No amount of exegetical sophistry does away with the clear teaching of [scripture]. 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.
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.