Providence, raindrops and horsehoe-nails

One throw-away line in a video for the excellent Christian course Discipleship Explored
caught my attention. The narrator, speaking of God’s care for us, said that “each drop of rain has its intended target.”

To some that would sound a rather precious description of God’s involvement in his universe. In fact, when I’ve discussed providence in the past, a scientist who is a Christian questioned whether that God exercises that degree of interest in such trivial events. On the materialist account of the world, of course, meticulous providence is an embarrassment, because it seems to undermine the “rule of law” in the universe, forgetting that the fact that God ordains regularity in no way binds him to the role of a clockmaker watching things he has made go mechanically on.

But the embarrassment leads on to a theological objection that God cannot be a “micro-manager” if he is to ensure the liberty of humans – and even, on the popular semi-deism of theistic evolutionists and Open Theists, the liberty of creation. But Aquinas dealt with that centuries ago. Humans micro-manage, he said (I paraphrase, of course) because they are incompetent. God acts universally in providence because he is not.

In fact, at the deepest theological levels “meticulous providence” is entailed in creation doctrine: all that exists, both in material terms and in terms of events, arises from God’s mind and word, and God alone. To imagine that any event, however small, is unworthy of his attention is absurd. Even human beings can study cosmology at the grandest scale, taking into account quantum events at the smallest, and taking time out to raise their families and since in a glee choir in between. Why would God be less interested than us?

But that line about the raindrop and its target throws the necessity for providence to cover all particulars into sharp relief. If you are driving a fast convertible, or maybe balancing on a high mountain path, a raindrop targeting your eye could distract you enough to lose concentration and die. Which might be all well and good for me, but it would be equally true for, say, St Paul commissioned by the Lord to carry the gospel to the gentiles as his appointed apostle. Likewise other biblical characters like Jeremiah, appointed by God before his conception (another highly meticulous interposition of sperm and ovum) to be a prophet to the nations. But suppose the raindrop had hit his eye whilst climbing a tree as a boy?

One could argue that these are special cases. But quite apart from imagining God’s going into mother-hen mode to redirect raindrops and other mishaps only from especially chosen people, remember how Psalm 139 teaches us that

All the days ordained for [us] were written in your book before one of them came to be.

Attempts to explain that away as hyperbolic (and I have heard some from the Open Theists over the years) fail at the first hurdle. If it is not literally true, then all the assurance that is the very theme of the psalm is mere hot air. Common experience shows the great effects of small things even in proverbs:

“For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the battle was lost. For want of a battle the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.”


“Don’t spoil the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar.”

These are, of course, about the need for human attention to detail when pursuing goals, but the principle that small mishaps can spoil big plans is shared with the idea of providence. The latter proverb, interestingly, was originally not about ships at all, but “sheep”, “ship” being a variant form as in “shippen” (a sheep-pen) here in Devon. “It was originally to lose a sheep, or a hog, for a (half)pennyworth of tar, that is to say, for want of spending a trivial sum on tar—with reference to the use of tar to protect sores and wounds on sheep from flies.”

This brings the personal aspect of God’s providence home – a lazy or miserly shepherd who can’t be bothered to treat his sheep carefully in small matters will lose the sheep altogether, and so it must be with God and his children.

In fact, meticulous providence has become far more of an axiom with the discovery of chaos in scientific phenomena . It is clear that chaotic events are ultimately deterministic, and therefore knowable by Laplace’s demon or, more theologically, their omniscient Creator. They are chaotic because even tiny failures of knowledge can make the outcome of such events completely unknowable to humans. Likewise, it follows that a God who can’t be bothered to monitor – and ordain – the smallest of events in the world would be doomed to constant surprises and disappointments. He would be little better than the Met Office at predicting the weather, though perhaps better at predicting the climate, being less ideologically committed!

So, like Aquinas and pretty well all of the great theologians of his time and before, not to mention the narrator of Discipleship Explored, I conclude that meticulous providence is a sine qua non for the God who shows the kind of power of the God of Jesus Christ. That conclusion necessitates some downstream adjustments to our theology. For the scientist his understanding of Nature must allow coherently for even the outcomes of his experiments to be as providential as they are law-like. That is a major project indeed.

And for all of us, we have to do the hard work of seeking to understand the primacy of God’s providence even in the actions of evil wills. But that is nothing new, since Acts 4:27-28 speaks directly to it, even though it does not give an explanation that would satisfy the tidy mind.

Think about it the next time you get rained on.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in Creation, Science, Theology, Theology of nature. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Providence, raindrops and horsehoe-nails

  1. Ben says:

    This is as good a place as any to ask a question that I’ve been mulling since reading God’s Good Earth (since lent to my parents, so many apologies if the answer was in there and I’ve forgotten it since!).

    If death (and, presumably, pain) are part of pre-fall creation, and thus – presumably – good (and inevitable?), and also our eternal life will be ‘down here’, how does that tie in with the biology? Do our cells carry on dying, and the bugs getting trod on, (and the beef eaten?), and us stubbing our toes?

    In some ways, an ethereal ‘very other’ heaven seems easier to ‘imagine’ because it throws all these sorts of questions into a “we’ll find out when we get there”.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Ben – the authoritative answer is that I have no idea! I raise the impossibility, in the book, of a current world order in which there was no death. But Scripture is deliberately reticent about the final creation, and I guess that’s partly because we can’t envision it from within this world order: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, Nor have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for those who love Him,” and partly because it doesn’t yet exist to describe.

      An earthly (though transformed) resurrection is a belief unique to the Judaeo-Christian revelation, so it’s not as if the spirits-on-clouds idea wasn’t available. But we see Jesus raised as “flesh and bones,” yet imperishable. On the other hand, he eats fish with relish!

      One clue, I guess, is Jesus’s statement that in the resurrection, they are not given in marriage, suggesting, I suppose, that procreation, not human love, will be obsolete. In the absence of an understanding of “the new biology” we at least know that the principle is the replacement, in the new creation, of the perishable physical order with the imperishable spiritual one, the pneumatikos taking over from the psuchikos. Tom Wright describes that as “spirit-powered” rather than “physically-powered.” So it’s not just biology, but physics, that gets a makeover… scarcely surprising, then, that we don’t have access to the detail.

      In conclusion, it’s one to accept by faith with the acceptance of mystery, rather than one likely to unveil its secrets with further research.

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