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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Circumstantial Evidence

You found and got approved for just the right apartment even though you weren’t exactly qualified. You were admitted to the internship program you really wanted. That girl you have your heart set on seems to be showing the character qualities you were hoping to find.

You prayed about all these things. Must be the Lord, right?

Maybe.

But then mom is diagnosed with cancer. You’re praying about that too, but nothing seems to change. And when money gets tight, that’s right when you get rear-ended at a red light. Repairing the car is way outside your present budget, and you need the car to get to work.

That can’t be the Lord, can it? Maybe not … you think not, but … what if it is?

Whys and Wherefores

Passing judgment without all relevant information at hand is dangerous business, and mature Christians wisely avoid it. The flawed counsel of Job’s three friends, surely considered wise men in their day, should be enough to warn us to avoid too much speculation about the whys and wherefores of difficulties in the lives of others, or even in our own.

But I wonder if reading the hand of providence into many of our circumstances is equally off base.

Now of course if we understand the sovereignty of God as revealed in his word, we are in no doubt that his knowledge and power are such that it would be child’s play for him to personally orchestrate and micromanage every single situation we encounter. And if we understand the love of God, we are in no doubt that where his children are concerned, he is able and willing to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think. But does the Bible claim God is personally and directly the agency behind everything that goes on in our lives?

More importantly to those of us who seek and enjoy a relationship with him, should we interpret the things that happen in our lives as clear and unequivocal indicators of God’s pleasure or displeasure with us?

Give Me Reasons: God and Circumstances

Within a biblical worldview there are many possible reasons calamities arise, and just as many reasons opportunities, delays, apparent blessings and even temptations present themselves. Some examples:

1. Circumstances may be the direct work of God. The pillars of fire and cloud that led the Israelites in the desert masked the presence of the Lord, who “went before them”. This is about as direct as it gets. The virgin birth, the voice of God from heaven at the baptism of Jesus and the transfiguration all fall into this category. When God acts in a miraculous way, the faithful simply get with the program. No grand period of contemplation ought to be required.

I suspect we should look for very, very few of these sorts of direct interventions in the normal course of our Christian lives. They are exceptional rather than normative.

2. Circumstances may be the work of God through nature. The drying up of the Red Sea falls into this category. We read that “the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land”. He used a highly unusual but essentially natural phenomenon to deliver Israel. The Egyptians clearly saw the wind as a natural phenomenon as well, since their entire army followed Israel across the dry sea bed. Until the Lord clogged their chariot wheels, they entirely failed to see his hand in the circumstances, and were drowned because of it.

3. Circumstances may be the work of God through human agencies. God says to Pharaoh, “But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth”. Yet Pharaoh saw nothing miraculous in the confluence of circumstances that empowered him and his nation. To him, it surely all seemed to be the normal course of political business, or perhaps at best the work of his Egyptian deities. And yet years of smaller, uncontemplated decisions by numerous parties must have been involved in determining Egypt’s place on the world stage at the time God began to deal with Pharaoh, all of it orchestrated by his hand.

4. Circumstances may be the work of God through angels. The Old Testament promises that under certain conditions the Lord will “command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways”. This would seem especially true of the Lord Jesus, but his death, the stonings of Paul and Stephen (and many other instances of great suffering) provide evidence that at times such protection is deliberately withheld — even from those who “abide in the shadow of the Almighty”, as the Son of God did unfailingly.

God may certainly accomplish his purposes through angels in our lives, but while we recognize this general principle as indisputably true, it seems awfully presumptuous for us to single out specific instances in our own lives of what the world would refer to as “good fortune” (a near miss on the highway, for example) and credit them to angelic preservation, especially when other devoted believers in similar situations have not been likewise preserved.

The temptation is to imagine that either we have earned the Lord’s particular favour, or that the other party has merited the Lord’s judgment, when neither may be the case at all.

Other Reasons Things Happen

So far so good. But scripture gives us plenty of reasons things happen beyond the direct or indirect work of God:

5. Circumstances may be the direct work of Satan. Sin may be near-ubiquitous, but there is no evidence in scripture to suggest that Satan himself is either omnipresent or omniscient. The times in human history in which Satan is described as personally active are few and far between. Both Luke and John tell us that Satan “entered into” Judas Iscariot. Evidently insuring the Lord’s betrayal was exceptionally important to him. Satan dealt with Eve personally. We are also told that Satan directly tempted the Lord Jesus. But his personal involvement with servants of God is rare.

Thus “the devil made me do it” is not merely theologically inaccurate but more than a little self-involved. Yes, Satan is formidable and restlessly active. But directly and personally active in your life and mine? Probably not, unless we are unusually effective servants of Christ. Sadly, I suspect many of us don’t give Satan enough trouble to warrant his personal involvement.

6. Circumstances may be the work of Satan’s servants. Paul speaks of a “thorn in the flesh” that was a “messenger of Satan”. Frank Viola makes an interesting case that this “messenger” may have been a person, Satan’s agent in Paul’s life.

Whether or not Mr. Viola’s well-researched conjecture appeals to us as the best explanation of Paul’s “thorn”, it is evident that Satan has many servants and that much of the persecution, affliction, oppression, suffering and temptation that Christians endure is their handiwork. Satan’s servants are both human and demonic, and it is the influence of demons on men that produces confusion, deception and many a hindrance to the work of God.

7. Circumstances may be a byproduct of angelic combat. Daniel, humble, sincere and passionate in prayer, waited a full 21 days for an answer that was delayed by invisible spiritual warfare, though his prayers were heard by God the moment he uttered them. The “prince of the kingdom of Persia” made it his mission to stop God’s reply getting back to Daniel, and it took additional angelic assistance to beat him back.

