There Are Degrees of the Divine Providence
A father who is wise does not punish a two-year old in the same way as he might a boy of twelve; he knows that their appreciation of their transgressions is quite different. Similarly, the Divine wisdom dictates that the Lord’s provision for the leading of men takes account of the states in which they are. Some are spiritually children, others are approaching maturity. Some are in evil, some are in good, and most of us are in between.
“Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear Him. For He knoweth our frame; He remembereth that we are dust. . . . The mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear Him, and His justice unto children’s children; to such as keep His covenant, and to those that remember His commandments to do them” (Psalm 103)
To have mercy is to lead man from the place where he is toward heaven, not to set an ideal far beyond man’s present reach and then condemn him because he is not there. “He knoweth our frame; He remembereth that we are dust.” He accommodates His leading to us; never diminishing the ideal itself, never failing to present a perfect hope, but at the same time pointing out the first few steps on a path that will lead us away from our imperfect selves towards that heavenly goal. He does not say: “Find your own path, and when you are good enough then I will accept you.” He leads us through weakness. “If I make my bed in hell, behold, Thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall Thy hand lead me, and Thy right hand shall hold me.” (Psalm 139: 8-10)
The New Word describes, therefore, four general degrees of the Divine Providence: will, good pleasure, leave, permission. (See AC 2447, 9940; SD 892) One may say that the Divine will leads the celestial. The Divine good pleasure, on the other hand, is the grace of the Lord toward the spiritual who, relatively to the celestial, could be said to be in evil. Because of their willingness to love and serve the neighbor, however, the Lord is pleased to accept them and grant them His gifts. It was of the Divine good pleasure that the Lord was born on earth, for He came to save the spiritual. Therefore the phrase is used in the Writings: “It pleased Him to be born.” (See AC 10,579, 256)
The Divine “leave” appears to encompass natural good, be it genuine or merely a cover for internal evil. (See SD 2296, 3896. Cf. AC 2447) In other words, a man who performs charitable offices from a sense of external duty because it is his job does so from leave; so does a man who does the same thing from a purely selfish or evil motive. The first man comes under the Lord’s laws as to good, for He is leading him slowly to a greater good; the second, unless he repents, does not. (See AC 2447) Sometimes “leave” is divided into two – “leave” and “sufferance.” (See AC 17550)The implication is that “sufferance” has reference to natural good covering a state of evil, and “leave” to a genuine but merely natural state.
In summary, the Divine leave governs a merely natural state, whether of the lowest heaven or of hell. The Lord does not desire that men merely obey, still less that they obey with the lips but not with the heart; but He gives them leave so to be, that He may lead them further. Whereas leave compasses a state of external good, permission is the government where there is evil, usually both external and internal. Only a few things which are permitted fall under the Divine laws as to good, and we would assume that these are externally bad acts which are done with the utmost sincerity. (See AC 2447) In general, permissions are evils, which the Lord does not will, which do not please Him, and which He does not even suffer to be so. He permits, as one not willing, for the sake of the greater good.
These distinctions, which are discrete, are important.25 We frequently find that people are tempted to assign and attribute everything to the Divine Providence, with a few exceptions which they acknowledge as of permission. They forget about the things in between. A man may act in temper, cause a great deal of misery, and then on looking back he will see that something useful came out of it, so he will say: “Maybe I was meant to behave that way; see how it turned out.” The behavior was not meant. It was permitted and the good provided despite it. All too often people adopt a fatalistic attitude towards past faults, because it all “turned out for the best in the end.” Thus they take credit for the wisdom with which the Lord improved on their errors!
Let us take the example of a basically well-disposed young man in a promising position with a firm who develops a strong and unreasonable sense of grievance against his immediate superior, so much so that he eventually gives in to his anger, there is a nasty scene, and he resigns. He then finds another job and does very well there, too; and so, on looking back on his life he will say: “That change was for the best. Obviously I was meant to do that.” In saying this he excuses his ill-tempered behavior, and even insinuates the thought that the Lord willed him to leave the first firm, thus that he acted according to the Lord’s will. He did not. His action was wrong, but the Lord still led him and provided good for him, despite his wrong. Had he behaved well, he might have received greater benefits; he will never know, because that was not what happened.
Let us consider also the example of marriage. A young couple ought to believe, if they have searched themselves and each other, that their love is of the Lord’s will; but this does not mean that everything they are going to do from that time on in the name of their love will be of His will. There is a dangerous tendency to think this, to feel that because we have felt the joy of an ideal love which the Lord wills us to have, the rest of our married life will proceed also according to His will. Then, when we are motivated by selfish urges and find that a lot of our emotions in marriage are not as pure and ideal as they ought to be, we are downcast, and tend to question whether we ever truly loved each other. How, we ask, can such a bright vision fade? The truth is that the first of marriage love, that recognition that we were created to live to eternity together, is an acknowledgment of the Lord’s will. What follows, however, is a path in which two people walk together through things which partake of permission, leave and good pleasure toward that perfect goal. Many things we do in marriage may not be of the Divine will. We may be eternally thankful that He has other kinds of leading also, more accommodated to our state, which will enable us to reach in time the state in which we may be one flesh, which cannot be put asunder.
When we appreciate the infinitely patient and accommodating nature of the Lord’s Providence, we may understand better how things that we presently believe to be good are only partly good, and must fade in time, to make way for others which are more pleasing to our Maker. (See AC 4063, 3701, 4145)