I recently had a conversation with a man who made a major life decision that turned out poorly. This man apparently did everything right—he based his decision on careful research of the available facts, the application of sound biblical principles to these facts, the unanimous advice of wise counsel, and much prayer. But after the decision was made, new and unforeseeable (not just unforeseen, but unforeseeable) circumstances occurred to create additional hardship and ultimately to scuttle his intentions.
What should we think about this situation? There are basically two options:
(1) We could conclude that since the plan failed, the man must have made a bad decision. The assumption here is that all decisions made within God’s will must and will succeed. If they don’t, then the decision-maker is necessarily to blame. Perhaps he didn’t research enough, read his Bible enough, pray enough, or maybe he missed some ineffable clue that God left along the way. Whatever the particulars, the man must have missed something, because God always reveals all the information necessary for successful decisions.
(2) We could conclude that even though the decision failed, this failure offers no necessary commentary at all on the man’s decision-making capabilities. He may not be guilty of a bad decision or even of a “mistake,” but may instead have simply experienced the frowning providence that overtakes us all from time to time in accordance with God’s secret purposes in this sin-cursed world.
It is of course possible that this man missed some important piece of data, counsel, or biblical principle that, if heeded, might have averted the hardship (I’ll leave off the ‘ineffable clue’ bit for now). The Scriptures do, after all, say many positive things about planning, the wisdom of godly counsel, and the study of Scripture for its riches that thoroughly equip the man of God for every good work (2 Tim 3:16). But at the end of the day, it is possible to make every necessary inquiry, discover every pertinent text, and access all of the available counsel, and still experience failure. God doesn’t always give us all the data we want; he doesn’t guarantee success by slipping us personal revelations or prophetic windows into the future; and he doesn’t guarantee that all our righteous plans will succeed. That’s just not how it works, as Job so aptly illustrates for us. Indeed, the Scriptures give abundant testimony of those who were “tortured, faced jeers and flogging, were chained and imprisoned, were stoned, sawn in two, and put to death by the sword, went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated, wandering in deserts and mountains, in caves and holes in the ground, and died without receiving what had been promised” (Heb 11:35–39). Indeed, as the biblical author so aptly points out, our final plans always terminate in failure: the dark maw of death is the prescribed end for us all. This is not due ultimately to bad decision-making, but because in God’s wisdom he has decreed suffering/death as a portal to joy in the universal experience of all his children.
So what is my friend to do? Surely he should confess and learn from any errors he may have made (if he made any), but above all, he should exhibit the faithfulness, patience, and trust in God that marked his biblical forebears, trusting God to divulge, in this life or the next, the promise that stands fixed behind every cloud of frowning providence that inevitably accrues to God’s people.
God moves in a mysterious way
his wonders to perform:
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
and rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
of never-failing skill,
He treasures up his bright designs,
and works his sovereign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
the clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
in blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
but trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
he hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
unfolding every hour:
The bud may have a bitter taste,
but sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err,
and scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
and he will make it plain.