God’s providence is among the most mysterious and perplexing realities in the Universe. Ironically, many pass themselves off as being quite proficient in reading God’s works of providence in their lives and in the lives of others. When something difficult, unexpected or surprising happens, we all sometimes ask ourselves, “Why did God allow this to happen? Or, what is God trying to teach me through this happening? Or, how will I know that God wants me to do this or that?” We are trying to read His acts of providence–in order to make sense of our lives. This is, of course, an exceedingly dangerous enterprise. While many have decisively discouraged us asking such questions–on account of the ease with which misdiagnosis and spiritual malpractice can occur–Scripture actually supports our reading of God’s providence. Here are three warnings and three guiding principles upon which to act when we are approach the subject of discerning God’s providence:
1. Know that you can easily be wrong in reading God’s acts of providence. John Flavel put it this way:
“That God does give men secret hints and intimations of His will by His Providence cannot be doubted; but yet providences in themselves are no staple rule of duty nor sufficient discovery of the will of God…If Providence in itself is allowed to be a sufficient means of knowing God’s will for us, then we shall often be forced to justify and condemn the same cause or person…if Providence alone were the rule to judge any action or design by, then a wicked undertaking would cease to be so, if it should succeed well; but sin is sin still and duty is duty still whatever the events and issues.”1
We need to be exceedingly careful when asking the question, “What is God doing in this situation?” for the simple reason that we may, like Job’s friends, condemn the righteous, or, see ungodly men and women prospering in their work and thereby justify the wicked. This is the biggest warning to which we must give careful attention.
Additionally, God may be doing 10,000 things, over and above whatever you might think He is doing. Just because I may think that I have discerned what God is doing in my life, or in the lives of others, it doesn’t mean that I have understood anything that He is truly doing in any sort of comprehensive sense. We must declare that “His understanding is unsearchable” (Is. 40:28) and that “He does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done” (Dan. 4:32)?
2. Don’t make assessments about God’s acts of providence in the lives of others. This is where the clear warning we glean from Job’s friends comes to bear. When this subject is broached, Christians are quick to point to Job’s friends–and, they are right to do so. It seems to me that the Scriptures discourage us trying to discern God’s providence in the lives of others. There is a call for us to examine our own life and situations; but not for us to do so with our neighbor. Making assessments about the wicked acts of men is taught everywhere in Scripture; making assessments about God’s dealings with other men in His providential actions is never encouraged in Scripture.
3. Don’t put your reading of providence in the place of Scripture. There is a very real danger for men and women to put their reading of God’s providence in the place of His word. Your reading of providence is not God’s rule of faith and practice. Too many fall into this spiritually destructive trap. We must live our lives in light of Scripture. God’s word is the lamp for our feet and the light for our path. God has breathed out His inscripturated word in order to give us everything in Christ that is necessary for life and godliness. Jesus pressed this point in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man begged Abraham to send someone back from the dead to warn his brothers. Jesus said, “They have Moses and the Prophets. Let they hear them. If they do not hear them, neither will they believe–even if one should return from the dead.” Even a supernatural act of God’s providence–like Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead–will not prove God’s ways or change the hearts of men. Reading providence can be no substitute for reading God’s word.
1. Believers must examine God’s acts of providence personally in light of His Word. In order to read God’s Providence rightly, we must constantly search the Scriptures. In doing so, we learn how He deals with men in accord with their actions. The Scriptures teach us unequivocally, “Whatever a man sows, that will he also reap.” Jonah knew that God was pursuing him in his rebellion. He shouldn’t have waited until the casting of the lot. He told the other men on the ship, “I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you” (Jonah 1:12). Of course, this doesn’t mean that every time hardship comes we must conclude that it is on account of personal sin. There is ample testimony in Scripture of those who have been living godly lives who have suffered great hardship. The Apostle Paul didn’t do anything sinful to incur the mockings, beatings, stonings, scourgings and shipwreck that he endured. Accordingly, when we are considering our own actions and life situations we must be slow to draw conclusions.
However, there are passages that clearly link personal sin to sickness and suffering. For instance, James says:
“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:13-16).
No amount of exegetical sophistry does away with the clear teaching of this passage. There may be cases in which someone is suffering or sick on account of personal sin in their lives. We don’t get to tell others that they are experiencing suffering or sickness on account of personal sin; however, we must examine our own lives to know whether or not we are experiencing such on account of our sin and rebellion. Part of God’s remedy for such a case is the confession of sin to the pastors/elders that He has placed over them. As unpopular as it is to say, the Scriptures do teach that God chastens His children for their sin–and that such chastening may include a variety of sufferings, trials and sickness (Heb. 12:5-11). God’s end in such providences is to “make us partakers of His righteousness.”
2. Believers must see everything that occurs as an act of God’s providence (not only the extraordinary or supernatural). A.A. Hodge recounted the following story about Dr. Witherspoon, president of the College of New Jersey (i.e. Princeton University), in order to press home the fact that everything that happens is an act of God’s providence:
“The great Dr. Witherspoon lived at a country-seat…two miles north of Princeton. One day a man rushed into his presence crying, ‘Dr. Witherspoon, help me thank God for His wonderful providence. My horse ran away, my buggy was dashed to pieces on the rocks, and behold! I am unharmed.’ The good doctor laughed benevolently at the inconsistent, halfway character of the man’s religion. ‘Why,’ he answered, ‘I know a providence a thousand times better than that of yours. I have driven down that rocky road to Princeton hundreds of times and my horse never ran away and my buggy was never dashed to pieces.’ Undoubtedly, the deliverance was providential, but just as much so also were the uneventful rides of the college president.”2
3. Believers must trust God when dark providences hide His promises. William Cowper knew the pain of feeling as though he was under the heavy hand of God throughout his life. Having fought great bouts of depression, Cowper summed up his conclusions about God’s providence in his own life by penning the beloved hymn, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” In that hymn, Cowper made the following pertinent observation:
“Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.”
There is a word of comfort here for all who are drawing near to God by faith in Christ–and yet, who feel themselves forsaken by God or confounded by His acts of providence in their life. We must resign ourselves to the promises of God no matter how hard the providences of life may seem. We must guard our hearts from “judging the Lord” sinfully or wrongfully on account of bitter providences. The God who oversees all things is the God who has given us exceedingly great and precious promises in Christ. The same God who governs every single event of our lives is the God who has made all of His promises “Yes!” and “Amen!” in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). So we cast ourselves on the Christ of promise who went through all of the bitterness and darkness of Calvary for us and for our salvation. He is the anchor for our soul in the providential storms of life who enables us to hold fast to the truths that we sing:
“When darkness veils His lovely face,
I rest on His unchanging grace;
In every high and stormy gale,
My anchor holds within the veil.
His oath, His covenant, His blood,
Support me in the whelming flood;
When all around my soul gives way,
He then is all my hope and stay.”
1. An excerpt from John Flavel’s chapter, “Practical Problems in Connection with Providence” in The Mystery of Providence.
2. A.A. Hodge’s “The Scripture Doctrine of Divine Providence” in Evangelical Theology.