God's Providential Speaking: Open and Closed Doors

Dr. Brian Allison

God's providence means His overall superintendence and control of every aspect and detail of the created universe. Henry Thiessen is correct when he states, providence "means that continuous activity of God whereby He makes all the events of the physical, mental, and moral phenomena work out His purposes" (Lectures in Systematic Theology, p. 177). Similarly, Millard Erickson writes, "[The providence of God means] God's activity in guiding and directing the course of events to fulfil the purposes which he has in mind" (Christian Theology, p. 388). The providence of God is all embracing – it involves God's pervasive preserving of the creation, as well as God's exhaustive governing of that creation. God is in absolute control.

God's providential speaking is a special and personal aspect of God's overall providential activity. When we think of God's providential speaking, we have in mind the ordering by God of a person's life circumstances, by which God personally reveals His purposes for that person. Or, if you like, God's providential speaking is God directing and guiding the particular events in someone's life so that certain ordained ends are achieved. Or, again, God's providential speaking is His peculiar and personal leading, through which, in effect, He declares or speaks His will for that person.

Acts 16:6-10 is a specific example of what we mean when we talk about God's providential speaking: "And they passed through the Phrygian and Galatian region, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia; and when they had come to Mysia, they were trying to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them; and passing by Mysia, they came down to Troas. And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a certain man of Macedonia was standing and appealing to him, and saying, 'Come over to Macedonia and help us.' And when he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them." Recall the immediate context of these verses: the apostle Paul, Silas, and Timothy have launched out on a second missionary journey. They have just travelled through the provinces of Syria and Cilicia, endeavouring to revisit the churches to which Paul had ministered on his first missionary journey – in Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch. From here, they thought to extend their missionary efforts.

God works in and through natural circumstances

We can derive a number of helpful principles from this passage, as we think about this matter of the providential speaking of the Lord. The first principle is this: God's providential speaking (or leading) is indistinguishable from the natural flow of the circumstances of life. In Acts 15:36 (the backdrop of Acts 16:6-10), we read, "And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, 'Let us return and visit the brethren in every city in which we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.'" Apparently, Paul and Barnabas were ministering in Antioch, rising each morning and attending unto the spiritual needs of the Christian community. Seemingly, at one point in the course of their local ministry, Paul thought that it would be a good idea to revisit the churches which he and Barnabas had pioneered. It was during the natural flow of the events of his life that the apostle was moved to return to the churches that he had established on his first missionary journey.

Thus, we come to Acts 16:6. Having ministered in the southern part of the province of Galatia, Paul and his company seemingly wanted to launch out into a new missionary undertaking. Perhaps they were sitting there one day; or perhaps they had just finished praying, and Paul may have said, "Silas, wouldn't it be a good idea to do further evangelism? What about doing some evangelism work in Asia?" And as they were endeavouring to extend their missionary efforts and outreach, the Spirit revealed to them, in some way, that they were not to do any evangelism in Asia at that time. Accordingly, they traversed through Asia in a northwesterly direction toward the province of Mysia. Having travelled through Asia, and having surveyed the new situation, they apparently thought it would be a good idea to go into the province of Bithynia. Yet, in the course of events, the Spirit revealed to them that they were not to do evangelism in Bithynia. They again had to change their plans. They thus decided to travel in a southwesterly direction, heading toward Alexandrian Troas, and there they found opportunity to preach the Gospel. But it was in the natural unfolding of life's events that God revealed His directive will. They did not initially know that will or they would not have originally traveled in the directions which they did; rather, they would have traveled directly to the west coast of Asia. The point is this: As circumstances arise, and as decisions have to be made, God is pleased, in that natural setting, to reveal His directive will.

The daily happenings of life are designed to reveal and fulfil God's purposes. A clear Biblical illustration of this truth is found in Judges 14. We read, "Then Samson went down to Timnah and saw a woman in Timnah, one of the daughters of the Philistines [We are not told why Samson went down to Timnah; but, in the course of events, he spotted an attractive woman]. So he came back and told his father and mother, 'I saw a woman in Timnah, one of the daughters of the Philistines; now therefore, get her for me as a wife.' Then his father and his mother said to him, 'Is there no woman among the daughters of your relatives, or among all our people, that you go to take a wife from the uncircumcised Philistines?' But Samson said to his father, 'Get her for me, for she looks good to me'" (vv. 1-3). Samson went to Timnah, and his eyes fell upon a beautiful woman. Accordingly, his hormones were excited, and his feelings were aroused. Of course, a man's attraction to a woman is a very natural thing. For Samson to be attracted to a woman on this particular day was neither unusual nor extraordinary. So, with Samson, we see here the occurrence of a normal event on this given day. But notice what the following verse states, "However, his father and mother did not know that it was of the Lord, for He was seeking an occasion against the Philistines. Now at that time the Philistines were ruling over Israel" (v. 4). Yes, Samson's hormones were excited, and his feelings were aroused – a rather natural phenomenon; and yet we read that God was behind this phenomenon, and even behind the events of this day. God was moving. He was orchestrating. He was working out His purposes through the expressed passion of a man. Again, God's providential speaking is indistinguishable from the natural flow of circumstances; and that is why we need discernment.

