It occurs to me that Providence, that is, God’s guiding hand over events and his ordering of the circumstances of the believer’s life and times, is often perceived only afterwards, as we look backwards. To illustrate, there are two villages my wife and I have visited in France, Lagardelle, and Pendreff. It took us a while to find either of them, because the road sign telling you where to turn off is visible only after you pass the sign and look back. If as the driver you take the correct turning for whatever reason, then turn your head and look back, you will notice the sign for the first time and know that you are going in the right direction. That is comforting – and it is often how Providence works.
enjoying lunch at Lagardelle
I see many such moments as I review my life – moments when something happened, probably without any thought of divine guidance, working or overruling, and my life was moved forward in the direction God chose – and not always in the direction I myself would have chosen at the time! Here are some examples:
- When I was at primary school aged somewhere between 8 and 11, it was thought that I had a lovely singing voice, and the scheme was hatched by the school to put me forward for a choral scholarship to Winchester School, one of England’s best public schools, which is a boarding school. However, my teacher mentioned it to me before anyone else, and I went home that day in distress and tears, saying to my parents, “They’re going to send me away!” I was a sensitive and somewhat nervous child, and the thought of being ripped away from home and parents appalled and terrified me. If my teacher had not foolishly blurted it out, but had left it to my parents to bring the matter up gently and encouragingly, with explanations, maybe I could have been persuaded. After all, Winchester is only some 18 miles from where we lived. But the plan was torpedoed before it was be suggested to me, and so the direction of my life was set. And an English prep and public school would not have been the environment for me.
a nervous child
- When I was at grammar school aged 13 I wished to give up Latin and switch to German, which at that age I imagined would offer more practical use to me in the future. My father went to see the Headmaster, who persuaded him, to my chagrin, that I really must continue with Latin and not start German. What I could not foresee was that Latin would become a favourite subject for me, but also more importantly that the years of studying till A Level at age 17 laid a foundation for much of the work I was later called to undertake as Christian service, not least teaching myself Albanian from books, starting in 1973, because I would need to be able to read, write, preach, pray, converse and proofread in Albanian as my work developed in the years till retirement in 2011. And so again, at age 13, for reasons not foreknown by us, and in ways supervised by God but not discerned by us, the direction of my life was set. And I did begin German when I entered the 6th form, and I pursued it to university level. I was of real use to me many many times, and not only in Germany. So nothing was lost, much gained.
Boys’ grammar school, Basingstoke
At some point during the early part of 1965 I was invited to give my testimony at a Sunday evening service at the Independent Evangelical Mission, Green Lane, Thatcham, where a Methodist local preacher was preaching. Someone in the congregation (I never found out who) noted that I was soon to start my studies at Trinity College, Cambridge, and sent my name to the Christian Union. Thus, when I arrived at Trinity in October I was visited on my first day by a Christian student, Philip Clements-Jewry, later to become a Baptist minister, who introduced me to the college Christian Union, where I found my friends and spiritual base during the next three very formative years. In fact the friends I made that year in 1965 are still my friends in 2020 as I write, and from time to time we still meet for a reunion. I went to Thatcham that evening simply to give a testimony, but God planned a providence of much longer-term significance, for quite a powerful work of God’s Spirit occurred in the college and in the wider university during my three years as an undergraduate, which I was able to benefit from taking part in, in deep and lasting ways which lie beyond my ability to evaluate.
I could add many more examples, from many other years, but to come to the point, why am I writing all this? Because I would like to help you have peace and trust in God’s providence and leading over your life! The psalmist David wrote, “I cry to God Most High, to God who fulfils his purpose for me,” and, “The Lord will fulfil his purpose for me (Psalms 57:2 and 138:8); Proverbs 19:21 tells us that, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established.”
It is also worth noting that two of the providences related above happened long before I became a Christian believer, for God knows his children before we know him. David wrote in Psalm 139, “in thy book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them”; and God told the Prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” God is putting his plan for the Christian’s life into place before we ask him to – before we even know him.
God’s sovereign overruling in our lives, fulfilling his purposes, and doing it even before we know him or are consciously aware of his working, is what I take to be the meaning of the verse in Charles Wesley’s hymn which says “We shall not full direction need”: I take it to mean that we shall not need someone else, or even God, to tell us in advance what each next step should be:
By thine unerring Spirit led,
We shall not in the desert stray;
We shall not full direction need,
Nor miss our providential way;
As far from danger as from fear,
While love, almighty love, is near.
– Wesley’s Hymns 326:2
It is, of course, also true that our guidance is sometimes obvious in advance. On some occasions it is evident that the way we wished to take is not the right one, however disappointing we may find it, and we have to stop where we are or turn back – as when we reached this point once on holiday:
At other times, a very clear pointer makes our next step obvious:
I have pondered the questions of guidance and providence many times over the years, and there is much more to say about it. My thoughts have been distilled in my little paperback book (107 pages) Where next? Some biblical principles for finding God’s guidance (Weston Rhyn: Quinta Press, 2008), which you may acquire from me for £5.70 including postage (any profit will go to the Albanian Evangelical Mission, who were a joint publisher with Quinta Press – not into my pocket).
If you want to serve God faithfully but are perplexed about your future steps, you can trust; and if you are looking back, you will see that the words of Fanny Crosby’s hymn have been for you, and will continue to be true for you:
All the way my Saviour leads me;
What have I to ask beside?
Can I doubt His tender mercy,
Who through life has been my Guide? …
This my song through endless ages,
Jesus led me all the way.