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Lecture VIII: Prayer and Providence


At this point it will be well to pause, look back over the whole course of lectures, and see where we stand.

In the first series last year we set out to try to make sense of the actual universe of our experience. We found ourselves driven to acknowledge the existence in it of irrational elements which cannot be made to fit into either a materialist or an idealistic metaphysic. Analysis of our experience of freedom led us to see that we live in a world in which dependable orderliness and genuine contingency both have a place. Together they provide the matrix for our coming into existence as self-conscious purposive agents, and the material for our growth in true freedom as persons. The irreducible combination of these two factors produced the postulate of a Creator, in terms of whose personal will we have to seek our ultimate explanations. Within a purposive order we could find a place for both cause and contingency, as being what they are, without having to explain either away. We also saw that our attempt to make sense of the universe could only be successful if we could be satisfied that the purpose which is being worked out in it is one which approves itself to us as good.

Among the many loose ends left over from last year were some concerned with the question of evil. We had seen that evil, in its various forms, is the most stubborn of those irrationalities of which, as they stand, no intelligible explanation can be given. What meaning it has in any particular instance is a meaning for action. If irrationalities in general were to be accounted for as incidental to the Creator's will to create persons endowed with freedom, the extent to which evil had been allowed to infect His creation was the measure of His determination that this freedom should be genuinely free.

This year we have been asking what contribution to our further understanding is made by specifically Christian faith, that is, by the interpretation of a certain series of events in the history of this world as embodying its Creator's redemptive activity. What we have discovered may be summed up by saying that it has enabled us to fill in certain details in our knowledge of the Creator whose existence we had been led to believe in from our study of the universe in general. In the events which form the substance of the Christian revelation He has shown that He who is the source and author of the space-time process, to which He has given its own mode of reality, not only works within it, disposing and enabling it to receive the fuller richness of being that He wills to give it, but also, at the human stage, has entered as man into the history of our race, taking upon Himself the doing of the action required to make sense of an unintelligibly evil world. Crucified, risen and ascended, through His continuing earthly body, the Church, He carries on His work of making sense of His creation. To those of us whom He enlists for this service He gives His grace in both senses of the word; He gives us the cleansing from sin which sets us free to engage in it, and the strength that we need for its performance.

I have given this summary of the argument up to date in order to ensure that what I have to say from now onward shall be understood in the context of the position arrived at. Three points must be made quite clear.

1. If we are to try to speak in terms of degrees of reality, to try to distinguish between what is more real and what less real, what is apparently real and what really real, it is in personal relationships that we experience the highest degree of reality known to us. The sub-personal, the material, exists as material for the fashioning of the personal; as it is taken up into the current of personal life it contributes to the creation of something more real than itself. Thus in the popular and pejorative sense of the word mythology, it is mythological to represent the activity of God by illustrations, metaphors and analogies drawn from the working of impersonal forces; we get nearer to the literal truth when we draw on our experience of personal action.

2. Definitions in terms of purpose and function bring us nearer to understanding the real nature of things than definitions by analysis of constituent elements. The real thing is what it is made for in personal life: a chair to sit on, a pen to write with. When the victim of a joke at a Christmas party lights a trick cigarette which sparkles like a firework, what he is lighting is not a real cigarette. Definition by analysis into constituent elements is definition with a view to making use of the material in constructing something of a higher order of reality.1 We see things upside down and go hunting a will-o'-the-wisp when we seek to find reality by way of analysis instead of looking for it in the context of personal relationships.

Let me illustrate this point by an addition to what I said in the last lecture about sacramental theology, quoting from what I wrote many years ago in a book now long out of print.