Circumstances are the threads of God's tapestry

God orders the minutest details of our lives. We find some profound verses in the Wisdom literature. Proverbs 16:9 reads, "The mind of man plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps." We may say, "I think I will do this or that;" and yet God determines the actual path. Further, God not only determines what we will do, He also orders what we will say. So, Proverbs 16:1 reads, "The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD." God even superintends the actual verbal responses given as a result of our reflective thought. Each of these verses attributes the act of planning to the person, suggesting that such an act is an independent or autonomous one; or, that it is an unaffected or purely human contribution to the event. But notice Proverbs 19:21, "Many are the plans in a man's heart, but the counsel of the LORD, it will stand." God's plan overrides the plans of people. Even our personal planning has no ultimate, independent significance or efficacy. God's counsel has priority, and is determinative. God will have His way; He decides what will come to pass. For instance, Isaiah 46:9-11 reads, "Remember the former things long past, for I am God and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, 'My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure; [for instance] calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of My purpose from a far country. Truly I have spoken; truly I will bring it to pass. I have planned it, surely I will do it.'"

The very fabric of our lives is the tapestry of God. He weaves the design, though it appears to be frayed, and even tattered and thread bare, at points. God is pleased to work supernaturally through natural means. He rules sovereignly. But we are also faced with a mystery. The mystery is that even though God determines and superintends all things, the Scriptures teach the free agency of the individual – our wills are neither exercised nor coerced by God; we freely choose according to our nature. Canadian geese, for example, migrate south for the winter. They 'decide' to fly south (i.e., they are not externally forced to do so); and yet they must fly south (i.e., their instinctual mechanism compels them).

We are not passive puppets, nor are we pathetic pawns in a divine chess match. No, the mystery is that our free volitional expressions, our personal choices and decisions, help comprise the very threads of the tapestry of God. We observe this mystery even in the life of the Lord Jesus Christ. On the one hand, we read our Lord's words in Luke 22:42, "Father, if Thou art willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Thine be done" – absolute submission of the will of the Son to the will of the Father. But, on the other hand, we read our Lord's words to the Jews, "No one has taken it [My life] away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father" (Jn. 10:18). Here the Son's will is clearly primary and determinative. Well, what is it? God's absolute control or the legitimacy of the free agency of the person? – both, and that is the mystery. We ought not to emphasize one truth over, or at the expense of, another truth. That is heresy. And, of course, if the Bible and the Christian faith did not have a mystery about them, then that would certainly prove that they were the creations of man and not of God. But when an infinite, eternal God 'breaks into' finite, temporal history, we can expect apparent contradictions and paradoxes.

So, my Christian brother or sister, in the natural flow of the events of your life, God is working out His purposes. In the natural flow of the happenings of your life, God is speaking His will. Your life is His tapestry; and He is weaving it together for His glory. He is the designer; He is in charge, and He knows what He is doing. That ought to give you peace; that ought to give you a sense of confidence; that ought to inspire your faith. God is finely weaving your life together, fulfilling His eternal plan, even if your life, at times, appears utterly chaotic. Believing this truth should neither result in fatalistic thinking, nor in selfish idleness or complacent passivity. Rather, it ought to make you a person of initiative and courage, with the healthy assurance that all things will redound to His glory. He is God.

God orders opportunities and obstacles

The second principle concerning God's providential speaking is that God's speaking (or leading) is often identified with opportunities and obstacles or, if you like, 'open and closed doors'. Again, in this particular account in Acts, the Spirit forbade Paul and his company from evangelizing Asia. Hence, having been confronted with a 'closed door', they moved northward; it obviously was not God's will for them to minister in the Phrygian and Galatian region. Subsequently, they endeavoured to make inroads into the province of Bithynia, but they confronted another 'closed door'; again, it was not the Lord's will. Accordingly, they headed southward to Troas. There they found an 'open door'; that was obviously the Lord's will for them. In Troas, they received the vision to go over to Macedonia, another 'open door'; and that too was the Lord's will.

