In 1381 Archbishop William Courtenay held a synod at the Blackfriars in London for the purpose of condemning the Oxford theologian John Wycliffe. After the condemnations had been adopted, as Synod was breaking up, there was an earthquake. Courtenay took the earthquake as a sign of divine approval but Wycliffe took it as a sign of divine displeasure!
Thus we see the inherent difficulty in interpreting providence. Like all forms of natural revelation the meaning of providence is often in the eye of the beholder. Defenders of the Reformation sometime like to say, “God raised up Martin Luther.” So he did. Unless, however, we are Manicheans we must also say that God raised up Ignatius of Loyola. The fact that God “raised up” both neither proves nor disproves the correctness of Loyola or Luther.
Despite the hazards of interpreting providence Christians persist in trying to interpret providence as a way of finding “God’s will for my life.” It’s true that, in the history of redemption, people put out fleeces and cast lots (for good and ill) as a way of determining God’s will. Again I go back to the bright line between canonical, redemptive history and post-canonical history. Those episodes were not given as a sort of church order manual for post-canonical church life. They illustrate the power of God in delivering and guiding his people in the outworking of his saving purposes. We’re not apostles and prophets.
Could we cast lots today? Well, I suppose, if there were two equally qualified candidates for church office and the elders cast prayerfully lots or drew straws to see which one should serve, I would not object but now we’re simply looking at some ordinary mechanism for making a morally good choice. That’s a matter of indifference. No one would reasonably lay claim for direct divine guidance in such a case.
The truth is, as I’ve already shown from Scripture, we don’t always know why God does what he does. We might have a partial explanation after the fact, in some cases, but in some cases (perhaps many) we’ll likely never know. Why do good, godly people become terribly ill and suffer while evil and ungodly people seem to get off scot free? It’s a fallen world and the consequences of sin are equally terrible and distressing. Can we always discern some lesson we were to learn from some episode? Probably not.
The goodness of God’s providence and the wisdom of his actions is not contingent upon our understanding. God’s acts are good despite the fact that we cannot always understand them. Whatever Jerry Falwell or others might have said or thought, the truth is that no one knows why God permitted those evil acts on 9/11 or why he permitted the extraordinary degree of evil that occurred in the 20th century.
We do know God, however. We know him in Christ. We know him in his gospel promises and in his moral law. That’s enough. We don’t have to go behind the revealed things to justify God. He is just in all he does whether we accept and recognize and explain it or not.