Providence According
to the Gospel

The existence of providence, its absolute universality extending to the smallest detail, and its infallibility regarding everything that comes to pass, not excepting our future free actions---all this the New Testament again brings out, even more clearly than the Old. Much more explicit, too, than in the Old Testament is the conception given us here of that higher good to which all things have been directed by providence, though in certain of its more advanced ways it still remains unfathomable. These fundamental points we shall examine one by one, giving prominence to the Gospel texts that most clearly express them.

The higher good to which all things are directed by providence

Our Lord in the Gospels raises our minds to the contemplation of the Divine governance by directing our attention to the admirable order prevailing in the things of sense, and giving us some idea of how much more so this order of providence is to be found in spiritual things, an order more sublime, more bountiful, more salutary, and imperishable. We have seen that a similar order is to be found, though less clearly, in God's answer at the end of the Book of Job; if there are such extraordinary marvels to be met with in the world of sense, what wonderful order ought we not to expect in the spiritual world.

In the Gospel of St. Matthew we read (6:25-34):

Be not solicitous for your life, what you shall eat, nor for your body, what you shall put on. Is not the life more than the meat and the body more than the raiment? Behold the birds of the air, for they neither sow, nor do they reap nor gather into barns: and your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are not you of more value than they? And which of you by taking thought can add to his stature one cubit? And for your raiment why are you solicitous? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they labor not, neither do they spin. But I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed as one of these. And if the grass of the field, which is today and tomorrow is cast into the oven, God doth so clothe: how much more you, O ye of little faith? Be not solicitous therefore, saying: What shall we eat: or, what shall we drink: or, wherewith shall we be clothed? For after all these things do the heathens seek. For your heavenly Father knoweth that you have need of all these things. Seek ye therefore first the kingdom of God and His justice: and all these things shall be added unto you. Be not therefore solicitous for tomorrow: for the morrow will be solicitous for itself. Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof.

These examples serve to show that providence extends to all things, and gives to all beings what is suitable to their nature. God provides the birds of the air with their food and also has endowed them with instinct which directs them to seek out what is necessary and no more. If this is His way of dealing with the lower creation, surely He will have a care for us.

If providence provides what is needful for the birds of the air, how much more attentive will it be to the needs of such as we, who have a spiritual, immortal soul, with a destiny incomparably more sublime than that of the animal creation. The heavenly Father knows what we stand in need of. What, then, must our attitude be? First of all we must seek the kingdom of God and His justice, and then whatever is necessary for our bodily subsistence will be given us over and above. Those who make it their principal aim to pursue their final destiny (God the sovereign good Who should be loved above all things), will be given whatever is necessary to attain that end, not only what is necessary for the life of the body, but also the graces to obtain life eternal. [1]

Our Lord refers to providence again in St. Matthew (10:28): "Fear ye not them that kill the body and are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him that can destroy both soul and body in Hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And not one of them shall fall to the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not therefore: better are you than many sparrows." So again in St. Luke (12:6-7).

Always it is the same a fortiori argument from the care the Lord has for the lower creation and thence leading us to form some idea of what the Divine governance must be in the order of spiritual things.

As St. Thomas points out in his commentary on St. Matthew, what our Lord wishes to convey is this: It is not the persecutor we should fear, he can do no more than hurt our bodies, and what little harm he is capable of he cannot actually inflict without the permission of providence, which only allows these evils to befall us in view of a greater good. If it is true that not a single sparrow falls to the ground without our heavenly Father's permission, surely we shall not fall without His permission, no, nor one single hair of our head. This is equivalent to saying that providence extends to the smallest detail, to the least of our actions, everyone of which may and indeed must be directed to our final end.
Besides the universality of providence, the New Testament brings out in terms no less clear its infallibility regarding everything that comes to pass. It is pointed out in the text just mentioned: "The very hairs of your head are all numbered." This infallibility extends even to the secrets of the heart and to our future free actions. In St. John (6:64) we read: "The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you that believe not"; and the Evangelist adds: "For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were that did not believe and who he was that would betray Him." Again (13:11) during the last supper Jesus told those who, were present: "You are clean, but not all"; for, continues St. John, "He knew who he was who would betray Him; and therefore He said: You are not all clean." St. Matthew also records the words, "One of you is about to betray Me." Now if Jesus thus has certain knowledge of the secrets of hearts and, as His prediction of persecutions shows, of future free actions, they must surely be infallibly known to the eternal Father.
In St. Matthew (6:4-6), we are told: "When thou shalt pray, enter into thy chamber and, having shut the door, pray to thy Father in secret: and thy Father Who seeth in secret will repay thee." And later we find St. Paul saying to the Hebrews (4:13): "Neither is there any creature invisible in His sight: but all things are naked and open to His eyes, to Whom our speech is."

