Yesterday, I taught a breakout session at the 40th annual ACBC Conference in Indianapolis. My session was entitled Joseph’s Theology of Providence. I’ve put it into outline form for your personal or small group study.
What Is Providence?
The providence of God is one of the most comforting doctrines in the Bible. By providence, we mean that God uses His infinite power and wisdom to continuously preserve every part of His creation and guide it toward His intended purposes.
The doctrine of providence warms up the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, which can sometimes appear cold and lifeless to those whom we counsel. People who are in the midst of painful and mystifying suffering need more than cold sovereignty. They need the warmth of providence. The doctrine of providence rounds out bold statements of sovereignty, such as that of Psalm 115:3, “But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases.”
Providence refers to the working out of the sovereign rule of God—together with His wisdom and love—on behalf of His creation, and especially for those who are redeemed by the precious blood of His only begotten Son.
The doctrine of providence assures us that—in His sovereignty—God is at work carrying out His perfect decrees for our good and His glory. It assures us that God is not far away, but He is near. He is aware of all our ways, and attentive to all of our needs. Job said, “Does not he [God] see my ways and number all my steps?” (31:4). The psalmist affirmed, “Upon you [God] I have leaned from before my birth; you are he who took me from my mother’s womb. My praise is continually of you” (71:6). God is constantly working out His will according to what Solomon referred to as the “appointed time.” Ecclesiastes 3:1 says, “There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven.”
Sovereignty emphasizes God’s rule over us, but it is the doctrine of providence that assures us He is with us, for us, and working out His plan through us. In short, it is the mercy and nearness of this sovereign God that bring great comfort to those who are afflicted. “But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all Your works” (Psalm 73:28).
Theologians define providence in different ways. Here are three definitions. Look for the common thread running through them.
- Wayne Grudem: “We may define God’s providence as follows: God is continually involved with all created things in such a way that he (1) keeps them existing and maintaining the properties with which he created them; (2) cooperates with created things in every action, directing their distinctive properties to cause them to act as they do; and (3) directs them to fulfill his purposes.”
- Henry Thiessen: Providence refers to “that continuous activity of God whereby he makes all the events of the physical, mental, and moral realms work out his purpose, and this purpose is nothing short of the original design of God in creation. To be sure, evil has entered the universe, but it is not allowed to thwart God’s original, benevolent, wise, and holy purpose.”
- Millard Erickson: “By providence we mean the continuing action of God by which he preserves in existence the creation which he has brought into being, and guides it to his intended purposes for it.”
All three definitions basically boil down to the same point: God’s providence assures us that He is governing over the minutest part of His creation in order to work out His good purposes through it on our behalf. Therefore, as we counsel one another, it is significant to recognize that God is actively at work in the lives of His children, using every pleasant and painful experience to complete His redemption and fulfill His promises.
This was true in the history of Israel, most especially in the life of Joseph. In the outworking of both the trials and triumphs of Joseph, we see the unfolding of a theology of providence—a beautifully woven tapestry of God’s wisdom and goodness in the fulfillment of His divine plan.
Begin this study of Joseph’s theology of providence by reading Acts 7:9-18, which is a brief summary of his life and a testimony of the wisdom of God to fulfill His plan through him and his trials. In light of this, let us ask ourselves one question: What is the God-centered good news that we see in Joseph’s response to the abuse he suffered and how does it form a theological framework for counseling ourselves and others who are suffering?
5 Pillars in a Theological Framework of Providence
God’s presence and compassionate awareness are always real, even when evil is inflicted upon us by others.
- Read Genesis 37, which introduces Joseph and establishes the context of his trials beginning at 17 years of age.
- Read Genesis 39 and take note of how many times it says the Lord was with Joseph
- Read Genesis 40, though forgotten by men, behind the scenes it is clear that God had not forgotten Joseph.
- Read Genesis 41 and take note of how God orchestrates events in order to elevate Joseph to the most powerful position in Egypt. Take note of Joseph’s stated theology of providence in verse 52.
God’s merciful providence includes larger, redemptive purposes for suffering, which are beyond the scope of our view and understanding.
- Read Genesis 42-44 and note how the Lord used Joseph’s imprisonment to prepare Joseph and position him right where He wanted him.
- Read Genesis 45:3-7 and take note of Joseph’s faith in the providence of God. Joseph is now 41 years old.
- Read Genesis 46-47 and take note of God’s faithfulness to save the nation of Israel by rescuing and providing for Jacob’s family. In response, Jacob blesses his sons and the sons of Joseph.
- Genesis 50:20 is the clearest expression of Joseph’s theology of how God’s providence is the seedbed for a proper understanding of suffering.
God’s justice is sure since the Judge of Heaven is ultimately responsible for the punishment of all evil.
Read Genesis 50:15-19 and take note of Joseph’s grace toward his evil brothers. Think about the significance of verse 19 and compare it to 1 Peter 2:21-23.
God’s sovereignty does not negate human responsibility, nor does it make Him responsible for sin.
Genesis 50:20 makes it clear. Joseph’s brothers really did mean to do evil. In a moment of high-emotions, Joseph did not simply excuse his brothers’ sin. He made it clear that their motives and actions were indeed wicked in God’s sight. This is a very important statement since it makes clear that Joseph’s theology of sovereignty was not out of balance. It was specific persons (in this case, his brothers) who were responsible for the evil. But it is God who overcomes evil with His good purposes.
The Apostle Peter also kept the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man in tension when he preached to the Jews at Pentecost. Read Acts 2:22-24 and note how God was sovereign over the death of Christ, but men were held responsible for their wickedness. Men were guilty, but God’s sovereign plan was not thwarted. Rather, it was fulfilled and God’s grace triumphed over evil.
God’s trustworthiness and grace toward sinners are gloriously displayed in our suffering when we choose to trust Him enough to love our enemies and forgive them.
Read Genesis 50:21. Here is clear evidence that Joseph’s heart remained tender, rather than becoming bitter, throughout his time of affliction. And his words of grace continued until the day of his death (verses 22-26). God’s providential outworking of His purposes trumps the power and effects of evil.
Let Us Think Biblically about Suffering!
To counsel one another biblically means we constantly bring scriptural truth to the minds of those we are seeking to help. The life and trials of Joseph provide one of the most helpful examples in all of Scripture to bring to the mind of those who have experienced any form of abuse or those who are enduring any kind of suffering.
As it was in the case of Joseph, our sovereign God carries out His plan with wisdom and care—never forgetting us; He never loses sight of us, or our every need, even against the massive backdrop of His grander purposes. Like Joseph, we may not understand why God has allowed our suffering. But we do know this: He is near, He cares, He is wise, and His purposes are good. We have every reason to find great comfort in His loving providence.