Don’t Read Providence Like Scripture

I used to read the traffic lights more than my Bible. Before coming to Christ, I had developed a mystical method for divining the will of God from automotive semaphore. It went like this: All green lights – God is pleased with what I’m doing. All red lights – God is angry with what I’m doing. As with horoscopes and fortune cookies, these superstitious traffic readings never actually affected my decision-making, but they loomed in the back of my mind. “Is God secretly trying to tell me something? Am I on the right track? How am I supposed to know God’s plan for my life?” And while my eyes were on those changing lights, my Bible stayed shut.

Though you may not look to roadway signals for divine guidance – to be clear, please don’t – I wonder if you too have been tempted to find hidden messages from God in the world around you. Here’s how this circumstantial divination might sound:

  • “God has been blessing it, so it must be the Lord’s will.”
  • “What a coincidence! The only explanation must be that God is in it.”
  • “God wouldn’t let me have these desires unless it was according to his plan.”
  • “I’ve prayed and prayed and nothing has changed so God must not be listening.”

Any of those sound familiar? I confess that I’ve thought the same way at times. Usually, it boils down to a simplistic dichotomy: If things go well, then God is for it. If things don’t go well, then God is opposed to it. Easy, right?

Well, the obvious problem with this kind of superstitious approach to reading God’s work in the world is that Joel Osteen has a really big (he would say “blessed”) church. Faithful North Korean Christians are still being bitterly persecuted. The evil often prosper while the righteous suffer. Asaph even went so far as to say, “I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Ps 73:3). We just don’t live in a world where God’s will can be discerned from circumstances that easily. Indeed, “It is the glory of God to conceal things…” (Prov 25:2). What is doesn’t always reveal what should be.

Here’s my point: There is a subtle and profound danger in confusing the book of Providence (what God sovereignly does) and the book of Scripture (what God clearly says). As God’s people, we would be foolish to ignore God’s work in this world through ordinary, everyday means. Amen, our God is always at work. However, we would also be unwise to interpret that work with a crystal ball hermeneutic. Our life circumstances are not a series of Christian tarot cards giving us a glimpse into God’s secret plan, if only we would be spiritual enough to see it. Unlike God’s Word, God’s actions are often mysterious, and intentionally so.

We shouldn’t read Providence like Scripture. Instead, we should read Providence through Scripture. In this post, my aim is to explain the first of those two statements. In a following post, I’ll defend the second.

Every step you take hangs in the balance of this issue – how can you discern God’s will for your life? Knowing what God wants for you lies underneath every decision you make. How, then, shall we read Providence? Let me suggest two ways that we can misread Providence like Scripture, then offer a better way.

Misreading Providence Against Scripture

There are countless, well-meaning ways to wrongly interpret God’s sovereign control over the events of our world. Some, for example, look for messages in face-shaped clouds. Others interpret COVID as God’s commentary on government. Or, as we’ve already noted, other Christians try to read the tea leaves of their own homes, jobs, and relationships as a sign from the Almighty. Longing for a living experience of God, many listen for a non-verbal word from the Lord and believe that they’ve found it. And they aren’t the first.

When Jeremiah was carted down to Egypt, he pronounced God’s rebuke to the Jews living there because of their syncretistic worship. The prophet commanded them to stop offering sacrifices to “the queen of heaven,” a Canaanite goddess (possibly Anat) to whom they looked for prosperity and protection rather than Yahweh. This was the people’s response to Jeremiah’s rebuke:

“As for the word that you have spoken to us in the name of the LORD, we will not listen to you. But we will do everything that we have vowed, make offerings to the queen of heaven and pour out drink offerings to her, as we did, both we and our fathers, our kings and our officials, in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. For then we had plenty of food, and prospered, and saw no disaster. But since we left off making offerings to the queen of heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have lacked everything and have been consumed by the sword and by famine.” (Jer 44:16-18)

Do you see the corrupted logic? “When we worshiped idols, things went well, and when we stopped worshiping idols, things went poorly. So, we should go back to worshiping idols so that things will go well again.” In addition to the foolishness of rejecting God’s Word outright, they looked to Providence – the events and circumstances of their lives – to give them moral and spiritual instruction. They concluded a pagan causation from a mere correlation, and thereby misread Providence, even in contradiction with Scripture.

Consider, then, the father who constantly works late hours, who never sees his family, but experiences great success in his business. “God is blessing my efforts in the office,” he might argue, “so that’s where I need to be!” One of his many problems, however, is that he has elevated his misreading of Providence above the clear teaching of Scripture. Namely, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). God says raise your kids, not the cash flow. Apparent success does not grant us the right to overrule God’s Word with our take on God’s acts.

Notice underneath the logic of the Israelites and this dad the elevation of a human interpretation of Providence over the clear teaching of Scripture. How foolish would we be to pretend that our circumstantial divination speaks with greater weight than the inspired text of the Bible! This faulty treatment of Providence underlies the “I was born this way” excusing of sinful behavior, the self-justified complaining spirit, and the hurricane of unrighteous anger tearing across every social media platform. It implicitly says, “What has happened supersedes what was written.” And that’s just never true.

