February 14, 2018 Author: Dr. John Vazhakoottathil, OCD 0 Comments

We see in the first Book of Samuel the story of the people of Israel who placed their hope in the providence of God during the time of a war with philistines.[1] In the first phase of the war Israel was defeated with a loss of four thousand men. The elders of Israel encouraged the Israelite troops to hope in the providence of God and said: “Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh, that he may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.”[2] With the arrival of the ark of the covenant in the camp, the Israelite soldiers began to make the shouts of victory. The philistines were terrified hearing the victory cry of the Israelites and the news that the God of Israel had come to the camp of their enemies. They said to one another, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who smote the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness. Take courage, and acquit yourselves like men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; acquit yourselves like men and fight.”[3] The war that followed took away the lives of thirty thousand Israelites and the ark of the covenant was captured by the Philistines! Why at the presence of their Lord of Hosts, in whose provident protection the Israelites trusted, they lost the war with the death of a great number of soldiers than in his absence? Is the trust in the providence of God a distraction from human potentialities? Is it an escapism from the responsibilities of growth and work? In what way the concept of the providence of God can be explained to serve the missionary duty of the Church? This article is an attempt to answer these questions with very little available documents.


What is ‘Providence of God’?

God in his immense wisdom manifests his eternal glory by creating, sustaining and guiding all the creatures to their proper destiny. Each creature by attaining its particular end contributes to the glory of God which is the ultimate end for which the universe is created. Theology calls this eternal act of God, ‘providence of God’.[4] The inspired authors in the Bible adds that providence of God includes also the subjection of all creatures to his eternal will.[5] W. T. Davison, in his article says, “[…] providence is understood […] to denote the care of God for His creatures, His general supervision over them, and the ordering of the whole course of things for their good.”[6]

The word ‘providence’ appears for the first time in the 5th century B. C.[7] In Greek classical literature the word πρόνοια is used freely for human and divine forethought. In his article on ‘Providence’ W. T. Davison says, “It is employed absolutely in Xenophon and Plutarch for the watchful care of the gods, and it forms one of the names under which Athene was worshipped at Delphi.”[8] The concept of the ‘providence of God’ was a topic of discussion also in the ancient Greek philosophy. Aristotle, for example, speaks about the providence of God over the individual things.[9] Ernst Niermann says,

The stoic doctrine of providence and its ethical consequences could be left to historical scholarship, except for the fact that its basic themes continued to go hand in hand with the Christian faith in providence. They still form the background against which that faith is understood and exercised, and indeed influence it and sometimes distort it.[10]

The Stoics believe in the ‘causal determinism’ and in the ‘providence of God’. Although these concepts give a good start to contemplate an omnipotent and omniscient God, soon we face the riddle of good and evil. If it is said that everything is predetermined then the freedom of God and man cannot be understood well.[11] The Christian Neo-Platonists tried to resolve the problem by saying that God with all his freedom causes only a good order and he cannot will evil. Thus they say that the ‘causal determinism’ and the ‘providence of God’ are one and the same thing. But then we are haunted by the question on the existence of evil. The Roman Catholic theology stresses human responsibility in the process of personal salvation that is, the grace of God is efficacious within a person according to the cooperation of the human will.[12]


Jesus: the Revelation of Divine Providence

The entire universe is filled with the presence of God and the presence of this invisible God was made visible by the incarnation of Jesus Christ. He manifested the original nature of man who was created in the image and likeness of God. He made himself subject to the divine will of God which controls the entire universe. By his obedience to the divine will of God, Jesus revealed how a man can enjoy the freedom of the children of God participating in the goodness of the each being that God created. He revealed how man can also participate in the mission of making the invisible God visible in the human society. Jesus revealed that by submitting oneself to the divine wisdom, one can participate in the nature of the new man, Jesus who carried in himself the presence of God. In fact Saint Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians said that all have to learn from the life of Jesus Christ the true nature of humanity and that they have to put off their old nature of disobedience and rebellion and put on the new human nature revealed through Jesus Christ, “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness”.[13]

