Providence, Death and Grief

On April 30, 1980, Sheila Pettit Hicks, my wife of two years, eleven months, and eight days, died twenty days after recovering from back surgery. A blood clot stopped her heart while she slept at her parent’s home in Ellijay, GA.  This week is the 29th anniversary of that horrendous moment in my life. It shifted my life in unimaginable ways for me. Sometimes I still wonder about what would have been.

Less than a year after the event, when I was twenty-three, I wrote two articles for the Gospel Advocate in reflection on my experience. My articles are rather detached, highly theological, filled with suspect language (e.g., “proper” or “properly”) and a bit presumptuous. I have provided the text below of the two articles.  In the next few days I will comment on them in light of my present perspectives.

“Divine Providence and Human Lives (1),” Gospel Advocate 123.8 (April 16, 1981), 239, 244.

Divine providence is a difficult and seemingly elusive subject. Yet it is one which has loomed very important in my life this past year. On April 30, 1980 my wife of almost three years died at the age of 25. Since that time I have pondered the question of God’s control over human lives and the role he plays in our lives (deaths). My reaction to Sheila’s death was not to question whether or not God existed (as some agnostic might), but to question why God would permit such a thing. I want to share with you some of my thoughts concerning the role of providence in our lives. This article will set forth the broad outlines of providence and a second will illustrate how a proper understanding of providence helps the bereaved to overcome their grief.

The subject of providence has been complicated by two factors. First, some confuse the difference between miracles and providence. Both are acts of God, but they are effected through different means. A miracle suspends or supercedes the “laws of nature” while providence is God’s working through nature. The parting of the Red Sea was a miracle while our daily provision of food is providence, but both equally the work of God. Second, some either give no place to God in their affairs (as the Deists of the 18th century) or are idly expecting God to make all their choices for them. God does not wind up the world like a clock and sit back to watch it run down nor does he force choices upon the wills of men. Somewhere between these two extremes lies the Biblical concept of providence.

We may properly divide providence into three areas. First, God continually sustains the created natural order. Psalm 104 praises God for his work in nature. The Psalmist proclaims that rain (v. 13), the growth of grass (v. 14), food for the lions (v. 21) and the breath of animals (v. 29) are acts of God. If God removed his sustaining hand, all of nature would collapse. (Cf. Psalm 148:8; Colossians 1:17; Hebrews 1:3.) Second, God controls the nations of the world for his purposes. (Proverbs 21:1; Isaiah 10:5-19.) Daniel attributes the rise and fall of Kings to God himself. (Daniel 2:21; 4:25.) Thus, we are to pray for peace among nations and for our leaders because God can answer those petitions. (1 Timothy 2:1, 2.) He can answer such prayers because he is in providential control of the nations. (In the book of Revelation God answers prayers of the saints with the destruction of Rome, 8:3-5; 9:13.) Third, God oversees the lives of individuals (Proverbs 20:24.), especially the lives of the righteous. What God does in nature and among the nations affects both the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45), but God has a special care for his own people (Psalm 37:25). It is this last aspect upon which I wish to concentrate. The basic affirmation of divine providence is simply this: God is in control!

How does God providentially direct the steps of the righteous? To answer this question it is important to draw a distinction between the choices and the circumstances of life. Every day we are presented with a limited number of choices. It is the circumstances of our life which present to us the options of choice. This distinction is important because God does not force us to make this or that choice, but he does constantly control the circumstances of our life (that is, the choices that we do have). If God were not in control of our options from which we can choose, then the promise of 1 Corinthians 10:13 carries no weight. God so controls our life circumstances that he does not permit Satan to tempt us beyond our ability. God does, however, permit us to be tempted with what we are able to hear much like Adam in the garden.

It disturbs me to hear Christians talk of the “accidental” or “chance” circumstances of their lives. Supposedly these are areas of “luck” over which God has little or no control. If this is true, prayer is in great peril. Perhaps when we receive what we think is a negative answer to a prayer, it is really no answer at all since the answer to the prayer lies beyond God’s ability or control. This is patently false. Prayer presupposes that God is in control of the circumstances of our life and that he can answer “yes” even though in his wisdom he may answer “no” occasionally. Sheila and I prayed that her surgery would be successful, but it was not. Am I to think that her death fell outside of the control of God, that it was the result of chance? Certainly not, since if it were true, this would render all prayer for the sick ineffective. (Contrast James 5:14-18.) In fact, herein lies the answer to grief: accept God’s providential control and wisdom.

Certainly, therefore, God works in our lives by controlling the circumstances of our choices. Are we, then, to attribute everything in our lives (even death itself) to the causative working of God? To answer this question we must make another distinction. Theologians have historically recognized two aspects of the working out of God’s will. One is passive, called the permissive will and the other is active, called the causative will. In the former, God merely permits (he does not directly cause) certain circumstances. For instance, God permitted Job to suffer the death of his children, servants and livestock (Job 1:13-22) though he was not tempted beyond what he could bear. God also permitted the Romans to kill Christians though he did not directly cause the death of those saints. (Revelation 13:7, 15). However, there are some things which God does providentially cause in a direct manner (not miraculously, however). God restored Job’s possessions to him (Job 42:12) and he avenged the blood of the Christian martyrs (Revelation 19:2). Thus, whatever circumstances face us in life (whether death, temptation, illness, etc.) it must be the result of God’s permissive or causative will. It must be either since everything falls under God’s providence. But we are in no position, at least in this life, to judge whether each circumstance is the result of God’s permissive or causative will.

