The annoying tendency of some to know what God is doing

The annoying tendency of some to know what God is doing May 12, 2005

When I was teaching at TEDS one of my students showed up to class late, and then proceeded to tell me her “story”: she knew God wanted her to come to class on time, she knew Satan was against her getting to class, and some demons had gotten into her tank and sucked out all the gas. When I suggested that maybe filling up the tank earlier would have helped, she looked at me like I had denied God’s ability to do miracles in our modern world.

I don’t think I have problems with miracles; I’m all for them. But, I admit that I have a problem with the sort of Christian who seems to know, always I mean, what God is doing and why God is doing what he is doing, and what specific purposes God is teaching them all the time. “God had my gas run out to teach me to trust him even when I don’t have my supplies.” Pooh pooh I think to myself. This student said God was giving her an opportunity to cast out demons and ride on in victory over the waves of demons and doubt. (Or words to that effect.)

Sociologists and psychologists call this “attribution theory.” It is pretty sophisticated stuff but the essence of it is this: some humans have a need to name everything so they can explain things to themselves, control the world through their “story,” and give for themselves a sense of meaning to this world — where not all things happen as planned. They attribute divine motives to human events.

And, I’ll admit these people annoy me. I think to myself: “How do you know what God is doing in this incident? How do you seem to know what God is always teaching you?” And, to make matters worse, I can get a little accusatory about it all: “Why are you so stinkin’ narcissistic?” Well, this is not nice on my part, and not much of a loving attitude, but it’s true and I might as well admit it.

It is not that I have what is called an “open” view of God. My view of God is that God is so big even all our possible plans are in his calculus of what would have and could have and might have happened. I think this is called “middle knowledge.” No, I’m not one who thinks these people are off base because they know the mind of God, a mind that can’t be known. Instead, I think along these lines: think about what God is doing and see how you fit into that plan instead of thinking about yourself all the time.

Frankly, this is a pleasing theological position. It seems so blessedly theocentric and christocentric and all that stuff that theologians think.

Until you read Psalms, esp those early psalms of King David who seems always to know what God is doing and how his enemies are enemies of God and how his deliverances are God’s deliverances.

And when I read these I wonder if maybe I shouldn’t at times be more patient with my brothers and sisters who, like me, are trying to make sense of the “story” they find themselves in. Even if they annoy me.

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  • I heard Bruce Waltke say that, when we attached God’s name to things that He is not involved in, we are taking His name in vain. That is, we are identifying His name with a vain purpose.That changed my speech patterns immediately. No more “God led me to . . .” or anything close to it. The truth is, I don’t always know – or, ever with certainty – if and when He’s involved in some things and when He isn’t.

  • I wonder if it was the same girl–In my final year at TEDS, I edited the student newspaper–“THE SCRIBE.” The previous year, the then-editor had made the commitment to publish two papers per quarter. I had started writing articles for it, and helping here and there. She ended up publishing one paper in the first quarter, missed the next, and then one in the third quarter.When I asked her why she did not follow through on her commitment, she actually told me that God TOLD HER not to publish the paper as much as was intended.I gave her a double-take. What?Did you actually hear the Almighty’s voice tell you not to follow through on your commitment? Wow! I want that hotline!

  • I have a similar response to the type of people you are talking about. There is a student at my high school alma matre who is in leadership of a club there called 2nd Gear. He claims to have “revelation after revelation” in his words. I don’t discount the possiblity of revelations existing in authenticity but the describtions he provides of these revelations don’t sound like revelations to me. It seems to me that people often exagerate a simple occurense and make it out to be a “revelation” or a sign from God. I think that in the Psalms there is a difference. In the Hebrew mind everthing was “spiritual” there was not a mutual exclusive distinction between spiritual occurences and physical action. The psalms are peotry right? is not poetry an illustration, so to speak, of what the world is like? Maybe there is a certain propriety of this “attriution theory” in peotry. what do you think?

  • Sorry, long comment.In the 5th year of our marraige, my wife and I were struggling with an inability to become pregnant. After several years of trying, we starting looking for medical help, and went through a series of tests to find some answers. In the middle of these tests, one of my wife’s friends, someone who often has supposed revelations and prophecies, spoke a “prophetic word” to my wife that God was keeping us from becoming pregnant, because we weren’t fit to be parents.I guess you would have to know my wife to know how absurd this comment was. I’ve never known anyone more fit to be a mother than her. My wife was just crushed, even though she didn’t believe that this was a “prophetic word”, she shouldn’t believe the cruelty of this person to say something like that.I’ve been struggling with it ever since. It seems so unlike God to give a prophecy or revalation that doesn’t promote repentance, or action, or some sort of response. This did none of those things. What were supposed to repent of, infertility? What were we supposed to do, take action in some way to … what? The only response it engendered was humiliation, despair, and anger.Shortly after that conversation, we became pregnant, and are expecting our first child at the end of June. I’m no levitical theocratist, but part of me thinks people would be more careful about claiming God’s authorization for their “prophetic words” if the punishment for being wrong was being stoned to death.

  • In the Vineyard, we always cautioned people against using that kind of “Thus saith the Lord…” kind of comments. We encouraged (trained) people to say things like “I think this what God is showing me — what do you think?”This not only took away some of the elitist know-it-all mentality, it also involved the person receiving the “word” by the use of their own discernment, which in turn provided some level of accoutability for the person delivering the word.Have you had a chance to look through Wayne Grudem’s “The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament & Today“?I highly recommend it as a resource for understanding how prophetic ministry can function in a healthy, biblical way.

