The Providence of God
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Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, Piper served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church. He has authored more than 50 books, and more than 30 years of his preaching and writing are available free of charge at desiringGod.org. Piper resides in the Minneapolis area with his wife of 51 years, and has five children and 14 grandchil...more
Is it possible to truly trust God in the midst of all that is going on around us? On FamilyLife Pastor and author John Piper talks about how God brings good through brokenness.
The Providence of God
Bob: Pastor and author, John Piper, believes there’s a direct link between God’s glory and your happiness.
Dr. Piper: We were created by God to glorify God. That’s the biggest, all-consuming passion in the universe. Then, around these tables and in every one of our listeners, is the passion to be happy. I grew up feeling like God’s desire to be glorified and my desire to be happy were somehow at odds.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, January 25th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You can find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. Your happiness in marriage, your happiness in your family, and life—all of that is connected to your understanding of God being glorified. We’ll talk more about that today with Pastor John Piper. Stay with us.
Bob: And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. There are days I wish that our program were a call-in program; this is one of those days. Because I would love to open the phone lines and say, “If God has used John Piper in your life in some way, call and share the story with us.” Then, we could sit here and hear the testimony.
Ann: I want to hear what you would say, Bob.
Bob: I could come up with a whole bunch of them. We were sharing about things I’ve heard you say, Dr. Piper. Welcome to FamilyLife Today.
Dr. Piper: Thank you; thank you.
Bob: We were talking about things I’ve heard you say and things I’ve read. I remember being at the very first Together for the Gospel event, where you spoke. Here’s the thing that slayed me at the end; you said, “I’m afraid today there are people who, if you went to them and said, ‘Would you like to go to heaven, where there’s streets of gold, and you’re reunited with your family, and there’s no more sorrow, and there’s no more night?—but, oh, by the way, Jesus won’t be there’; there are a lot of people who would say, “Okay; that’s okay.”
Dr. Piper: Yes; they’d, at least, feel it if they wouldn’t have the courage to say it. The point of that was: “Once you have said that: ‘The gospel is an event in history,’ ‘The gospel is an achievement of atoning for sin,’ and ‘The gospel is an offer; you can have it by faith alone’—and once you have said—‘It gets you heaven,’ and ‘It gets you out of hell,’ and ‘It gets you a clear conscience,’—are you done sharing the gospel?”
You’ve pointed out we’re not done because—for carnal, unbelieving, even Satanic reasons—you could lack a clear conscience. You would want out of hell; I mean, what unbeliever does not want to go to hell? But not want to love, and be with, and enjoy Jesus forever—that would be a foreign language to a lot of people—“I would be more happy in the presence of Jesus than…”—then fill in the blank—because the blank is supposed to be everything. So yes; exactly; the gospel is not finished/the good news is not finished until Christ Himself, as our Friend and our Treasure, is our satisfaction.
Ann: Bob, that message marked you, though.
Bob: It was a paradigm shift in my own life. First, I came under conviction as I heard it; because I thought, “I‘ve thought that way.” Then secondly, I thought, “I’ve got to be an ambassador for this truth for others.” I’ve shared a clip from that with people in church and various settings and have repeated that over and over again. Thank you for that.
Dave: I didn’t know we were going to do the John Piper quote—
Bob: —the tributes?
Dave: Yes; it’s like sitting here with one of the Beatles; and we’re going to go to a lyric and say, “What did you mean by this?”
One of my favorite—and I don’t know when you said it/how many years ago—
Ann: Don’t ask him!
Dave: I won’t ask him. [Laughter]
I know a core part of your identity and your teaching is—I think I’ll get this right—“God is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in Him.”
Dr. Piper: That’s right.
Dave: Talk about that; because that struck me, years ago.
Dr. Piper: That is the essence/the foundational statement of what I call “Christian Hedonism: God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” What it shows is that the two great passions of the universe are not in competition; and they are this: “God’s passion is to be glorified. We were created by God to glorify God,”—
Isaiah 43:7: “Bring my sons and my daughters from the ends of the earth, everyone who I’ve created for my glory,”—that’s the biggest, all-consuming, all-pervasive passion in the universe.
