Today, although the hour is late and I should be sleeping, I have too much on my mind. Today, the first split sermon was given by a man whom I deeply respect and who has taken it upon himself to be gracious and observant of my ways, which is not always an easy task. Included in that message was a commentary about the movie “The Four Feathers,” which is set in late Victorian England where a man seeks to redeem his honor and courage after having shown cowardice and received the customary four white feathers from his friends as a result. Along his way to rescue some friends from the trouble that he should have been involved in, he is himself rescued by a black mercenary whose reply to the query as to why he rescued the distressed Englishman was that “God put you in my way, I had no choice.” The speaker used the story as a way of describing how we should be willing to help those people whom God has placed in our way precisely for that purpose.
The subject of divine providence is one I often ponder from a variety of perspectives. As someone with a mind that is given to planning and organizing and a certain amount of structure, within the limitations of my resources and my competence, I wonder what God is planning, because it is clear that God does have a plan that He is working out, even though it is not often clear exactly why He should go about it in the way that He does. We wrack our brains over and over again to try to see some glimpse of what God is working out, to make sure that God is not taunting us but rather preparing us for greater happiness than we could ever obtain on our own with our rather limited foresight and ability . When we are stuck in lengthy and complicated situations that never seem to end, we wonder if we’re really as foolish or as unwise as would appear to be the case, and whether anything good will come of all we endure. We may see God act in miraculous ways to save us from some trouble, only to find that the salvation was through another crisis and another difficulty that is meant to refine our character and, God willing, to provide us with some sort of worthy reward for a job well done.
There is another element of this that I ponder, and that is what divine providence looks like from the person experiencing it. It is seldom clear, until one is near the end, exactly the sort of good news that God has planned for us. Let us take, for example, the story of Ruth. Briefly summarized, let us look at the elements of divine providence that led Ruth to her happy ending, one I take comfort in in my solitude. First, God causes a famine that sends a family to the country of Moab. While there, the father dies, and then the two sons marry local girls (one of whom is Ruth). Then the sons die, leaving three lonely and heartbroken widows, but where God has ended the famine in Bethlehem, which leads the mother to return home. She does not want the company of her daughters-in-law but Ruth makes a bold profession of faith, follows her bitter mother-in-law back to Judah, and even does difficult labor as a gleaner (by divine providence in the field of the honorable bachelor Boaz) to feed the two of them. Boaz, of course, is immediately smitten and proves himself generous in deed and spirit, and after a few weeks of labor, Naomi tells Ruth how to propose marriage to Boaz in the most successful way possible. Boaz accepts, deals with a last-minute complication of a closer relative who wants the land but does not want to marry Ruth and raise up an heir to inherit that land, and Boaz and Ruth marry and have a son, who is an ancestor of David and Jesus Christ.
As might be gathered, there is a lot of divine providence in this story, but at first it does not seem as if this is necessarily of a benign sort. After all, the early parts of the story deal with famine, death, loneliness, poverty, and other unpleasant issues that some of us have to deal with in our lives but that none of us enjoy. Yet is precisely these elements that bring together two honorable people in marriage and encourage an older woman as to God’s kindness in her life by providing her with the blessing of both Ruth and Boaz as comforters in her old age. At every step of the way the happiness of the people involved depends on seemingly puzzling coincidences. Ruth’s eventual happiness (and that of Boaz as well) depends on meeting the precisely right family, itself no easy task. Then it depends on a variety of circumstances that require the honorable character of both of them, as well as Ruth’s bold profession of faith. At any step of the way, a misstep could have diverted the desired fate from taking place. God put lots of people in the way of both Boaz and Ruth and arranged events in such a way as to ensure their happiness in an immensely complicated way that neither could have managed in a calculating way and that blessed a lot of other people along the way as they displayed their noble character in the meantime. How is our own behavior in what look like adverse circumstances, and our own friendliness and tenderhearted concern for others helping to write our own ultimately happy stories? It may be hard to see sometimes, but we have to keep working at it.
At times, though, we are in the way of other people. One of the things I stress over the most in life is being a stumbling block to someone else. I work very hard to restrain myself from evil, to avoid the opportunity for it to mug me and leave me bleeding in a dark alley, and given how hard I work at living an honorable and upstanding life, I abhor the thought that I could be making life more difficult for others. I hate causing stress or difficulty for others, even though I know (all too painfully well) that such matters are seemingly inevitable in our lives in massive amounts. At its simplest, though, we are in the way of others in that our presence in a given situation or context is a way to reveal the heart of others as well as ourselves. How will others act towards us when they see the rough edges of our lives, of our container ships full of excess personal baggage and sensitivities and issues, of our deep and difficult struggles? How will they respond when, like the Levite or priest or Good Samaritan, they see us bleeding and broken on the side of the road? How will they respond when they see us in distress, lonely, or even (God forbid) in prison? Will we have compassion on the people God puts in our way? Will we be tender with them, understanding with them, in the knowledge that we may be a part of God’s beautiful and happy plans for these people, regardless of whether we have any idea what part of the plan that may be? Will others be merciful to us seeing our scars, seeing our vulnerabilities and weaknesses and struggles displayed in the most painfully obvious ways? Our eternal life, and our place in the massive multi-generational plans of God may very well depend on our sensitivity to the people whom God has put in our way. Are we doing it well enough, and in a godly fashion, despite all the difficulties we may face as a result? It is hard for us to judge ourselves fairly in this matter, and it is a matter that has caused many days filled with anxiety and many sleepless nights. May God have a fate that richly repays all of my own anxious concern, and that of others as well. I still long for my own happy ending.
 See, for example: