I remember our first winter living in the USA, when it snowed heavily one Saturday afternoon. We’d been out enjoying the snow, when we got a phone call telling us that church was cancelled the next day; I remember being quite unimpressed! “These Americans don’t take church very seriously”, I thought. The next morning, we arranged to meet with some friends who lived locally for family devotions. We went on foot. And as we trudged the mile or two to their house, walking down unploughed roads, knee-deep in snow, without a car in sight, it dawned on me that cancelling church that Sunday had not been an over-reaction to weather. Rather it was a considered response to God’s providence. Given that virtually everyone drove to church, it just wouldn’t have been possible or safe to get to church that morning.
This is a situation that Christians in the past would have described as being “providentially hindered”. The phrase described the fact that God in his providence sometimes prevents us from gathering to worship with his people. A good biblical example would be the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). The Levite and priest in that story should have stopped on their way to worship to help the man on the Jericho road. They were providentially hindered. The Levite and priest hadn’t planned to stop on that road. But they should have stopped. The emergency demanded it. Likewise Jesus says, if a sheep falls into a pit on the Sabbath, won’t you take hold of it and lift it out? (Matt 12:11). This accident was something unforeseen and unplanned by the farmer, which required his immediate attention.
The key point of the phrase is to recognise that it is God’s sovereignty that is preventing us using the Lord’s Day as we should, not our own decision-making. The hinderance is inadvertent from our point of view. But there are many hinderances to coming to church, and it’s easy to use God’s providence as an excuse. So, I know of students who try to justify writing their assignments on Sundays using the “sheep in a pit” principle. But that’s not really being “providentially hindered”. Really, they’re throwing their sheep in a pit on a Friday, and waiting until Sunday to do something about it. Agreeing to have family over on a Sunday, and not making it clear to them that you will go to church is not what it means to be providentially hindered! That’s a decision you’ve taken to put family before worship; it’s not a decision that God’s taken. It’s possible to let pseudo-emergencies (which can wait), or our own disorganisation or other people’s decisions about Sundays, hinder us from coming to church.
This apocryphal letter helpfully pokes fun at this mis-use of the idea:
You often stress attendance at worship as important. But, I think a man has the right to miss now and then because he might be providentially hindered. Please excuse me on the following days on which I will be providentially hindered: July 4 (national holiday – 1 day); Labor Day (even God had one day of rest – 1 day); Memorial Day (state holiday – 1 day); school closing (kids need a break – 1 day); school opening (last chance before fall – 1 day); family reunions (1 day each for me and the wife – 2 days); out-of-town ballgames (we must support our children’s teams – 5 days); tournaments (high school, college, tennis and golf – 4 days); anniversary (second honeymoon – 1 day); sickness (1 for each member of the family – 5 days); business trips (gotta make a living you know – 3 days); vacation (2 weeks but 3 weekends – 3 days); bad weather (rain, ice, hail, snow, etc – 5 days); Dallas Cowboys games (or whoever – 4 days); unexpected company (usually don’t bring church clothes – 2 days); alarm clock malfunctions (can’t blame me for shoddy workmanship – 2 days); time change (who can remember when that is – 2 days); house and car repairs (can’t afford plumbers and mechanics – 3 days); TV specials (good for kid’s education – 2 days); Christmas (only comes once a year – 1 day); New Year’s Day (need to start off rested – 1 day). This brings the total to 50 days. So, preacher, that only leaves two Sundays per year for me to attend worship. I’ll see you on Easter Sunday for sure, and the third Sunday in August (unless providentially hindered).
That’s using providence as an excuse, and trying to spiritualise our own poor priorities.
But to be “providentially hindered” is a real thing. When Jesus warned of coming tribulations, he said: “Pray that your flight may not be… on a sabbath” (Matt 24:20). Why? Well, your desire should be to keep the Sabbath, but Jesus recognises there can be circumstances, so bad, so dangerous, where, despite your desire to gather for worship, you’ve got to run for your life! So, this concept is really clarifying. It is liberating, in recognising the reality of emergencies, ill-health, and inadvertent situations that come along and interfere with worship. You don’t need to feel guilty when you’re stuck at home on a Sunday caring for a sick child. But neither is it a way to rationalise your bad choices and the things you let interfere with Sundays.
As far as we’re concerned, God wants us to be convinced that a day in his courts is better than a thousand elsewhere (Ps 84:10), and he wants us to plan, arrange our lives, and act upon that conviction. But he is sovereign, and he sometimes for his wise reasons interferes with our plans. Wouldn’t it be great if we committed to the principle that we will gather for worship 100% of the time, not “unless hindered”, but “unless providentially hindered?“.