Our lives should be built on the assurance that God is in control of everything having a bearing on the circumstances of our lives. We can take comfort, hope and joy in the fact that God knows what he is doing and is able to do it. Herein lies our help in times of need, trial and temptation. In another article, I will attempt to apply this concept of divine providence to those situations we often consider “evil.”

“Divine Providence and Human Lives (II),” Gospel Advocate 123.9 (May 7, 1981), 261, 277.

The basic affirmation of divine providence is this: God is in control! This means that no matter what happens in the circumstances of our life (not those which result directly from human choices), we must always see the hand of God in what is done. Whatever happens, God is always at work either permissively or causatively. This is easy to acknowledge (though we often fail to) when our life is filled with pleasant events. James 1:17 teaches that “every good gift and every perfect gift is form above.” Solomon points out that God sheds special blessings on the righteous whereas he does the opposite for the wicked. (Proverbs 10:3-16, 27-30; cf. Psalm 16:1-6.) Thus, we ought always to be thankful for the many divine blessings we have.

However, when trouble befalls us, it is more difficult (seemingly impossible) to see the hand of God in our lives. Yet, Proverbs 16:33 reads: “The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord.” Another version renders that last phrase this way: “But its every decision is from the Lord.” Whether the lot turns up blessing or trouble, the lot is the result of God’s working. God has either permitted or caused this trouble in our lives. Why did he do it? Perhaps we may be able to answer that question in retrospect or maybe we will never be able to answer it in this life, but more important than speculating on the reason for God’s act is how we are going to cope with this trouble. For weeks after the death of my wife, I continually asked “Why?” It was futile to even attempt to answer that question at that time. (I cannot even answer it now nor do I expect to be able to answer it any time soon.) Instead, I learned to deal with my pain rather than speculating about the “whys” and “wherefores.” In particular, three principles of providence helped me to deal with my wife’s passing (and these principles, I think, are helpful in all kinds of turbulent times).

First, we must trust God’s providential control. Psalm 13 is one that is now close to my heart. The first four verses sustain a continual questioning of God, “How long will thou forget me, O Lord?…How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart daily?” Certainly as we all experience times of trial we question God and even complain to him. It seems that we have a thousand questions but no answers. David had that same sort of feeling, but his answer was to trust God. Psalm 13:5, 6 reads: “But I have trusted in thy mercy; my heart shall rejoice in thy salvation. I will sing unto the Lord, because he hath dealt bountifully with me.” Faith puts an end to the questions of doubt. We recognize the providence and control of God and we trust his will. Do we really trust his wisdom in these matters? We may not have the answers, but we know that the Lord does as he is in control of the universe. We must learn to trust him and that is no easy thing to learn in the midst of a personal crisis. Those who wish to help, impress us with the all-embracing nature of God’s control and his continual loving care for us.
Second, we must maintain a proper perspective throughout the crisis. The writer of Hebrews was expecting his readers to undergo some severe trials of faith very soon. Thus, in Hebrews 12 he instructs them concerning how to cope with these persecutions and trials. They were to treat their troubles as God’s fatherly discipline. The writer compares earthly chastenings with God’s heavenly discipline (vv. 10-11).

For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness. Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievious: nevertheless, afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.

A good summary of this section is “pain for our own good.” Though it hurts to suffer the death of a loved one, God can (and does) use that experience for our profit. Through pain we come to understand, appreciate and obtain peace. Thus, every crisis ought to be seen from the perspective of discipline. This does not mean that God is punishing us (as if God was punishing me through Sheilas’s death), but simply that God refines and matures us through fire (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:13-15).

If we can see our way through the pain and hurt, there is actually a divine compliment in every trial. With every such circumstance God is saying in effect: “I know you can bear this burden and I will use it to strengthen you.” It is not so much a test of faith (though it is that), but an opportunity to strengthen our faith. Sheila was the first of her immediate family to die. Perhaps she died first because she would not have been able to bear the death of the others. Though that is speculation, it is certain that Gold knew I could (and her family could) bear the burden since he permitted it to happen, and God does not permit us to be tempted above our ability. (1 Corinthians 1o:13.) Since we are often tempted to think that God has forgotten us in our times of trial (Psalm 13:1-4), we must maintain our perspective—which is no easy task, and one with which we need help—and then we will not see God’s absence in our trouble, but his presence through discipline.