The teaching on the necessity of prayer, to which the Gospel is constantly returning, obviously presupposes a providence extending to the very least of our actions. In St. Matthew (7:7-11) our Lord tells us: "If you then being evil, know how to give good things to your children: how much more will your heavenly Father Who is in Heaven give good things to them that ask Him?" Here is another and stronger argument for Divine providence based on the attentive care shown by a human father for his children. If he watches over them, much more will our heavenly Father watch over us.

Likewise, the parable of the wicked judge and the widow in St. Luke (18:1-8) is an incentive to us to pray with perseverance. Annoyed by the persistent entreaties of the widow, the judge finally yields to her just demands so that she may cease to be troublesome to him. "And the Lord said: Hear what the unjust judge saith. And will not God revenge His elect who cry to Him day and night: and will He have patience in their regard?"

Our Lord proclaims the same truth in St. John (10:27): "My sheep hear My voice. And I know them: and they follow Me. And I give them life everlasting: and they shall not perish forever. And no man shall pluck them out of My hand. That which My Father hath given Me is greater than all: and no one can snatch them out of the hand of My Father. I and the Father are one." These words point out emphatically the infallibility of providence concerning everything that comes to pass, including even our future free actions.

But what the Gospel message declares even more clearly is whether there is not after all some higher, some eternal purpose to which the Divine governance directs all things, and further, that if it permits evil and sin --- it cannot in any way be its cause --- it does so only in view of some greater good.

In St. Matthew we read (5:44): "Love your enemies: do good to them that hate you: and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you: that you may be the children of your Father Who is in Heaven, Who maketh His sun to rise upon the good and bad and raineth upon the just and the unjust." And again in St. Luke (6:36): "Be ye therefore merciful, as your heavenly Father is merciful."

 Persecution itself is turned to the good of those who endure it for the love of God: "Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are ye when they shall revile you and persecute you and speak all that is evil against you, untruly, for My name's sake: be glad and rejoice, for your reward is very great in Heaven. For so they persecuted the prophets that were before you" (Matt. 5:10).

Here is the full light heralded from afar in the Book of Job and more distinctly in this passage from the Book of Wisdom (3:1-8): "The souls of the just are in the hand of God ... in time they shall shine ... they shall judge nations: and their Lord shall reign forever."

Here is the full light of which we were given a glimpse in the Book of Machabees (11:7-9), where, as we have seen, one of the Martyrs, on the point of expiring, thus addresses his persecutor: "Thou, O most wicked man, destroyest us out of this present life: but the King of the world will raise us up, who die for His laws, in the resurrection of eternal life."

In the light of this revealed teaching, St. Paul writes to the Romans (5:3): "We glory also in tribulations, knowing that tribulation worketh patience: and patience trial; and trial hope; and hope confoundeth not; because the charity of God is poured forth in our hearts, by the Holy Ghost Who is given to us." And again (8:28): "We know that to them that love God all things work unto good: to such as according to His purpose are called to be Saints." This last text sums up all the rest, revealing how this universal and infallible providence directs all things to a good purpose, not excluding evil, which it permits without in any way causing it. And now there remains the question as to the sort of knowledge we can have of the plan pursued by the Divine governance.

The light and shade in the providential plan

We have found clearly expressed in the Old Testament the truth that for us Divine providence is an evident fact, yet that certain of its ways are unfathomable. This truth is brought out in still greater relief in the New Testament in connection with sanctification and eternal life.

Providence is an evident fact from the order prevailing in the universe, from the general working of the Church's life, and again from the life of the just taken as a whole. This is affirmed in the words of our Lord just quoted: "Behold the birds of the air, for they neither sow, nor do they reap, nor gather into barns: and your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are not you of much more value than they?" (Matt. 6:26.) So again St. Paul (Rom. 1:20): "The invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, His eternal power and divinity."

