9. We See Providence Only in Retrospect

Essay #9 from the book, "Reflections on Providence" by the Rev. Frank S. Rose, Tucson, AZ

People are allowed to see the divine providence in the back but not in the face. Also they are allowed to see it when they are in a spiritual state of mind, but not when in a natural one. Divine Providence #187

Imagine yourself in some science fiction situation where you are told that you can be transported into the future. You have a little time to think it over. At first you think how wonderful it would be. You would have the answers to so many questions - Did I take that job? Did I marry that person, or was it someone else? Did I move to some new area, or stay put? Then you might ask yourself: Do I want to know the answers to those questions? Do I really want to know the details of my life ahead of time? If I knew certain things, wouldn’t that change the way I behave in the present? For example, if I learned that I would not be marrying the person I am now dating, wouldn’t that have an immediate impact on our relationship?

Now imagine that you decide to take the risk. You allow yourself to be transported into the future, and you find, to your horror, that your parents were killed in a car crash sometime between the present and that future time. Wouldn’t you want to go back to the present, and immediately set to work to make sure that your parents never traveled in a car? How could you avoid trying to rewrite the story of their lives, and of your own? Then you stop to think: If I go back, and change the story of my life so that the future is different, what will that do to the lives of other people?

This little exercise might convince you that it is perfect that God keep us in the dark about how providence is operating in the present moment. It is wonderful that He operates with great care so as to preserve our freedom and reason.

Knowing every step of providence as it happens would be like watching a suspense movie for the fifteenth time. You know every twist and turn of the plot. You are not as tense as you were the first time you saw it, and you are not as involved in the story. If we knew precisely how God was working with us in the present, and also exactly where we are being led in the future, wouldn’t it seem as if our own choices made no difference, and as if we did not have to think and plan the kind of life we choose?

Looking back is a very different matter. It is very safe to review the past, with the question, “How did providence help me?” I believe that most people could easily come up with a list of ways in which God led them. They could relate certain events that seemed to be accidents, and yet had a profound effect on their life. They might be able to identify some time in their life in which a powerful thought came into their mind, seemingly from nowhere, that led them along a brand new course of growth. I have talked with people who went through a very depressed and discouraged time, and then, for no reason which they could find, experienced a change of mood. They found themselves with new hope for the future, and afterward found that their lives did improve.

To look back wisely, we need to think, not in terms of worldly success or physical health. We need to see it in terms of our spiritual development. That is looking at the past from a spiritual point of view.

People who have near death experiences often report having a life review. In a few moments, they see the whole course of their life, and many of them see very clearly how God had been leading them, even through times when it seemed as if God was totally absent. At the turn of the year people sometimes review the course of the past twelve months, so that they can give thanks to the providence of God. We may not be able to see God in the face, or in the future, but we can, at times, sees His working in the past, and rejoice in His wise providence.

—Rev. Frank Rose, Former Pastor of Sunrise Chapel, Tucson, AZ