The doctrine of Divine Providence, stated in various fashions, has always been problematic for me. Years ago it was problematic because I wrestled with issues of human freedom and how they related to God’s good provision. Today it is less an issue of freedom and more an issue of faith. Simply believing on a day to day basis that God is doing good for me in all the things that happen.
Famously, in the Morning Prayer of the Last Elders of Optina we hear:
O Lord, grant that I may meet all that this coming day brings to me with spiritual tranquility. Grant that I may fully surrender myself to Thy holy will. At every hour of this day, direct and support me in all things. Whatsoever news may reach me in the course of the day, teach me to accept it with a calm soul and the firm conviction that all is subject to Thy holy will.
This prayer simply prays what St. Paul has taught in Romans 8:28: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”
This week I read yet another reflection on the same teaching, this time in the writings of Fr. John Krestiankin, a holy elder of the Pskov-Caves Monastery, who reposed in the Lord just this last year. His statement, however, seemed to me a more helpful statement of the teaching than I had encountered before:
There are no accidents in life; God the Provider rules the world. Every situation has its higher spiritual meaning, and is given by God in order to fulfill this eternal goal – knowledge of God. We must always remain true to this higher goal, true and faithful to Holy Orthodoxy, no matter what antagonistic external conditions we find ourselves in.
Fr. John was a survivor of Stalin’s camps and harassment for many years after that. He is not an individual who just glibly smiles and says, “All things work together for good.” To spend time in the heart of the Gulag, to be a witness to some of the worst the twentieth century had to offer, and yet state, “There are no accidents in life; God the Provider rules the world,” is to see with eyes that most do not have.
What I found most helpful was his statement that everything has a “higher meaning.” My great difficulty comes when all I see is before me and I refuse to see more. It’s as if I become a literalist about life around me, refusing to allow Christ to be the one who interprets life to me. But this is the faith of the Fathers. God rules, not man. Christ stood with calm in the face of Pilate’s threats. Pilate asserted Caesar’s power and yet Christ said, “You would have no power over me had it not been given to you from above.” Fr. John’s statement, St. Paul’s teaching, the Prayer of the Elders of Optina are simply the Church standing in that place before Pilate and saying, “You would have no power had it not been given to you from above.”
Where else could they stand?