What makes a thing the body of any person is not the material of which it is made, but the fact that it is the means appropriate to the environment in which he expresses himself. When the Person is Christ and the environment the society of believers, the means chosen by the One and accepted by the others are His Body and Blood in the only sense in which the words can mean anything at all. And the full sense in which they are His Body and Blood is that in which He wills to use them as such, not that in which we are aware of their significance… They must be what He wills them to be before we can discover what they are; and at any moment our discovery may be partial and incomplete.…

To view the sacraments as incidents in the social life of communion between God and man saves us from bothering our heads over certain questions which at times have caused distress to Christian minds. If there is no sense in asking what a sacrament is except as an incident in that intercourse, why ask? Suppose, for example, in a celebration of the Holy Communion, a portion of the consecrated Host fall to the ground and be eaten by a mouse. Does that mouse eat ‘the Body of the Lord’, or does it not? If the answer to the question depended on an analytical definition of the crumb in terms of what it is ‘made of’, there might be some point in raising the question. But the crumb is now a different crumb, being no longer a factor in the communion of God and man. It is between God and man that spiritual relationships can obtain, not between God and mice; and it is only within the context of spiritual relationships that bread can be charged with spiritual significance so as to become the Body of Christ… In the Eucharist the living Christ takes the elements offered in obedience to His command and uses them for His Body for the purpose of uniting His followers to Himself; so far as we can tell He has no such intention with regard to mice… Though reverence demands that we take all possible care to avoid accidents, it is morbid to think of our living Lord as being so imprisoned in that which He is using for His own purpose as to be desecrated against His will by a mouse. That way madness lies.2

When we define a thing in terms of the will and purpose of its makers and users, and of the part it plays in their life together, we are on the way to describing what it really is. If we want to go further, we must try to discover what part it plays in the will and purpose not of men but of God.

3. If the ultimate truth about things is to be defined in terms of the part they play in the will and purpose of God their Creator, the dependableness of the natural order as the object of scientific study is as integral an element in the reality of the created universe as is the contingency which opens the door to our exercise of freedom. As we have seen, this dependableness is as necessary as the contingency to that growth in freedom (b) which is at the centre of God's creative purpose.3 To the Christian mind the stability of the natural order is rooted in God's concern for this freedom, freedom which is to grow as the web of history is woven by the interaction of human endeavour with the forces of nature. Let me quote again from Fr. Talbot's Retreat Addresses to show how here the Christian revelation dovetails into the conclusions of natural theology.

Notice how our Blessed Lord fulfils His obedience within what we may call the recalcitrance and inevitability of circumstances. There is something deeply impressive in those genealogies which occur in the Gospels. The Incarnation of our Lord and Saviour was in utter faithfulness to the great course of history. God does not, as it were, break altogether the course of history and all that it entails. He enters within the course of our human generations and bears the burden which history through these generations brings upon Him. And that is only symbolic of all that happens in His life. You remember how He refuses as one of His temptations any short cut; how He deliberately accepted the opposition, the malignity of the world and His enemies and wrought out His obedience in the face of it. ‘How am I straitened’, He says, ‘until it is accomplished!’4

This summary of God's revelation of Himself in His creative and redemptive activity gives us the context in which we must now consider the practice of prayer.


There can be few of us who have not at some time or other found ourselves asking whether the prayers we pray are such as can reasonably be addressed to God. Is it any good asking God to interfere with the order of nature or the course of history? If not, is there anything left that is worth praying about? In any case, why should there be any need to instruct God about what we want done? If it is not in accordance with His will, we shall surely not persuade Him to do it; if it is, surely He will do it without waiting for us to ask Him. We have perhaps gone on to think that no one who tries honestly to pray with the understanding can continue to pray for things like rain or fine weather, or, indeed, believe that we can hope by prayer really to effect any change in the divine ordering of earthly events. We have been led to identify understanding prayer with prayer that does not aim at any such thing, but at the harmonizing of our own wills with the will of God. Prayer thus becomes an exercise in self-discipline, a religious experiment in auto-suggestion. The thought of auto-suggestion raises the possibility of explaining intercession for others as working through telepathic hetero-suggestion; but we have doubts whether this is sufficiently proved to justify our putting much faith in it, and we have qualms about the honesty of a kind of underhand interference with our neighbours' right to run their own lives. On the whole it seems safest to regard prayer simply as the practice of bringing ourselves ‘in tune with the Infinite’.

