Classical exegetes have found it useful to distinguish four levels or aspects of God’s way of parenting his creatures: through permission, restraint, overruling, and putting limits upon threats to the good. The governance of God functions situationally in ways that bear striking resemblance to the ways good human parenting functions: by permitting freedom to discover its competencies and interests; by hindering freedom from getting itself into too much difficulty; by overruling free self-actualization when it seriously mistakes its own best good, harms others inordinately, or seems to jeopardize the divine purpose; and by limiting other forces in freedom’s way to prevent them from triumphing cheaply or tempting inordinately. The question asked on all these levels is, How does God guide? That question is related to the deeper question of what kind of parent God is.
• God guides and parents by permitting our freedom to play itself out, even if we play it out in the direction of our own suffering and others’ suffering. Freedom could have no meaning if it did not risk going astray. To posit a freedom that cannot possibly fail is certainly not to posit human freedom. God graciously allows human freedom the room both to stand and to fall.
To affirm that God’s parenting permits freedom does not imply that the divine parent enjoys watching freedom fall or good intentions stumble. Divine permission does not imply carte blanche to sin, but rather that God, in order to allow the larger good of enabling freedom, does not exert constant or absolute power to prevent sin. God permits the freedom that distortedly leads to sin, but God does not approve of sin. For classical exegetes, this was epitomized in Jesus’ cryptic permission to Judas: “Do quickly what you have to do” (John 13:27; cf. Augustine, On Psalms, Ps. 3, NPNF 1 VIII, p. 4; cf. Harmony of the Gospels II.79, 80, NPNF 1 VI, pp. 173–76).
Scripture frequently attests to the willingness of God to allow freedom even when it results in stubborn self-assertiveness that becomes alienated and counterproductive: “My people did not listen to my words and Israel would have none of me; so I sent them off, stubborn as they were, to follow their own devices” (Ps. 81:12; cf. Prov. 1:31; Jer. 18:12; cf. Origen, De Princip. III.1, ANF V, pp. 302 ff.). When freedom is abused, its consequences must be lived with: “Israel has run wild, wild as a heifer; and will the Lord now feed this people like lambs in a broad meadow?” (Hos. 4:7). Moral wisdom is not enhanced by rewarding irresponsibility. Paul and Barnabas at Lystra stated that divine providence has permitted “all nations to go their own way; and yet he has not left you without some clue to his nature, in the kindness he shows” (Acts 14:16, 17). God permits human self-determination even when what is permitted is not what God wants (Gen. 2 ff.; Irenaeus, Ag. Her. III.9, 10, ANF I, pp. 433, 434, IV.37, pp. 518, 519).
• God parents us by hindering, and at times directly resisting, our ill-motivated actions. God guides not by coercing freedom directly but by putting obstacles in the way of our hurting ourselves, like the parent who builds a fence so the child will not go into the street. The child still may find a way to get into the street, but not without confronting the serious effort of the parent at placing an obstacle in harm’s way. “It was I,” the Lord revealed to Abraham, “who held you back from committing a sin against me” (Gen. 20:6). Satan’s complaint to God in the prologue of Job asked: “Have you not hedged him round on every side with your protection?” (Job 1:10; cf. 3:23). Israel’s lamentation in captivity was that God’s ways had so hedged escape that only one thing was required—repentance (Lam. 3:7). The psalmist prayed for constraint on his own freedom to harm himself: “Hold back thy servant also from sins of self-will, lest they get the better of me” (Ps. 19:13; Augustine, Expos on Psalms, Ps. 71, NPNF 1 VIII, pp. 315–17).
• God parents us by overruling us when we are completely out of line. By such active direction or guidance, egocentric sinners are saved from harm and guided toward ends beyond their competence to know (Ezek. 20:33; Mic. 4:7). “Blessed is the man whom God corrects” (Job 5:17, niv; cf. Clement of Rome, First Corinthians, XVI, ANF I, p. 20). “He who refuses correction is his own worst enemy, but he who listens to reproof learns sense. The fear of the Lord is a training in wisdom” (Prov 15:32, Prov 15:33). Jeremiah in frustration declared: “This is the nation that did not obey the Lord its God nor accept correction; truth has perished” (Jer. 7:28).
When the sons of Jacob had sold Joseph into slavery and then, as governor of Egypt, he became the means of the redemption of the whole family, Joseph observed that his brothers had meant their action for evil against him, but God meant it for good (Gen. 50:20). Scripture attests that God is forever working through such circuitous routes. Thinking about providence gradually increases faith’s awareness of those circuits through which even our distortions of God’s good creation become transmuted through grace. Wheel turns within wheel (Ezek. 1:16), and God turns our misdeeds into potentially redeemed relationships (Calvin, Inst. 3.2.26; Wesley, WJW VII, pp. 409 ff.).
• Finally, God parents wisely by preventing other forces in freedom’s way from triumphing cheaply or tempting inordinately. The care of God attested by Scripture places fitting limits upon challenges to our faith and boundaries upon what the opponents of our good can do to us. This view of providence is epitomized by Paul’s consolation for the faithful enduring severe trials and afflictions: “God keeps faith, and he will not allow you to be tested above your powers, but when the test comes he will at the same time provide a way out, by enabling you to sustain it” (1 Cor. 10:13; cf. Job 1:12; 2:6).
When faith perceives itself as being guided in these ways, it affirms its confidence that “in everything, as we know, he cooperates for good with those who love God and are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). Faith in providence places its active reliance upon the permitting, restraining, overruling, and preventing power of God’s infinitely good parenting.