My column on the appearance of the "Judas Gospel" several weeks ago invited a veritable flood of responses from many parts of the world. A common question running through many of the messages from readers was how Judas' action of betrayal of Jesus was part of God's providential plan.
What is the meaning of living under divine providence?
For all religions, whether Christian or pagan, belief in providence -- understood in the wider sense of a superhuman being who directs the course of human affairs with purpose and beneficent design -- has always been very real. Prayer, divination, blessing and curse, oracle and sacred rite, all testify to a belief in some over-ruling power, divine or quasi-divine in character; and such phenomena are found in every race and tribe, however primitive or uncivilized.
The intimate connection of the gods with human affairs was even more marked in the religion of the early Romans, who had a special god to look after each detail of their daily life and the business of the state. The ancient religions of the East present the same characteristics.
This idea of a remote and transcendent deity was probably derived from Greek philosophy. Socrates certainly admitted providence, and believed in inspiration and divination; but for Aristotle it was mere opinion.
When we Christians say "divine providence," we are referring to the name of God, especially as Father and Creator. Providence is often expressed only as a design for the universe in which all is ordered and formed, as care for lilies and sparrows. The problem arises when the experience of the unpredictable, the disordered, and the misshapen dominate, or seem to dominate, and when we feel alone in a disordered universe.
At such moments, we ask deeper questions: Is there a God? Does that God care for us? How is there providence if evil prevails and the innocent suffer?
Teaching about "providence" is consistently found in both the Old and the New Testaments. God's will governs all things. God loves all people, desires the salvation of all and God's paternal providence extends to all nations.
This does not mean believers are to sit around idly. Rather, they realize that trust in God leads to a balanced response to the challenges of life in this world. "Your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well." (Matthew 6:32-33).
Besides teachings on cross-bearing and obedience to the Father's will, Jesus taught about God's providential care for His children, on not being anxious for the future: "Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?" Jesus, in Matthew, is referring to the trusting disposition God's children are to have.
The person who sees reality permeated by the providence of God gradually becomes known and loved as a wise person. Unlike worldly folk who are consumed with the pursuit of food or clothing, disciples and friends of God are to seek first a relationship with God, knowing God's will and giving evidence of God's purpose in their lives. If they can begin to believe that God will provide generously, they, in turn, can be detached and generous in sharing their resources with others.