The disciplining of our thoughts and our desires to bring them into conformity with the will of God is indeed a very important element in the practice of prayer. But to make it the whole raises fresh difficulties. Sooner or later, if we go on with the honest attempt to use our understanding, we are forced to face the fact that those who wrestle with God in prayer after the manner that we have renounced are growing in a richness and fullness of spiritual life beside which our efforts after self-culture appear intolerably thin and unsatisfying. If we wish to continue to call ourselves Christians, we have to do so as exponents of a Christianity which is unable to enter into any well-established form of Christian public worship without so many mental reservations as to make us doubt our right to the name. Our disquiet grows when we remember that the prayer-life of the Master whose name we bear had more in common with that from which we have cut ourselves off than with our own. For Him the thought that our heavenly Father knoweth what things we have need of before we ask Him is not a reason why we should cease to pray that His kingdom may come and His will be done on earth, that our sins may be forgiven, and that we may be given our daily bread.

We must think again. For the line of thought which issues in this impoverishment of prayer presupposes an idea of God and of His relation to the world different from that which I have summarized at the beginning of this lecture. We must review the situation by setting our thoughts about prayer in the context of our faith that God's aim in creation is our growth in personal freedom. We have seen how orderly development in the physical world provides both the organisms which grow into conscious intelligent purposive individuals and also the environment through intercourse with which they can develop their freedom. We think of the divine control over creation as exercised in two different modes.

In the physical world, from which man springs and which provides him with the medium for his self-expression, we find those uniformities, that dependableness, which are commonly referred to as the ‘laws of nature’. The precise nature of these ‘laws’, and the extent to which they obtain in microcosmic as well as in macrocosmic structures, may be matters of dispute among scientists and philosophers. Whatever the result of the investigations through which alone such disputes can be settled, we may in any case regard the orderliness in nature as due to the Creator giving it such orderliness as is necessary to provide man with a world in which rational study can increase human control.

Apart from that power of conscious, intelligent, purposive action which is characteristic of man, the creatures of the natural world are passive agents of pervading energy, not initiating centres of activity. Like clay in the hands of the potter, they conform willy-nilly to those orderly laws through which the creative process is developed. But in respect to man, in so far as any man has grown up to be a truly personal agent, God's control is exercised otherwise. It operates not through natural law but through grace, by the putting forth of love to win the freely-willed response of answering love.

We think, then, of the divine control over creation as exercised in the two modes of natural law and grace. As in our ordinary experience the world is a place where men and women are developing their freedom through their manipulation of a dependable natural order, so we think of God as exercising over them and their world that mode of control which in each case is appropriate. Stage merges into stage: we cannot draw lines to mark where one ends and the next begins. We have to trust God to know in each case what is required for the furtherance of His creative purpose. Once again we may be helped by the analogy involved in thinking of God as Father. In our experience the art of parenthood is that of transition from external control to free companionship. At first the infant child is of necessity entirely subject to external control. It has to be lifted up, put down, fed, washed, undressed and clothed again. But from the start the wise parent sees as his goal the companionship of free and equal personalities. As the months and years go by he is seeking opportunities for relaxing external compulsion and trying instead to win co-operation, anxious neither to cramp the growing soul by relaxation too long deferred nor to crush it under the burden of responsibilities assumed too soon. So may we think of God as watching over the growth of us men and women, passing with unerring wisdom from the control of law to that of grace as we grow in capacity of response.

In the framework of this view of the relation of God to the world we set the Christian practice of prayer. How does it now appear? We see at once that the difficulty about such prayers as those for rain or fine weather does not lie in any impotence of God to control natural law, for it is in precisely that sphere that His control is most directly absolute. The question we have to ask is not whether God can, but whether He will vary the ordinary processes of nature. It is here that the real difficulty lies. The orderliness of nature is God's provision for the development of human freedom. We cannot ask Him so to act as to hinder that development. We were thinking last year of how progress in meteorology increases our freedom of navigation by sea and air.5 This science is developed by the co-ordination of multitudinous messages received by wireless from various directions. If the receiver of them never knew whether a message recorded an item in the orderly network of weather conditions, or a special miracle performed in response to a prayer for fine weather for a Sunday-School treat, the whole possibility of the science would be destroyed.

