For St. Irenaeus, an early Church Father, Providence—God’s plan for all creation in time—was a work of epic beauty.
Beauty always has a certain harmony and coherence to it. But sometimes, from our perspective, God’s plans do not make sense to us. It’s not simply that things haven’t been working out or maybe didn’t work out the way that we wanted them to—I’m not talking about Job or Lazarus here. It’s that what is or has happened is downright confusing—so upside down or horribly wrong that perhaps we question whether God is even still working through the people and events in our lives.
In other words, the question here isn’t simply how bad things can be reconciled with a good God. That’s been asked and answered aplenty. As Catholics many of us can understand how God can bring good out of bad things. But what about when suffering and evil seem to lead nowhere? Or when they seem to undermine what we believe to be God’s intention for our lives? Then we begin to question not God’s goodness but His wisdom. We know God’s good works through suffering. Is it also the case that His wisdom can work through chaos and confusion?
Fortunately, Scripture gives us some compelling stories that show us that yes, God even works through circumstances that seem twisted to us.
The story of Joseph from Genesis offers a great lesson in how things that God is still involved even when things seem to be going horribly wrong. As Genesis 37 recounts, Joseph seems to have been blessed with a number of prophetic dreams and had become a favored son of his father’s, only to have his brothers conspire against him.
First, they plan to kill him. But one brother convinces them not to. Perhaps this was his moment of salvation?
But no—instead Joseph is cast into a cistern.
His life appears to be spared, but then his brothers change their minds again: they pull him out of the cistern and sell him into slavery.
One pastor helps us imagine what it must have been like to be Joseph:
So imagine the inner dialogue of Joseph at this point. Scripture doesn’t record it, but you have to imagine Joseph thought, “Really God?! I thought you had a plan for me. I thought you were going to do something great through me. Now I’m a slave? This is your great plan?”
In Egypt, Joseph was bought by a man named Potiphar. He eventually rose to a place of prominence in his household, until Joseph refused the advances of Potiphar’s wife, earning him an accusation of rape and a spot in prison.
Again, Joseph had to be wondering: “Really God?!”
In prison, Joseph impressed again and, once again, was promoted to a position of responsibility within the prison, until his ability to interpret dreams led pharaoh to hire him out of prison to serve as his deputy. It was in this position that he was able to save his brothers and their families from famine.
Joseph’s story is one of impossible twists and turns. Through his life, God tells us that He still has a plan and that He can still ‘work all things together for good’ even when things seem to be going horribly wrong. As another pastor concludes, “Joseph’s story is the ultimate example of reassurance for all of us who wonder, What is God doing in my life?”
The story of Hagar is another one where God’s Providence at first must have been puzzling.
In Genesis 16 we meet Hagar fleeing an abusive mistress, Abram’s wife Sarah. In the desert the angel of the Lord heeds her cry for help. But then in verse 9 he tells her to return to her mistress.
We can imagine Hagar, like Joseph, thinking to herself, What kind of a redemption is this?!
As one Jewish commentary puts it,
God’s request that Hagar become a slave again and return to be degraded by Sarai seems strange: why should God respect property rights over the freedom of persons? This is particularly odd, considering the legal code of Israel, which, alone among ancient law systems, specified that runaway slaves should not be returned to their masters (Deut 23:16). But the angel’s speech here parallels God’s speech to Abram in Gen 15:13, which states that his children would be enslaved and degraded before their redemption. Both passages use the key terms that Israel uses to describe the Egypt experience. Hagar, the slave from Egypt, foreshadows Israel, the future slaves in Egypt.
But she obeys and returns.
Then Sarah’s ire is stoked again in Genesis 21 when Hagar’s child Ishmael plays with Sarah’s son, Isaac.
Once again Hagar is sent packing, this time by Abraham. And once again Hagar finds herself in dire straits as she runs out of water and her son is dying of thirst. But God intervenes and helps her find water.
This time we do not get much detail. But we know that Hagar and her son lived and made it to a land of plenty, Egypt. Genesis tells us that she found Ishmael a wife. Jewish tradition also holds that Hagar became a princess.
Isaiah tells us that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8). To which Catholic spiritual writer Jacques Philippe says thank goodness:
And happily we cannot always understand! Otherwise, how would it be possible to allow the Wisdom of God to freely work according to His designs? Where would there be room for confidence? It is true that for many things we would not act as God would act! We would not have chosen the folly of the cross as a means of redemption! (Searching for and Maintaining Peace, 32).
In a world full of evil it is comforting to know that God is so good that He can bring good out of the bad. Likewise, ours is a world in which chaos and confusion reign. It is also a great consolation that God is so wise that even He can even harness that confusion to fulfill his wise plan for our lives.