In the parables of the prodigal son, the lost sheep, the good shepherd, and the talents, our Lord also illustrates how providence is concerned with the souls of men. All that tenderness of heart shown by the father of the prodigal is already in an infinitely more perfect way possessed by God, Whose providence watches over the souls of men more than any other earthly creature, in the lives of the just especially, in which everything is made to concur in their final end.

Jesus also proclaims how with His Father He will watch over the Church, and we how find verified these words of His: "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church. And the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18); "Going therefore, teach ye all nations: Baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost; teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you. And behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world" (Matt. 28:19-20).

We are now witnessing in the spread of the Gospel in the nations throughout the five continents the realization of this providential plan, which in its general lines stands out quite distinctly.

In this plan of providence, however, there are also elements of profound mystery, and our Lord will have us to understand that to the humble and childlike, however, these mysterious elements will appear quite simple; their humility will enable them to penetrate even to the heights of God. First and foremost there is the mystery of the redemption, of the sorrowful Passion and all that followed, a mystery which Jesus only reveals to His disciples little by little as they are able to bear it, a mystery that at the moment of its accomplishment will be a cause of confusion to them.

There is also the whole mystery of salvation: "I confess to Thee, O Father, Lord of Heaven and earth, because Thou hast hidden these things from the wise and prudent and hast revealed them to little ones. Yea, Father: for so hath it seemed good in Thy sight" (Matt. 11:25); "My sheep hear My voice. And I know them: and they follow Me. And I give them life everlasting: and they shall not perish forever" (John 10:27).

"There shall arise false christs and false prophets and shall show great signs and wonders, insomuch as to deceive (if possible) even the elect" (Matt. 24:24); "Of that day and hour [the last] no one knoweth: no, not the Angels in Heaven, but the Father alone. [And the same must be said of the hour of our death.] Watch ye therefore, because you know not what hour your Lord will come" (Matt. 24:36, 42). The Apocalypse, which foretells these events in obscure and symbolic language, remains still a book sealed with seven seals (Apoc. 5:1).
Later on St. Paul lays stress on these mysterious ways of Providence. "The foolish things of the world hath God chosen, that He may confound the wise: and the weak things of the world and the things that are contemptible, hath God chosen, and things that are not, that He might bring to nought the things that are; that no flesh should glory in His sight" (1 Cor. 1:27). It was through the Apostles, some of whom were chosen from the poor fisherfolk of Galilee, that Jesus triumphed over paganism and converted the world to the Gospel, at the very moment when Israel in great part proved itself unfaithful. God can choose whomsoever He will without injustice to anyone.

Freely He made choice in former times of the people of Israel, one among the various nations; from the sons of Adam He chose Seth in preference to Cain, then Noe and afterwards Sem He preferred to his brothers, then Abraham; He preferred Isaac to Ismael, and last of all Jacob. And now, freely He calls the Gentiles and permits Israel in great part to fall away. Here is one of the most striking examples of the light and shade in the plan of providence; [2] it may be summed up in this way. On the one hand God never commands the impossible, but, to use St. Paul's words, will have all men to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4). On the other hand, as St. Paul says again, "What hast thou that thou hast not received?" (1 Cor. 4:7.) One person would not be better than another, were he not loved by God more than the other, since His love for us is the source of all our good. [3] These two truths are as luminous and certain when considered apart as their intimate reconciliation is obscure, for it is no less than the intimate reconciliation of infinite justice, infinite mercy, and supreme liberty. They are reconciled in the Deity, the intimate life of God; but for us this is an inaccessible mystery, as white light would be to someone who had never perceived it, but had seen only the seven colors of the rainbow.
This profound mystery prompts St. Paul's words to the Romans (11:25-34):

Blindness in part has happened in Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles shall come in. ... But as touching the election, they [the children of Israel] are most dear for the sake of their fathers ... that they also may obtain mercy. ... O the depths of the riches of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God! How incomprehensible are His judgments, and how unsearchable His ways! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? Or who hath been His counsellor? ... Of Him, and by Him, and in Him, are all things: to Him be glory forever.