God wills to develop our freedom by giving us a world patient of study by scientific method, by progress of such study increasingly subject to our control. This truth must be taken into account in our prayers. We cannot rightly ask God to act in such a manner as to dislocate the order which is the basis and condition of our freedom. Does this mean that we must eliminate from our devotions all prayer of the kind we have been considering? Before we attempt to answer this question, let us consider whether similar difficulties do not arise in connection with the other method of divine control, the grace whereby God works in the world of human freedom.

This grace, as we have seen, is a mode of control which does not set aside our freedom. It reinforces it in its growth to fuller maturity. A few minutes ago I was objecting to the theory that intercessory prayer for others acts by a kind of telepathic hetero-suggestion on the ground that such prayer would be an unjustifiable interference with the freedom of our fellow men, a disreputable exercise of underhand and undue influence. By putting the matter into the hands of God, in prayer, we affirm our repudiation of any such endeavour; we entrust it to One who can be trusted not to undermine the freedom He is in process of creating. Indeed, if there be any possibility of such telepathic influencing of man by man (a question on which I am not competent to offer any opinion) we may believe that by turning our wishes for our neighbours into prayers to God on their behalf, we safeguard them from straying along dishonest ways and insulate our neighbours from the danger of our undue interference in their fives.

But how, then, can such prayer do any good? Surely the more we emphasize the value of intercessory prayer as safeguarding us from unduly influencing our neighbour, the more we empty it of meaning. If we are putting our wishes into the hands of God because we can trust Him not to interfere with our neighbour's freedom, must we not refrain from asking Him to do anything at all? Have we not reached an impasse in regard to prayer concerning the divine control both in the mode of grace and in the mode of law? In either case, how can our prayers be anything but requests to God to act in such a way as to hinder the development of that human freedom which we believe to be His central purpose in creation?

Here, at last, we discover what is the real problem of prayer. And, as so often, when we have penetrated thus deeply into the mystery of our existence, the answer to our questioning has to be an expression of our faith rather than the conclusion of an argument proceeding by demonstrative proof. I have tried to make clear the grounds on which I regard it as reasonable to hold certain beliefs about God and His relation to the world. I must now be allowed to speak as one who holds these beliefs, who draws for himself the answer to his own questions from his faith in the omniscience and omnipotence of the God who is both the Author and Source of the order in nature and the Creator of human freedom.

If we believe that both the orderliness of the natural world, and our responsibility for what we do with it, spring from the will and creative activity of God, we must believe that He is able to control the development of His creation without either disorganizing its orderliness or destroying our freedom and responsibility. We cannot rightly ask Him to give us weather which will make the science of meteorology impossible, or the satisfaction of our hopes and desires in ways which would not be for the furtherance of His purpose in history. If, in our ignorance, we ask for things which would hinder His central aim in creation, we would not wish to press these requests or have them fulfilled.

We have to use to the best of our ability the minds that God has given us, trying to discover what we honestly think will be best for the welfare of His creation and of ourselves. But just because we do not know what is and what is not necessary to the achievement of His aim, we are right to bring before Him in our prayers all the people, causes and events which we care about, hope for, or fear. He is God. All the conditions for the fulfilment of His will—the natural world with its orderliness, our freedom and responsibility, the interaction of these with one another—all these come from Him, are known to Him, and are under His control. It may be that there are ways unknown to us in which without disorganizing the natural world or infringing our freedom and responsibility, He can achieve His purpose in one way rather than another, and that He wills to let the choice between them wait on our prayers.

If we cannot be content to think of prayer as wholly concerned with the self-disciplining of our own minds, or as an attempt to cajole God into doing something other than what He intends, or as a futile request to Him to do what He is going to do anyway, there remains only one possible alternative. Our thought about prayer must rest on the foundation of belief that God voluntarily waits upon our asking.

This is the conclusion to which we are driven. It is in keeping with all that God has revealed to us of Himself in His creative and redemptive activity. Why should we find more difficulty about it in the sphere of prayer than in that of action? He has given us an orderly and dependable natural world, and it is His will that we should decide what use is made of it. At every turn the course of history is altered by our decisions. The carelessness of doctor or nurse may cost a patient's life. A bridge which should have been blown up is left intact, and the enemy's troops sweep across to conquer a country. If in other directions God puts the doing of His will on earth into our hands, and lets it wait upon our doing our duty, why should we be surprised if He works in the same manner in the matter of prayer?

