Many years ago, I heard an anecdote about a woman frantically searching for a carpark, praying “God, please help me find a parking space... Oh! Never mind! I found one!”. At the time, I missed the humour because I was exactly like the lady in the story: relying on myself and seeing God as an emergency backup plan only - for crisis management. This self-sufficient mentality explains much of the lack of peace, the stress, the chaos, the frantic pressure of modern life. The surest way to dramatically reduce stress and live in the peace that Christ wills for us lies in the radical surrender of everything to God’s Providence.
Divine Providence refers to the solicitude with which God watches over us and blesses us with what we truly need. It means that God is always taking care of us, even when we go through hard things. Living a radical dependence on Providence means that in all things, we abandon our narrow vision of what what WE want, and instead we openly accept whatever GOD allows. We let go of our death grip on the control panel and give Him absolute free rein.
Surrender like that is not natural to us. We will abandon ourselves to His Providence to the extent that we recognise that He truly loves us and cares about us, that His power is infinite and ours is actually rather paltry.
A Slow Re-education
Throughout my childhood and early adulthood, trusting in Divine Providence was nothing but pious talk saved for hard times. New Zealand is why and where the Lord first began my re-education. My husband and I (both Americans) were invited to become unpaid missionaries to New Zealand shortly after becoming parents for the first time.
The awkward truth is that my instinctive impulse was to decline with a hearty, “No!”. We had a child to provide for and were expecting our second; we owned a house and pets; my husband had a good job that he’d have to surrender with no promises about employment when we returned in two years. Two years of unpaid missionary work halfway around the globe smacked of irresponsibility.
But the priest who invited us was persistent and we did pray about it. In praying about it, for the first time, I felt nudged by God to do something that would seem terribly irresponsible by worldly standards. I felt He was calling me to do this reckless-seeming thing, to trust in Him, to have faith that if it was truly His will, He would work out all the details.
And....He did. We fundraised slightly more than we needed, found renters for our home, and watched as all the other logistics fell neatly into place. It was exhilarating. It was like God was showing off, proving Himself to me as real, powerful and caring beyond what I had ever understood.
Fr Jacques Philippe writes that trusting in Divine Providence in like trusting in a parachute. You will never know how powerful and dependable the parachute is unless you jump. Going to NZ was my first jump. Finally saying “yes” was every bit as thrilling as the analogy promises. It was such a source of joy and excitement to do something so wildly trusting. Inebriated with wonder, I promised then that I would always trust in Him.
Good intentions are so much easier formed than lived. While living abroad, our third baby was rushed to the hospital at 6 weeks of age. Joseph received Last Rites hours after his Baptism, in an ED in Tauranga. The doctors didn’t know what was wrong with him. He was released days later, but for months they ran weekly tests, did biopsies and waited for clues.
Even as results began trickling in, the picture was unclear and the medical world held no promises for us about this precious little person who weighed less than seven pounds. My confidence in God’s Providence had faltered early in my pregnancy with Joseph as slight anomalies and major bleeds plagued the nine months.
During that period, a friend had given me a copy of a slender little volume entitled Searching for and Maintaining Peace. I had read a page or two daily throughout my pregnancy; it never failed to help me rest in God’s plan. I returned to daily readings from this incredibly powerful little treatise on Providence while grappling with Joseph’s mysterious symptoms. That book was an instrument of grace by which the Lord coaxed me to trust Him. It has remained so for over a decade.
Walking on Water
In Scripture, Peter walked on water because His eyes were steady on Jesus; the moment he got distracted by the water, he sank. In times of major trial when the stakes are high and we feel sincerely terrified and it is so hard to be at peace, we need to keep dragging our frightened eyes off the water, back to the face of Jesus.
“The water” is everything that is stressing us out, everything that scares us, all of our fears. The waves are going to grab our attention - we can’t deny that they are there or pretend they aren’t dangerous - but we are going to want to intentionally fix our eyes on Jesus. Our heart cry in those moments is, “Jesus, I trust in You!”.
By repeating that act of faith and hope every time the waves lurch beneath our feet, we remind ourselves that He is worthy of trust: our trust becomes more authentic little by little every time we utter that prayer. Fr. Jacques Philippe’s little book can teach us how to grow our trust in God. Likewise for the short, simple and incredibly powerful “Surrender Novena” - also a mighty instrument for growing in radical abandonment to the Lord.
While I awaited results from baby Joseph’s many rounds of tests, my go-to prayer was the simplest one possible: “Jesus, I trust in You!”. The more I prayed that way, the more peaceful the heart from which those words sprang. I also prayed along the lines of, “God, if Joseph is going to die, I will experience the bitterest depths of heartbreak when (or if) that happens. You know that I desperately want my little boy to live. But you love him more than I do, and I trust your plan. Right now, while I have him, I am going to enjoy to the full whatever time that I do have. I refuse to spoil the months we do have together by worrying about what may happen.”
Joseph ended up diagnosed with a non life-threatening liver condition and some other minor problems. Today he is a healthy ten year old. But those weeks of uncertainty, driving back and forth to Starship and the Ronald McDonald House, they were my first experience of letting go of the impulse to pray in a way that demanded a particular outcome from God. Instead trusting that He was going to do what He knew to be best. After that, it was much easier to trust Him with anything. Once I surrendered my child’s life into His hands, there was nothing I cared enough about to hold back from Him!