But the only reason why these unfathomable ways of providence are obscure to us is that they are too luminous for the feeble eyes of our minds. Simple and humble souls easily recognize that, for all their obscurity and austerity, these exalted ways are ways of goodness and love. St. Paul points this out when he writes to the Ephesians (3:18): "I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of Whom all paternity in Heaven and earth is named ... that you may be able to comprehend, with all the Saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, to know also the charity of Christ, which surpasseth all knowledge: that you may be filled unto all the fullness of God."

Amplitude in the ways of providence consists in their reaching to every part of the universe, to all the souls of men, to every secret of the heart. In their length they extend through every period of time, from the creation down to the end of time and on to the eternal life of the elect. Their depth lies in the permission of evil, sometimes terrible evil, and in view of some higher purpose which will be seen clearly only in Heaven. Their height is measured by the sublimity of God's glory and the glory of the elect, the splendor of God's reign finally and completely established in the souls of men.

Thus providence is made manifest in the general outlines of the plan it pursues, but its more exalted ways remain for us a mystery. Nevertheless, little by little "to the righteous a light rises in the darkness" (Ps. 111:4). Every day we can get a clearer insight into these words of Isaias (9:2): "The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: to them that dwelt in the region of the shadow of death, light is risen." And gradually, if we are faithful, we learn more and more each day to abandon ourselves to that Divine providence which, as the canticle Benedictus says, "directs our steps into the way of peace" (Luke 1:79).

Abandonment to the Divine will is thus one of the fairest expressions of hope combined with charity or love of God. Indeed, it involves the exercise to an eminent degree of all the theological virtues, because perfect self-abandonment to providence is pervaded by a deep spirit of faith, of confidence, and love for God. And when this self-abandonment, far from inducing us to fold our arms and do nothing as is the case with the Quietists, is accompanied by a humble, generous fulfillment of our daily duties, it is one of the surest ways of arriving at union with God and of preserving it unbroken even in the severest trials. Once we have done our utmost to accomplish the will of God day after day, we can and we must abandon ourselves to Him in all else. In this way we shall find peace even in tribulation. We shall see how God takes upon Himself the guidance of souls that, while continuing to perform their daily duties, abandon themselves completely to Him; and the more He seems to blind their eyes, the Saints tell us, the more surely does He lead them, urging them on in their upward course into a land where, as St. John of the Cross says, the beaten track has disappeared, where the Holy Ghost alone can direct them by His Divine inspirations.

1. This is explained by St. Thomas, Ia, q. 22, a. 2: "We must say, however, that all things are subject to Divine providence, not only in general, but even in their own individual selves. This is made evident thus. For since every agent acts for an end, the ordering of effects toward that end extends as far as the causality of the first agent extends. ... But the causality of God extends to all being, not only as to the constituent principles of species, but also as to the individualizing principles; not only of things incorruptible, but also of things corruptible. Hence all things that exist in whatsoever manner are necessarily directed by God toward some end; as the Apostle says: 'Those things that are of God are ordained by Him' (Rom. 13:1). Since providence is nothing less than the type of the order of things to an end, we must say that all things are subject to it."

St. Thomas also says, Ia, q. 22, a. 3: "God has immediate providence over everything, even the smallest; and whatsoever causes He assigns to certain effects, He gives them the power to produce these effects. As to the execution of this order of providence, God governs things inferior by superior, not on account of any defection in His power, but in order to impart to creatures (especially to those of the higher order), the dignity of causality." Thus to men has been given dominion over domestic animals which, by their docile obedience, are of assistance to him in his labors.

What St. Thomas says in the Ia, q. 22, a. 4, may be summed up as follows: Providence does not destroy human liberty, but has ordained from all eternity that we should act freely. The Divine action not only directs us to act, but directs us to act freely; it extends to the very free mode of our acts, which it produces in us and with our co-operation, insomuch as it is more intimately present to us than we are to ourselves. Cf. Ia, q. 19, a. 8.
2. That is the mystery St. Paul speaks of in the Epistle to the Romans, 9:6.
3. Cf. St. Thomas, Ia, q. 20, a. 3: "Since God's love is the cause of goodness in things, no one thing would be better than another, if God did not will a greater good for it than for the other."