The truth about this has sometimes been obscured by a mistaken way of drawing the analogy from the relation of a father to his children. The earthly father, it has been urged, loves to hear his children ask him for their needs, needs he would not think of leaving unsatisfied in any case. Just so, our heavenly Father loves to hear His earthly children prattling to Him of their wants. This is no true analogy; it is a false and misleading caricature of the truth. It is not because God treats us as children that He waits upon our prayers, but because He wills us to grow into our full manhood and to take our place as fellow workers with Him in creation and redemption. If we believe that true freedom, the uncoerced and freely-willed devotion of man to the fulfilment of God's will, is the consummation of His work at which the Creator aims, then it is for this reason and for no other that we think of Him as imposing upon His activity the limitation of waiting upon our response to the call of His love. He is not content that His creation should be completed by the passive conformity of protoplasm, but out of that protoplasm is constituting us true human selves by entrusting to us a share in His creative and redemptive activity. To believe that often He does not act until we ask Him is not the mark of a foolish, a childish, faith. It is the consciousness of growing manhood on the part of the creature, the recognition that God has laid on him the responsibility of deciding whether in this detail the divine creative purpose shall go forward or be delayed. It is one and the same principle which on the one hand prevents us from asking God to modify the course of nature in such a way as to render it impatient of scientific control, and on the other justifies our belief that He may modify creation's history in answer to our prayer.

Prayer is not simply the play of God's children. It is work for grown men and women, work which calls for strenuous endeavour. When we begin to take it seriously we begin to discover how bad we are at it, how much is required of us in the way of self-discipline and effort. Often we cannot even take part in the Bidding Prayer or the Litany without being distracted by thoughts of our own personal concerns from throwing ourselves wholeheartedly into that sharing of God's interests in the world around to which we are being called. How many of us really care deeply about the advancement of learning, about social justice, about international brotherhood, about the unity of Christendom, compared with our own private affairs? The extent to which we can keep our attention fixed on the prayers said in church is a good test of the extent to which we really care about such things as these. How can we expect the God who has given this earth to the children of men to give us these things until we train ourselves to care enough about them to put them in the forefront of our intercessions, caring so much that we cannot keep silence, but must needs voice our aspirations in our prayers?

Intelligent prayer, prayer with the understanding, springs from the faith that all things he in God's hand, that He can do what He will with them, and that every earthly situation, no matter how hopeless it may appear, can be used to His glory and for the furtherance of His purpose in creation. Such prayer is nerved by the conviction that it does make a difference whether we pray or not, because we believe that in letting His activity wait upon our conscious co-operation God is consistent with His purpose to create in us true human selves whose freedom is to be respected. We shall not seek to persuade God to improve things by actions which would interfere with His revealed method of working, that method whereby He gives us a dependable world over which we can extend our control as we grow in freedom. Nor shall we ask for undue interference with human freedom, whether our own or anyone else's. But neither, on the other hand, shall we despise the use of the intelligence that He has given us and refrain from asking that specific things shall be done.

When to the best of our ability we have thought about the matter that is to be the subject of our prayer, and have formed our honest opinion concerning what needs to be done in order that the present situation may be transformed to the glory of God and the furtherance of His creative purpose, we shall earnestly pray for this with all our powers of body and mind. In this way we shall answer our Lord's call to us to live as His friends rather than as His servants, recognizing our limitations as we close with His own words: ‘Nevertheless, not what I will but what Thou wiliest be done’.


