Yesterday we had a sermon from one of our local elders that was prompted by a comment made in our speaker’s club about why it is that it does not seem that God is calling large numbers of people in the present day in the same way as has been done in periods in the past. This situation, which has been in existence for a few decades now, has led to a lot of people engaging in speculation about the reasons. In general, I seek to avoid such speculation given that I do not consider myself as having any great abilities in mind-reading. To the extent that an undesirable situation gets us to reflect upon ourselves and engage in self-examination about what we could be doing better, I do not consider such a musing to be a bad thing. Perhaps the worst sort of answer is the most common, a sense of complacency about what we are doing and a shrug of the shoulders that seeks to insulate us from any examination that we could be and do better, although there are a lot of possibilities that can be found as reasons, and few ways to know with any degree of certainty which ones, if any, apply in a given circumstance.
When we examine divine providence, it is especially fruitless to try to read God’s mind, and far better to look back at the subtle hand of God when we are looking back on what has already been accomplished. The task of a historian is far more straightforward in such matters than that of a would-be prophet. If we looked at the Book of Ruth, for example, most of the story as it appeared in the experience of Naomi and her family would be a tale of loss and stagnation. The famine that led them to emigrate to Moab would be seen as a calamity, as would the death of Elimelech, the family patriarch. The marriage of his sons Mahlon and Chilion to Moabite women would be a potential catastrophe of abandoning one’s faith in pursuit of foreign women who had a historical reputation for seeking to seduce Israel away from obedience to God’s covenant. The death of Mahlon and Chilion, and the prospect of being a destitute widow in a strange land, would seem even more catastrophic and a sign to many that God’s favor had been removed from the family–it is little wonder in such circumstances that Noami called herself Mara in her bitterness. But it is precisely at that moment when things turn around, and in the course of a couple of months or so this picture of some ten years of negativity is entirely reversed, with Ruth working in the field of Boaz, receiving his favor and obvious interest, and then ultimately his hand in levirate marriage, which led not only to the restoration of a child to the family, but a connection that would lead to the fulfillment of God’s promise of an everlasting kingship through the line of Judah through Boaz’s great-grandson David and his later descendant Jesus Christ. What at first is a tragic and melancholy tale of the destruction of a family ends up in the joining of a poor Moabite widow and a longtime bachelor in marriage with the resulting birth of a child of immense historical and prophetic importance. None of this would have been clear until the process was complete and one could look upon it with gratitude and amazement.
The process by which God accomplishes His purposes while also not denying to us our own freedom of choice or the responsibility for the actions we take often requires that we be in the dark both about the full consequences of our actions as well as the precise purposes that God has for us and those around us. God promises us that His plans and purposes for us, assuming we love God and are His followers, are for the good, but it is not always easy to believe Him. When times and situations are difficult and seem to drag on forever, it can be hard to trust in His goodwill, and it is often easy for us to doubt that we are indeed subject to such a promise of goodwill, and to think that we have fallen outside of God’s gracious care is a deeply unpleasant thought. Yet once we look back on things, there is often a great deal of difference in how things appear in retrospect and in hindsight to how they appear during the moment. If our trials and tribulations refine us, they are still not the sort of things that we appreciate or celebrate when we are in the midst of them. We appreciate where we end up, and it is that which gives the proper context to the journey that takes us to our desired destination. The journey is redeemed by the destination, and gives it a sense of depth and poignancy. But while the journey is on-going, it is hard to know exactly how things will work out. Once we know the end, we need only have gratitude, not faith and hope, for what is hoped for and trusted in has proven itself.