Nothing Is Impossible for God
While not as heart-rending as life-or-death health crises, finances rank high amongst things that test our calm faith in God’s Providence. I could write an entire book about the ways that God has provided financially for our family of nine. Just last year, weeks prior to the birth of our 7th child, we were stumped about how to afford the BIG VAN we would need to transport so many kids around town. A problem too big for me to solve is certainly a problem I need to hand over to the Lord.
Sure enough, a brand new ten-seater van was gifted to us unexpectedly by a woman we had met 15 years earlier when we lived in a town 1,000 km away. Shortly thereafter, a second car was bestowed on us unsought. In our need, God provided not one, but two cars. Our children were awed, “BOTH of our cars were free gifts!?”
Trusting in Providence is exciting - even for small children. It is literally marvellous what God does. I marvel! Not just both our vehicles, but every single aspect of my life is a free gift of God. Wonder (AKA marvelling) induces gratitude and joy; it causes praise of God to rise spontaneously to the lips from the deepest, most sincere places in the heart. It is a joy to tell another human about something amazing God has done. Ditto for hearing the stories of wonders God has done for others.
We love miracle stories. We wonder why miracles happen to saints but rarely to us. They happen to saints because saints have the audacity to expect them as a matter of course. Saints don’t believe in “impossible”. They know all things are possible with God, and they proceed accordingly. To the extent that we do the same, we too will see His mighty hand at work.
The Mystery of Suffering
But here’s the hard part - in response to our trust, God doesn’t always shower down cars and chunks of change and miracle healings that no doctor can explain. He has done A LOT of that for me, but there have also been long roads of suffering and excruciating hardships. There will be more to come. Death, addiction, sin and tragedy cause terrible suffering in every human life. How can that be so in light of God’s Providence?
God does not will evil. He does not cause evil. He does, however, permit evil. He permits things to happen that He knows will cause suffering only when He knows that through the suffering endured, He can bring about a much greater good. This mystery is so profound that we can only grapple with it in the abstract.
As soon as we are confronted with actual and acute suffering, it baffles us anew. We ask “Why?” The question is always, “Why, God?”. As if God owes humans explanations and must justify His behaviour to us. Humility is not the strong suit of the human race! Jesus told us to become like little children to enter His Kingdom - perhaps because the younger the child, the more docile to the will of the parent. Sometimes.
“Eating Our Veggies”
I have a neighbour who feeds his son lollies for breakfast. Seriously. The kid just has to demand, “I want a Snickers Bar!” and he pretty much gets it. You may not be surprised to know that this little boy has also had many more tooth extractions and cavities filled than is typical for his age. The "goodness" of his dad is literally rotting his mouth.
We are God’s children, and like true children, we tend to hope for Snickers bars. Every time we experience a “hunger” or a need, our prayer often gives God some specific directions regarding what we want done about it (and we always want a sweet, satisfying outcome). We fret and lack peace because we are impatiently waiting for our will to be done.
God is a Father who is truly good. He is not going to stuff a Snickers in our mouth whenever we ask for it, no matter how hungry we feel or how desperately we want it. Sometimes - often, in fact - he is going to serve brussels sprouts. We make our own kids do hard things; we discipline them and deny them things they really want because we know better than they do about what is good. We want them to be healthy and capable and unspoiled.
So God doesn’t always heal the body or fill the bank account. Sometimes he gives us the grace to endure instead of taking away the hardship. AND THAT IS HIS PROVIDENCE TOO. Those are His hard graces. That is when He provides, not our preferred solution, but instead an invitation to accept the cross. And when we can accept that, we receive His peace. That’s when the stress begins to melt away - when the need to control lifts from our shoulders and we find our calm no matter what happens.
At Cana, Mary didn’t give Jesus suggestions when she sought His intervention. She went immediately to him with her problem, “They have no wine.” She didn’t know how he would handle it, but she was at peace knowing that it was now in His hands. She told the waiters, “Do whatever He tells you.” This is how we try to pray if we wish to have His peace in our lives. We go directly to Him when there is no wine. We tell him simply that the wine is low and then….we do whatever He tells us.
If we deliberately practice complete abandonment to whatever God wills in the little things each day, it will be so much easier to surrender to Him in the big things. Every day our little plans go awry: a spill, sleeplessness, unexpected rain. When we hit a bump, we just have to surrender to it and ask “God, how are you revealing your will to me in this?”
Learning to look for God’s will when we feel frazzled by the small bummers of daily life prepares us to see His goodness in our big trials. Every time we calmly accept the little mishaps of our day, we are essentially saying to God, “Thy will be done.” It is a prayerful way to live, seeking the presence of God always.
The faithfulness and goodness of God can never be overestimated. It is impossible that we should meet Him in Heaven one day and learn that we simply hoped too much of Him during our earthly life. At the same time, in Heaven we will see more clearly that as high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are His ways above ours. Learning how to keep those two truths in tension will be our path to peace in this life - peace that the world cannot give.