Now, commentators are uncertain about the actual nature of the Spirit's forbidding of Paul, Silas, and Timothy to preach the Gospel in Asia. They are equally uncertain about the Spirit's disallowance of their preaching in Bithynia. In what sense did the Spirit forbid? In what sense did the Spirit disallow? Some believe that the forbidding and disallowance refer to a prophetic utterance – God seemingly revealed His will through a prophet to them. Some believe that these acts of the Spirit refer to strong internal impressions. Still others believe that these acts refer to external circumstances. I believe this last interpretation is perhaps the best one.

There are a number of reasons why I believe this. When you consider the meaning and usage of the Greek terms 'forbid' and 'permit', they suggest action, rather than actual verbalization. When we have direct verbalization attributed to the Spirit, we find the language "said" or "spoke" used. For instance, we read in Acts 13:2, "And while they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, 'Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.'" Even with the mediation of people or a prophet, we find similar language. So, for example, Acts 21:4 reads, "And after looking up the disciples, we stayed there seven days; and they kept telling Paul through the Spirit not to set foot in Jerusalem."

The word 'forbid' simply means 'to impede action or progress'. French Arrington, in his commentary, The Acts of the Apostles (p. 166), asserts, "It [forbid] signifies a forceful intervention, as though the Spirit flung a barrier across the road into Asia." We possibly could be looking at such deterrents as persecution or a political restraint or some legal restrictions. Interestingly, in 1 Thessalonians 2:15,16, we find the same Greek term used; but here it is attributed to the Jews; yet the two texts may refer to a common event. We read, "Who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out. They are not pleasing to God, but hostile to all men, hindering [same term] us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved." In a very real sense, with people preventing Paul from preaching, God, at the same time, was preventing him from preaching.

This double-natured truth is clearly evident with the account of Joseph. Recall that Joseph's brothers sold him to the Ishmaelites, and he went down into Egypt. And yet Joseph assured his brothers, "And now do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life" (Gen. 45:5). Similarly, Joseph informed his brothers, "And as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive" (Gen. 50:20). God works and performs His will through human instrumentality. Such appeared to be the case with the preventing or hindering of Paul and his company.

Another example of God hindering Paul's progress through human instrumentality is found in an account in Acts 20. We read, "And after the uproar had ceased, Paul sent for the disciples and when he had exhorted them and taken his leave of them, he departed to go to Macedonia. And when he had gone through those districts and had given them much exhortation, he came to Greece. And there he spent three months, and when a plot was formed against him by the Jews as he was about to set sail for Syria [his intended plans had to change], he determined to return through Macedonia." Do you think that it was God's will that Paul return through Macedonia? I think so. He thus had the opportunity to summon the Ephesian elders to Miletus and give them final instructions and exhortations. That was God's purpose; and we today, as others have in the past, benefit from this serious and poignant pastoral instruction. God was in charge, and yet He used human instrumentality.

God's opportunities may be unpleasant

The parallel phrase to the Spirit's forbidding – "And the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them" – also suggests the circumstantial, rather than the verbal or mystical. Paul and his company were endeavouring, through intent and effort, to go into Bithynia. The Spirit ordered adverse circumstances. Now, this is a critical point: 'open doors' can be either good or bad in character. Sometimes when we think of 'open doors', we often have some positive notion in mind. But an 'open door' can involve much trouble, adversity, and problems. God is pleased to 'open doors', in revealing His directive will, and we ought not to necessarily associate such with the good or the pleasant. For instance, on the one hand, according to the Acts account, Paul went from the borders of Bithynia, a 'closed door', down to Troas, an 'open door'. 2 Corinthians 2:12 confirms, "Now when I [Paul] came to Troas for the gospel of Christ and when a door was opened for me in the Lord, I had no rest for my spirit." So, apparently Paul could freely preach. But, he had other 'open doors' which involved tribulation. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 16:8,9, the apostle wrote, "But I shall remain in Ephesus until Pentecost; for a wide door for effective service has opened to me, and there are many adversaries" – an 'open door' with suffering and persecution.

Jonah had an 'open door'. God commanded Jonah to go and preach to the Ninevites. Jonah replied with a flat 'no', and fled in the opposite direction. He sought to flee from the presence of God. He decided to go to Tarsus. He therefore made his way to the port Joppa. He must have been delightfully surprised at his 'good fortune' when he found a ship departing to Tarsus; perhaps saying, "What do you know, a ship that I can board to go to Tarsus. What an opportunity; this is great. Maybe it is God's will that I do not go to preach to those pagan Ninevites." That 'open door' almost cost Jonah his life, but it was God's will. God had prepared trouble for Jonah in order to teach him and bring him to repentance. God was going to have His way; Jonah repented and preached to the Ninevites.

