The Dangers of Reading Providence


Sam Storms:

As I’ve been preaching through the book of Revelation it has become ever more evident to me that reading divine providence is a tricky and often dangerous business. By “reading providence” I mean the tendency that all of us have to interpret what God is doing in the world around us and even in our own lives. We typically try to read providence because we are uncomfortable with mystery. We don’t like being kept in the dark about why God does or doesn’t do certain things. We don’t like having to tell people that we can’t answer their questions about why, if God is good and powerful, he permits evil to flourish in the world. We would much rather create an answer, even when the Bible remains silent.

I am regularly asked what natural disasters mean. Why do they occur? Is God trying to tell us something? Is it always punishment for sin, or could it be a wakeup call to repent, or perhaps both? How do we account for the horrific wildfires in California or the devastating winter blast that strikes the northeast? What purpose could there possibly be for earthquakes and tornadoes? Why does the murderous Assad still rule in Syria? Why does Kim Jong Un hold power in North Korea? Why was John F. Kennedy assassinated at such a young age and why did Ronald Reagan survive the attempt on his life? Why do most children come to full term while others die in the womb? Why do the wicked prosper and the righteous die young?

Oh, the mysteries of divine providence! Of course, some think they’ve got an escape, a way out of the mystery. They simply deny that God either knows what is going to happen before it happens, or somehow he knows but he is powerless to do anything about it. I can only speak for myself but I find no comfort whatsoever in the idea that God is ignorant and impotent. That doesn’t help me in the least.

If there is one thing we learn from the book of Revelation, it is that our God is absolutely sovereign over the affairs of all mankind. He rules the forces of nature. The wind blows at his command. Angels do his bidding. Satan is held on a long leash. The wicked will be judged and the people of God will be vindicated. He governs both life and death. He places kings in power and brings them down. For some of you, that is unsettling. I understand why. But have you paused to consider the alternative? I have, and it is not in the least comforting to the human heart.

As I said, we all by nature want to read and interpret providence. We want to be able to look at the events in history and in our present day and make sense of it all. But we can’t, and shouldn’t, unless Scripture does it for us. That is what Revelation is all about. It is God’s urgent message to a suffering church not to despair or live in fear that everything is out of control. It is God’s urgent message telling us that injustice and idolatry abuse and corruption and theft and immorality will be judged. It is God’s message telling us to trust him when answers don’t come. It is God’s message reminding us that as wildly chaotic as life on earth may appear, he is in control.

So, in the final analysis, I would simply say to resist the temptation to read and interpret divine providence and instead read and interpret divine Scripture. The latter may not always provide us with extensive answers or explanations about God’s unfathomable judgments and inscrutable ways, but when it speaks it does so infallibly.

Peter serves as a pastor-teacher, at home and abroad, resourcing gospel-centred communities.