Divine Providence: Origin and Definition

We derive the English word providence from the Latin term procidentia, which primarily means foresight or foreknowledge. The only occurrence in the Scriptures (Acts 24:2) translates from a Greek word, pronoia, meaning to make provision for a thing out of forethought. Here, a Roman orator named Tertullus uses the term to flatter a Roman Governor before presenting his case against the Apostle Paul. “By thee we enjoy great quietness, and that very worthy deeds are done unto this nation by thy providence.” It’s doubtful that Felix governed by using forethought to provide the best things for his subjects, but it’s an exact fit when used to describe God’s rule. 

The doctrine of Divine Providence holds that God, in His wisdom,  so orders all events within His creation, that it may realize the end for which it was created—a theme that runs through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.

Conversely, Merrian–Webster defines luck as “the things that happen to a person because of chance: the accidental way things happen without being planned.”

But the Word of God dismisses chance as the guiding principle in life.  A man’s heart deviseth his way: but the LORD directeth his steps (Proverbs 16:9).

Jimmy’s Luck

General James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle needs no introduction. As an air warrior, he served his country with courage, and with the Tokyo raid, he rose above and beyond the call of duty.

As much as I enjoyed reading his autobiography, I stumbled more than once over the General’s attribution of luck to his success in the air and on the ground. The book’s title, “I Could Never Be So Lucky Again,” got my attention and raised questions before I read the first page.

As I read, I kept wondering if Doolittle truly believed in the power of luck to guide him safely through the many challenges he faced as a pilot and businessman. But his stubborn personality charted a course and didn’t waver. The last paragraph tells all.

Luck has been with me all my life. Fortunately, I was always able to exploit that luck during my flying years and at each turn in my career… That’s why, whenever I’m asked, I say that I would never want to relive my life. I could never be so lucky again.

A Lot to Think About

In Biblical times people often settled matters by casting a stone called a lot into the lap of their robe. The markings on the lot probably resembled the dice we use in games. The verdict of the lot decided the choice of civil or ecclesiastical officers, division of inheritances, outcome of legal cases, and even for putting an end to strife and contention. In our day, we still refer to life events as one’s lot.

Those who believed in the omnipotence of Jehovah viewed the outcome of lot–casting as Divine direction. Proverbs 16:33 reads, “The lot is cast into the lap; But the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord.”

Unlike those who threw the lot superstitiously and ascribed the outcome to blind chance, the people of God attributed the result to the Lord only. People of faith believe there is no such thing as chance or blind fortune. Esteemed Bible scholar, Dr. John Gill, 1697—1771, writes, “those events which seem most fortuitous or contingent are all disposed, ordered and governed, by the sovereign will of God” (An Exposition of the Old Testament).

This takes us to the Biblical doctrine of Divine Providence.

Divine Providence

R. A. Torrey (1856—1928) writes the following explanation of the term providence:

This term, in its widest application, signifies the Divine Presence in the world as sustaining, controlling, and guiding to their destination all things that are made. The will of God determines the end for which His creatures exist; His wisdom and His goodness appoint the means by which that end is attained: in the conservation of the frame of nature, in the care of all creatures that have wants, in the government especially of intelligent and probationary beings; and His power ensures the accomplishment of every design (Torrey’s Textbook).

Jesus teaches that we can observe God’s overruling and guiding presence in nature and the lives of humans.

Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? (Matthew 6:26)

Therefore, take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matthew 6:31–33).

Take thought in the original Greek comes from a word meaning to be anxious as it’s rendered in some translations. It carries with it the idea of being overly burdened with worry and cares about the unknowns in life.

Job: A Case Study in Anxiety

We remember Job for his patience in suffering, but his sleepless nights because of worry and anxiety sometimes go overlooked. Job was a wealthy man. He had everything that in the worldly sense anyone could want. But such abundance carries with it the nagging feeling that it could quickly all go away (which it did). Job confesses in Job 3:24–26,

For my sighing cometh before I eat,
and my roarings are poured out like the waters.
For the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me,
and that which I was afraid of is come unto me.
I was not in safety, neither had I rest, neither was I quiet;
yet trouble came.

