Opening the Word: Defining providence

“If the providence of God does not preside over human affairs,” wrote St. Augustine, “there is no point in busying oneself about religion.”  

But what is providence? It is sometimes confused with fate and blind destiny. Correctly defining it requires the recognition that God created all things for a purpose and he, as Frank Sheed stated in “Theology and Sanity” (Ignatius Press, $21.95), “has made provision that each being should fulfill his purpose. This overruling provision which God has made — that his plan be not stultified or any way frustrated — is his providence.” 

Catechism of the Catholic Church begins a section on providence (Nos. 302-324) with an apparent paradox: Creation is good and has a “proper perfection,” yet it is also incomplete: “The universe was created “in a state of journeying” (in statu viae) toward an ultimate perfection yet to be attained, to which God has destined it” (No. 302). The guidance of God along this great journey is “divine providence.” 

Today’s readings touch on God’s providential work. The reading from Ezekiel is a passage on the “allegory of the eagles” (Ez 17:1-10). The background is the tragic Babylonian exile. The king of Judah, Jehoiachin (“the topmost branch” of the cedar, Judah), had been taken into exile in 597 B.C. by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar (the “great eagle”). Jehoiachin’s uncle, Zedekiah, was then set up as a vassal and swore an oath of allegiance to the Babylonian ruler. But Zedekiah then sought to align himself with Egypt (“another great eagle”) and Pharaoh Hophra, and so was swiftly punished. 

The question remained: would Judah once again prosper? “True, it is planted, but will it prosper?” (Ez 17:10). The answer, said God, was an emphatic “Yes!” Judah would be planted “on a high and lofty mountain” to bear fruit and become “majestic.” 

Scripture is filled with stories of man’s failure and God’s mercy and providence. Many times, the people of God had to suffer greatly for their sins. St. Paul emphasized in his Second Letter to the Corinthians that, despite his desire to be in heaven with the Lord, the first priority should be to pursue God’s will, for we know that each will “receive recompense, according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor 5:10). Providence is not contrary to free will, even if we do not understand how God is working in certain situations. 

This inability to comprehend God’s providence is addressed in two parables spoken by Jesus. The first parable emphasizes the divine power animating the growth of the kingdom of God. A man must scatter seed for his crop to grow, but he does not control the earth and the biological process of growth: “Of its own accord the land yields fruit.” And what of the sower of the seed? He “knows not how” the growth occurs. The second parable parallels the reading from Ezekiel: what began as a small seed — “the smallest of all the seeds on the earth” — becomes a great tree with “large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.” 

The proper response to divine providence is not anger or frustration, but humility and thanks. “In all created things discern the providence and wisdom of God,” wrote St. Teresa of Avila, “and in all things give him thanks.” 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of