stay within the lines so that it does not look so messy. So it is with the Spirit. The Spirit assists us so that we pray for that which is God's specific will, and the Spirit helps us to pray within the confines, the guidelines, of that will.

Astoundingly, the Spirit actually prays on our behalf; but He prays in us and through us; and so, it is we also who are praying. The Spirit cries out within us, 'Abba, Father!' (Ga. 4:6), but we also cry out with our mouths, 'Abba, Father!' (Rm. 8:15); and this is our assurance—and the emphasis in this text—that the Spirit prays in us so that we will pray according to the will of God. And thus, we will see the realization, the fulfilment, of that will. Again, in our helplessness, His strength is perfected. If we come in a spirit of dependency and if we come in faith trusting God to pray in us and through us, then we need not be concerned or bothered whether we are praying in the scope of God's will. God will make sure that we are.

The Spirit desires to pray for us, and in us. But He does that with verbally inexpressible language, "with groanings too deep for words" (v. 26d). His groans are inarticulable and inaudible, but they are also our groans because the Spirit groans within our hearts—we are one with the Spirit. Again, this language of groaning indicates the fact of suffering. We may feel the crushing weight, the overwhelming burden, of a situation to such a degree that we are left speechless. Thus, we may come to prayer feeling that we cannot even utter words. All we seem to be able to do is be quiet before God and groan. As someone has well said, "Better to have heart without words, than to have words without heart." But here is our assurance when we feel the weight of our suffering and struggle so that we cannot even speak—in our groaning in prayer, the Spirit is groaning in prayer; and He is interpreting our pain and struggle to the Father, as well as revealing the Father's will in a way that we do not understand—"and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God" (v. 27). So, when we think about our suffering and struggle, we first are assured of the provision of God—the help of the Holy Spirit.

The favourable providence of God

In our suffering and struggle, we may take comfort not only in the help of the Spirit, but also in the assurance of the favourable providence of God. God orders and controls all things. The unfortunate circumstances of life do not just happen; they are not simply accidents. This past week my son was overcome with excruciating abdominal pain, appendicitis. That was no accident (though we sometimes have difficulty understanding that such pain is ordained by the living God). But realizing that God does indeed order all things should bring us a sense of peace and comfort in the midst of our pain and struggle.

We thus read, "And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God" (v. 28). Often when this verse is quoted the first part is not mentioned. People quote this verse, starting with, "God causes all things to work together," but that is not what it says. It says, "We know." As we think of that illness in the family, or that break up in the home, or that altercation between friends, or the bankruptcy of the business, or that death of a child—in the face of that which appears to be utterly incomprehensible, and perhaps initially unbearable—we ought to be able to say with all assurance, "And we know that God causes all things to work together for good." God is weaving everything together into a beautiful pattern. God harmonizes all the events and circumstances of our lives for a grand and glorious end.

My daughter went with her school yesterday to a band competition. What would happen if everyone in the band played whatever each wanted to—one playing the song, "Rambling Rose," another playing "Beethoven's 5th," and another playing "Amazing Grace"? Utter discord and confusion. It is the teacher who leads and draws everything together. He works with each student, and conducts the band so that there is a harmony, so that there is a pleasant result. That is what God does. He takes all the 'instruments' of life—which left to their own would result in discord—and orchestrates everything together in exquisite harmony so that there is a pleasant result.

Often when we consider the providence of God, we think of Joseph. From an external point of view, it seemed that Joseph was in a hopeless situation. Everything seemed to be working against him. He was hated by his brothers who should have loved him. (That is a human tragedy to be hated by those whom we would expect to love us.) He was rejected by his family, then he was sold into slavery, then he was imprisoned on trumped up charges. Now, Joseph was a man who loved God and sought to do His moral will. Nothing bad is said of Joseph in the Scriptures; and yet life dished out bitter herbs to him. It made no sense from a human point of view. Joseph had done nothing wrong (according to the Scriptural record); and yet he had problem after problem. Someone in that situation might understandably inquire, "What is going on, God?" And the answer is, "And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God." In God's timing, Joseph was elevated to the position of prime minister in the kingdom. He said to his brothers later on, "And as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive" (Gn. 50:20). Sometimes we think that God does not know what He is doing, but He'll never have a lapse of memory. He knows exactly what He is doing, and He is not in a rush to fulfil His purposes. Joseph went through a series of misfortunes for about 13 or 14 years. God knows exactly what He is doing. We need to trust Him.

Providence rooted in eternity

God's favourable providence extends to those who sustain a special relationship with Him—"And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God [those in a right, special relationship with Him, those who desire Him, those who want to please Him]" (v. 28a). Jesus said, "If you love Me, keep my commandments." Love to God is demonstrated in a life of obedience. Someone may bemoan, "I love God, but things just don't seem to work out for me. I don't see how things are working for good." We may not always see or understand how God is actually working things together for our good, but that does not meant that they aren't. But concerning this condition or qualification of loving God in order to be an object of His favourable providence, we should remember that to simply say that we love God is no guarantee that we automatically constitute the objects of His favourable providence. The ones who are the objects of God's favourable providence, the ones who love God, are "those who are called according to His purpose" (v. 28c). We love Him because He first loved us; and because He loves us, He calls us into fellowship with Himself. And it is these ones, His special people, who enjoy all things working together for good.

Having mentioned the matter of God's purpose, Paul makes mention of some of the key aspects of this purpose. The purpose concern's God's salvific or redemptive plan. The providence of God finds its impetus and significance in the purpose of God. God has purposed to save a people. A correlative of the providence of God is the predestination of God. The providence of God in history ensures the realization of the predestination of God in eternity. Predestination necessitates that all things will work together for good. Concerning the eternal purpose of God, we read, "For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren" (v. 29). There is divine rhyme and reason amidst the various misfortunes in our lives. In the midst of our suffering and struggle, we know that God has not abdicated His throne. He is in absolute control. He is working out His salvation.

God, from eternity past, has mapped out the course of our lives, and what He would be pleased to do in our lives as He has determined to bring us to glory—"and whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified" (v. 30). God loved a people even before they were born. He loved them in a special way before time began. To 'foreknow', in reference to God, should not be construed in an intellectual sense, but rather it refers to a special relationship. If you are saved today, then that means that God loved you from all eternity. Because He knew certain ones in a loving, special way before the creation ever existed, God determined what would happen with respect to their eternal destiny. He determined that they would eventually reflect the very character of Christ. We were destined beforehand, in the heart of God, to be just like His Son, to assume His image, that is, to reflect His perfect humanness. God determined that Christ would be the beginning and the head of a new humanity. Consequently, in history, according to that eternal purpose, God calls these ones to actually receive salvation, that there might be the realization of His eternal purpose through grace. He effectually and spiritually calls them by the proclamation of the Gospel. He calls them into fellowship with Himself. These ones who respond to the effectual call of the Spirit, these ones who hear that spiritual voice of Christ, these He declares righteous and acceptable in His sight, free from sin and thus free from condemnation and judgement to come. Accordingly, in His mind, God has already perfected these ones. From the divine point of view, it is a finished work; it is as good as done. The salvation of the elect is undeniable and absolutely certain. They are already glorified in the heart of God.

Regardless of the nature of the suffering and struggle that we must endure in this life, nothing can alter or destroy the blessings that await us in that life. God has ordained that we will suffer; but He has also ordained that we should someday know eternal peace and joy. And while we remain in this life, with its heartaches and hardships, He has pledged Himself to care for us. He has provided for our essential needs through the help of the Spirit; and He has guaranteed our safety through His favourable providence. Our heavenly Father is faithful. He is worthy of our praise and worship.