There is a little story that I remember being told as a child that still floats around in the ether. One version of the story goes something like this:
There was a man at sea whose boat capsized. The man prayed that God might rescue him. Shortly after, a small fishing boat comes by and offers to help the man. He waves it away, telling the fisherman not to worry, he was confident God would save him. A little later, a proper lifeboat comes by and tries to help the man. Again, he turns down the help certain that God will save him. Finally, a helicopter comes to rescue him and, as with all the others, the man insists he will wait for God. The helicopter crew leave the man and he, sadly, dies. In Heaven, the man wonders why God never saved him. The reply comes back, ‘I sent you two boats and a helicopter crew and you turned them down!’
The point of the story is a fairly simple one. We oughtn’t to create a false dichotomy between God and his provision. Or, to put it another way, we shouldn’t drive a wedge between supernatural intervention and ordinary providence. Both are a work of God’s divine sovereign will.
I have just finished preparing a sermon on Israel’s setting off from Sinai through the wilderness in Numbers 10. I was particularly struck by the little conversation between Moses and Hobab:
29 And Moses said to Hobab the son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law, “We are setting out for the place of which the Lord said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us, and we will do good to you, for the Lordhas promised good to Israel.” 30 But he said to him, “I will not go. I will depart to my own land and to my kindred.” 31 And he said, “Please do not leave us, for you know where we should camp in the wilderness, and you will serve as eyes for us. 32 And if you do go with us, whatever good the Lord will do to us, the same will we do to you.”
33 So they set out from the mount of the Lord three days’ journey.
A fairly large chunk of this narrative in Numbers 10 is dedicated to the idea that Israel were to rely upon God and trust in him. Strange, then, that in the midst of that we get Moses begging Hobab to go with them. Does he not trust God? If he does, is he beginning to rely on human skill here? These are the sort of questions that might tie us up in knots if we have a faulty view of God’s providence here.
When we recognise that God is sovereign over people, events and circumstances this doesn’t really present any sort of problem. Hobab is God’s provision for Moses. Was Moses relying on human skill to lead Israel through the wilderness here? Well, kind of, yes. But that doesn’t stop Moses recognising that Hobab had such skill because it was granted to him by God and they were in such a position to work together because God placed them in circumstances together. Hobab is God’s provision for Moses and the Israelites here.
Clearly Moses had not abandoned trust in God in favour of Hobab’s skill. He tries to encourage Hobab to join them on the grounds that (a) God has already promised Israel the land; and, (b) the Lord has promised good to Israel. Moses obviously hasn’t abandoned trust in the Lord nor does he appear to suggest anything other than their successful journey to the Promised Land being a work of God. But none of that stops Moses entreating Hobab to join them on the grounds that his skill will help them to successfully reach the promise land. This is not a tacit belief that God can’t do it; it is a recognition that Hobab is one of God’s means of doing it. God is the one who will bring the people to the Promised Land but Hobab is one the means he will use to bring it about.
We can end up tying ourselves up in similar knots in our Christian life today. For example, when it comes to our salvation and growth in faith, does God ultimately cause our faith to spring into being and grow? Of course. Does that mean the guy who shared the gospel with you, or the church that helped you grow, isn’t involved in that work? Of course not. The church is God’s means of growing his people. Whilst God is the ultimate mover in our salvation and sanctification, we shouldn’t drive a wedge between him and his provision. The guy who shared the gospel with you and the church that led to your growth were both actively involved in those things. God may be the one working on your heart, ordering your circumstances and placing you together (and all sorts of other things too), but these are the means he has provided to lead you to faith and growth in him. God’s sovereignty is expressed in giving you such provision.
The same is true for the growth of the church. Are the pastor, elders and members involved in the growth of the church? Of course they are! The Lord, in his sovereignty, has brought together that unique group of people, with their unique set of skills, to work for his glory in that particular local expression of the universal church. The people are very much growing the church (cf. Eph 4:11-16) but none of that takes away from the sovereignty of God in growing the church too. Paul seems quite content to say the body ‘builds itself up in love’ while not denying that Christ ‘makes the body grow’. The particular people, in that specific place, are God’s provision to each other such that the church itself is the means by which God sovereignly causes it to grow.
As such, we don’t have to worry that we are somehow not relying on God when we find we are relying on the things he provides. There really is nothing wrong with relying on God’s provision. The only problem is to fail to recognise that it is, indeed, God who has provided the very thing you need. If we are grateful to the giver, recognising that it is indeed him that so gave to us, there is nothing wrong with relying upon his provision. it is only when we fail to give thanks to the giver, believing either we have provided for ourselves or that the provision itself is the thing that will save us, that we have diverted our eyes away from God and turned to idolatry.
But to give thanks to God for his provision, and thus to rely on it as a good gift from the great provider, is but an extension of our ultimate trust and reliance upon the one who alone is able to provide.