At times it seems that people who come from Wesleyan Methodist backgrounds have an “arm’s length” relationship with the idea of providence. At its most basic level, providence is the activity of God working out God’s redemptive plans for his creation. It’s God working out a rescue plan for creation, and the idea that God is working behind the scenes without our involvement or cooperation is a bit unnerving to Wesleyan sensibilities. For after all, aren’t we the people who believe in cooperating grace (that is, that there is a degree of cooperation we engage in when it comes to God’s saving work)? We are the movement that emphasizes human free will and our ability to choose or reject the gift of grace that God offers. “Providence” just sounds too much like those Reformed or Calvinist folks, we think. But if we take a closer look, we see that the founder of our movement, John Wesley, had a very robust understanding of divine providence. So, what are we to think about providence as Wesleyans?
Let’s describe what providence is not. Providence does not mean that we have no free will. God’s providence does not rule out human freedom. Providence is not opposed to cooperation with God. Providence does not mean we are “off the hook” or that we have no sense of responsibility when it comes to spiritual growth. Rather, we cooperate with God as we grow in our faith by practicing spiritual disciplines, or the “means of grace.”
So, what is providence?
Providence is at the heart of Christian theology. Christians throughout the ages, although there have been exceptions, have affirmed that God is not simply a clockmaker who put the universe into motion and has since left it unattended to its own ends. Rather, providence affirms that God is working behind the scenes, sometimes imperceptibly, but working nevertheless. Drawing on centuries of Christian understanding, the late theologian Thomas Oden defined providence as, “the expression of the divine will, power, and goodness through which the Creator preserves creatures, cooperates with what is coming to pass through their actions, and guides creatures in their long-range purposes.” Providence is both evidence of God’s love for his creation as well as his sovereignty.
John Wesley had strong convictions regarding God’s providence. With his both/and approach, Wesley shared great insights into the nature of God and into the life of the Christian disciple through the lens of providence. In his sermon, On Providence, Wesley urged, “There is scarce any doctrine in the whole compass of revelation, which is of deeper importance than this. And, at the same time, there is scarce any that is so little regarded, and perhaps so little understood.”
While Christian thinkers for centuries affirmed God’s omniscience and omnipresence, Wesley acknowledged that our limited human understanding has trouble grasping the concept of God’s providential nature. Wesley emphasized that we should be humbled by the fact that God, infinite in wisdom and power, is yet concerned with his creation’s wellbeing. Wesley pointed out that while with God all things are possible, “He that can do all things else cannot deny himself.” While it is within God’s power to destroy all sin and evil in the world, for instance, this would contradict God’s nature. Particularly, this would contradict the fact that humanity was created in God’s own image. However, Wesley clarified, this is where the providence of God enters into the equation. While God allows human beings to choose between good and evil, God’s providence is a work, “to assist man [sic] in attaining the end of his being, in working out his own salvation, so far as it can be done without compulsion, without over-ruling his liberty.” Wesley envisions God’s providence operating in a “three-fold circle” within creation.
First, Wesley observed, the whole universe is governed by God, including the movements of the sun, moon and stars as well as animal life. Beyond this governance, Wesley describes three circles of God’s providence. The first of the three circles encompasses all of humanity. Within this circle, God’s providence works in the world… The second circle includes “all that profess to believe in Christ.” Within this circle, God is at work… The final and innermost circle, encompasses, “real Christians, those that worship God, not in form only, but in spirit and in truth. Herein are comprised all that love God, or, at least, truly fear God and work righteousness; all in whom is the mind which was in Christ, and who walk as Christ also walked.” (Interestingly, Wesley argued that it is within this circle that Luke 12:7 is realized: “Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.” He commented, “Nothing relative to these is too great, nothing too little, for his attention.” While God is concerned for all of his creation, Wesley believed that the Lord gives special attention to those who are fully devoted followers of Jesus.)
Throughout his writings including his journal and letters, Wesley noted on many occasions the “train of providences” that God worked in particular situations. He often ascribes additional descriptive words like, “uncommon,” “various,” “wonderful,” and “whole” to further describe these instances in which Wesley observed the hand of God at work in the lives of Christians. He emphasized that while God has established general laws that govern the universe, God is free to, “make exceptions to them, whensoever he pleases.”  For Wesley, God’s care for creation and especially for human beings is not hindered by the laws of the universe.
In the conclusion of his sermon, Wesley encourages Christians to put their full trust in the Lord and to not fear. God’s providence means that we can trust him even when it seems that our world or the whole world is falling apart. He does not deny that we will face challenges and sorrows, but that we should walk humbly before God and trust that “God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” The Christian’s hope is in the Lord who not only governs the universe but also cares particularly for those who follow God. He knows the number of hairs on our heads. No detail escapes his attention. God’s providence gives us hope for both our present and our future. It’s not a matter of just saying that “everything happens for a reason,” for God is not the source of evil or chaos. However, we can trust that behind it all, God is at work. It does not mean that everything will go well for us, but it does mean that God is with us every step of the way. Perhaps that was the motivation of John Wesley on his deathbed when he uttered the words, “The best of all, God is with us.”
 Oden, Thomas C. Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
 John Wesley, “On Divine Providence” (1786), in The Works of John Wesley, ed. Thomas Jackson, 14 vols.,(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), 6:315; hereafter cited as Works (Jackson).
 Ibid. p. 317.
 This idea is from Thomas Crane, A Prospect of Divine Providence which Wesley included in his Christian Library.
 Ibid., p. 319
 Ibid., p. 319
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016).
 Ibid., p. 320
 Ibid., p. 322.
 Romans 8:28. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016).
 Ken Collins, John Wesley: A Theological Journey, (Nashville, TN: Abindgon Press, 2003), p, 268.