It seems that the picture the Bible presents is that wherever you cut circumstance, it bleeds providence.  God does not relate to His world like a nervous mother whose son has moved to college for the first time, checking in on weekends to make sure there is milk in the fridge.  He is ever and always upholding, directing, disposing and governing all things.  But on what basis does God choose?  Does God send circumstances to match the lessons I need to learn?

There are a few things in Scripture that suggest such a connection.  Proverbs is full of cause and effect statements between what we choose and what follows.  It is clear that God has made the world so that if you jump in the water you’re going to get wet and if you kick a dog you’re going to get bit.  As well, Paul warns the Corinthians that the reason “many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” is that they were partaking of the Lord’s Supper unworthily (I Cor. 11.29-30).  God set up certain consequences for sin in His covenant with Israel (Dt. 28: look for the phrase “because you”).

But while there can be a connection, it is dangerous and wrong to insist that there must be.  Our regular pattern of life shows that the result is sometimes very much out of sync with what we have done (Ps. 73).  Sometimes the “race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong” (Eccl. 9.11).  There is not a straight line between performance and payoff.  The belief in such a connection is called karma and it is a ledge that you fall off of into either pride or guilt.  Pride because if things are going well for me it is because I’ve done enough to bring that on myself.  Guilt because if my life is going poorly I must have done something wrong. 

On two occasions, Jesus directly confronts and contradicts the idea that there is an exact link between what we do and what we get.  In Luke 13.1-5 Jesus brings up two different tragedies and says in neither case were those who suffered “worse sinners” than others who avoided the calamity.  In fact, He suggests that if that was how it works, they all would have suffered the same fate!  On another occasion (Jn. 9) after seeing a blind man, His disciples assume the line can be drawn and only ask who it must be drawn from, the man or his parents.  Jesus said it was neither and that “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in Him” (v. 3).  This attributes the man’s blindness to God and pushes the reason for His decision outside of human fault.  So God chose this for Him and did so for His own purposes. 

It is helpful for us to note the similarity of this case to that of Job.  There as well, Job suffered because God, in some sense, chose it for him.  Job spends his energy trying to figure out why and the only answer he gets is that God is glorious and majestic and beyond him (Job 38-40).  The only way we will come to be satisfied with this arrangement is if “thy will be done” is at the heart of our desire and expectation for this life. 

When our lives get difficult should we examine ourselves for a cause, to see if God is trying to teach us something?  Yes.  We should because we always stand in need of greater degrees of righteousness and because God does use these things to teach us.  But we must not assume that there is a direct connection between our circumstance and our performance.  We cannot draw straight lines between what we do and what we get.  Remember this is true for ourselves and for others. 

If your life has gone poorly, you need not assume that it is your guilt that has dragged your lot down.  And if your life has gone well, you must not assume that you have deserved it.  We must make Jeremiah’s admission our own: “I know, O Lord, that the way of human beings is not in their control, that mortals as they walk cannot direct their steps” (Jer. 10.23).  Only this will free us from both guilt and pride.

The providence of God is a difficult doctrine to live on because we are never going to be able to sort out how it all works.  But it is given in Scripture as something good for us to cling to.  Our circumstances do not come to us as backlash from a vindictive God.  They are the result of the holy, wise and good choice of our sovereign Lord.