Third, we must remember the promises of God and that God is faithful to his promises. Proverbs 16:4 says that “The Lord had made all things for himself: yea, even the wicked for the day of evil.” Thus, God is able to work things out for our profit. This is the promise of Romans 8:28: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that have God, to them who are called according to his purpose.” Further, “if God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:31b-33). The promise is not that nothing bad will ever happen to the righteous, but that whatever happens, God will work it for good. (How could God make such a promise if he is not in total control of our life circumstances?) We know he will since he even gave up his Son for us. If he would do that, then certainly he would do whatever else he could for us. God is on our side. He is working for us, not against us. It seems that the natural tendency in every trial is to think that God is somehow opposing us. But God is working for the righteous in every trial. God is able to take the most despairing of situations and turn them into something good. He is able and he has promised, and God keeps his promises. (Hebrews 6:11-19; 10:23.)

God’s providence renders every sorrow, every illness, and every burden bearable. We recognize his total control and rejoice in his promises. We trust him. With this thought I mind, I wish to end this article with a poem that we found in a book Sheila had been reading the night she went home. We found it her own hand-writing (but nowhere in the book). We think it is her own composition, but we are not sure. In any even, it gave her comfort in recovering from her surgery and it gave me comfort in dealing with her passing. It truly magnifies the providence of God in his sustaining work.

It is in times of calamity,
         in days and nights of sorrow and trouble
               that the presence,
                    the sufficiency
                         and the sympathy of God
  grow very sure and very wonderful.

Then we find out that the grace of God is sufficient,
        for all our needs,
              for every problem and
                   for every difficulty,
  for every broken heart and for every human sorrow.



17 Responses to “Providence, Death and Grief”

  1.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    JMH,

    Blessings to you during this week. I know the thought of what would have been never completely goes away. I’ll say a prayer for you.

    Grace and peace,

  2. Profile photo of Royce Ogle  Royce Ogle Says:

    John Mark,

    This past December 10th was the 11th anniversary of the death of my wife. In 10 days she would have been 44 years old. She went suddenly with a massive heart failure.

    In God’s providence I remarried (a widow whose husband died in August of the same year, 1997)and now for over 5 years we have been reaching out to those in grief. We facilitate Grief Share groups, the last one at John Dobb’s congregation here in Monroe.

    So, you and I have something else in common other than thinking Keith is odd LOL.

    Royce

  3.   rich constant Says:

    WELL MY FRIEND
    i would THINK after all the doctoren we did on ya you this last year you BETTER have a new perspective…
    i MEAN BY THAT THERE IS THE ALTURNITIVE OF GOING THROUGH THAT AGAIN…:-)

    GOT A GO

    GOD CONTINUE TO BLESS US ALL..
    GREATLY JOHN MARK

    :-)

  4.   eirenetheou Says:

    There is the authority of learning, a precarious thing, a process that makes us prideful, sometimes vainly sure of itself, finding reinforcement in correctness and superiority in correction.

    Then there is the authority of suffering — ordeals that strip away our illusions, question our dogmas, and shake our pride until its foundations crumble to ashes.

    When learning and suffering come together, then one may truly have something to teach — a knowledge tried by fire and tested in anguish. We do not choose this way, but it may choose us. When it does, we may say, with Job, “O Lord, why me?” Perhaps it is because we learn no other way what God has to teach us.

    May the Peace of God,
    that Peace “that passes all understanding,”
    dwell always with you.

    d

  5.   rich constant Says:

    VERY WELL SAID…
    WOW…

    i BET KEITH WISHES THAT HE SAID THAT ONE….

  6. Profile photo of Keith Brenton  Keith Brenton Says:

    So do I.

    What little I could add is that dealing with my dad’s death sixteen years ago was something I could only do with my head for a very, very long time. It hurt too much to try to handle it in my heart.

    It was the same with my divorce nine years before that.

    I think God grants us the grace of time to find and accept His difficult-to-grasp will. If we will, He uses it to shape and form and mature us and draw us ever closer to Him through His Son.

    • Profile photo of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

      Connecting the head, heart and gut in coping with grief has been the most difficult process of my life. I’m still working on it, but it is such a struggle at times. Thanks for sharing your journey, Keith.

  7.   Randall Says:

    I don’t know what to say that would be helpful; so rather than be like one of Job’s friends I will sit with you in silence and prayer that God would comfort you.

  8.   remackenzie11 Says:

    I was blessed this morning with your message and can see the “highly theological” nature of those articles. I appreciate your point that “God is in control” but am equally curious about your response to these articles almost 30 years later. I appreciate you sharing this with so many people and many prayers will be lifted up (and with) on your behalf. Thank you!

  9.   Stan Says:

    These are such great thoughts on providence – I look forward to your next thoughts on what you presented here and am hungry for what more you will add. Thanks for such a great, great study on this.

  10.   Jr Says:

    Good to read, John Mark. I am wondering; though you quoted various texts that spoke to your situation – what is the one (if you could name only one) book in the Bible that you read; or character story within a book; that helped you most in recovery and understanding of the various issues one deals with in such a situation in life?

    Grace to you -

  11.   clyde.slimp Says:

    You’ve certainly been a strength and comfort to many, many strugglers on the journey with God, and with grief. May the LORD bless you this week and be your Comforter.

  12.   Terrell Lee Says:

    What might have been? Strange, how God “chooses” the path he leads us on and when we’re broken he gives the strength we need to continue the journey.

    May God’s peace always be with you.

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