Friday, May 27, 2016

Providence and Ravens

Who provides for the raven its prey . . . ?
(Job 38:41)

The area where I live is known for its raven population. Like most of the people around me, I have a love-hate relationship with them. Ravens are scavengers, and if I don’t lock the lids tight on my garbage bins in the winter, they will pick my trash, steal bits of food waste and spread the packaging in the street. I once saw a raven fly away with a large chunk of cheddar cheese snatched from a bag of groceries left in the back of a pickup in a supermarket parking lot. I’ve also seen one fly off with an entire road-kill squirrel in its beak. Ravens aren’t picky. They eat what they find—dead animals, live prey, duck eggs, wild berries, groceries, or garbage.

Ravens are the greedy geniuses of the bird world. Sometimes they cache stolen food so they can come back for it later. And believe it or not, they find their caches again because they remember where they are. Ravens also spy on other ravens to see where they stash their scavenged goodies. Later, if the opportunity arises, they will return to steal their neighbour’s food. Sometimes a hoarding raven will even move a cache because they suspect another raven knows where it is.Ravens thrive in a hostile environment by using their strength and wits to provide for themselves.

Yet the Bible teaches that God feeds the ravens. “Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them,” Jesus said. (Luke 12:24). “[God] gives to the beasts their food,” the psalmist wrote, “and to the young ravens that cry” (Psalm 147:9). Ravens scavenge and hunt, and when they succeed it is God who has provided for them. He works through natural means—ordinary cause-and-effect relationships—to care for creation. If I leave the lid on a garbage bin unfastened and a raven finds a stale crust inside, I have acted from my own forgetful nature, and the raven has done what ravens naturally do. But standing behind this meal from scraps is God who orchestrates everything to provide for his creatures. The unguarded grocery bag in the back of the pickup truck? God provided this meal, too. Dumpsters, berries, carrion, small rodents, and even another raven’s stockpile—all these are provided by God. God intentionally controls circumstances to feed hungry ravens.

God’s creatures never act independently. He is always directing their actions to accomplish his will. This aspect of divine providence is called concurrence. In concurrence, “God cooperates with created things in every action, directing their distinctive properties to cause them to act as they do.”2 Even in actions we think of as natural occurrences—actions caused by a creature’s instinct and a whole chain of cause and effect—God is accomplishing his will. In one sense, ravens eat because they find food using their raven talents and instincts. But in another sense, ravens eat because God feeds them. He directs the circumstances and preserves the ravens’ clever nature so they are fed.

What’s more, not only do ravens receive food from God’s providence, but they are also instruments of God’s providence. Do you remember when they fed the prophet Elijah? God told Elijah to hide by the brook Cherith during a drought. “You shall drink from the brook,” God said, “and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.” Elijah obeyed, and just as God promised, “the ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening . . . .” (1 Kings 17:1-6).

When the ravens brought food to Elijah, it’s possible God was turning the natural order on it’s head, but I think this is another example of concurrence. I believe God directed the ravens according to their distinctive natures as ravens so their actions accomplished his purposes. He provided for Elijah using ravens who scavenged bread and meat as ravens do. He used the ravens’ natural drive to stockpile extra food, directing the circumstances so they brought it near Elijah as he hid by the brook. I think the ravens did what ravens do, and in the providence of God, the prophet Elijah was fed.

2] Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology, page 317]
This post is an edited version of one posted on my personal blog several years ago.

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