Providence in Action

by D. Marion Clark July 19, 2009 Scripture: Romans 12:1-2

Introduction

Two Sundays ago, we explored the doctrine of God’s providence. Basically we considered how Scripture would have us feel about the doctrine. Do you remember? We should feel humbled and have a desire to glorify God. It should comfort us and give us hope. Providence, furthermore, should infuse in us a sense of significance. Finally, it should lead us to thankfulness. Those are responses of feelings or perspective. What we are considering this morning is what we should do in response. Our text will help us.

Text

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

With that word “therefore,” the text would have us do something in consideration of what has been said before. Dr. James Boice would have us consider everything said before, from chapter one through chapter eleven. He may be right, but we are going to restrict ourselves to the doctrine of providence as expressed in the previous verses, summed up in verse 36: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”

If you recall, that verse gives a concise definition of providence: all things come from God; all things take place through God; and all things exist and take place for his purposes, summed up in his glory.

1. Providence Should Lead to Mind Renewal

Now then, how are we to act in light of a doctrine that tells us God controls everything? The text tells us: “present your bodies,” and “be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God.” We are to act, exercising our will and using rational processes to discern God’s will.

That seems a bit odd. If God is in control shouldn’t we be cultivating a mindset in which we “go with the flow” – or to make it more Christian-like – “to let go and let God”? In the movie The Fantastic Four, the girl, who can make herself invisible, tells her brother, who can fly around in flames, not to think about how dangerous the task is he must do. He responds, “I never think,” and then takes off. That’s a popular motto today – don’t think, just do. Follow the heart. We Christians adopt the same attitude and turn it into a more spiritual concept – follow the leading of the Spirit. What is meant by that typically is that we are to intuitively “sense” where the Spirit is leading us. We take great stock in whether something “feels” right or wrong. Of course, we do that “prayerfully.”

Doesn’t such a perspective “feel right” in light of providence? God is controlling events, and we should view ourselves as channels for his movement. Thus our goal is to be as in-obstructive as possible for his purposes.

That is a good goal, but evidently the way to get there, according to our text, is to focus on mind renewal. We can have good intentions, but without right thinking – thinking that is informed by Scripture – we will inevitably clog up our channels. Mind reconstruction, not mind emptying, is the right response to providence. Such construction is what will actually free our minds and our hearts to “go with the flow.”

Here is what I mean. Consider what we did in the previous message as we considered the doctrine of providence. We went to the scriptures and examined what they had to say about the attributes of God. Remember? God is all-knowing; he is everywhere; he is all-powerful. He is eternal. As we did that, what happened? Many of us got caught up in the greatness of God. That lifted our spirits. We were moved. You might even say we could “feel” God’s Spirit moving us. This was one doctrine that “felt right.”

Do you understand what happened? As we conformed our minds to the teaching of the scriptures about God, we experienced right feelings for God. There is nothing wrong with feelings; indeed, good feelings are to be desired. But they are to flow from right thinking, and right thinking must be informed by God’s revealed Word. (I recommend to you Dr. Boice’s treatment of this subject in his Commentary on Romans. He preached five sermons on what I just covered in a few paragraphs.)

Now, let me caution what providence should not lead us to do.

2. Providence should not lead to excusing our sins and poor judgment

I made a comment in the previous sermon that I am thankful as I look back over my life and see the dumb things I have done, that even those things were being used by God in his providence for my good. I’m sure that such a remark touched a sympathetic soft spot for many of you. We all can shake our heads over our sins and follies. But I hope you did not conclude that you are now free to excuse your sins and bad judgment, or worse, no longer worry about sin and folly, thinking that God will use it all for good anyway.

Earlier in Romans, the Apostle Paul fielded a question in response to a similar point he had made about grace. In 5:20-21 he wrote: “Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” He then added: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?”

Though Paul is writing, I don’t think this is a mere rhetorical question. He must have taught this before and then someone really asked such a question. At least I get that impression from the way he answers: “By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”

To put it another way, it is one thing to look back at one’s sin and be moved by the grace of God to redeem and to restore; it is another to intentionally sin. Or, in light of providence, it is one thing to look back at one’s folly and be thankful for how God has worked even in it; it is another to be intentionally stupid. That is the mark of a fool. The fool says, “It doesn’t matter what I do; God will bless it anyhow.” And ultimately, what we are really doing with such an attitude is mocking God, and, as Scripture says, “God [will not be] mocked” (Galatians 6:7).