We do not find a corresponding word for πρόνοια in Hebrew Bible although the thought is present throughout the Old Testament.[14] The term ‘providence’ is used in Jewish literature for the first time in the Septuagint.[15] The word occurs twice in the Book of Wisdom, once in the Acts of the Apostles and once in the Letter to the Romans.[16] The biblical writers in general speak about the providence of God as the eternal will of God for the good of all people and about the submission of human will to the divine will. In an article “Free will and Predestination, an overview”, the author reports the teaching of Josephus Flavius. He says, “Josephus Flavius, in describing the Pharisees to his Hellenistic audience, said that they considered all events predestined but still did not deprive the human will of involvement in decisions about virtue and vice. The Sadducees, he described as rejecting determinism altogether.”[17] Although Jesus makes strong remarks against Pharisees and Sadducees, we can observe that when we consider the issues that divided Pharisees and Sadducees, Jesus was sharing the religious sentiments of the Pharisees.[18]

The basis of the Old Testament faith in the providence is the interpretation of the history of human experience as the action of God and as the fulfillment of his promises. God is interpreted as a personal God who created the universe, who freely intervene in the history to sustain it. It is from this divine providence that man attains freedom. Ernst Niermann says that it is by the revelation of Christ’s saving work that the traditional faith in providence is given its final stamp. “The kingdom of God which he announced is awaited in faith and hope, not as the consequence of the laws of nature but as the free, historical intervention of God.”[19] The author also says that there is an already and not yet dimension for the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is not only a reality which is beyond human history but it is within the history.[20] Jesus is the revelation of the providence of God to humanity and he himself is the perfect human response to the divine providence so much so he experienced the provident protection of his father whom he called ‘Abba’ and he let others experience the same God through his life and teachings.


Divine Providence: an interpretation of life that heals and liberates

Once I got an occasion to speak to some young people and they were very generous to speak to me and listen to me. They told me sincerely that they do not find any meaning in religion because it does not help them to confront the challenges and complexities of daily life.  Their childhood memories of religion is filled with reproaches in the name of a God who does not tolerate human limitations. Even the thought of this God is overcome with the constant proclamation of sin, purgatory, hell and devil! To a question about the ‘future of religion’ Cardinal Ratzinger replied:

Indeed, man’s transcendent dimension, his yearning for transcendence, is so profoundly rooted in his being that religion can never disappear. It is our responsibility to see to it that this yearning be guided in the right way and not lead to abuses. For, although it is true that religion will always exist, it is also true that it may be a sick religion, and indeed many phenomena of our time reveal forms of religious pathology that become a real threat for the human person.[21]

I appreciated the young boys and girls that it is always good to have a philosophy of life but at the same time I said that our world view must be an integral one and be able to confront ‘all the questions’ of our life. If our world view is constantly enslaving us with the sentiments of envy, greed and hatred then, we have to wonder whether our world view is a true one. Karl Rahner says, “[…] when it is really true that an individual ‘lived completely for his business’ […] then there occurs a narrowing, a disappearance of the meaning of human life which becomes fatal for man.”[22] According to him a ‘manager’ of the daily business of life with the principles of momentary survival and success cannot be a fully human being or a religious being.

I introduced to the young brothers and sisters some questions for which the human philosophies do not have any answer. Although the predicable world of science is fascinating us, a nostalgia for the unpredictable is haunting us always.[23] To help them understand how it is good to have a theology of life, that is, an interpretation of life based on faith, hope and love, I picked up the story of Joseph in the Old Testament. Since Joseph was very good and obedient, his father Jacob liked him so much. This provoked the envy of his brothers and they wanted to kill Joseph. Later they sold him to some Midianite traders for twenty shekels of silver. He became a prisoner of Pharaoh, the emperor of Egypt. In the prison he interpreted the dream of Pharaoh and later Pharaoh made Joseph the governor of Egypt. During the years of famine the brothers of Joseph came to him for food grains. With heart full of emotions he said to them that he was Joseph whom they sold to Midianites. His brothers were afraid thinking that Joseph would take revenge against them. But Joseph pronounced words of consolation and cure. He asked them not to be distressed and angry with themselves because it was God who sent him to Egypt before them so that they may not all die of famine.

