Discerning Divine Providence
“Some providences, like Hebrew letters, must be read backwards.”
This is an oft-quoted line from the Puritan John Flavel, but it bears repeating. Of course, Flavel is referring to the fact that the Hebrew language is read backwards from our perspective–that is, right to left instead of left to right. Flavel believes that God’s providence must be discerned in a similar way–that is (mutatis mutandis), backwards in time. Like other Reformed theologians, Flavel believed that God’s providence is meticulous, not merely general. In other words, God’s will encompasses everything that occurs (Ephesians 1:11), including seemingly random events (Proverbs 16:33; Matthew 10:29), sin and evil (Genesis 50:20; Isaiah 45:7) , and the decisions of free creatures (Proverbs 21:1; Acts 2:23). But also like other Reformed theologians, Flavel did not believe that God reveals his providential will to us ahead of time. Reformed theology has often made the distinction between God’s revealed will (or his will of command) and his secret will (or his will of decree). The former can be and, indeed, is violated by his creatures everyday, but the latter is inviolable: his will of decree cannot be broken; his sovereign plan will come to pass. God’s will of command is clear from Scripture, but his specific plan for our lives is not always clear to us ahead of time. We can’t always see what God is up to, either on the global stage of world history or on the smaller stages of our lives and decisions. I draw three lessons from this backwards-oriented nature of discerning divine providence.
1. We should typically avoid saying that we know God’s secret will for our future. To be sure, we should seek God’s guidance in making decisions. We should ensure that our decisions are based upon biblical principles, soaked in prayer, guided by godly counsel, and tested for impure motives and desires. We should make plans, but always with the qualification that we might be mistaken about God’s will for our lives. James’ warning against boastful planning seems appropriate in this context:
13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. 17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin (James 4:13-17).
2. We should feel free to make decisions, even if they turn out to be “bad” decisions. I don’t have in mind here sinful decisions. As Christians, we are never free to sin. Instead, I have in mind decisions that turn out to be, well, failures. Sometimes you buy a car that turns out to be a lemon. Sometimes you take a job that turns out to be a bad situation. Sometimes you make a foolish investment. Some “bad” decisions may even bind your future decisions, such as marrying a difficult or unbelieving person; in that case, you are now bound to remain faithful to your marriage vows (I take it that the biblical grounds for divorce are restricted to two, adultery and abandonment, but there isn’t space here to argue for this view. Also, if a believer knowingly marries an unbeliever, such a “bad” decision might also be a sinful decision). But if we really believe in God’s meticulous providence, and we are seeking to make wise and godly decisions, then we should feel liberated from the crippling bondage of worry and doubt about our decisions. God is in control even of our bad decisions. This leads us to the final lesson. We can’t always see what God is up to, either on the global stage of world history or on the smaller stages of our lives and decisions. Click To Tweet
3. We should take great comfort in surveying the providence of God in our past and great hope in anticipating the providence of God for our future. Flavel is especially helpful in this regard:
Search backward into all the performances of Providence throughout your lives. So did Asaph: ‘I will remember the works of the LORD: surely I will remember thy wonders of old. I will meditate also of all thy work, and talk of thy doings’ (Psalm 77:11, 12). He laboured to recover and revive the ancient providences of God’s mercies many years past, and suck a fresh sweetness out of them by new reviews of them. Ah, sirs, let me tell you, there is not such a pleasant history for you to read in all the world as the history of your own lives, if you would but sit down and record from the beginning hitherto what God has been to you, and done for you; what signal manifestations and outbreakings of His mercy, faithfulness and love there have been in all the conditions you have passed through. If your hearts do not melt before you have gone half through that history, they are hard hearts indeed. ‘My Father, thou art the guide of my youth’ (Jeremiah 3:4; The Mystery of Providence, chapter nine).
I had a religion professor in college who often said, “The greater part of religion is remembrance.” This is certainly true of biblical religion. How often did the people of God in the Bible remember and recount God’s great works of redemption in order to bolster their faith in him? So, let this be our daily task: to “suck a fresh sweetness” out of God’s gracious providence in our past so that we might continue trusting his good and perfect plan for our future.