If we need to be cautious about the doctrine of providence, the doctrine also serves as a caution to us.

3. Providence should serve as caution to take matters into our own hands

This is a tough principle to understand and to actually follow, but the more we are in balance with the principle, the more peaceful and rewarding life will be. I mentioned the phrase earlier – “to let go and to let God.” In the sense of giving up trying to control all that happens in your life and trusting God with the control, it is a good motto. Where we make our mistake as Christians is letting fear dictate our behavior.

We fear financial ruin, and so we cheat or lie or steal. We fear loss of a relationship, and so we resort to manipulation. We fear getting into trouble, and so we deceive. We fear not being able to successfully witness to a neighbor, and so we resort to dishonest tactics. We fear that we will not get justice, and so we seek vengeance. We fear that objectives or goals we think are important will not be accomplished, so we take over responsibility belonging to others. We fear that issues we think vital will not go our way, and so we press beyond what is appropriate.

But what is it we really do fear as Christians? We fear God will fail us. If we don’t interfere, if we don’t take over, then that other person whom God has placed in his or her position will fail. We act as though God needs us to correct the mistakes of others. He needs us to rescue those straying from him. He needs us to protect ourselves and others from the poor judgment and sins of others – from righting social wrongs to making sure that those around us in our homes, in our churches, in our workplaces – wherever – don’t mess up.

But then aren’t we to seek after justice, help those in need, defend the oppressed, uphold God’s laws, restore those who sin? Yes, but out of obedience to what Scripture teaches is right, not out of fear of what will happen to us. That might seem like a fine distinction, but it is essential to make. Doing what is right out of obedience to God keeps us within the boundary of God’s will. The motivation of fear leads us to cross that boundary in our attempt to control outcomes.

We feel the need to control outcome, which then leads us to lose control of what we know to be behavior that is in keeping with the Lord’s will. We speak sharply, we gossip, we manipulate. Isn’t that interesting? In our efforts to achieve what we believe is God’s will (and which may very well be his will), we lose sight of what is his “good and acceptable and perfect” will for us.

Who does providence tell us is in control? God. If that is the case, what then is to be our concern? Is it not how we live? When Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment, he replied it is to love God and to love one’s neighbor. When the rich young ruler asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life, he replied to obey the commandments, give to the poor, and follow him.

When it comes to what really matters to God in regard to us, the teaching of Scripture focuses on behavior, not accomplishment. There is nothing wrong with accomplishment. We are to strive to accomplish great things for God. That’s fine. But our accomplishments ultimately are the result of what God has chosen to do in us.

If we are honest, there is another motivation that compels us to take inappropriate control – the desire to attain accomplishments. Whether we are making them out in the world or for the kingdom of God, they are what feed our egos. We know that if we really want to be remembered in the years to come, it will be for accomplishments. A hundred years from now, no one will be remembered for being a good person. You might say, “But look at Francis of Assisi or Mother Theresa.” They are remembered because they accomplished deeds. Francis of Assisi founded the order of the Franciscans and wrote beautiful words; Mother Theresa founded a successful charitable ministry to the poor. If neither had achieved such accomplishments, they would have remained unknown.

It is our deeds that are acknowledged by the world. It is our manner of living that is acknowledged by God. How then are you living? Motivated by achievement or by conforming your mind and heart to Christ? Are you frustrated by what you have failed to achieve? When you are doing “God’s work,” do you get frustrated with your fellow believers because they are not doing their part, or more goading, because they are not appreciating you appropriately?

As a pastor – as your pastor – I need to tell you I see many angry, depressed, frustrated, over-whelmed, burned-out, baffled, tired Christians trying to achieve what they believe to be God’s will. Do you really think ending up in such a state is God’s will for you?

If you continue reading Romans 12 and the following chapters, you will not find an agenda for accomplishing great things for God. Rather, you will read about behavior – be humble, let love be genuine, bless your enemies, be submissive to authorities, do not be judgmental, be content with what you have, do not be lazy. That is how a person, such as Paul, who is contented with God being in control, thinks.

Now where was I? The doctrine of providence should caution us not to take matters into our own hands. Fear is the primary factor leading us to try and take matters into our hands, which then leads to sinful behavior. We are blind to that behavior because our eyes are cast on the achievements we desire to make (for God). But if we take seriously the doctrine of providence – that God is in control – then we will give great attention to the way we conduct ourselves before our sovereign God.

