“What do you W understand by the providence of God?” asks the Heidelberg Catechism, the greatest of all such teaching tools from the Reformation.

The catechism’s answer is unexpected. It does not attempt to “solve” the many knotty issues that immediately arise when considering God’s providence in the abstract—why, for instance, so many billions of people pass through life without encountering the gospel, or why plagues, natural disasters and the carnage of warfare fall so promiscuously on the human race.

Rather, the catechism treats this question pastorally: “By providence I understand the almighty and ever-present power of God whereby he still upholds, as it were by his own hand, heaven and earth together with all creatures, and rules in such a way that leaves and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and unfruitful years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, and everything else, come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand.”

Nowhere is the wisdom of this answer better illustrated than in a local fellowship of believers. The deepest solace in believing that absolutely everything comes to us “not by chance [but] by [God’s] fatherly hand” is where Christians have always found it. Our congregation, like virtually every other in contemporary North America, exists in “the real world.” And so with dismaying frequency we share the anguish of divorce, the helplessness of unemployment, the wastage of disease, the wrenching rupture of friendships, the brutal finality of death. These are the moments when the catechism’s attempt to summarize the message of Scripture seems, paradoxically, most absurd and most absolutely real.

But to take part in a body of believers is also to experience a gentler side of Providence. ...

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