In considering prayer we have been led to certain conclusions about God's manner of ordering events in the history of this world. Ignoring for the moment the possible influence of angels or devils,6 we see history as the interaction of human endeavour and natural forces. We think of the whole process as directed towards the creation of a community of finite persons perfected in the exercise of freedom, and of the divine control as exercised through law and grace. What light can this throw on our understanding of the word ‘providence’? Is there any sense in which we can rightly say of a situation in which we find ourselves that it is ‘providentially meant’?7

We cannot think of God as a kind of celestial chess-player moving men and things about like pieces on a board. That would be to contradict the revelation He has given of Himself both in the dependableness of the natural order as studied by the sciences and in His concern and respect for human freedom. Nor can we think of Him as having favourites whom by some ‘special providence’ He preserves from catastrophes that befall others. If we eliminate such notions, is there anything left which is worth calling providence at all? Shall we find that we have impoverished our spiritual life as severely as by reducing prayer to auto-suggestion and self-culture?

If I am a Christian believer, I think of my life as coming to me from God in two ways. My own being, whatever powers I may have of body or mind, my share in the life of mankind which has come to me through being born of my parents and has been nourished by food and drink and human fellowship—all this comes to me ultimately from God my Creator: ‘whenever I draw a breath or lift a finger I am making use of the power of the Holy Spirit put at my disposal’.8 Secondly, the various situations in which I find myself, the circumstances which provide me with the material for the life I am to live, come to me from God: they have come about through the interaction of natural forces and human endeavour all subject to the divine control by law and grace. At each moment of my life I am to look through beyond the proximate sources of the situation, hold it up before God in prayer, and ask: ‘Lord, what wouldst Thou have made of this?’

For practical purposes belief in God's omnipotence means belief that no circumstances can be so evil that they cannot be used for God's glory and the furtherance of His will. Belief in God's omniscience means belief that in them all He can see how they can thus be used. It was thus that on the Cross our Lord used the triumph of the powers of darkness for the glory of God and the rescue of His creation. It is thus that we are to ‘endeavour ourselves to follow the blessed steps of His most holy life’.

If this be so, then to the faithful Christian not only this or that special circumstance, but every situation in his life will come to him as ‘providentially meant’, but the meaning it bears will be what I have called a ‘meaning for action’. It is not a meaning which can be explained in words that show how what has happened is as it stands a revelation of God's mind or will or character. It is a meaning which can only be discovered by seeing in the situation what God wants done, and doing it.

Imagine the situation when a man has been killed in an accident, a man in the prime of life and health and vigour, a good husband to his wife, a good father to his children, a good workman and the breadwinner for his family. Imagine yourself called in to try to bring consolation to his widow. What are you to say or do? You may try to explain how what has happened is really a manifestation of the love of God, but I fear me that the explanation will sound rather forced and artificial and unconvincing. You may take the line that God's ways are often inscrutable and inexplicable, but we must accept them and believe that He loves us in spite of appearances. I fear me that this may exasperate more than it consoles. What are you to say or do? I suggest that this may not be the moment for any attempt at words of explanation; that in such a case we should be wise and right to confess ourselves as being as much puzzled, as much in the dark, as is the poor woman herself; that instead of trying to explain what has happened in the past we should do all we can to help her to face the future, to see how best she can rebuild her shattered life and make provision for the fatherless children. The time may come when, looking back, she will say: ‘That was the most terrible thing that has ever happened to me in my life. I could never have asked for it nor, taken by itself, is it a thing I could ever thank God for. But through it there have come to me things which have enriched my life, things for which I am deeply thankful: the revelation of unimagined helpfulness and warmth of feeling among friends and neighbours, and above all the discovery that the power of God in human life is not merely a thing one says one believes in, but a reality proven in experience, that when it seemed impossible to go on living I found I could.’

We think then of God's providence as the expression of His omniscience and omnipotence in His control by law and grace of the interaction of natural forces with human endeavours. But if every situation in which a man finds himself is providentially meant, how can anything be called a ‘special providence’?

The difficulty here is not peculiar to the idea of providence. It arises whenever we think of God doing things at particular times or places, and of some of His actions being of special importance or significance. Here I may perhaps remark on the curious fact that the catholic Christian seems to think more naturally in terms of place, the protestant in terms of time: it is the catholic who tends to think of God as localized in the eucharistic sacrament, the protestant as converting a man at some particular day and hour. Both are equally difficult: they are instances of the difficulty involved whenever we think of God as doing anything in particular as well as everything in general. About this I can say little more beyond what I have already said in the second lecture of this series.9 It is one of the difficulties inherent in any attempt to make sense of our experience.