Then, around these tables and in every one of our listeners, is the passion to be happy. You cannot not want to be happy; it’s like hunger in the soul. Nobody wants to be unhappy, whatever they define happiness. They just want to be happy and not hurting. I grew up feeling like God’s desire to be glorified and my desire to be happy were somehow at odds. That sentence that you just quoted is the biblical answer to how that’s not true—that the Bible really is good news—that when we are born again, God becomes our treasure and our pleasure. In becoming our supreme treasure and our highest pleasure, He gets glorified.
All we have to do is ask: “How do you glorify something by calling it ‘unsavory’?—calling it ‘unpleasant’?—calling it ‘unsatisfying’? No; that gets no glory for anything. A lot of people try to embrace God—and don’t feel like He’s a pleasure; they don’t feel like He’s a treasure or satisfying—and they don’t, therefore, bring Him the glory that He should have.
God gets the most glory that He should have from souls that are most satisfied in Him. I get fully satisfied; God gets fully glorified, and that’s the best of all possible worlds.
Ann: And you’re happy.
Dr. Piper: That’s right. [Laughter]
Bob: You have just completed—and we’re going to spend some time this week talking about a book that—it’s not just a book—it’s a tome. This is something you’ve taken years to write on the subject of providence. Why this subject for a long-term investment and a book that is hundreds of pages?
Dr. Piper: Yes, 700 to be precise. Probably because, over the last 50 years—
52 years since God did a great work in my heart in the fall of ’68 and subsequent years—the power of God, the authority of God, the bigness of God, the freedom of God, the purposes of God, the overarching glory and beauty of God with His all-controlling sovereignty at the center, revolutionized my life.
I want to be a God-besotted/God-entranced person. I don’t think—and I want you to be that, Ann, Dave, Bob—I want you all to be that. I want thousands of other people to be God-entranced and –saturated/besotted with God so that, everywhere they look, they see God. Everything they deal with is dealt with in the light of God. There isn’t any other doctrine that brings you to that point better than the providence of God; there isn’t any.
The providence of God—implying His control, supervision, guidance, authority over all things, from the dropping of a bird out of a tree—that’s what Jesus said [paraphrase]—“Not a bird”—not a bird in unseen forests of Brazil—“drops out of a tree without your Father’s design and presence and purpose.” When you think about: “Whoa; that was His way of talking about molecules, atoms, sub-atomic particles. He wasn’t going to drop that on people—they didn’t know what they [those words] were talking about—but they knew birds/billions of birds, all over the world, dropping out of trees when their time is up. And God is ruling that? If He’s ruling that, and the hairs of my head are all numbered, the implications of that are absolutely staggering.”
It’s both getting a God-entranced vision of life and then all the implications, which I’m sure we’ll talk about over these days, of that kind of God being my God, ruling my life, overseeing my happiness and sorrow—it’s just all transforming. It had been at the root of my life. I said, “Now, here I am. If I wait much longer, I’m going to be in the grave; I won’t get this done.” I turned 72 and said, “It’s got to be done now or never, so I’ve got to put it all together.” It feels like a book, to me, which is the gathering together of pretty much all I’ve ever thought into one place.
Bob: Is there a difference between providence and sovereignty?—are they subsets?—how do they work together?
Dr. Piper: In my vocabulary, there’s a difference. I think, in most thoughtful Bible readers, there’s a difference. The difference is this: sovereignty signifies God’s power and authority to do whatever He wills. Providence says, “Yes,”—and adds—“He does it purposefully, wisely, as a good and caring, providing/providing providence God.” I define providence as purposeful sovereignty.
Bob: That’s good.
Dave: At the same time, the average listener will go, “Well, then, do I have any free will? Is everything controlled?” How do you answer that?
Dr. Piper: I begin by looking at the person and saying, “You’re going to have to define what you mean by free will before I can answer,” which really stumps most people; because they haven’t thought about it. They’ll say something like, “Well, you know, I choose. I choose. I really choose, and my choosing counts.” So free will understood is just: “I choose, and I’m responsible.”
