Footprints in the sea
In 2001, missionaries Jim and Roni Bowers were flying into Peru with their six-year-old son, Cory, and their infant daughter, Charity. A CIA spotter plane, part of an anti-narcotics program, identified the missionary aircraft as a potential drug runner, alerting Peruvian authorities of their suspicions. Critically, no one attempted to identify the plane by its tail number, per standard procedure.
Peruvian authorities issued a warning for an unauthorised flight plan. The missionary plane, on a different frequency, never received the warning. As a Peruvian Air Force plane approached, the pilot of the missionary aircraft contacted a nearby control tower to query the appearance of the Air Force. By the time that transmission was received, it was too late. The Peruvian Air Force had opened fire. The missionary plane was shot down. Roni Bowers and her infant daughter were killed. The pilot sustained a bullet wound to the leg. Jim and Cory escaped unharmed.
A series of unfortunate events led to the death of Roni and Charity Bowers. They happened to fly a path in which CIA spotters were patrolling, who happened to ignore protocol for that particular plane. Their radio happened to be on the wrong frequency. The pilot happened to radio the control tower just seconds too late. Charity happened to be sitting on her mother’s lap.
The obvious question, at least for those who affirm the sovereignty of God, is why? Why did God allow his servants to be mistakenly identified as drug smugglers and permit a young missionary wife and her infant daughter to be killed? Why did this happen to decent Christian people?
Theologians speak of God’s “providence.” The English word “providence” literally means “to see before.” But providence, as it relates to the God of the Bible, means far more than God knowing what is going to happen. Biblically speaking, God’s providence means that he upholds all things, governs all events, and directs everything to its appointed end—all the time and in every circumstance—for his glory.
This truth is taught throughout Scripture. Paul, preaching in Athens, noted that “we live and move and have our being” in God (Acts 17:28). Colossians 1:17 tells us that “in him all things hold together.” The writer to the Hebrews affirms that God “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3). Solomon acknowledged that “the heart of a man plans his way,” but recognised that “the LORD directs his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). Psalm 115:3 is blunt: “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.” The doctrine of providence encapsulates in a single truth the biblical teachings on divine sovereignty, predestination, wisdom, and goodness. It reminds us that nothing really ever just “happens.”
The book of Ruth serves as a helpful illustration of this truth. As was the case with the Bowers family, Ruth opens with a series of unfortunate events. A seemingly unwise decision by an Israelite man to move his family out of the Promised Land to Moab was followed by the deaths of three husbands, leaving behind three grieving widows (1:1–5).
When Naomi and Ruth returned to Bethlehem, a series of happy coincidences followed. Ruth went to glean corn in a nearby field. Seemingly at random, “she happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the clan of Elimelech” (2:3). How fortunate it was that she “happened” to select the right field! As the story unfolds, we learn that Boaz happened to have both the right and the inclination to redeem Naomi and Ruth, and God used him wonderfully to care and provide for them.
The story concludes on a happy note. Boaz and Ruth were married and God gave them a son. The women of Bethlehem finally saw something of God’s providence in the situation. “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.” They rejoiced that “a son has been born to Naomi” (4:13–17). Naomi’s circumstances had been bitter, but God had providentially worked things for good.
But those women didn’t know the whole story. The author of the book, writing generations later, had greater insight. Boaz and Ruth’s son was named Obed. Obed fathered Jesse, who fathered David (4:18–22). The characters involved in the story knew none of this. The later writer could trace the lines of providence to see how God worked through a series of unhappy and happy circumstances to give to Israel King David. The author had more insight into God’s providence than the characters involved in the story.
Of course, we who live under the new covenant have even greater insight. The writer could see more of the big picture than any character in the story. He could see God working to give King David. But he did not know, as we do, that David was the ancestor of Jesus Christ. The tragedies that befell Naomi were unspeakable, but they ultimately gave to the world God’s “inexpressible gift” (2 Corinthians 9:15)—Jesus the Messiah.
But let us remind ourselves that none of this was obvious to Naomi or Ruth. They experienced tragedy. And even though they began to see God work their tragedy for good, they could not grasp his providence in their lifetime, and will not grasp it until all is revealed in eternity.
This is the nature of providence. William Cowper captured this truth wonderfully in his beloved hymn:
God moves in a mysterious way
his wonders to perform;
he plants his footsteps in the sea
and rides upon the storm.
How wonderfully expressive: He plants his footsteps in the sea. Footprints in the sea are indiscernible. God’s footsteps may be invisible to us, but they are there nonetheless. Nothing in all creation happens outside of divine ordination and control. God cares about the tiniest details of life. He uses everything and wastes nothing—even life’s most difficult moments and human tragedies. And he does this all to bring about his ultimate purpose, which is to shape his children into the image of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:28–30).
Nothing happens by chance—ever. God ordains what happens, when it happens, how it happens, why it happens, and what happens after it happens. This is true of all events, in every place, from the beginning of time. There is no promise that we will understand all this, but there is an expectation that we will believe it.
Those who embrace this truth are wonderfully freed from bitterness, given new perspective on tragedy, and enabled to keep going in hard times. After all, God’s providence gave not only a baby in a manger, but also a Saviour who died to save us from our sins and to, in and through our sufferings, make us like himself. And so, with A. M. Overton, we can exult:
My Father’s way may twist and turn,
my heart may throb and ache,
but in my soul I’m glad I know,
he maketh no mistake.
My cherished plans may go astray,
my hopes may fade away,
but still I’ll trust my Lord to lead
for he doth know the way.
Though night be dark and it may seem
that day will never break,
I’ll pin my faith, my all in him,
he maketh no mistake.
There’s so much now I cannot see,
my eyesight’s far too dim;
but come what may, I’ll simply trust
and leave it all to him.
For by and by the mist will lift
and plain it all he’ll make,
through all the way, though dark to me,
he made not one mistake.