Principalities and powers” are cosmic territory about which we have little information. Daniel might easily have misinterpreted this delay.

More relevant: most of us are not Daniels.

8. Circumstances may be a direct consequence of the Fall. Three verses in Genesis list the direct consequences of human disobedience in the garden of Eden. Each of these impacts our lives daily. But pain in childbearing is more readily attributed to original sin than competition for headship in the home, job stress or the bite of a stray dog, all of which are very direct fallout from Eden.

9. Circumstances may be an indirect consequence of the Fall or the product of genetics. More commonly, a circumstance in which we struggle is made all the more difficult by inherited predispositions. Science has much to say about this, and while we ought to be cautious about scientific pronouncements that neatly dovetail with the political agendas of lobby groups, it is thought that susceptibility to disease, mental illness, predispositions to alcoholism, aggression and possibly even same-sex attraction may have their sources in behavioural genetics.

Further, not all gene damage can be blamed on our distant ancestors. It has long been known that smoking, for one, can quickly damage genes that are passed on to unsuspecting offspring, raising their risk of childhood cancer. This may be true of other sorts of gene damage.

No genetic damage and no genetic predisposition excuses sin, of course, but it does explain why certain situations are a source of greater temptation to some believers than others. All sins are spiritual failure, but sometimes there are contributing causes of which we are completely unaware.

10. Circumstances may be a combination of any of the above factors. This list is far from exhaustive. Even if we are unusually perceptive and spiritual individuals, the reasons for many circumstances we encounter in this life — promising, horrifying or apparently neutral — remain opaque to us. In bringing Israel out of Egypt, God used a combination of direct intervention, human agency and plagues both natural and unnatural. Many of the situations we encounter may be equally complex.

All Things Together

Further, we know that there are events initiated through the wicked intentions of man, demons or Satan himself that God then orchestrates and manipulates to produce a positive result for his loved ones. Is God aware of their evil intentions and on top of the situation from the beginning? Of course he is. But would they have happened at all without the wicked intentions of others? Surely not, for God holds them accountable for their actions even when those actions serve his purposes.

On top of all this, there are the weather-related disasters and the normal earthly conditions that come out of not living in a Garden of Eden: these affect believer and unbeliever alike. Paul encountered dangers at sea and in the wilderness, along with cold and exposure, that are all quite natural in a fallen world and not directly attributable to any particular agency, good or evil.

You can see where I’m going here. Good or bad, circumstances by themselves cannot tell us very much. They are too complex. There are too many players involved. They are not definitive. They cannot be authoritative.

Most importantly, our subjective interpretations of them cannot and should not direct our Christian lives.

Reading the Tea Leaves

For comfort, reassurance, hope or a sense of direction, we need more than stories about neat things we think the Lord did but can produce no real evidence for.

You’ve encountered such stories, I’m sure.

Now we ought always to give the Lord the glory when things work out well for us, but I think we’ve all run into Christians who are very certain about exactly why things happened to them the way they did. If you’re anything like me, you listen to their list of reasons why they took Path X or Path Y in life and nod politely, not wanting to rain on their parade, while thinking something like “Was that actually God blessing or is that just a little too much convenient rationalization on your part?” They’re quick to recognize the Lord’s providential care in everything that worked out, but not as quick to see his hand in the areas of their lives that are not working out well at all.

Efforts to analyze our circumstances to determine what factors have contributed to them are mostly futile, even for the most spiritual of believers. We cannot possibly possess all the necessary information. This is true whether the circumstance in question is a delay, an appealing opportunity or a tremendous emotional blow:

·         If circumstances alone are considered, a delay can be misinterpreted as rejection by our heavenly Father. Did we sin? Did we ask amiss? Who knows?

·         Without other factors to weigh, an open door may just as easily be a temptation that should be resisted or a diversion that should be avoided, rather than any spiritual opportunity to be embraced.

·         Absent any clear direction from heaven, suffering for the sake of Christ may be misunderstood as his judgment.

Christians read tea leaves very badly. If you like tea, drink it. Recycle the leaves even. Just don’t read them. Circumstances don’t tell us anything definitive.

The Moral Component

When the Lord Jesus said of his Father that “I always do the things that are pleasing to him”, he was speaking about the moral realm, not the minor choices he made daily. This was not a conviction he arrived at because things were going well for him; it was an assurance he had because he walked a path of consistent obedience based on complete trust. There was a daily cost attached to that obedience, but that did not deter him in the slightest. He was harassed, persecuted, threatened, poor by any objective metric, had nowhere to call home, was rejected by those of his home town, misunderstood by his family and frequently even by his friends. Ultimately, he was beaten and nailed to a cross in front of a jeering crowd.

At no point did he assess his circumstances and come to the conclusion that he was on the wrong track. Equally, when things went well, he did not get overenthused about it; he knew what people were like. Circumstances, good or bad, told him next to nothing about the will of God. They made even John the Baptist doubt, but not the Lord Jesus.

For the Christian, the path of obedience to the unequivocal commands of God is the only one on which we will find clarity. Guidance, hope, comfort, reassurance: these are not things we get by accumulating a list of amazing things that happened to us and for which we subjectively deem God responsible. They are things we get from reading, meditating on and diligently obeying the word of God, and from trusting him to remain consistent with his revealed character just as his Son did.

The fact that things go wrong in our lives does not mean we are on the wrong track. The fact that things go right is an equally unreliable indication of whether or not God is pleased with us.

There is plenty of subjectivity in the interpretation of circumstances. There is none in the character of God as revealed in his word.

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