We have talked in the past about fortune-tellers, palm readers, necromancers, witches, and mediums. It’s pretty clear these are all forbidden by God. We covered that in APJ 1052. But here’s a different angle on the question from Jeff in Nashville, Tennessee. “Dear Pastor John, I love the teaching of providence and eagerly look forward to getting my copy of your new book. As a pastor, I battle a growing New Age practice among some Christians in the use of omens. I think that’s the best way to label it. In APJ 1580 you said, ‘As I look at the ten thousand tiny bubbles popping at the top of the foam of my Diet Dr. Pepper, I believe that every one of those bubbles is popping in accord perfectly with God’s bubble-popping plan.’ I totally agree with you!
“However, it concerns me that some will use this to justify their belief that when they see a certain number over and over in one day, this is a ‘prophetic’ message from God. Or they will claim to see answers in cloud formations. I know this all sounds silly, but these things are very real for some Christians who are always on the lookout for a ‘sign’ from God. Increasing people’s trust in God’s all-pervasive providence in all things is likely to amplify this tendency. So how do we wisely lead people into God’s all-encompassing providence, especially those who will be tempted (more than ever) to draw out signs from all of life’s circumstances?”
I think the question that every lover of the all-pervasive providence of God should ask is this: How shall I live my life so as to be found in the slipstream of God’s providence with the fullest knowledge of God, the greatest love of God, and bearing most fruit for the eternal good of other people for the glory of God? I think that’s the question.
Slipstream of Providence
Do you remember what a slipstream is? It’s when you get behind a boat or a car or a bike or an airplane, and you are drawn forward into the direction of the one that you’re following by the very force of the slipstream that, as it were, reaches back and grabs you and pulls you along. So, what we’re asking is, How shall I find myself drawn along in the slipstream of God’s all-governing providence in such a way that we know him most fully, we love him most deeply, we bear the most fruit for the eternal good of other people, and all for the glory of God?
And I see two possible answers to that question. First, the wrong one, the unbiblical one: we can live by trying to read the providence of God, as if the hundreds of events that befall us each day had messages in them that we’re supposed to decipher, so that as providence befalls us, it becomes a series of codes, showing us how to think and how to feel and which way to go. That’s one answer to how to get into the slipstream of providence.
“If we are guided by God’s word, we will be found in the slipstream of God’s sovereign blessing forever.”
Here’s the second one, and I think this is the biblical answer: we can live in the slipstream of God’s merciful, all-governing providence by orienting our entire life toward understanding the revealed will of God in his word — not a secret, hidden will in the coding of clouds and coincidences — and by availing ourselves of all the biblically appointed means of grace, like corporate worship and pastoral teaching and brotherly correction, and by being transformed in the spirit of our minds, like Ephesians 4:23 says, so as to discern, moment by moment, the way of truth and love.
In other words, the Bible teaches the doctrine of God’s providence not in order to lead us away from the revealed will of God in his word, but in order to give us confidence that if we follow the revealed will of God in his word, providence will work everything together for our eternal good. That’s why the Bible teaches it. Let me say it again: providence is taught in the Bible not as an alternative way of assurance and guidance that’s different from the revealed word of God, but as the ground of our assurance that if we are guided by God’s word, we will be found in the slipstream of God’s sovereign blessing forever.
I say this not only because there are such strong warnings in Scripture against fortune-tellers and interpreters of omens (Deuteronomy 18:10), but even more because the way of life that Jesus and the apostles teach us is rooted in the word of God — “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17) — and the transformation of our minds (Romans 12:2), and the spirit of our minds in righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:23–24). Jesus and the apostles don’t encourage us to look for personal, coded messages in providence for how to live our lives.
Four Reasons Providence Is Not a Private Message
Now, let me mention four reasons why we should not use providence as a coded language for the living of our lives.
1. We lack the knowledge and wisdom to interpret providence.
Just when you think that three circumstances or three natural signs have lined up to point to a certain direction of behavior and have a certain meaning, God sees a thousand factors that you don’t see that put a completely different meaning on those three that you do see. In other words, presuming to interpret providence for the guidance of your life is presumptuous. You don’t have enough knowledge or wisdom.
2. We do not ground our faith in providential circumstances.
Seeking to bolster confidence in the truth of Christ, the truth of Christianity, with circumstantial, providential confirmations is often a sign that the eyes of the heart are becoming dim — like getting spiritual cataracts. The battle for assurance, the battle to see the self-authenticating glory of Christ in the gospel, is a battle for the eyes of the heart to see his glory in the word, not a battle to see coded confirmations in the circumstances of the world.
“While this age lasts, the paths of providence will be a mystery, but God’s word will be a lamp to our feet.”
Everybody struggles at times with doubt and uncertainty, and God has given us means of grace: prayer, the word of God, the witness of the Spirit, the fellowship of the saints. These are the weapons we use to bring renewed illumination to the eyes of our heart (Ephesians 1:18). Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17). Providence buttresses our word-awakened faith by showing that nothing can stop the promises of God from being fulfilled.
3. We must reject a desire for special knowledge.
Very often, the desire to find coded meaning in natural phenomena or circumstantial coincidences is a desire that flows from the pride of possessing private knowledge that others don’t have. We’ve all tasted this. This kind of pride is the fuel that keeps gossip going, for example: “I have some inside knowledge that others don’t have, and oh, it feels so good to be in the know with just a few key people.”
So, we should ask ourselves, “Am I dissatisfied with the word of God, the Bible — which everybody has access to — because I don’t want to be lost in the crowd of just any old, ordinary Bible reader? I want to have my own special, private source of revelation so that I can feel set apart and special.”
4. We should cherish God’s chosen ways.
Finally, I think one of the main reasons that the Bible is so adamant in rejecting omens and sorcery and fortune-telling and mediums and divination (in Deuteronomy 18, for example) is that all of these ways of trying to read providence fail to do precisely what the prophets and apostles made central; namely, the prophets and apostles revealed God and his ways by relating everything to the character of God, the nature of God, the personhood of God, the wisdom of God, the justice of God, the love of God. And they made plain that such revelation is only possible because God himself gives it by his Spirit through his word, and that any other claim to know God and his ways is really an attempt to replace God’s ways and, ultimately, to replace God.
So, I would plead with all the lovers of the all-pervasive, all-embracing, all-governing providence of God: Don’t replace the infinitely precious word of God with your puny, fallible capacities to decode the infinitely complex providence of God. While this age lasts, the paths of providence will be a mystery, but his word will be a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Psalm 119:105).