We may also consider the man Job. He experienced much pain and privation in his life, but it was all under the providence of God. God sovereignly allowed all his possessions to be confiscated, all his children to be killed, and his body to be racked with disease. When we think of the providence of God, remember that this providence is often a dark one; and for some of God's children, it may be a desperately dark providence. God may give you an 'open door', making His will known to you; and you will enter that 'door', but it will seem like your world is falling apart. You may then exclaim, "Maybe I made a mistake." Not necessarily. At those times, you need to continue to trust Him, even if He eventually is pleased to slay you (see Job 13:15).

Further, what you may think is good, or appears to be good, may not necessarily be God's will. Just as the 'open doors' are not always peaceful or prosperous 'doors', even so, not everything that is good, or appears good, is God's will. King David momentarily viewed an illicit relationship with Bathsheba as good. But it was not God's will, and it cost David his peace for the rest of his life. Further, what may appear as an 'open door' may not be one. Not every opportunity ready at hand is God's will. Again, I refer to King David's tragedy. Thus, we require discernment; and thus we must continuously pray. Moreover, to know God's will requires that we are living for that will, and are seeking to honour and please Him, especially in fulfilling that will. His will is supreme. Our chief goal is to surrender to that will; and that endeavour should be our greatest delight.

God confirms His will

The third principle concerning God's providential speaking is that God's providential speaking (or leading) is often accompanied by some spiritual or inner confirmation. In the case of Paul, Silas, and Timothy, there was the apostle's vision – "And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a certain man of Macedonia was standing and appealing to him, and saying, 'Come over to Macedonia and help us.' And when he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them." This is a direct confirmation. It was indisputable what God's will was. But do not discount the place of rational reflection. That fact is implied in the term 'concluding'. These men apparently thought about the vision and its meaning, and came to a mutual understanding about it. They discerned the Lord's will.

Now, for us, though we should not normatively expect to receive visions, we should still expect spiritual or inner confirmation of the external circumstances which confront us. That confirmation may be a sense of peace when a decision has been made (even though it may involve difficulty and problems); or it may be a sense of confidence or assurance, as God bears witness with our spirits. For instance, the apostle Paul was resigned and at peace when the prophet Agabus prophesied that he would be bound in Jerusalem by the Jews and delivered to the Gentiles. To which his companions protested and begged him not to go to Jerusalem. And we read, "Then Paul answered, 'What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but even to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.' And since he would not be persuaded, we fell silent, remarking, 'The will of the Lord be done!'" (Acts 21:13, 14).

So, we should expect inner confirmation of the outer circumstances. Yet, we are not to abandon reason or common sense. Yes, we are to walk in faith (which will bring this sense of peace or assurance, for faith does recognize and embrace God's will), but we are not to neuter our brains in order to walk in the Spirit. Again, Paul and his company, though recipients of revelation, 'concluded' that they were to pursue a specific course of action.

Now, we must be careful when we refer to the place and legitimacy of the subjective. We must not rely upon mere feelings, and trust them to interpret and confirm the circumstances. Feelings often deceive. To have a nice, warm, 'fuzzy feeling' running down your spine is no guarantee of the rightness of a decision or the certainty of God's will. Some have experienced deep trouble and pain because of acting on the basis of a nice, warm 'fuzzy feeling'. It must be a matter of faith; and that faith, through the Spirit, brings a peace, an assurance, a confidence. We are to think about the circumstances. We are to rationally reflect upon the unfolding of events, endeavouring to know God's mind; and hence conclude that a certain 'open door' is indeed God's will.

Of course, if that is to be the case, as mentioned, we must continually bathe ourselves and our circumstances in prayer; and I cannot overestimate that fact. I am positive, though it is not recorded, that Paul, Silas, and Timothy engaged in continual prayer on their travels. Paul's epistles constrain us to believe so. That is why, from the human side, I believe that they received clear direction. If you diligently, dependently, and constantly pray, God will also give you clear direction. However, keep in mind that the direction will not always be clear to you initially. Even Paul and his company did not know initially that they were to evangelize Macedonia, rather than Asia, at that time in history. It was only as they were 'in the way' that they came to realize God's leading. Similarly, as you seek to move forward, as you seek to 'knock on doors', if you are praying, and if you are wholly dependent upon God, having no confidence in self, endeavouring only to please Him in all things, then God will most definitely direct you, and you most assuredly will discern that directive will. You will 'hear' His providential speaking.

Every day God is speaking. In accepting, yielding to, and embracing the daily circumstances of life, in faith, whatever they may be – good or bad – you will be accepting His blessed will, which ought to be our greatest joy and deepest delight.