Does God intend us to learn from events? Some people react strongly against this as bizarrely mystical or arrogant. There is no doubt that people can be confidently wrong in their interpretation of certain events. But they can be self-assured in mistaken interpretations of the Bible too and that doesn’t make us give up on trying to understand Scripture. The very same passage that speaks about God revealing Himself in creation, also shows how He reveals His wrath in events (Romans 1:18, 20, 27-28). Christ warns against simplistic and arbitrary interpretations of events, but He affirms that we are to learn from them (Luke 13:1-5). God’s ways are often truly mysterious. It’s certainly sometimes challenging to try to learn the right lessons from providence and it requires much humility, but does this mean we are to give up? The Bible tells us that if we are wise, we will seek to understand events and connect them with the character and purpose of God (Psalm 107:43; Hosea 14:9). We are meant to at least ponder these things rather than say that they can never be known (Psalm 143:5). The question is not so much whether God speaks in events but how we can understand what He is saying through them.
We do not have to have a specific Bible verse that predicts a specific event to understand what God is saying. As with other ways of using Scripture in our daily lives, we apply general principles. Every time we apply Scripture to our lives and our world, we are trying to understand events in terms of the Bible. This is no different. The Bible must be our supreme authority for interpreting these things not simply what seems plausible to us personally. God doesn’t give a different message in events to the one He gives in Scripture it’s the same message but amplified because we are not listening.
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 tells us that there is a purpose for every event and that there are always general lessons that we are meant to learn (v17-18). It can be difficult to understand certain things, but it is possible (Psalm 73:16-17; Micah 6:8-9; Amos 3:1-8). We are meant to seek to understand God’s purpose in good times and in difficult times (Ecclesiastes 7:14). We are meant to identify God’s goodness and lovingkindness in what we experience, and this should lead us to repentance (Romans 2:4). Scripture also gives us principles such as we reap what we sow (Galatians 6:7; Hosea 8:7). This leads us to expect that actions have future consequences in unfolding events.
There are some general rules that we can apply in relation to carefully observing events in providence. Just as when we see a rainbow, we are reminded of God’s promise, so we can identify other promises of Scripture being fulfilled in our own or other’s experience. We are able to depend on Scripture promises and principles and connect them with the events we witness (Romans 8:28). We can draw comfort from what happens in providence (Psalm 41:11; Genesis 24:45). We are also meant to be watchful for answers to prayer in the events we witness and interpret them according to God’s promises (Psalm 65:5; Micah 7:7; Ezekiel 36:37). In Matthew 16:1-4 Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for not interpreting the signs of the times in the way that they could interpret the weather. We need to have understanding of the times to know what we ought to do (1 Chronicles 12:32)
In a culture that sneers at the idea of God intervening or being in control it’s tempting to suggest that we just can’t know what God’s purposes may be. It is in the trying rather than encouraging circumstances that people often feel uncomfortable with trying to understand what God is saying. Yet we are still to enquire from God’s Word what we are to understand from them (2 Samuel 21:1). As David found, God will not always give advance warning of why something happens. We are meant, like Job, to ask why (Job 7:20; 10:2).
In Micah 6:9 we are told that the voice of God will sometimes sound in events. God may chastise through events as His rod, especially when we neglect what He requires of us (v8). If we are wise we will seek to “hear the rod” and the one who has appointed it. In expounding the meaning of these words, Andrew Gray shows how we are to seek to understand what God is saying through events. He shows that we may not always find an answer easily or we may indeed be mistaken. Surely, if Paul used the word “perhaps” in suggesting a reason for events (Philemon 15), we should be humble about our interpretation too. The following is an updated extract from Gray’s application of Micah 6:9.
1. Ways of Understanding What God is Saying in Events
(a) Reflect prayerfully.
Make serious application to the throne of grace that God would give you light concerning such a rod. This is remarkably clear in Genesis 25:22. Rebecca, did not understand God’s purpose in a particular “rod”. Therefore, she went and enquired of the Lord and received a particular and distinct answer to her condition.
This was also clearly practised by David (2. Samuel 21:1). Israel was under a great rod of famine. David went and enquired of the Lord concerning the meaning of it and he received a distinct answer. This is likewise clear in Job 10: 2 where Job, being in the dark concerning the meaning of the rod asks God to show him.
(b) Reflect on your condition at the time.
If it comes at a time when your heart was at a great distance from God. The meaning of the rod is probably that it is good for you to draw near to God. Or, if the chastisement is at a time when a Christian, is much taken up in pursuing after the things of the world. If you are engaging in spiritual activities in a merely formal way then, the voice of the rod to you is to stir up yourself to take hold on God. So, if a Christian wants to know the meaning of the rod, let them compare their present spiritual condition with the timing of the rod.
(c) Reflect on the nature of it.
This is certain, the sins of a people or person may be engraved on the rod in very legible letters. Sometimes the rod preaches our sins so plainly, that we do not need to interpret it. In Judges 1:6-7 there is such a direct relation between Adonibezek’s judgment and his sin that he might read his judgment as he did his sins. Sometimes God punishes those who do not listen to the distress of others by not listening to them in their trouble (Proverbs 21:23; Zechariah 7:13). You can see a divine proportion between the rod and the sin.
