The term "Divine Providence" refers to God's infinite foresight and care for everything He has created. It is the plan in the mind of God according to which He directs all creatures to their proper end. It is the wisdom of God ordering and directing every created thing to fulfill the purpose intended by the Creator, namely, the glory of God and the sanctification and salvation of souls.
Having created us, God has not left us to ourselves, but as a loving Father continues to provide for all our needs, both material and spiritual. With Him, however, there is a definite priority of the spiritual over the material, and the eternal over the temporal. There may be times when He seems not to see or be concerned about our material and temporal needs, whereas in reality, He is permitting some painful situation to foster spiritual growth. God is concerned about our needs both of body and soul, but He is more concerned (as we too should be) about the divine life of the soul. Our gaze so often is solely on our present needs, while God's extends into the future . . . into eternity.
Our faith tells us that God loves each of us individually with an infinite love, that He wills only what is best for us no matter what the situation, and that in His infinite wisdom and power and love He can bring good out of every circumstance if only we trust in Him. On that foundation of God's love, and wisdom and power one with faith and trust in Him stands secure, no matter what comes. Such a one does not become despondent when things go wrong, at least not for long, when his plans are upset, etc. for he knows that in some way God is working this out for his ultimate good. "To them that love God, all things work together unto good." (Rom. 8:28)
At times some people are so wrapped up in their immediate needs, that they conclude that if there is a God above, He is not much concerned about His children on earth . . . that He is not a very good provider. Others, losing sight entirely of God's providing hand, conclude that things come to pass by chance, or that the world that God has brought into being has gotten out of hand.
Again, some become bitter and critical and they blame God for allowing certain things to happen in their life or around them. "If He is the loving Father we are told He is," they say, "why does He not consider my need? . . . Why has He allowed me to suffer so much? ... Why has He allowed my child to die?"
Yet, while many things happen by chance as far as we are concerned, it is a matter of our faith that there is nothing in this world that happens by mere chance as far as God is concerned. That is, there is nothing that happens without the foreknowledge and permission of an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving and merciful Father who is concerned about what is best for each of us in the long run. We may not be able to comprehend why God allows certain painful situations; but we can and should have faith that He not only knows what He is doing, but that whatever it is we will benefit from His action if we trust in Him and accept His will.
We especially need trust in God's providence when we are tempted to think, under the present circumstances, that we know better than God what is best for us. "Maybe it is a sin, but we just can't afford another baby." .. . "Maybe it isn't quite honest, but I have to do it to keep my job."—It is in the face of such temptations that one should recall the words of Our Blessed Lord in the sermon on the mountain:
For some persons, the problems of suffering and evil in the world are seen as an argument against Divine Providence. When one's vision and thinking embrace only the immediate situation, and the worldly aspect of it, his values become distorted. Seen from this point of view, such things as sickness, ill health, bodily injury etc., are seen only as loss. Yet, while they do interfere with work, pleasure, or family life, they do not impede the most important activity of human life, i.e. the meriting of heaven. In fact, they can even aid it.
If suffering is a great evil, why did Christ allow His Mother (whom he loved more than any other creature) to share more than any other in the torments of His Passion? Why did He say that His disciples must carry a cross—which implies suffering? He asked that of his followers because it is a central doctrine of our faith that the more we share in Christ's suffering on earth, the more we will share in His glory in Heaven. Too, by bearing patiently the trials and setbacks and crosses that Divine Providence allows to come our way, we can pay the debt of temporal punishment that is due because of our sins and the sins of others.
In the light of Christian teaching, suffering came into this world with the fall of Adam and Eve (Gen.3:16,17), and it need not be a useless loss, a bitter tragedy. For those with deep faith, it can be seen as an opportunity of sharing in the redeeming mission of Christ. All of us are called to be "co-redeemers," to cooperate with Christ in His redemptive sacrifice for all mankind. St. Paul refers to this in his letter to the Colossians (1:24): "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's suffering for the sake of His Body, that is, the Church." Not that anything was wanting in the Passion of Christ as to the winning sufficient grace for the salvation of mankind, but He leaves something for us to do (i.e. to suffer), to make up for what is wanting in some of the members of His Mystical Body, that they might be disposed to receive the saving graces won for them by Christ. Only in the light of our Christian faith do we find an adequate answer to the "why" of suffering.
By His suffering on Calvary, Christ won for each of us the grace to become adopted children of the Father. And as St. Paul points out, the Father disciplines His sons that they might share more fully in His own holiness: "For the Lord disciplines him whom He loves, and chastises every son whom He receives." (Heb. 12:6)
Suffering, therefore, is very much a part of God's providence, of God providing for our spiritual needs. For example, it can be instrumental: a) in the conversion of the sinner; b) in the further sanctification of the just.
A) The Conversion of Sinners:
Those who visit prisons or homes of detention can see that the pain and suffering that many experience is often the fruit of their own sinful living. God in His fatherly care permits suffering to come their way as a call to repentance and conversion, as an incentive to rethink their manner of living and turn away from their sinful ways. St. Augustine speaks of God as a surgeon who cuts and cauterizes to make the patient well and save him from death. We will never know until the next life how often our heavenly Father, by means of some kind of suffering, some painful obstacle or circumstance, has protected us from wandering farther astray.