God does not speak with a forked tongue. Providence never contradicts Scripture, but we can be tempted to think it does. Let’s be careful not to fall prey to the “queen of heaven” argument, misreading Providence against Scripture.

Misreading Providence in Addition to Scripture

The book of Job, the scholars say, was the first divinely inspired material ever penned. I take that to mean Job and his friends had no Bible to read. They obviously knew a little about God, but they had no written Word of God. So, on the matter of theodicy – God’s goodness in light of Job’s suffering – Job’s friends had no chapter-verse truths to which they could turn.

Where God was silent, then, they decided to fill in the gaps. Eliphaz interpreted Job’s predicament with a little prosperity gospel logic, “Agree with God, and be at peace; thereby good will come to you” (Job 22:21). Bildad blames Job’s sin for his misery, “Behold God will not reject a blameless man, nor take the hand of evildoers” (Job 8:20). Zophar follows suit, “If you prepare your heart, you will stretch out your hand toward him” (Job 11:13). In the absence of a word from the Lord explaining precisely why Job was suffering, Job’s friends provided their own answers from Providence.

Job points out the problem with their assertions, “Why do the wicked live, reach old age, and grow mighty in power?” (Job 21:7). Their misreadings of Providence don’t account for all of Providence, and in so doing misspeak where God has not spoken. God had not provided an answer to their question, and that was the point. He was intentionally silent.

We dare not put words in God’s mouth where Scripture is silent. Here’s an exaggerated example of hearing God where God hasn’t spoken: Seeing a palm tree on the news as a coded message from God that you need to move to Florida. Hopefully we can all agree that Scripture doesn’t say where you must move, but neither does Providence. The Bible does contain wisdom principles that can guide your decision making as you consider where to move (more on that in the next post). But you will search the Word in vain for direct commands on your migratory patterns.

Here’s a more common example of presuming that Providence speaks where Scripture is silent: Seeing a new job offer as God opening a door that he wants you to walk through. Of course, God is sovereign over every job offer that’s ever been given – that’s the premise of Providence. But just because God is sovereign over it doesn’t mean that God will be pleased by it. After all, God is sovereign over sin, which he hates (Ps 5:4-6). It may be a wise decision to take the job and it may not. Simply that it happened (Providence) is not evidence that it will please God. Following that kind of logic is how pagan religions are formed.

Embracing Providential Mystery

So why did God allow you to get that job offer, then? Why did God allow those cancer cells to form? Why does God take some suddenly to glory while others linger on?

My hope in this post is to convince you that you can’t answer the Why with the What. If you want to know Why, you need to hear from a Who. Not the Dr. Seuss kind, but the sovereignly, graciously, gloriously reigning kind. God does not explain his reasons for doing what he does in Providence but in Scripture. And where Scripture doesn’t tell us why, then God has not told us why.

Oh, brothers and sisters, there is a world of comfort waiting for us if we would embrace the mysteriousness of Providence! There are things that have been given to us to know and there are things that haven’t. It would be a profound mistake, then, to pretend that we can peer through the curtain of Providence when God has closed the curtain. He doesn’t want us to struggle through a fog of pseudo-spiritual event divination; He wants us to know and obey what he has said, and to embrace not knowing what he has not said.

Here’s how Moses put it in Deuteronomy 29:29, a verse we would do well to apply,

“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”

The Bible distinguishes between God’s secret will (that which happens under God’s sovereign control) and God’s revealed will (that which God delights in and commands). There’s a reason that Moses calls God’s secret will “secret.” The reason is: it’s a secret! God knows it, but we don’t. You’re not supposed to be able to somehow Sherlock Holmes the disparate details of your life to discover the hidden meaning behind it all. If God hasn’t told you in his Word, then you’re not supposed to know, and if we’re being brutally honest, you won’t know.

Several voices from the past and present have said as much. In his remarkable book The Mystery of Providence, John Flavel wrote, “The providence of God is like Hebrew words – it can only be read backwards.” Commenting on this quote in his own book In Christ Alone, Sinclair Ferguson writes, “We can no more read in detail God’s secret purposes for our individual lives than we can see footsteps in water or understand Hebrew if we try to read it from left to right. To imagine we can is to suffer from a form of spiritual dyslexia.” Matthew Henry said, “The sentences in the book of Providence are sometimes long, and you must read a great way before you can apprehend the sense of them.” The periods of our Providential sentences are often written in heaven, and we won’t understand until we read them there.

So, in many ways, Providence is a closed book, but your Bible shouldn’t be. Don’t look to your circumstances for the answers to life’s greatest questions – it’s a fool’s errand. Seek to trust your heavenly Father and obey his written Word. God isn’t talking in the traffic lights, as much as we might wish to hear him there. But he has spoken, clearly and powerfully, to you and to me in the Bible. So, rather than reading Providence like Scripture, embrace the mystery of Providence according to Scripture. Or, as Townend and the Getty’s said it,

Each strand of sorrow has a place

Within this tapestry of grace;

So through the trials I choose to say:

“Your perfect will in your perfect way.”

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