Can we tell what God is trying to tell us with events in our lives? Does God use events in our lives that way?
I used to be more confident than I am now that this was a spiritually-fruitful way of thinking. That was basically because I’d asked myself what purpose various things in my own life had served–my birth defects, that was the main thing–and I felt like I had a good sense of some plausible answers. E.g. by problematizing my body, my birth defects helped me honor the body not for its perfection or its capabilities but simply in itself, as God’s creation. Stuff like that.
I did know that you shouldn’t tell other people what painful events in their lives meant. If you asked me directly what I thought God might be doing with a specific painful or challenging thing, I would give you some possibilities, but anything beyond that I knew was Job’s-comforters stuff.
But I’m now even more skeptical that this is the best way to approach our own pain, or others’–as lessons to learn, or messages. Partly I realized how much we project our own beliefs about ourselves or others onto “God”: God is telling you that [thing I already think you should do]! Events are experience, and experience requires interpretation; and I’m on the record as being pretty skeptical that we are always good interpreters of our own experience, let alone others’.
Partly I realized that just because objects in the world are words spoken by God, that doesn’t mean we can see the whole story He’s telling. For one thing, we don’t know how it ends. Before the Resurrection, what would the apostles have thought if they asked what God was trying to tell them with the Crucifixion?
[ETA: I knew I’d forget something!] The focus on God’s uses for pain can make God seem like an evil Rube Goldberg, designing sainthood machines made of cancer fangs. I’m not sure that’s the best way to view the possibility that God uses our pain for specific purposes which we can sometimes discern–God can have a lot of ways of showing us stuff and maybe pain could be one of those ways. We might not be looking at the other ways; and anyway I don’t think saying “there are things you can only learn through pain” is false. (I’m not sure it’s true, but it rings true.) I’m also very open to the possibility that discerning the purposes of events is a specific spiritual gift which others have more than I do.
But I’d already learned to respond to most challenges and catastrophes by saying not, “God is trying to tell me something,” like pain is a code, but, “There is a way to serve God in every situation.” Suffering can be offered up for others; it can change us, make us more humble or more loving; it’s an opportunity to trust in God; when the suffering is a result of societal crimes and “structural sin” it can be an opportunity to fight for justice. These are all ways of serving God through pain. I don’t know if it’s best to think of these acts as revealing the meaning which was always embedded by God in our suffering, or as imbuing our suffering with meaning by imbuing it with love.