God is in charge of the outcome of history.
This simple statement is one way of expressing the Christian doctrine of divine Providence. Perhaps an even more profound way would be a statement that affirms “all things work together for good.” However, no matter how this is said, it is often the least obvious of all Christian doctrines. It is also, I think, among the most necessary of Christian doctrines when it comes to rightly living the life of grace. Those who do not understand this, are confronted with the constant temptation to assume the position of God themselves. That – is idolatry.
I taught each of my four children how to drive a car. Before I began with the first, I made a quiet promise to myself that I would only yell in order to prevent an immediate accident. The reason was quite simple: the experience of being a passenger with an unskilled driver provokes anxiety in the extreme, usually accompanied by frequent yelling. It is also true that no driver likes to drive with passengers who are yelling, least of all someone who is themselves uncertain of their skills. Among the most essential things to learn in driving, is what to do with your eyes. There is of course a need to monitor the mirrors, both the rearview mirror and the sideview mirror, in order to be aware of the context in which you are driving. There is also the need to be aware of the side of the road as well as the oncoming traffic. And then, there is the road as it stretches into the distance. So where do we focus our attention?
The answer, it seems to me, is that our focus is somewhere in the distance. If one’s focus is too close, then the actions required to respond will be happening at a rate that is far too fast for a timely response. The result will be a very “jerky” ride. The essential visual posture is a focus towards a more distant point down the road, while we steer and respond largely with our peripheral vision.
Learning that you have peripheral vision is something that requires paying attention. It’s quite easy to assume that we only see what we are focused on. Such a form of vision would be dangerous in the extreme. Instead, focus is only a small fraction of what we see. The larger part of our vision occurs in the “periphery,” that area that surrounds the point of focus. If you focus and stay focused on a single point, such as a single word in a paragraph, and then begin moving your hand about (while maintaining the same focus), you will quickly discover that you can see a range of nearly 180 degrees. Focus is a narrow thing, a single point. Periphery is broad, the whole range through roughly half a sphere. Driving a car is an exercise in hand-eye coordination in a world that is primarily seen in the periphery.
I had to re-learn this the first time I rented a car and began to drive in England. I knew there was going to be trouble when I was told that the available car had a manual transmission. Like every self-respecting male, I announced, “No problem!” So, seated on the right, with the gear shift on my left, and the pedals in the same order as in America (left-to-right: clutch, brake, accelerator), I began my first effort at navigation in England. Peripheral vision is actually only a fraction of what your body “sees.” There is another vast amount of cubic space which the rest of your body feels and “sees” by extension. We “feel” the automobile itself.
Nothing makes this clearer than sitting on the “wrong” side and trying to drive. The entire left side of the car felt like I had just left a dental office: numb. I curbed the tires on the left side of the car three times before getting out of the parking lot. That the trip did not involve a major crash is a testimony to the faithfulness of God and some risky interventions on the part of my guardian angel.
So, what has this to do with Divine Providence? It is, in short, an example of how to see and think in the context of Providence. The outcome of history is in the hands of God. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we see the end of history. It all works together for good. The question in our daily lives, however, has to do with where we focus our attention. By and large, we tend to live like young, new drivers. We focus on things around us. When we worry about the future, it’s really only about a car-length ahead of us. As such, our lives are jerked around, dashing to and from perceived problems, wiggling our way down the road, surprised by rumble strips, and occasionally winding up in the ditch.
Hebrews gives us this:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy set out for him he endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1–2)
Christ Himself “fixed His eyes” on the joy set out for Him, the cause for which He came into the world. We rarely see Providence by focusing on all of the immediate distractions of the moment. It is best seen in the divine distance. The bulk of our immediate lives are best lived and seen in the “peripheral vision” of Providence. This is a spiritual habit that requires practice in order to attain (like learning to drive a car).
I anticipate an objection to all of this in the form of “but what about living in the moment?” The true “moment” in which we live cannot be rightly perceived apart from the light of Providence. The up-close detail and what is immediately at hand, when isolated from its place within Providence as a whole, can appear to be something that it is not. Such a false focus can be one of many formulas for an anxious existence. The “truth” of our existence is only revealed in the fullness of the truth which is made known to us in Christ’s Pascha.
The vision of life in which our eyes are “fixed” on the End made known in Christ, yet encompassing the whole periphery of our on-going lives, is a place of peace and assurance. When we are living in “strange” times, it is important to note that a wrong focus tends to exacerbate the strangeness. We only see clearly when our vision is made whole.