For each of us his own life is made up of a series of events of varying degrees of importance. Many days may pass in which everything that happens is of a routine or humdrum nature. We may be growing in stature or wisdom, but the growth, if any, is imperceptible. Against this background other days stand out as those on which we have had to meet emergencies or take decisions in ways that have left a lasting mark on our character and our career. As Christians we regard all our life, all the situations in which we find ourselves, as given to us by God to be used in His service. If among these situations we distinguish some as of greater and some as of less importance, when we speak of the more important as coming by God's ‘special providence’, we affirm our conviction that their gradation of importance is as much a part of the divine ordering as are the situations themselves.

If we ask in what connections the language of special providence is actually used by Christian people, we must acknowledge that it often gives expression to beliefs of the celestial chess player or favouritism type which will not bear thinking out. But there is another use deserving of more consideration. There are men whose deep conviction of divine guidance is rooted in the fact that as they look back over their fives they can trace a developing pattern in the events of the years gone by. I think it will be found on examination that where this is the case the life has been made up of occasions of which the right use has been made, that the pattern has been woven of responses to situations in which their meaning for action has been perceived and acted upon. The meaning has been brought out by the action and so in retrospect it can be seen. It is at least arguable that if Joseph had not been able to look back on such a life, if, for example, he had not resisted the blandishments of Potiphar's wife, he might never have been able to say to his brethren ‘It was not you that sent me hither, but God’.10

I have been trying to describe what the word providence can and should mean to a Christian whose thought of God is drawn from God's revelation of Himself in creation and redemption. There remains in the mind a lingering doubt which must be faced before this lecture ends. I may appear to have said nothing about the problems which the use of the word providence commonly suggests, problems arising from the thought that the word implies on the part of God a foreknowledge of events which is inconsistent with the existence of genuine contingency and human freedom. Am I open to the criticism which I have myself directed against those who hold that the biblical religious thought-forms of the Jews should not be disturbed by the awkward questions asked by the more philosophical Greeks?11 Am I guilty of having taken evasive action, of what on an earlier occasion I stigmatized as the intellectual conjuring trick of professing to talk about one thing and by sleight of mind substituting another?12

My answer is that the point at issue has been argued out in earlier lectures. The idea of providence which gives rise to these problems depends in turn on a conception of God and of His relation to the universe other than that which we have come to hold as a result of our examination of the world of our experience and the events of human history. We have tried to make sense of what actually exists and happens. The problems come from the assumption that the only way to make sense is to fit everything into the strait-jacket of either a materialist or an idealist metaphysic. We have found it impossible to account in this way for our experience of contingency and freedom, and have been driven to seek our ultimate explanation in terms of God's will to create a community of finite persons. Our thinking in religious terms is not due to a refusal to ask the philosophical questions. It is the way of thinking to which the asking of them has sent us back. Thinking in these terms, we are far from claiming to have dispelled all mystery. We walk by faith and not by sight, peering into the surrounding darkness by the aid of such fight as we have been given. It is indeed mysterious that the limitation of the divine impassibility involved in carrying out His creative purpose should go to the extent of restricting the operation of His omniscience and omnipotence to such exercise of control through law and grace as best contributes to our growth in freedom. But that this is so is what the evidence requires us to believe. It is in our conviction of His care for our growth in freedom that we must ground our faith in His providential ordering of our lives.

  • 1.

    Vol. I, p. 159.

  • 2.

    From Essays in Christian Philosophy (London, 1930), pp. 111, 113.

  • 3.

    Vol. I, p. 169.

  • 4.

    L. Menzies: Retreat Addresses of Edward Keble Talbot, p. 88.

  • 5.

    Vol. I, p. 169.

  • 6.

    Vol. I, pp. 213, 224.

  • 7.

    Vol. I, pp. 226–8.

  • 8.

    Above, p. 146.

  • 9.

    Above, pp. 36 ff.

  • 10.

    Gen. xlv. 5–8.

  • 11.

    Vol. I. p. 78.

  • 12.

    Vol. I, p. 172.