I would say, “Absolutely that exists, and God’s providence does not contradict it.” God doesn’t cause you to act in a way that is coercive/that is contrary to your will and hold you accountable—what you did with your arm twisted behind your back: “I don’t want to do this! I don’t want to do this!” and God is making you do this, and He holds you accountable for it—it just doesn’t work that way. God’s way of governing the will includes you’re doing the act; and yet, He’s governing the doing of the act. In there is a mystery—that all the way back to the beginning of the first sin, I don’t have a final answer for—so that exists.
But it’s really important to give this second definition, because lots of people think this exists when it doesn’t; namely, philosophers, or people who disagree with my theology with a lot of understanding, would say, “Human beings have the power of ultimate self-determination.” Here’s what I mean. You come to the point of your conversion; say you’ve been convicted—and you’re going for days, weeks, months—whatever it is. You get to a crisis point—on this side is unbelief; on that side of the moment is belief—at that very moment, do you have the power of ultimate self-determination?—you do not; God does. God is the only One, who at that decisive act, calls the shots. That divides theology; that divides people.
I would say, and this book is devoted to showing it’s all over the Bible, that at that moment, God is the only One with such free will/such free will. That is ultimate self-determination. Human beings never have ultimate self-determination. If that’s what somebody means by free will, we don’t have it. If somebody means, by the former: “My choices are real; I’m really accountable”; therefore, I do have it; and it doesn’t contradict providence.
Bob: You wrote a book years ago—a series of books/spiritual biographies—the Swans Are Not Silent series, which I have benefitted from. One of the series was on the subject of providence. I remember reading about William Cowper, who wrote the hymn God Works in Mysterious Ways.
Dr. Piper: [Correction] God Moves in a Mysterious Way.
Bob: And in that hymn there is this line about the “frowning providence of God,” and “Behind His frowning providence, He hides a smile.” The whole idea that God might have this frowning providence seems to be contrary to how we’re supposed to understand the goodness of God.
Dr. Piper: Let’s linger there for a minutes then. The frowning face of God, which exists towards believers, can be owing to His Fatherly discipline. Hebrews 12: “You have not yet resisted unto the shedding of blood. Remember God disciplines those whom He loves and spanks every son in whom He delights.” [Paraphrase] [Laughter] You get a frowning delight/a delighting frown. There’s the discipline of God toward our righteousness: “All discipline feels uncomfortable for the moment and bears the peaceful fruit of righteousness,”—that’s one.
Or it might be that we have sinned. Believers sin; how does God look at a believer’s sin?—two ways: covered by the blood of Jesus and displeasing. A lot of people choose/they say, “If I’m justified by faith, if I’m totally accepted, if all my sins are forgiven, if He’s 100 percent for me, how could there ever be a frown?” The answer is: “Because He’s displeased with how out of step you are with that kind of reality.”
In order to deal with God’s discipline and frowns, people have to have a rock-solid understanding of justification by faith—that in the moment that I am genuinely united to Jesus by faith, all my sins are forgiven—past, present, future. I am His child; I am adopted forever.
Bob: “There is no condemnation for those who…”
Dr. Piper: “…no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” forever—those whom He justified, He glorified—no dropouts. That kind of confidence is like the rock that you’re standing on. Then, you spend the rest of your life seeking to bring your life into conformity of that reality so that real sins get killed/put to death what is evil in you.
When you stumble into sin—your Father, who is 100 percent for you, frowns—you should feel that frown with dismay and sadness: “I don’t want my Father to frown at me!” Thus, it brings you to repentance: “If you confess your sins, He is faithful and just to forgive your sins and cleanse you from all unrighteousness.” You realize, “Yes, it was a frown; but behind it was a Father who never felt contempt for me.”
I was dealing with a person, the other day, who has a hard time feeling the affections of their heavenly Father. I said, “Yes, there can be frowns. Yes, there can be displeasure—like ‘Don’t grieve the Holy Spirit…’ —right? The Holy Spirit can be grieved.
But if that person had a father, who had no capacity to show any affection to them, all they’re able to feel naturally is, “God’s displeasure is like that—it’s like my father—behind that, was no smile,” they must be taught to retool their brain, by the Holy Spirit, through the Word of God, that God doesn’t feel contemptuous. A wicked, carnal father, who’s always negative and angry toward his children, communicates contemptuousness: “I feel contempt for you.”
