The providence of God is often puzzling, frustrating, and difficult to understand. Why are things in our lives turning out so crazily; the story of our journey with God often seems to swerve off course, leaving us scratching our heads. Consider the case of John Chrysostom.

During the last years of his life, Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople, found himself living in exile in the desolate village of Cucusus in the mountains of Armenia. His sufferings in exile were severe: harsh winters, separation from beloved friends, frequent illness, and the constant threat of Isaurian incursions. In a letter to his close friend, the deaconess Olympias, Chrysostom describes his first winter in Cucusus:

“For the winter, which has become more than commonly severe, brought on a storm of internal disorder even more distressing, and during the last two months I have been no better than one dead, rather worse … in spite of endless contrivances I could not shake off the pernicious effects of the cold … I underwent extreme sufferings, perpetual vomiting following headache, loss of appetite, and constant sleeplessness.”

Not only were the physical conditions in Cucusus harsh, but Chrysostom faced daily the stress and sadness of separation from the church in Constantinople he had shepherded faithfully. What sense could he make of this turn of events? How were the purposes and plan of God present and active in his difficult circumstances? How was God’s providential care and power manifest in a place such as Cucusus? Might even such harsh winters reveal the purposes of God?

In these last years of Chrysostom’s life—which indeed would end with his death in exile—Chrysostom pondered God’s providence and wrote his last great theological work, On the Providence of God. Chrysostom addressed this work “to those troubled by the lawless deeds of recent days.” He describes his treatise on providence as a “medicine” at times difficult to swallow, but finally restorative in its effect.

“For this remedy nourishes more than bread, restores more effectively than a drug and cauterizes more powerfully than fire without causing any pain. At the same time, it checks the foul-smelling tides of perverse reasonings. Sharper than iron, it painlessly cuts away the infected areas without causing any expenditure of money or deepening one’s poverty. Therefore, having prepared this remedy, we are sending it to everyone. I know that all will benefit from this treatment, provided they set their thoughts on our words with thoroughness and good will.”

Chrysostom is convinced that both the tame and wild aspects of God’s creation can teach us much about God’s providence. In On Divine Providence, Chrysostom relies on four key ideas to defend and illustrate his understanding of the relationship between providence and nature. The first concerns the means God’s image-bearers employ to interpret Reality. Chrysostom teaches that our personal disposition determines what each person sees and understands of God’s providential purposes and acts. Are we disposed to read Reality well?  

In a nutshell, Chrysostom insists that one’s interpretive stance toward the circumstances of our lives determines how well we will perceive and understand God’s providential purposes. In turn, a discerning disposition can be honed by the lens of the gospel. Chrysostom urges his readers to “learn to think and live like a Christian,” enfolding life’s events within the boundaries of the gospel and interpreting them accordingly. By doing so, “you will not only not be harmed by any of these events, but will reap the greatest benefits.”

The image-bearer who has learned to think like a Christian, one whose thinking has been shaped by the gospel and the key truths it presents for understanding Reality, will not judge on the basis of appearances. Instead, healthy and wise image-bearers will remain sensible and vigilant, wary of making a premature judgment concerning God’s actions or creation. They will understand that the events of this life in themselves are indifferent matters and take on the character of good or evil for us according to our response to them. Those who stumble over the events God allows to occur “would be more correct in reckoning their stumbling to themselves, and not to the nature of the events.”

Chrysostom is clearly nudging us to a change in perspective toward the events of our lives. We’ll continue to explore his ideas in our next blog. 

Starting Soon: The 2018-19 Renovaré Book Club

How do we read for transformation, not just information? Choose books that stir the soul and have an enduring quality. Then read with God and others at an unhurried pace, attentive to what the Holy Spirit wants to teach. The Renovaré Book Club is designed for transformative reading. It runs October 2018—May 2019.

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