If we think with the natural light of reason it is very difficult to forgive the brothers of Joseph who wanted to kill him, who later sold him for twenty shekels of silver. The civil courts pronounce judgments against the culprits according to the crimes they have committed. Here we doubt whether we establish truth and justice in their integrity with these judgments because the question of why one was dragged into the antisocial attitude is not considered in the civil court. As a result, the culprits, after the period of their punishments, come out of the prison with heart full of vengeance and hatred and engage in the same antisocial activities. History witnesses how the unjust socio-political and economic systems have always provoked crimes, revolutions and wars. Therefore, a social justice which is based only on the pure reason is insufficient to establish peace and harmony in the society.

Jesus said to his disciples, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also”.[24] Although this statement is a foolishness for the wisdom of the world and a scandal for the ego-centric people, the people who interpret their life in faith can understand how these words are powerful to establish an integral justice in the world. They know that God can transform even an evil experience into a blessing for prosperity and success. Joseph of the Old Testament understood how God transformed the evil action of his brothers against him into a blessing for Israel. This realization healed him and liberated him and he became a cause of healing and liberation of his brothers.

Ernst Niermann says, “What the Lord underwent in this world – crucifixion – and the way in which the world opposed him showed that even the shadows which fall on man and his history (sin, guilt, failure, agony and death) are comprised within God’s plan of salvation.”[25] He continues to say that the sense of being safe in the hands of God’s providence is coming to man not by an enlightenment into the harmony of the universe. Rather, it is achieved “by the following of Christ, who accepted freely and obediently the destiny which befell him as the loving summons of God and thus transformed and disarmed it.”[26] Thus Jesus reveals through his life and teachings that the experience of the divine providence is achieved by a theological interpretation of life which in turn gives freedom and healing in the day to day life.


Church’s mission to experience and let others experience the providence of God

The words of providence that we read in the Gospel of Mathew console us and encourage us: ‘Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’![27] To understand the depth of the consolation that Jesus’ listeners received from these words, we have to analyze the context in which he pronounced them. The common people in Israel at the time of Jesus were under the socio-political oppression of the Romans on the one hand and the religious and cultural oppression of the Pharisees and the Scribes on the other. The poor people were eagerly expecting a Messiah who will heal their wounds and liberate them from all kinds of oppressions. Then they saw a young man Jesus who says with heart full of confidence: ‘Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’! All rushed to him eagerly like a Deer who found water in the desert! But what has really happened?

Jesus temporarily healed some people but the sickness remains as a challenge even today; the gospel narratives reports that two times he fed the people by the multiplication of the loaves, but the hunger was always a haunting problem in the society; he raised Lazarus into life but he died later. Jesus did not resolve any of their problems definitively. People trusted in him and they hoped that he will liberate them from the oppressors. But to their distress he was unjustly killed by the same oppressors. If he had fought against the oppressors and had destroyed at least some of them and if, meanwhile he had been killed, it would have been bearable. But he appeared himself to be very powerless and subdued himself to a brutal death. It seems that the people were given a false hope and now they suffer an unbearable wound by his powerless death. In what way Jesus wanted to console the people? What is the Gospel of Jesus to the poor?

To the people who came to him seeking courage and consolation Jesus said emphatically, ‘learn from me’. Although he was in the form of God, he humbled himself and became man and participated in all the human limitations. Like an ordinary Jew he was a victim of all kinds of oppressions in the society. He experienced hunger and thirst and was numbered among the sinners. A systematic oppression from all sides make people depressed and hard hearted. But to our surprise Jesus appeared himself not to be affected by these deadly conditioning realities around him but he had peace and joy within. He shared with everyone an abundance of his positive energy. He expressed the virtues of the powerful such as meekness and humility.

The prophet Zachariah foresaw a kingdom of peace and joy which is not governed by muscle power but by a power of the spirit of wisdom.[28] In that kingdom people will have discovered the creative and transformative power of humility and patience because of their faith in the providence of God. Now in the fullness of time Jesus gives flesh and blood to this vision of Zachariah. Jesus enriches it with the concept of mercy and thus in that kingdom each individual becomes bread and drink for one another. It is to this kingdom that he invites the people of his time. All the signs and miracles were only momentary tools to explain the marvels of his vision of the world. In that world the people live in faith and love for one another with a dynamism that is coming from their trust and hope in the merciful God whom Jesus called ‘Abba’. It is surely a challenge and it needs to be achieved working hard on it with a rigorous mental and spiritual discipline. But it is a useful and fruitful labor and therefore, its burden will be light and soft. But Jesus reveals in his prayer to his Father that this world will be a closed reality for those who trust in themselves, who are closed in their subjective wisdom and intelligence. At the same time this kingdom of peace and joy, of healing and freedom is very near to those who are open, like children, to the novelties of growth.[29] The Church is called to experience herself and let others experience this kingdom of God’s providence. She envisions a community of God’s providence in which when one is lacking something, everybody will rush to mend it like water flows to a lower place. Like the water is restless until its level is equal everywhere, people filled with the Spirit of the Father and the Sun, are in a constant dynamism of love.

