Behind a frowning providence

Photo by Mike Oug on Unsplash

Behind a frowning providence there hides a smiling face. That’s a line from one of my favourite hymns, God moves in a mysterious way. 

Although William Cowper wrote it in 1773, it pretty well expresses what happened to us a few days ago. 

We had made the long trip to Ottawa to move our two youngest kids to university. We sandwiched this between moving house and leaving for the UK, so we were under a lot of pressure to begin with. There followed three of the most stressful, action-packed days I’ve had in many a year. We had so much to do that it utterly overwhelmed the time and energy available to do it. And inevitably, some things went wrong. 

But in the midst of our little story of trauma, God intervened quite amazingly not once, but four times. Let me tell the detail in order to make the point. First, the guy at Enterprise persuaded me to take a nearly-free upgrade to a vehicle without which (it turned out) we could not have transported all the stuff. Second, following a visit to IKEA, we were a whole hour late getting to Julia’s house where we were to meet the church trailer ferrying her larger packages. Her house was locked, and the street had absolutely nowhere to park. Providence intervened when the trailer arrived at exactly the same minute we did. Third, we were so late getting everything done that James had to be unloaded at his university residence so quickly we barely had time to say goodbye. Not great as he was leaving home for the first time! Providence intervened when his Christian friend from Owen Sound randomly appeared in the middle of a very large campus at exactly the moment we had to leave. Fourth, the bed Julia purchased at IKEA turned out to be missing the large metal rod without which the bed is not functional. Parts would not have been available for days. We went to church the next day only to find out randomly that a family recently arrived from the UK had bought a second hand IKEA bed which they decided they didn’t need, but which had exactly the same part. 

In the midst of the mess, God showed up. 

So often when we look at God, we are tempted to see only a frowning providence. “Why are we having to go through all this?” “Why is it so hard?” “Why does everything seem to be going wrong?” 

But we don’t see the smiling face. The smiling face is when he shows up in the end. The smiling face is when we look back and see how he kept us through it all. 

And here's the funny part, the part that doesn’t make me look so bright. It didn’t fully dawn on me just how faithful God had been until I was telling someone the story later. I started talking about all the hassles, but then kept coming to the providential interventions. After I got to the last one, my story had changed entirely. When I began, I was recounting my woes. By the time I had finished, all I could see was the amazing ways in which the Lord had showed up to help us. 

In a time of real fear and testing at the beginning of the first church I was involved in planting, I listened to a modern arrangement of William Cowper’s great hymn. I heard these words which, in the 37 years since, I have never forgotten and often repeated to myself and others: Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take, the clouds ye so much dread/ Are big with mercy and shall break in blessings on your head. 

In truth, the battles we have to face do not truly express the providence of God at all. They are the result of a world (including us) infected with sin. As he comes to deliver us, his smiling face is revealed. 

God has the most incredible capacity to bring good out of evil. 

So look up! Those clouds are about to break in blessings on your head. 

Providence was not frowning after all!