B) The Sanctification of the Just:
The more persons make progress in the spiritual life, the more they see the hand of God in the little trials and suffering of each day. They see God using persons or situations to test their patience, their unselfishness, their faith, their humility, etc. They see God using this or that person or situation—as an instrument of His Providence—probing sensitive areas of their temperament or emotional makeup where there are deep attachments. They will be taken by surprise at times and respond impatiently or angrily, and will have squandered an opportunity that God provided for their growth. But little by little they recognize the hand of God soon enough to hold off . . . and "offer up" the hurt, the frustration, the inconvenience, etc. God in his concern for our progress uses the weaknesses of others, as we shall see, in providing us with situations or circumstances that afford opportunities of practicing the basic Christian virtues. Not infrequently those situations will be distressful, but as St. Francis de Sales comments: virtues which are acquired in pleasant circumstances are rather weak and anemic, while those that grew in the midst of trial, temptation and stress are stronger and more lasting. It is difficult times that bring out what we really are and foster spiritual growth, rather than times of prosperity.
Because of Christ's insistence that his disciples carry a cross, suffering is inseparable from progress in the spiritual life. It is inseparable from the discipline and self-sacrifice needed for spiritual growth. It is inseparable from the practice and growth of the virtues of faith, hope, charity, patience, fortitude, temperance, etc.
We don't always see what God intends by the happenings in our daily life, especially in the adverse situations He may allow to come our way. But with faith and trust in His Providence, we can and should be convinced that what He provides is for our benefit. "Not for vengeance did the Lord put them in the crucible to try their hearts, nor has he done so with us. It is by way of admonition that He chastises those who are close to Him." (Jud. 8:28)
While suffering poses a difficulty for some (as to the providence of God) a greater difficulty for many is the existence of sin in the world. "If God is infinitely good and powerful, why," they ask, "does He permit sin? Why did he not make man so that he could not, or at least, would not sin?" God could not take away our ability to sin without taking away our free will, that is, without changing man's nature. He could have made us like brute animals that cannot sin. But He chose to give us a nature that is far more noble than that of brute animals, one that is capable of sharing His own divine life, His own divine nature—which is free. As Vatican Council II stated:
If God took away our freedom, He would take away our capacity to merit an increase of divine grace. The grace received at Baptism is meant to grow. God wills that (given the sin of Adam) we come into this world in a weakened condition, but with the capacity of growing strong through the growth of grace merited by Christian living. For example, we are inclined to disobedience and rebellion (because of fallen nature), but we can merit an increase of grace by obedience. We are inclined to lust, but we can merit an increase of grace by living chastely. We are inclined to selfishness and greed, but we can merit an increase of grace through the exercise of charity. We tend to discouragement when things go wrong, but we can merit an increase of grace by trust in the Providence of God. And so it is with all the Christian virtues
God, in His infinite goodness and holiness, does not will sin; but He does permit sin in His divine plan, because in His infinite wisdom and power He can bring good out of it. For while the power of doing evil is in our hands, the effects of our evil deeds are outside of our control and in the hands of God. Thus, for example, God uses the unruly conduct of one to test the patience of another. He uses the uncharity of one to test the forgiveness of another. He used the cruelty of pagan tyrants to occasion the fortitude of martyrs. And so it is that God can bring good out of our very weaknesses.
Even the sin of Adam and Eve that caused so much havoc for the human race did not frustrate or negate the plan of God foreseen from all eternity. In fact, the liturgy of Holy Week speaks of the "happy fall" of Adam, that occasioned the coming of so glorious a Redeemer with all the blessings it brought to the human race.
The Providence of God can never be comprehended or appreciated if one's gaze is mainly on the present life. This life is but a short preparation for eternity, and any inequalities or injustices here will be balanced or rectified hereafter. And if the innocent and the good suffer from the depravity of others, their reward in the end will be greater. "The sufferings of the present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come that will be revealed in us." (Rom. 8:8)
Too, God permits the innocent to suffer, because He wishes to test their faith which is "more precious than gold which is tried by fire" (I Pet. 1:7), purifying them, raising them to a closer union with Him. It might often happen that they do not see or understand the reason why God allows such trials. He usually does not reveal His plans. Great faith and trust is needed at such times, that God's guiding hand is using this difficult situation towards the eventual manifestation of His glory and their benefit.
Many fail to profit by the trials and hardships of daily life, because they cannot see God's paternal hand in them . . . because their faith in His providence is not sufficiently strong to enable them to abandon themselves to Him with complete trust.
As the noted Carmelite theologian and spiritual writer, Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, wrote—referring to faith in the Providence of God:
It may seem like a paradox, but we grow in control of ourself and of our life in the measure that we surrender to God. Whatever is beyond our power to control (of all that happens around us) is part of God's providence in our regard, something God allowed to afford us the opportunity to exercise this or that Christian virtue. Even the irritations of life can become stepping stones to progress if borne with patience, with a "Yes, Lord, Your will, not mine." As Bishop Fulton Sheen once pointed out, an oyster developed a pearl because a grain of sand irritated it. Many a difficult moment can develop into a spiritual pearl if seen and accepted in the light of God's providence.
Commenting on this awareness of God's guiding hand (or his permissive will) in all that happens, and of our ability to use well or to squander each moment or situation (whether pleasant or unpleasant), in which we find ourselves, Bishop Sheen wrote:
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