“Hey, don’t take it personally!” they say, when they do something that causes us pain.
“Hey, it’s not about you!” they say, when we take it personally anyway.
For the Heidelberg Catechism, the Christian faith is all personal. In a sense, Heidelberg says “Yes, it really is all about you.” Not in a self-centered way. The Catechism is clear from the first question on that we don’t even belong to ourselves. We are the property of Jesus Christ.
It is personal in terms of treating all its topics (all the basic teachings of the Christian faith) in terms of how they impact us as believers — personally. You see it in the opening question about our “comfort” as well as in explorations of how various teachings “help” or “benefit” us.
This is nowhere truer than in Heidelberg’s treatment of “providence.” (I’ve been doing a few posts on this topic, prompted by a question tweeted by @Dawn_Morris1 a few weeks ago). The Catechism gets down to a formal definition of Providence in Question 27:
Q. What do you understand by the providence of God?
A. The almighty and ever present power of God by which God upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty— all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand.
My impression is that people today tend to hear this in a very selective way. When I teach this topic to seminarians and to groups of church elders it seems to come across like this:
“…drought…lean years…sickness…and poverty…come to us…by his…hand.”
Reading it that way providence becomes a big problem. In fact God seems like a big problem. In our modern “personal” way of thinking, the faith is “all about us” in a very different way. We assume a loving and all-powerful God should not allow bad things like drought, sickness, and poverty to happen at all. In our modern way of thinking, it seems unfair.
The writers of the Catechism saw it as personal in a very different way.
- They wanted us to see God as bringing everything into our lives — both the pleasant things and the painful.
- Explicitly, this was to keep us from thinking things happened by chance — we are not at the mercy of random forces.
- Emphatically, this power is in the hand of someone who cares — God, who has adopted us as his children, guides our lives as our loving father.
The weight of the section falls on the final pair of terms:
“all things…come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand.”
We might be tempted to think that this means we are being personally rewarded or punished for our behavior — depending on what we think of as God’s parenting style. But this definition of providence comes in the middle of a series of questions on the topic of God the Father. Read in the context of the previous question, God’s intentions are understood as generous and redemptive:
“…he will provide whatever I need for body and soul, and will turn to my good whatever adversity he sends upon me…”
For the Heidelberg Catechism, providence is God working behind the scenes to address our real needs. If bad things happen I can trust that they do not express God’s judgment — they are the context in which God is weaving and re-weaving the tapestry of my life.
How do you see God’s hand at work in the events of your life?
Have you seen God bend the hard things of life so that good came of them?