The Task of Seeking God's Mysterious Will
By Sinclair Ferguson
An encounter with a friend from my teen-age years reminded me of the wise and pithy words of the Puritan writer John Flavel: “The providence of God is like Hebrew words—it can be read only backwards.” I was leaving a restaurant in my native town in Scotland one day and there was my friend being helped along by his elderly mother. His condition was just as someone had hinted to me. His had been one of those active, energized, intense spirits; but now his powers had been wasted by a serious auto accident.
To my intense delight he recognized me, and for a moment the old energy seemed to surge into his being. Just as quickly it subsided, like a light bulb fusing in the moment of illumination. It was as though the sight of a friend from the past had deceivingly invigorated him, only to remind him immediately of his terrible infirmity. His gesticulations had always been one of his chief characteristics. Now the look in his eyes, the movements of his hands and body all created a wistful melody in the minor key. He was the one who had given me the first Christian books that ever made a real impression on me; who had poured out his own life-energy to befriend me and teach me.
Of this, and other experiences in life, I have sometimes thought, “It just does not seem to make sense.” At such times, Flavel’s words have often comforted me, and helped me to readjust my myopic spiritual perspective. They have reminded me to fix my mind and heart on God’s wise, gracious, and sovereign rule, and on the assurance that he works everything together for his children’s good, so that I do not inquire too proudly into why I cannot understand his sovereign purposes.
Of course one occasionally meets Christians for whom the Lord’s purposes are “all sewn up.” They know exactly what he is doing, and why he does it. Such comprehensive wisdom is difficult to dislodge; but sadly it is the precocious wisdom of the immature Christian who has not yet learned that while “the things revealed belong to us and to our children,” there are also hidden and secret things that “belong to the Lord our God” (Deut. 29:29). God’s ways and thoughts are not ours. We never have them “taped.” We can no more read in detail God’s secret purpose for our individual lives than we can understand Hebrew if we try to read it from left to right. To imagine we can is to be suffering from a form of spiritual dyslexia.
One great reason for this principle is to teach us to “Trust in the Lord with all our heart and lean not on our own understanding” (Prov.3: 5). So perverse are we that we would use our knowledge of God’s will to substitute for actual daily personal trust in the Lord himself.
Flavel’s Law (if we may so speak of his wise words) has widespread relevance for Christian living, but is particularly important in four ways:
The big decisions. It is true of the big decisions of life. God does guide his people, and leads them in the right paths (Ps. 23:3). It is a great thing to come to a major decision with the assurance that it is his will. But we would be mistaken to imagine that we therefore knew in detail the reasons behind his plan. Many a Christian has discovered that obedience to what they believed to be God’s will seems to have led to great personal difficulties. Only later do we discover God’s purpose in leading us to a new orientation or situation may have been very different from the extrapolation we made from the first points we saw on the divine graph of our lives.
The tests. It is true of the test of life. We struggle to endure them for what they are in themselves. After the event we are relieved to have them at our back. But in fact earlier testings are often preparation to strengthen us for later ones. Only when we have been brought through the later one does the earlier one more fully “make sense.”
The tragedies. It is true of the tragedies of life. We will not fully see their place in the divine economy in this world. Their ultimate explanation lies beyond our personal lives and even beyond time (think of Naomi’s triple bereavement in Ruth 1, and how that led, in the slow unfolding of God’s purpose to Ruth’s conversion, marriage, motherhood, the coming David and finally the birth of Christ). I have no special insight into God’s purpose in the life of my friend; but that he has a gracious purpose is beyond doubt, however opaque it seems at present.
The whole. It is true of the whole of life. As C.S. Lewis illuminatingly put it, only when someone has died do we see his/her life in its completeness. But even then we catch only a fleeting glimpse of what will finally be made manifest. The ultimate unfolding awaits the day when “I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (Cor. 13:12).
Has it ever struck you that our Lord’s words in the Upper Room had long term as well as short term significance? “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
Sinclair Ferguson is an Alliance Council Member and professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary.
This article was previously published in Eternity Magazine, May 1988.