  • Sorry, friends, I’m not talking here about the “gift of prophecy” but the way our friends talk about the routines bits of life and know what God is always doing and, especially what he is doing to them and why he is doing that.As when someone says… I missed the green light, and I think God did that so I could have you pull up next to me and visit with me. Maybe so.This is the sort of thing.

  • It annoys me too.I recently heard about a boy I went to high school with going to jail for his second DUI. Apparently there was a night that, “God wouldn’t let him get a DUI.” Obviously it didn’t work. This is obviously an extreme (and ridiculous) example, but I think this sort of thinking is basically the same as how we project ourselves onto the person of Jesus. We want to think that not only do we have God’s will completely contained within our understanding, but that His will is basically just like ours. How foolish we are…

  • Amen. Good word.

  • There seems to be a fine line between “practicing the presence of God” as taught by more mystic oriented Church Mothers and Fathers and the explanation of God’s presence as told by the TEDS student. I had a friend tell me he wouldn’t “get out of bed,” “brush his teeth.” etc. unless God told him to do so because he “didn’t want to do anything ‘in the flesh.'” Mike reported Waltke’s view of this stuff and I heard Bruce say the same thing…to attribute to God what is our own doing is a violation of YHWH–lifting his name to nothing. How do you practice the presence of God?

  • John,I believe we should live before God, in Christ, in the Spirit and with a conscious awareness of attending to God. So, practicing the presence of God — which brother Lawrence and Frank Laubach both taught us occurs most notably in a constant conversation with God — is the vocation of the Christian.My “annoying” student, who typifies so many, makes me think less of practicing God’s presence as practicing God’s service of us. But, in fact, the language of the two — say Brother Lawrence and this student — may sometimes be the same but the orientation so different.And, to be honest, we ought to be a lot less vocal and a lot more humble about such things, if not just because it annoys so many.

  • I totally agree with the inherent narcissism of the “God told me…the demons thwarted me” expression of God’s immediate presence. Also, Scot, I agree that it presents a “bell boy” view of God. I think that attending to God’s presence is very much the heart of the Jesus Creed and it is expressed in deliberate, volitional actions of love to God and others, i.e., more in praxis than in words or conscious awareness. Is this going in the right direction?

  • What would it look like to live in the certainty of God’s sovereignty in all of these petty circumstances of life, but to remain humble and circumspect regarding the interpretation of that sovereignty.I had a flat tire? God is sovereign. What does it mean? I’m entirely the wrong person to interpret his sovereignty. Just because I understand that God has knit together the means and ends of every passing moment doesn’t qualify me to interpret his means and ends. Scot, something in your initial post came back to me. David’s relationship with God seemed, at times, wildly narcissistic. Just a thought, but he lived most of his live with the revealed knowledge that he was appointed by God to a position of theocratic mediation, and covenantal significance. That seems to be a special circumstance of sorts, and might give credence to his interpretation that those working against his ascension to that position, or against his fulfillment of it, were truly opposing God. The spectacular certainty of his calling may have put him in a unique position to accurately interpret the circumstances of his life in that way.

  • Anonymous

    just wanted to note, Scot, that “attribution theory” is appropriated by sociologists and psychologists for the same reason. They just use naturalistic explanations and labels like “attribution theory.” Just thought I would point out the irony. Good article.

  • Anonymous

    Grudem’s book is seriously flawed. I like his theological positions in general, but he misuses a couple of central Scriptures to his argument (self-admittingly so by the way) to where his whole argument actually collapses.

  • Anonymous

    I think, Scot, you’re addressing Christians interpreting events via unknown/unrevealed intentions of God, right? I can say God did this because in His Scripture this is why He always does this, but I can’t say that He did this or that when I have no Scripture to inform me of His current intentions. As Deut 29 states “The hidden things belong to YHWH, but the things revealed belong to us and our children.”

  • Anonymous,Please give name so I can use my own “attribution” theory.Yes, I’m aware of the social sciences on this, and from them it was that I got it: I used it a bit in my Turning to Jesus book.Won’t get into the Grudem book here. My concern is not with prophetic utterances.I like the idea sticking to Scripture — but Scripture is our normative guide, and by that I mean it also “guides” us into our world. I don’t have the problem with “that this can at times be done,” but with “how it is so often done.”And I’m aware that these folk are trying to put life together, and they are my brothers and sisters, and so I want to listen to them, too.Are we never to be able to concur with our brothers and sisters when they think they sense a “God thing” (their language, not mine) or something in line with God’s providence? Are we to toss out these things just because some think they always know what God is doing?On David, I understand he is in Scripture and, after all, the king of Israel. But, these are personal prayers writ public for us now — and they set the guide for how we are to pray to God. So, while I am with you part way, I’m not sure that we can excuse David from “attributions” because he is king.A theological explanation of life is not the worst thing to suffer from.

  • Brian

    Some years ago I played on a church softball team that knew the agony of defeat far better than the thrill of victory. One evening as our demise was becoming evident in yet another game one of my teammates asked, “I wonder what the Lord is trying to teach us?” After pondering the complexities of the question I responded, “I think he is trying to tell us that we are not hitting.”