All that worry and physical suffering, and the trouble he feared came anyway. When his problems ended, Job possessed a newly found appreciation for the sovereignty of God over all things. “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear,” Job says, “but now mine eye seeth thee” (Job 42:4).

In all that went before, and all that still lay ahead, Job sees in it all the One who spoke to him “out of the whirlwind.”

Probability or Providence?

Some look back on their life and assess events as good luck or bad luck, good fortune or misfortune. A life guided by blind chance.

A person of faith looks at his life story and sees the hand of God–divine providence–through it all. The Psalmist wrote in Psalm 37:23,

The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord:
and he delighteth in his way.
Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down:
for the Lord upholdeth him with his hand.

But the translators added the word good, and it doesn’t seem to fit, for Jesus said, “There is none good but one, that is, God” (Mark 10:18). I rather like the International Standard Version that reads,

A man’s steps are established by the LORD,
and the LORD delights in his way.
Though he stumbles,
he will not fall down flat,
for the LORD will hold up his hand.

Life becomes infinitely less stressful when viewed as ruled and overruled by the providential workings of God, who has nothing but our best interests in mind. “And we know that all things work together for Good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

The Mysterious Way of God

Before poet William Cowper (1731—1800) became the writer of some of our most beloved hymns, he suffered mental pain and struggled with depression. He even attempted suicide, which led to taking up residence at St. Albans Insane Asylum. During his stay, he experienced conversion and emerged as a staunch believer in God.

Intense remembrances of his former life influenced Cowper when he wrote one of the most popular hymns in all hymnody, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” I include all the stanzas in the following, as they tell a complete story of God’s prevailing providence in our lives.

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.

Our Way vs. God’s Way

Occasionally we might like to override God’s choice for our path, which is often overshadowed by “a frowning providence.” That’s because we cannot see how the story ends. But God can. He sees the beginning and end of all history, globally and personally. Pastor and theologian James Montgomery Boice tells the following story of a man who came face to face with God’s will in opposition to his own.

We are like the man who was climbing up a steep mountain on his way to the summit when he began to slip. Unable to stop himself, he slid back down the treacherous incline toward a cliff that plunged a thousand feet to the canyon floor. He was sure he would be killed. But just as he was about to go over the edge, he threw his hands out and managed to catch a small branch. There he hung. He had saved himself. But he could not get back onto the incline, and he knew it was just a matter of time until his grip loosened and he fell.

He was not a very religious man. But this was the time to become one, if ever. So he looked up to heaven and called out, “Is there anyone up there who can help me?”

He did not expect an answer. So he was greatly surprised when a deep voice came back, saying, “Yes, I am here, and I can help you. But first, you are going to have to let go of that branch.”

A long pause! Then the man looked up and called out again, “Is there anybody else up there who can help me?” (James Montgomery Boice, Expositions in Genesis)

Freedom from Fear

A sense of God’s providential care in our lives provides freedom from the anxiety that sometimes plagues natural man for a lifetime. It’s like coming out of a gloomy cave into fresh air and sunshine. John Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, said it like this:

When once the light of Divine Providence has illumined the believer’s soul, he is relieved and set free, not only from the extreme fear and anxiety which formerly oppressed him, but from all care. For as he justly shudders at the idea of chance, so he can confidently commit himself to God. This, I say, is his comfort, that his heavenly Father so embraces all things under his power – so governs them at will by his nod – so regulates them by his wisdom, that nothing takes place save according to his appointment.


General Jimmy Doolittle spoke the truth when he said, “I could never be so lucky again.” If luck saw him through the perils of war and his many obstacles in peacetime, then the same random chance, according to the law of probability, would likely have left him crashing and burning during aerial combat or while test-flying a new aircraft.

What a difference it makes to live in the blessed assurance that we cast our lot as best we know how, but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord.