C.S. Lewis

A Horse, His Boy, and Providence: A Reflection on a Forgotten Doctrine from The Chronicles of Narnia

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Providence is that unseen work of God by which He upholds, governs and orchestrates all things.[1] Recently, this foundational doctrine has fallen on hard times. Deism’s and Atheism’s influence on our culture’s imagination has caused providence to all but fade from popular consciousness (even in the Church).

This loss of providence is a disadvantage to living at our point in history; as in former generations,[2] it was readily acknowledged that a healthy understanding of, and trust in, providence was essential to confidently face the trials we have been called to endure in this world. 

It’s hard to make sense of suffering if you believe ​everything is a product of chance or personal choice. In our day, we assume everything is either the result of natural causes or that we are “the masters of our fate and the captains of our souls,” to slightly reword the oft-quoted poem Invictus by William Henley. But, as Christians, we ultimately dance not to the tune of chance or choice, but of providence. And it is much easier to make sense of suffering for unknown greater purposes if you know that “from life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands [our] destiny.” 

That is to say, we can “count it all joy” as opposed to sorrow (James 1:2) and “mourn with hope” instead of without it (1 Thessalonians 4:13), if the truth of providence is in our heads and hearts. Having been chronically ill for 12 years, almost losing my life 22 months ago to acute starvation, and writing this article from a temporarily bed-ridden state, I can testify there is no more comforting doctrine than providence.

There is no more comforting doctrine than providence.

Providence in The Chronicles of Narnia

Outside of the Bible, I think one of the places we might learn about providence best is in C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia—especially in The Horse and His Boy. We see Aslan sing Narnia into existence in The Magician’s Nephew and deliver Narnia from “the Witch and the Winter” in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. But we probably “see” providence most clearly in The Horse and His Boy.

The Horse and His Boy is the third book in the series. In it, a talking horse named Bree and a boy named Shasta team up to escape from captivity and find their way to Narnia. Along the way, they “happen” to meet up with another talking horse named Hwin and a girl named Aravis, who are also fleeing various forms of captivity: “Their journey is charged with fear and danger, intrigue and adventure” as they “soon find themselves at the center of a terrible battle…a battle that will decide their fate and the fate of Narnia itself.” 

Two passages in particular illustrate the doctrine of providence well. Hopefully, these passages can renew our theological imaginations and animate our wills to lean into the reality of providence in our daily lives.

First, some context. After Shasta and His comrades narrowly escape the attack of a lion (not their first), Shasta is tasked to go on alone to warn the King of Archenland of an impending attack. Afterwards, Shasta gets separated from the King and his men and “happens” to find his way to Narnia—where, of course, he is providentially able notify the Narnians of Archenland’s need for military aid. The first quote is from Shasta’s journey to Narnia, where along the way he is suddenly accompanied by a large creature. The second quote is from Shasta’s journey with the Narnian troops back to Archenland: 

I do not call you unfortunate,” said the Large Voice. “Don’t you think it was bad luck to meet so many lions?” said Shasta. “There was only one lion,” said the Voice… “I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the Horses new strength of fear for the last mile so that you should reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you.

They were going…along the edge of a precipice and Shasta shuddered to think that he had done the same last night without knowing it, “But of course,” he thought, “I was quite safe. That is why the Lion kept on my left. He was between me and the edge all the time.

Aslan is behind everything that happened in Shasta’s life: from ensuring his safety as a baby lost at sea, to protecting him from dangers he was entirely unaware of (jackals), to bringing him and Aravis together on their journey, to reuniting him with King Lune—who (spoiler alert) turns out to be his father! “He seems to be at the back of all the stories,” as Shasta says. 

And we should note that Aslan’s providence is not portrayed as being limited to the good things that happen in the story. Even the characters wounds are portrayed as directly caused or sovereignly permitted by the “Lord of the whole wood” (cf. Romans 8:28, Gen 32:25, and Job). In other words, Aslan works ​all things together (good and bad—even His own death) to accomplish His benevolent purposes for the world that He so lovingly brought into being.[3]

Providence in Our Daily Lives

Likewise, in our non-fictional but still enchanted lives, Christ is providentially directing the events of history to accomplish His sovereign purposes. He is ultimately behind everything that happens in our lives—working things out for His greater glory and our greater good. 

Do you know what this (providence) means? First, it means we don’t ever need to try to manipulate, unethically manufacture or autonomously engineer anything in our lives (health, political outcomes, romance, job opportunities, grades, etc.). Christ is sovereign over all our circumstances—including unpleasant circumstances (such as illness, infertility or unemployment). Consequently, we can simply trust and obey, knowing Christ truly does have “the whole world in His hands.”

Of course, we should ethically pursue noble ends such as health and justice and marriage and good grades. My point is simply that we do not ordain outcomes and that in a fallen world, we “will have trouble” (John 16:33) as well as treasure (James 1:7).

However, there are things higher on Christ’s priority list than you and I “living our best life,” as defined by the world. Our real “best life now” is one in which we have been called to “share in Christ’s sufferings” (1 Peter 4:13); to “put on the full armor of God, so that [we] can take [our] stand against the devil’s schemes” (Ephesians 6:11); and to “count others more significant than ourselves” (Philippians 2:3).

In other words, like Shasta, our present story is one of adventure and danger. We have been providentially conscripted into Christ’s army to do battle “not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). We too are at the center of a battle—a battle that will decide the fate of the men and women of this world. 

In our non-fictional but still enchanted lives, Christ is providentially directing the events of history to accomplish His sovereign purposes.

Providence and The Great Commission

For the Church, then, providence also means that like Lucy and Susan in Book 2, we are called to leave behind the familiar and the comfortable and accompany our great Aslan as He breathes new life into people and overcomes the enemies of the true and greater Narnia—the Kingdom of God. That is to say, God calls us to take up our Kingdom-issued crosses and follow Christ. And as those who lived in Narnia during the days of false rulers and long winters discovered, to do this well, we must renew our own trust “in the seemingly impossible providence of unseen powers,” to borrow phrasing from Greg Forster.  

Indeed, it is only because we know that: 1. “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons…nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39), and 2: that there isn’t “any such thing as Luck” (good or bad) because outcomes are determined by the Lord Christ, that we can charge into this spiritual battle unafraid with the gospel in one hand and mercy in the other.

Trust in God’s providence enables us to say along with Paul that, “it is [our] eager expectation and hope that [we] will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in [our bodies], whether by life or by death” (Philippians 1:20). 

And if it happens to be by death for any of us, remember this: that Great Lion who sung us into existence and redeemed us on the rock, is providentially present in our pain (Hebrews 13:5) and has promised us an eternal inheritance that “can never perish, spoil or fade” (1 Peter 1:4). So, may we all heed Aslan’s call to be “the first in the charge and the last in retreat,” because He really will put everything “to rights” in the end (Revelation 21).

[1] “God is completely in charge of his world. His hand may be hidden, but his rule is absolute” –J.I. Packer  

[2] One thinks of The Declaration of Independence: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor; or Abraham Lincoln’s First State of the Union Address: “With a reliance on Providence, all the more firm and earnest, let us proceed in the great task which events have devolved upon us.

[3] Note, it is providence that gives the larger story its narrative coherence and its characters the spiritual resources they need to persevere. 

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  • C.S. Lewis
  • suffering
Jonathan Darville

Jono Darville is a former Global Master Trainer with The Center for Leadership Studies and Co-Leader of the New York branch of Models for Christ (an international non-profit bringing the gospel to the fashion industry). Due to a decade-plus long battle with chronic illness, Jono almost lost his life in 2017. After spending a number of years bed-bound, God graciously intervened in 2020, using UNC Hospital to restore Jono’s health. Jono is now finishing an M.A. in the Philosophy of Religion at SEBTS, while serving as a Ruling Elder and Youth Director at Peace Church in Cary, NC. He and his wife, Jillian, have one son, Jono Jr.

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