By way of an accident or two—(my oldest son’s love for plants and my landlord’s generous use of tractor and plow)—we have a huge garden this summer. As I write this, in mid-July, the zucchini and the peas are suddenly maturing and the sweet corn is about five feet tall. The green beans are a little behind; we had to replant because of suspicious circumstances that probably involved rodents. All this means that the garden is too big a responsibility for me to shirk entirely, and I find myself forced into weeding the plot for the first time since it was the best form of punishment my mother ever discovered.
I am not the garden’s primary caregiver, but in the past week I have become the defender of the potatoes. Potato bugs have found their way in; and, while I do not particularly care for gardening, I do care about having potatoes this fall. So, I have been plucking potato bug larvae off the leaves of the potato plants and summarily dispatching them so that my potatoes will thrive.
Today’s lectionary readings all speak of God’s provision, his providential care. Today’s portion of Psalm 145 speaks of God’s care for every living thing; God sees their needs, opens his hand, and satisfies their desires. Proverbs 10:3 is similar: “The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry.”1 And while today’s portion of Philippians 4 speaks primarily of Paul’s contentment in any circumstance, in Philippians 4:19, Paul promises that “my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”
But there is another level of activity in these verses. Not only does God meet needs, but he expects that people will be busy and active. So, while Proverbs 10:3 says that the Lord does not let the righteous go hungry, the next two verses make it clear that the way this typically works is through diligent and timely labor. And, while Paul says that he is content no matter what, he notes this in the context of receiving a timely and gracious gift from his partners in Philippi. God’s providence is often composed of human sweat and human generosity. This in no way diminishes the providence of God, but it serves to remind us that God’s grace is typically experienced through people.
A few weeks ago while reading at bedtime with my boys, we encountered the (in)famous phrase, “God helps those who help themselves.” The boys reacted strongly, since they knew that the character in the story wrongly attributed the phrase to the Bible. We might react strongly to the statement on soteriological grounds, since (as good Calvinists) we know that salvation is a gift given to those who were helplessly dead in their sins. God must save those who cannot help themselves. We might also react negatively on ethical grounds, since we know that the Bible often speaks of a responsibility to care for the poor and needy—those whose circumstances mean that they cannot merely help themselves. And yet, when Proverbs 10 tells its readers to be diligent and timely in their labor, it sounds like “God helps those who help themselves.” Our efforts are part of God’s providential care. Even though God makes the garden grow, the garden does not weed itself. The potato bugs must still be confronted by someone.
But perhaps, to drift slightly further afield from today’s readings, we need to recognize the role of people in soteriology as well. In salvation, as well as in ethics, God works through people. The Canons of Dort speak in several places of “the use of means”—its term for the ordinary practices of the Christian church, such as the reading and proclamation of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments—as the way in which regeneration comes about and faith is kept strong (in particular, see CD III/IV.17 and V.14). The ordinary things that we do as the community of faith are the ordinary means by which God’s saving grace becomes known. Thus, as Paul can say in 1 Corinthians 3:6, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” Or, in the words of the Canons of Dort:
“Just as the almighty work of God by which he brings forth and sustains our natural life does not rule out but requires the use of means, by which God, according to his infinite wisdom and goodness, has wished to exercise his power, so also the aforementioned supernatural work of God by which he regenerates us in no way rules out or cancels the use of the gospel, which God in his great wisdom has appointed to be the seed of regeneration and the food of the soul…” (CD III/IV.17)
“The use of the gospel” is the whole Christian enterprise of evangelism and preaching and education and discipline. God makes us grow, but he also involves us in “the use of means” that enables others to grow.
God provides… often, through us.
All citations of scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version. ↩