God never feels contempt for His children. He feels displeased, but the displeasure rises out of a fundamental: “You are Mine forever. I have an eternal happiness for you that cannot be taken away. I’m going to get you in sync with this, if I have to spank you with cancer.” It says in 1 Corinthians 11 that, if some people ate the Lord’s supper illegitimately, and they got sick, and some of them die—then Paul gives the explanation for the death of the saints—“…so that they would not be condemned with the world.” What?!—not many believers have a conception of the sweet favor of God that is so caring of them that He43 would take their life.
Ann: I think it takes believers to a point of being scared when they don’t see the great love of the Father.
Dr. Piper: Yes.
Ann: If you don’t combine that, there is fear. Dave used to refer to God as a Wac-A-Mole God before he knew Christ, because he was fearful of what God would do to him.
Dave: That’s the theology I thought I heard as a little boy in church—He’s up there with the mallet—that was my image.
Bob: “Do something bad, and God just smacks you.”
Dave: Yes; He’s sort of looking down there: “Oh, you’re enjoying life?”—boom! “Quit that,” “Don’t do this.” When I went to the text, and Jesus says, “If you’ve seen Me, you’ve seen the Father,” you get a sense of the character of God as revealed in Christ. I was like, “That’s not the God of the Bible”; I had a wrong understanding of who God was.
Dr. Piper: Yes; the solution to the Wac-A-Mole vision of God could be to say: “He never smacks,” or “He only smacks with deep, lasting, eternal affection for His children,”— that’s a harder theology to teach than—“He never smacks.”
Dr. Piper: The “He never smacks” is a prosperity gospel that says, “All the bad things that are happening to me are happening from Satan; all the good things that are happening to me are happening from God,”—you’ve got a dualistic universe—this book is written to say, “There is no such universe.”
Bob: —that He providentially smacks from time to time.
Dr. Piper: And His providence is wise, purposeful, good, caring, loving; it’s bringing us to an eternal weight of glory.
Dave: And His biggest smack was to His Son—
Bob: —His Son; right.
Dave: —He took it.
Bob: We’ve got a lot more to unpack on this and no time to do it today. We’ll pick this up tomorrow. Let me encourage those of you, who have not yet done so, get a copy of John Piper’s book, Providence, which is a masterful work that will help you, not only understand providence theologically, but help you understand it practically: “What do we do when life throws us circumstances/events that we look at it and go, ‘How can God be in this?’” How do we understand that?—this is what you have mapped out for us,
Dr. Piper, in your book.
We’ve got copies of the book, Providence,in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can go online at FamilyLifeToday.com to order a copy, or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY to get a copy. Again, the book is called Providence by John Piper. Order online at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call to order: 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY,”—1-800-358-6329.
I think all of us look at the events of the last 12 months—with the global pandemic and everything that has been wrapped in the midst of that—if there’s a time to understand the providence of God, this is that kind of a time. Even in the midst of the challenges we face, we still have to be purposeful and intentional when it comes to building a strong marriage and a strong family.
Here, at FamilyLife®, over the last 12 months, we have been working diligently to develop resources that can help you in your quest to continue to strengthen your marriage and to keep from drifting toward isolation in your relationship. You probably heard us talking about the date box/the Dates to Remember date box that our team has put together. This is a great resource designed to help every couple have some purposeful, intentional interaction—time together that will be both fun and marriage-strengthening—that’s the goal. It’s an opportunity for you to have three dates that will be purposeful and to have a great time along the way.
You can find out more about the FamilyLife Dates to Remember date box—how you can order it/how you can get it in time for Valentine’s Day—go to FamilyLifeToday.com and go to Dates to Remember. You can order it from us, online; or call 1-800-FLTODAY to order your copy of this resource. Again, our website is FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call to order: 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Tomorrow, we want to talk about how we understand, and embrace, and respond rightly to God’s providence in the midst of worldwide events and circumstances in our own personal lives. John Piper will be with us tomorrow. I hope you can be with us as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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