4. Providence should not become an excuse to be lazy

I would think that those with a lazy bent would love the doctrine of providence. Proverbs refers to such a person as the sluggard, such as in the proverb of 20:4: “The sluggard does not plow in the autumn; he will seek at harvest and have nothing.” The sluggard justifies his not plowing by saying piously that he trusts God to provide. Let go and let God!

George Washington serves as a worthy model for us. I began the previous sermon on providence by quoting his reflections on God’s providence in the course of the war. Because of the unexpected victories and escapes from disaster, he concluded that God must be guiding the outcomes. How then did he proceed in his role as general? He worked all the harder.

He avoided the pitfall that afflicts many Christians, sometimes out of zeal, oftentimes out of laziness. We see it in the attitude expressed, “It doesn’t matter how well I do as long as I am doing it for the Lord.” Worshippers have been subjected to poor music and poor preaching under that guise. John Stott tells the following story in his book on preaching, Between Two Worlds:

Once upon a time there was an Anglican clergyman who was lazy.  He had long given up the bother of preparing sermons.  He had considerable native intelligence and fluency of speech.  In his congregation were mostly simple people, so he got by pretty well with his unprepared sermons.  Yet, in order to live with his conscience, he took a vow that he would always preach extemporaneously and put his trust in the Holy Spirit. Everything was fine until one day, a few minutes before the morning service, who should walk into church and sit down but the bishop.  The parson was embarrassed.  He had bluffed his congregation for years, but he was quite certain that he could not hoodwink the bishop.  He went over to welcome the unexpected visitor.  In an endeavor to forestall criticism, he told the bishop of his solemn vow to preach extemporaneously. The bishop mumbled that he understood, and the service began.  Halfway through the sermon, however, to the preacher's great consternation, the bishop stood up and walked out.  After the service, the pastor found a scribbled note from the bishop on the vestry table, "I absolve you from your vow" (p. 211).

I think we would like to absolve a lot of people who evidently have vowed not to prepare themselves for the service they are “humbly” rendering to the Lord’s work. Whether the work be that of leading in worship or teaching a class or serving tables, most of us agree that it is an affliction to be served by sluggards who piously excuse their lack of preparation. If providence is true and it instills significance in all we do, then all we do should be done with diligence to the glory of God.

5. A right view of providence is more likely to lead to the right outcome

What if we were content to leave outcomes to God and to focus on being the kind of person Scripture lays out for us? What do you think would happen to the outcomes we so desperately desire?

What if you had greater concern with being a good neighbor than with making your neighbors good? How do you think your neighbors would react to you if they detected in you a sincere love for them? They know your “fundamentalism” and your “narrow morality,” but they also experience your genuine care for them. They know you can be trusted; they know you to be a good listener; you come across to them as a truly humble person who thinks of yourself as better than they. Do you suppose by being such a neighbor your desire for bettering your neighbors might be realized?

What if you cared more about being a good worker than the workplace being a good place for you? How do you think workers would respond to a Christian worker who does not complain, who respects and supports his colleagues, and who genuinely cares about doing good work? Who during lunch or coffee break, takes real interest in what they have to say about themselves? Do you think a focus on being a good worker regardless the working environment would have a better chance in seeing real change take place?

What if we were more concerned with how we in the kingdom of Christ lived before the world than with how the world lived before us? Instead of getting bent out of shape when the world lives like the world, we all the more strive to live according to the teachings of our Lord. Do you think that might be what really accounted for the growth of Christianity in its infancy when it had no political power and no marketing access?

What if we in the church body took to heart the biblical admonition to: “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3)? What if the neighbors in our community said when asked, “They don’t compromise their beliefs, but neither do they compromise the “Golden Rule.”

This is what a providential mindset is like. It focuses more on becoming like Christ than on doing things for Christ. And as a result, it accomplishes more for Christ. It is the mindset of Scripture which is summed up in Jesus’ instruction to deal with the log in your own eye before concerning yourself with the speck in your brother’s.

You understand Jesus’ comment. Why have any of you responded to the gospel? It was because you understood the gospel was addressed to you. No one here turned to Christ because you were convinced he was the answer for somebody else. None of you were convicted in your hearts that others were sinners and thus you should repent. The words of the gospel song rings true to you: “Not my brother, not my sister, but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.”

Do you really want to see God’s will being done? Trust him to do what he knows needs to be done. Then focus on the renewal of your mind to conform not to the world (with its achievement orientation) but to the kingdom of God (with its focus on developing love for God and neighbor). Let go of controlling everyone else and let God work in you. You will be amazed at what will take place, not only in you, but through you.

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