The Mistake Of Trying To Interpret Providence
The Christian has the assurance of God’s special providence. This assurance compelled the apostle Paul to say,
And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).
If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31).
With this said, the question that arises is, “Is it possible to know the will of God in and through circumstances that take place in this life?” I believe the answer to this question is an emphatic “No!” When an event takes place, we have no way of knowing, short of actual inspiration, whether it falls within either the decretive will or the permissive will of God. Previously, we defined God’s decretive will as that which God desires and He, Himself, makes happen, while His permissive will is described as something which originates apart from His desire but He permits because of man’s free will, et cetera. In other words, an event can happen because God wants it to happen and causes it to happen, or it may happen for various other reasons. Consequently, an event cannot communicate a message apart from special revelation. Furthermore, we have no way of knowing whether an event has taken place because of God’s general providence, which encompasses all creation, or as a result of His special providence, which is specifically directed toward the church of Christ.
As already noted, Calvinists believe that everything that happens is God’s decretive or purposive will. Others, some of whom are Christians, believe they can actually interpret God’s will (or providence) by events which take place in their lives or the lives of others. For example, a good man prospers and a bad man suffers hardship. Some are convinced that God is blessing the good man and punishing the bad man. But is this really the case? What happens when a good man suffers and a bad man prospers?
The Gamaliel Fallacy
If the book of Job teaches us anything, it is that circumstances or events, apart from revelation, cannot convey God’s decretive will. Job was not suffering because he was an evil man, as his friends supposed; he was suffering because he was, in fact, a good man. Job’s friends, and even Job, himself, had fallen victim to what has come to be called the “Gamaliel fallacy,” after the principle offered by the great Jewish teacher Gamaliel, who said:
And now I say to you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it, lest you even be found to fight against God (Acts 5:38-39)
Although what Gamaliel said is, in the ultimate sense, true (viz., in the end, God’s cause will be vindicated), in actuality, it does not translate into very practical advice. One must keep in mind that this is Gamaliel’s opinion and advice, not the Holy Spirit’s. For instance, the Roman Catholic Church, with its universal bishop (viz., the “Pope” or “Papa Father”), is an apostate church that has existed basically in its present form since A.D. 606. Does this mean that God is blessing Catholicism? Of course not! However, if you applied Gamaliel’s advice to the Catholic Church, you would not be able to stand or fight against it, spiritually speaking. Likewise, there are many other false religions that appear to be enjoying great success, especially when measured by the world’s standards. Does this mean that they, too, are being blessed by God? Again, the answer is an obvious “No.” Worldly success is not necessarily, and most probably not, a sign of God’s blessings. Clearly, John the Baptist’s ministry did not end in success according to the world’s standards, in that he ended up in prison and eventually had his head cut off. But according to God’s standards, he was completely successful. By man’s standards, the ministries of the apostles were miserable failures. However, we know they were successful in God’s sight. Therefore, from our limited and finite perspectives, we should view Gamaliel’s pronouncement as the fallacy it really is when applying it to the world’s standards.
Is Private Speculation Necessarily Wrong?
Does this mean that it is inappropriate for a Christian to entertain his own private speculation about God’s providential care, along with the various circumstances that seem to point in that direction? No, I do not believe this is wrong. But I do believe that, even in one’s own private speculation, one must be very careful about thinking a certain event definitely means that God has done this or that, or even that He desires this or that to be done. This kind of carefulness was exhibited by Mordecai, who said to Esther, “Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14). Mordecai’s statement must not be construed as a lack of faith in God’s providential care for the Jews, for he advised Esther, in the same verse, that if she did not help, then “deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place.” It seemed to Mordecai that Esther was in the right place at the right time and that the hand of God might be providentially involved in her being queen; but without special revelation, he simply could not know for sure. Let us all learn to be as wise and trusting as Mordecai. Believing in the sovereignty of God, and based upon the promises God had made to His people, Mordecai was willing to trust God for deliverance, and so should we.
Undoubtedly, we can all recount the marvelous things that have happened to us in our lifetimes which we believe were providential. However, we should be careful not to cite these things as proof of God’s special providence. Our proof is found in the promises contained in God’s word. In the case of special providence, the apostle Paul declared by inspiration, “We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them that are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). In other words, because of God’s special providential care for us, every circumstance or event that happens to us will have either a good purpose or a good result, so long as we continue to love and obey Him. How do we know this? The Bible, God’s preceptive will, tells us so! Consequently, our faith in God, the Sovereign Ruler of all creation, and His solemn promise that “all things work together for good to them that love God,” relieve us of the burden of trying to figure out whether a particular event happened because of God’s decretive or permissive will, and directs us to a thorough study of His preceptive will, which has been revealed to us in the Bible.
In conclusion, let us be willing to think of YHWH as “the Lord, God Most High, the Possessor of heaven and earth” (Genesis 14:22). Let us acknowledge that He “has established His throne in heaven, and His kingdom rules over all” (Psalm 103:19). Finally, with the psalmist, let us say:
Bless the Lord, you His angels, who excel in strength, who do His word, heeding the voice of His word. Bless the Lord, all you His hosts, you ministers of His, who do His pleasure. Bless the Lord, all His works, in all places of His dominion. Bless the Lord, O my soul! (Psalm 103:20-22).