I received this text message from one of our pastors, “Todd Meise just passed away. I am headed over to their house.” I paused to let the solemnity of his death register. Todd was a 52-year-old church member who battled cancer several years before succumbing to its destructive tyranny. He was married to Denise for seventeen years, and has seventh and eighth-grade daughters. It is a frowning providence.
The English hymn writer and poet, William Cowper, coined that phrase in a song entitled “God Moves In A Mysterious Way.” There he writes this stanza:
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense
But trust Him for His grace
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face
The entire hymn is about the mysteries of God’s providence in our lives and learning to trust Him regardless of the circumstances. Cowper reminds us that behind a “frowning providence” is the smiling face of God. This line should be a comfort to us in understanding that even the most painful circumstances in our lives come from the hand and wisdom of a loving God. He works all things for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purposes (Romans 8:28).
"Frowning providences” is not common vernacular in the church today. The word “providence” remains largely unused because its meaning is unclear in the minds of most Christians. The providence of God is the unfolding of God’s eternal decrees in time and creation. We experience God’s eternal decrees, set forth from the foundation of the world, in time and space. We witness God’s sovereignty in the moment-by-moment providence unfolding daily. Some of those providences are ‘frowning providences,’ meaning they are hard. They include things like getting fired, wrecking a vehicle, losing a child, suffering a divorce, or developing cancer and leaving behind a widow and two children, such as was God’s providence for Todd Meise.
In 2 Samuel 12:15, we read, “Then Nathan went to his house. And the LORD afflicted the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and he became sick.” This text is from the David and Bathsheba story. God delivers a temporal punishment to David for his adultery; the child conceived in this act would not live. Nathan delivers this news to David (2 Samuel 12:13-14). We later read in verse 15 that the LORD afflicted the child and he became sick.
This passage confronts us on so many levels about our theological beliefs. It flies in the face of so many contemporary false ideas. People recite different versions of this argument: “God doesn’t want you to be sick; this is just Satan.” This sentiment attempts to exonerate God’s involvement with any trial or pain, and casts it onto Satan for responsibility. However, the above text from 2 Samuel crushes any illusions that God and Satan are contemporaries, let alone beings of equal power, one good and the other evil. Satan is a creature under the rule of God. They are not equals. The LORD afflicted the child. This is God’s doing.
There are many who come from a word of faith background, and illnesses like Todd’s fly in the face of their beliefs. They don’t have room in their worldview for the possibility that God may not only choose to withhold healing, but also, that His hand is the one delivering affliction. In their understanding of God’s sovereignty, they don’t have room for frowning providences.
One reason they don’t have room for frowning providences is because they cannot see the smiling face hiding behind it. They believe any idea of God afflicting as unbecoming of His love or grace. But this isn’t true. It’s not biblical. All of God’s providential dealings with our lives serve our good and His glory. Nothing is arbitrary in God’s decrees. He wills all things to pass according to His wisdom, love, goodness, and faithfulness to us. We don’t need to speculate if God has reasons for His plans, even when we lack knowledge of them. We simply trust Him, and avoid leaning on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5-6).
However, understanding the certainty of God’s eternal decrees doesn’t turn us into passive wallflowers. David, in this story, demonstrates to us the proper response. Even after hearing the child will die, and the LORD affects the baby, David fasts and prays for seven days. He pleads for the LORD to spare the child, hoping it would be The LORD’s will to show mercy. David doesn’t know the mysterious will of God, so he prays. This is a great lesson for us. It is okay to plead our cause to the LORD. We know He will execute His divine plans regardless, but it is right to pray.
Ultimately, God said “no” to David’s cries. This didn’t harden David’s heart against God. His actions after learning of his son’s death are instructive to us. 2 Samuel 12:20 says, “Then David arose from the earth and washed and anointed himself and changed his clothes. And he went into the house of the LORD and worshiped. He then went to his own house. And when he asked, they set food before him, and he ate.” He washed his face, changed his clothes, and went to the house of God to worship. After pleading for God to spare his son for a week, he received God’s verdict with humble submission and worship. He didn’t put God on the witness stand to give an account to him. He surrendered. He then went home and took nourishment. The entire picture of David’s response is one of empty-handed, child-like acceptance of God’s providence.
As Christians, we must learn to accept the providence of God, even when it is a frowning providence. God holds our lives in His hands. It is right to pray to God and plead for our wants, while at the same time resting in the comfort that, “Thy will be done.” We prayed several years for God to heal Todd’s cancer. He didn’t. So Denise, Kaitlyn, and Maddie washed their faces, put on fresh clothes, and went to the house of LORD to worship. Afterwards, they ate together as family and friends, resting in the will of the One who is smiling as He executes His perfect plans for His children.
Erik is the Lead Pastor of The Journey Church in Lebanon. He also founded Knowing Jesus Ministries, a non-profit organization which exists to proclaim timeless truth for everyday life. He is married to Katrina, and has three children: Kaleb (who went to be with the Lord), Kaleigh Grace, and Kyra Piper.