The Word of God became flesh in Mary and the fruit of her womb revealed to the world the real nature of God and man. Through her life she instructs us how we can make God present in our personal history and how we can become a brother, sister and a mother of this God who became man. The Church wants us to meditate on her life so that we may imitate her attitude of contemplation and thus experience the presence of God in our personal life. The Church also wants that like Mary, we become a brother, a sister and a mother to let the people experience the presence of God among them.



To speak about the divine providence in terms of momentary success and fortunes is a misinterpretation of the topic. Jesus is the revelation of the providence of God and he himself is the revelation of how man has to respond to the divine providence. The experience of the divine providence will be a reality within and around us if each one is orienting his or her life for the glory of God and for the good of all. It is the missionary duty of each baptized Christian to grow and experience the providence of God within and let others experience the presence of God through the merciful sharing of their life.

[1]    1 Samuel 4, 1-11.

[2]    1 Samuel 4, 3.

[3]    1 Samuel 4, 7-9.

[4]    E. J. Carney, “Providence of God (Theology of)”, in New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 11, 917.

[5]    R. E. Masterman, “Providence of God (in the Bible)”, in New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 11, 916. For example,  Genesis 8, 21-22; Jeramiah 5, 22-24; Psalms 103 (104); 139; 148,6.

[6]    W. T. Devision, “Providence”, in Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, vol. 10, 415.

[7]    E. Niermann, “Providence”, in Sacramentum Mundi, vol. 5, 130.

[8]    E. Niermann, “Providence”, in Sacramentum Mundi, vol. 5, 130.

[9]    E. J. Carney, “Providence of God (Theology of)”, in New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 11, 917.

[10]   E. Niermann, “Providence”, in Sacramentum Mundi, vol. 5, 131.

[11]   E. J. Carney, “Providence of God (Theology of)”, in New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 11, 918.

[12]   W. D. Dewey (Jr.), “Free will and Predestination, an overview”, in The Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 5, 424.

[13]   Ephesians 4, 24.

[14]   W. T. Devision, “Providence”, in Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, vol. 10, 415.

[15]   E. J. Carney, “Providence of God (Theology of)”, in New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 11, 917.

[16]   Wisdom 14, 3; 17, 2; Acts of the Apostles 24, 2; Romans 13, 14.

[17]   W. D. Dewey (Jr.), “Free will and Predestination, an overview”, in The Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 5, 423.

[18]  L. Legrand, “Jesus and the Popular Religion of his Times”, in P. Puthanangady (ed.), Popular Devotions in India:  Research Seminar, NBCLC, Bangalore 1986, 299. For example, Jesus believes in the Resurrection and does not hesitate to engage in discussion about it with the Sadducees. Matt 23, 23-32 could be a good sample of Pharisaic literature.

[19]   E. Niermann, “Providence”, in Sacramentum Mundi, vol. 5, 131.

[20]   E. Niermann, “Providence”, in Sacramentum Mundi, vol. 5, 131.

[21]   J. Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), – M. J. Miller, H. Taylor (trs.), New Outpourings of the Spirit. Movements in the Church, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 2007, 112.113.

[22]   K. Rahner, Theological Investigations, vol. 6, 4.

[23]   J. Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), – M. F. McCarthy (tr.), Principles of Catholic Theology. Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 1987, 334.

[24]   Mathew 5, 38-39.

[25]   E. Niermann, “Providence”, in Sacramentum Mundi, vol. 5, 131.

[26]   E. Niermann, “Providence”, in Sacramentum Mundi, vol. 5, 132.

[27]   Mathew 11, 28-29.

[28]  Zechariah 9, 9-10.

[29]  Mathew 11, 25.

Author: Dr. John Vazhakoottathil, OCD