Daily Bread and Manna in the Wilderness: The Sign of God’s Providence

In the journey of the Israelites to the Promised Land God provided daily food through the gift of manna. However, it was under one condition. They were not to save or store extra manna for the following days because it would spoil. “Manna kept is worms” as the saying goes. Likewise, in the Lord’s Prayer the petition for food is for “our daily bread,” not enough for a week, month, or year. God provides for man’s daily sustenance in this way to instill confidence in His fatherly generosity and constant caring love. The Sermon on the Mount reiterates this teaching: “Therefore, I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on.” This priority on the obligations and needs of the day does not, of course, dispense with the virtue of prudence–foresight and preparation for the future–but guards against useless anxiety and foolish worry.

Living a day at a time in the presence and nearness of God diverts the human mind from imaginary fantasies about the future that man invents with grandiose plans about ease, luxury, and wealth. In Christ’s parable about the foolish rich man, the prosperous farmer reaped the bountiful harvests for which he lacked additional storage. In planning ahead into the remote future, he foresaw a life of perfect security and sufficient provisions to last a lifetime:”I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods.” He pictures a future of ending pleasure: “And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, and be merry” (Luke 12:16-21). As the rich man envisions his version of paradise on earth, he hears God’s summons: “Fool! This night your soul is required of you.” Man in his folly presumes to calculate the future that eludes elaborate human planning and rigid control.

This theme appears in George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind as a fretful mother and her happy-go-lucky son Diamond discuss the dire prospects of the future. Because of father’s injury and unemployment, Mother laments, “It’s a sad world” and complains, “and your father has nothing to do, and we shall have nothing to eat by and by.” However, the child recalls that the birds find food in the winter, that he has never suffered from hunger, that Father has always provided for them, and that they can borrow food from his aunt’s cupboard. When Mother explains that they will soon deplete the aunt’s provisions (“But that can’t go on”), Diamond senses that another mysterious source of food remains that does not entirely depend on father, mother, or aunt: “How do you know? I think there must be a big cupboard somewhere, out of which the little cupboards are filled, you know, Mother.” The uncertainty of the future often breeds foreboding, a fear of the unknown that spoils the desire for total security and for guaranteed protection against the hazards of uncontrollable forces. When skeptical man, wary of trusting in God’s Providence and promises, dwells more on the manna for tomorrow, next year, and the next decade than his daily bread, he loses contact with the reality of divine truth.

As man entrusts his future more to financial planning than Divine Providence, he violates the cardinal virtue of prudence that always considers consequences and exercises foresight but never in the form of anxiety or fear of utter loss. Prudence goes beyond caution, fear, and cowardice for the sake of self-interest and embraces a willingness to risk and be bold on behalf of others or for some great good. For example, Huckleberry Finn believed he would go to hell if he helped the runaway slave Jim escape to freedom, but his moral courage, seeking true justice rather than escape from punishment, demonstrated the cardinal virtue of prudence rather than false prudence of the clever. As Huck writes a letter to Miss Watson to report the news about Jim’s location and to alleviate his troubled mind for breaking the law of the land, his conscience overcomes his dread of the law: “I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, for ever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’.”

However, the worldly sense of prudence represented by the idea of insurance—health, home, car, and life insurance— soon projects a need for increasingly more coverage to attain a state of peace of mind in the knowledge that without all the maximum coverage offered by these policies dire destitution and impoverishment pose grave threats. To place one’s future entirely in the hands of the benefits of insurance more than in God’s words and promises ignores the moral teaching about manna, daily bread, and the parable of the foolish rich man. Moral living does not subject itself to the paralysis of fear or always imagine the worst of all possibilities. In Robert Frost’s words from his poem “Good-By and Keep Cold,” “But something has to be left for God.” As Joseph Pieper explains in The Four Cardinal Virtues, the cardinal virtue transcends the financial model of prudence: “In colloquial use, prudence always carries the connotation of timorous, small-minded self-preservation, of a rather selfish concern about oneself.” While the cardinal virtue means foresight, it does not mean omniscience or some foregone conclusion. Pieper explains further: “The prudent man does not expect certainty where it cannot exist, nor on the other hand does he deceive himself by false certainties.”

On the contrary, the Christian view of the future is neither abstractly theoretical nor naively optimistic but soberly realistic and based on lived experience. God had already given irrefutable proof of providing with fatherly care. God who opened the Red Sea to deliver the Israelites from Pharaoh and the Egyptians provides daily manna in the wilderness. The Lord who does not and cannot lie does not speak empty words in the Lord’s Prayer, The Sermon on the Mount, or in the Parable of the Foolish Rich Man. The Lord who provides for the birth of every child through the maternal milk and fatherly protection of loving parents acts in consistent ways and recurring patterns that intimate his presence, nearness, and far-seeing nature—an idea St. Augustine especially illuminates in describing his birth and the birth of every baby:

I was welcomed then with the comfort of woman’s milk; but neither my mother nor my nurses filled their own breasts with milk; it was you who, through them, gave me the food of my infancy, according to your ordinance and according to the way in which your riches are spread throughout the length and depth of things.

The Bible, human history, and ordinary experience all give compelling evidence and countless examples of providential foresight and a divine plan in the lives of all people—evidence that never overlooks or underestimates the hand of God in human affairs, what Pieper calls all the “‘practical’ assurance and reinforcement from several sources” that converge to validate this universal truth.

Because true prudence makes wise decisions by remembering the past, understanding the present, and foreseeing the future, it never underestimates God’s role in human events and in human decision-making: what God has done in the past foretells what God will do in the future. God’s Providence is both general and particular, general in the sense that Mother Nature and Creation supply man’s daily needs and particular in the sense that every person’s life has a special purpose and design. As Cardinal Newman writes in Meditations and Devotions, “I am created to do something or to be something for which no one else is created; I have a place in God’s counsels, in God’s world, which no one else has.” Though God’s ways are hidden and mysterious, they also have consistency, intelligibility, and regularity.

Thus, to paraphrase Cardinal Newman, though no man can ever foresee the future with perfect foreknowledge, he can make good, wise decisions according to the best lights he has. As long as man does his part, uses wise judgment, acts on pure motives and good intentions on behalf of others, and seeks God’s will, he will neither worry needlessly about a future he cannot control or determine nor live to multiply and hoard money from motives of fear. He will not daydream about some utopian future that has no basis in human history or in the accumulated experience of the whole world. Though mindful of the past and aware of the future, man lives in the present where he encounters God in the business of each day’s coming and going—the natural place to see the hand of Providence in his daily bread, daily blessings, daily graces, daily love, daily friendships, and daily joys and pleasures.

Mitchell Kalpakgian, Ph.D. has completed fifty years of teaching beginning as a teaching assistant at the University of Kansas, continuing as a professor of English at Simpson College in Iowa for thirty-one years, and recently teaching part-time at various schools and college in New Hampshire. As well as contributing to a number of publications, he has published seven books: The Marvelous in Fielding’s Novels, The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature, The Lost Arts of Modern Civilization, An Armenian Family Reunion (a collection of short stories), Modern Manners: The Poetry of Conduct and The Virtue of Civility, and The Virtues We Need Again. He has designed homeschooling literature courses for Seton Home School, and he also teaches online courses for Queen of Heaven Academy and part-time for Northeast Catholic College.
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