(d) Reflect on Scripture.
Observe what has been the Lord’s purpose and what He calls for from His people in Scripture when they were under a similar rod and dealings. Search our God’s purpose to the godly in Scripture under a similar rod and by all appearances this will still be His purpose. This is applying the general rule of Romans 15:4 that these things are for our learning.
(e) Reflect on the circumstances.
There may be circumstances by which a Christian may attain great light on what is the Lord’s intention by such a rod. Observing the circumstances will help a Christian to discover these three things:
• that such a chastisement is from the hand of the Lord.
• that God in the midst of wrath remembers mercy
• to know the voice and language of the chastisement. Sometimes a Christian cannot read love in the rod itself and yet read very much love in the circumstances
(f) Reflect on the general purposes.
All the rods and dealings a Christian encounters have one of three general purposes. They are sent to help them
- Put to death their predominating sins and idols.
- Be stirred up to exercise what ought to be their predominant grace
- Be stirred up to do what ought to be their predominant duty.
It is easier to patiently endure a rod which is intended for us to exercise our predominant grace than one which is for putting to death our idols. There is no rod which a Christian can endure worse than that. A proud man can bear any affliction better than reproach; a worldly-minded man, can endure any affliction better than poverty. Are there not many that, when their idols are struck, cry out like the man in Judges 16:24? Sometimes in this situation we cry out with Jonah “it is better for me to die than to live”.
The affliction we least want to encounter is ordinarily best for us. Our will and welfare are seldom or never joined together; but Christ’s will and our welfare are often joined together. Ordinarily there is some comparison between our chastisements and our sins. If the Egyptians killed all the male-children of the Israelites, God likewise kills all the first-born in the land of Egypt. If Nadab and Abihu offer strange fire and if the Sodomites are taken up with the fire of lust, God will bring down fire from heaven and consume them.
2. Mistakes in Understanding What God is Saying in Events
(a) Thinking it speaks wrath, when it speaks love. Some think that love and the rod cannot go together at all. God may never love a person more than when He is correcting them (Revelation 3:19; Hebrews 12:5-6).
(b) Thinking that God can never answer our prayers while He is chastising. This was Job’s mistake (Job 9:16).
(c) Thinking it means they are not truly God’s people. When some do not see why God contends with them, they are tempted to cast away their hope.
(d) Thinking that serving God is pointless because of affliction. This is found in Psalm 73:13-14. It is hard for a person not to cast off religion, when God is contending with them. It is hard to have great respect for the ways of godliness under affliction.
(e) Thinking that God is not with them (Judges 6:13). The Christian may cry out, “I cannot reconcile God’s heart and His hand, I cannot reconcile love in God and His being with me, and this affliction and chastisement.
3. The Goal of Understanding What God is Saying in Events
The goal of understanding what God is saying in events is that a Christian may be helped to obey the voice of the rod or chastisement. The following will help.
(a) Hate your sin. If the chastisement calls for putting to death a particular lust and idol, bring your hearts to a spiritual hatred of it. If God is punishing you for your idols, cry out, “What have I any more to do with idols?”
(b) See the danger of your sin. Consider what danger there is by keeping your soul constantly joined to it, when the voice of the rod is, “Abandon such an idol”.
(c) Stir up and exercise grace. Strive to know that there is as much spiritual advantage in the real and spiritual exercise of a particular grace, as you can lose by any chastisement. Job gained as much (much more indeed) spiritual advantage by the exercise of his faith and patience than in all the things that he lost? There will be a glorious outcome and peace.
(d) Do the duty that is called for. Ensure that all hindrances to that duty are laid aside. If an affliction calls for us to exercise faith or prayer, remove everything that hinders this. Strive to see the beauty of that duty e.g. prayer.
4. The Difficulty of Understanding What God is Saying in Events
If we cannot find out what God is saying, here is some counsel.
(a) God is just, even though you do not know why He contends with you.
(b) Pray to God seriously to know the distinct meaning of a chastisement. We should go to God and say, “I have sinned, I will do so no more, show me my offence” (see Job 10:2).
(c) Try to know why God is not revealing the reason for a chastisement.
(d) Seek to have a tender heart. Sometimes we do not understand what God is saying because we are not spiritual.
(e) Have your heart most united to Christ. The devil fishes most when you are ready to fall because that is the Christian’s troubled waters. The devil never gets any greater advantage over a Christian as when he does not know the meaning of a chastisement. The devil will tell you a false meaning.
We need much grace and wisdom to have a right understanding of God’s Word so that we can a proper understanding of God’s Providence. Some things are clear but other answers are not necessarily quick. It requires prayerful patience and humility because the truth may well be painful and uncomfortable for us. If we either fail to cope with or despise God’s correction we will fail see the danger of our sin. This will harden our hearts and damage our relationship with God. We will miss out on much spiritual advantage in Christian growth and life (Hebrews 12:5-6). God’s correction is loving. As Gray points out, it may in fact be that God never loves a person more than when He is correcting them (Revelation 3:19). When God chastises believers, it isn’t punishment, it is pruning to help them grow. If we are wise, we will seek to “hear the rod” and the one who has appointed it (Micah 6:9).
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