John Chrysostom believed firmly—and staked his life on this belief—that the stumbling blocks God’s inexplicable providence presents to the believer can be avoided by learning to read Reality well. These stumbling blocks, John argues, do not arise from the nature of things in and of themselves, but from the inability of the observer to see Reality clearly, an interpretive weakness that we can avoid through the development of a “well-disposed” character. Who we are will affect what we see and understand of our life’s circumstances.
Our character, formed by the Holy Spirit as we allow the truth of the gospel to soak into our minds, is the central factor in determining whether God’s world will be understood by us or not. John writes that those who are “worldly, difficult to lead, self-willed, and utterly carnal,” will continually misread God’s providence because they lack the eyes to see God at work, a vision that comes only to those who are actively exercising faith, that is, allowing their perspective to be shaped by the gospel and acting accordingly.
Many of God’s actions in the world will remain incomprehensible even to the faithful, discerning Christian. Should we be surprised by this? Chrysostom argues that human reason possesses inherent limitations and boundaries. A failure to accept the boundaries God has chosen to place on what we can know will result in spiritual sicknesses such as disillusionment with God and discouragement over how God is acting in the world.
John writes from his exile in Cucusus: “What, therefore, is the cause of sicknesses such as these? A curious mind preoccupied with vain questions, one that wants to understand all the causes of everything that comes to pass and to strive contentiously with the incomprehensible and ineffable providence of God. It shamelessly scrutinizes and concerns itself with a subject which in its very nature is infinite and untraceable.”
Rather than prying into things that presently cannot be fathomed, those seeking to understand God’s providence should be like clay in the potter’s hands, “following wherever the artist leads, not resisting, not prying into things.” Chrysostom repeatedly derides an inappropriately inquisitive attitude as audacious, insane, obstinate, foolish, improper, shameless, bold, inappropriate, ignorant, indiscrete, arrogant, ridiculous, and curious. Quite a list of adjectives!
John reminds us that for the Christian, everything—including dealing with God’s providence—is linked to the love and goodness of God. God’s love for God’s image-bearers and all creation is a fundamental presupposition for John as he views the events of life. Hence, Chrysostom’s interpretive stance before God’s providence is fundamentally deductive rather than inductive. Chrysostom insists that key revealed truths, whether in nature, Scripture, or history, must be accepted as necessary presuppositions for correctly understanding God’s providence. Primary among these is God’s love for humanity. And where can this love most clearly be seen? In the cross. Indeed, Chrysostom delights in the way the incarnation and cross have turned the values of the world upside down. Out of seeming defeat, disgrace, horror, suffering, and the reality of death comes unimaginable victory.
In short, in the cross of Jesus all the major themes of Chrysostom’s understanding of providence intersect. If what appeared to be the greatest tragedy in the history of the world is actually the most blessed event, Christians can have an entirely different perspective on the circumstances of their own lives and the arena in which their lives are lived. The cross “is the foremost good,” “a proof of God’s great providence, goodness, and love.” The cruciform pattern of the cross, then, becomes the lens through which Christians can learn to view their God’s providence at work in their lives and how God’s love and goodness manifest themselves in life between the ages, the unexpected time between Christ’s first and second coming.