Reading providence is a fool's game, yet it never lacks players.
Discontented with Scripture, yearning for something God never promises, countless Christians read feelings, circumstances, events, hoping to discern God's personal coded messages in them. They may not use tea-leaves and chicken gizzards, but they no less are acting as diviners rather than divines. The results can be devastating and enslaving.
One particular point of conventional diviner's wisdom is the idea that God's hand can be discerned by the feelings a situation creates. A girl I knew decades ago decided against something important because thinking about it made her feel confused, and "God is not the author of confusion" (1 Corinthians 14:33, kidnapped at gunpoint from its context), so it could not be of God. QED.
God's hand, His presence in an event, is discerned (we're told) by the feelings of serene peace, joy, love, and/or closeness to God that we feel. If it makes us happy, if it makes us feel close to God, then it is of God. If it's frightening and repellent, God cannot be in it.
When you state it in broad sunlight, it's fairly silly on the face of it, and advocates must hastily trot out the "but-but-but"'s. But one passage in particular, from Mark 6, strikes me as fairly fatal to the view.
45 Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. ...47 And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. 48 And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, 49 but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, 50 for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, "Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid."Note again verse 49—"they all saw him and were terrified."
What was it they saw? It was in fact Jesus. They actually were looking right at Him, they saw Him on the water. And He was there to do them good, with nothing but love in His heart for them. But they misperceived Him, they did not see Jesus as Jesus, and they mispercieved the significance of what they did see. Instead, they saw Him as a ghost, a being that struck horror in their hearts. The emotions that seeing Jesus stirred in them were not peace, joy, love, and closeness to God. They were terrified, they were filled with alarm and fear at the sight of Jesus.
It was Jesus they saw; it was not Jesus they perceived. What they experienced did not mean what they thought it meant.
Now, a Spurgeon could make a wonderful sermon out of this, but, since "a man's got to know his limitations," I'll be briefer, more direct, vastly less eloquent.
Perhaps you've had a horrid turn of events in your life. Perhaps, in fact, you've experienced nasty, bitter, painful reversals (or worse) in your ministry, your marriage, your family, your health, your job, your relationships. Perhaps the immediate effect of this (or these) is the grinding misery of despair, the daily, downhill erosion of hope—or at bare minimum, a temptation in that direction.
Your most natural fear is that this reversal reflects God's heart towards you. Is God trying to tell you something, by these calamities? Is He sending you a coded message? Is God telling you that He is angry with you, He is displeased with you, He doesn't love you anymore? Is God trying to hurt you, and "spank" you? If so, the spanking seems to stretch on and on endlessly, though you've no idea what you've done to anger Him so, or how you can make it right with Him.
Alternately, we might reflect for a moment on a private individual (or a pastor, or other leader) who is experiencing great success. The person is getting his way at work, family, church, society at large. A lot of notches are being scored. Does this signify God's pleasure? Is this — as I've heard countless times — "the Lord's blessing," not to be argued with nor gainsaid? Can five thousand Frenchmen be wrong?
Yes, they can. Five thousand, five million, or one; French, Hispanic, or American. Whether pastoral ministry or personal life, the interpretive matrix is not and cannot be the experience itself. Experiences are not self-interpreting. For the Christian, insofar as he is practicing the faith he professes, the Bible provides the interpretive grid.
So again I ask the question: Is this how a Christian should respond to life's miseries or successes? Should he try to read them as encrypted messages from God, trying to discern His heart and directions from them?
Of course we should search our lives for sin. We should test ourselves (1 Corinthians 11:32; 2 Corinthians 13:5), we should be killing sin lest sin be killing us (Owen; cf. Romans 8:13). But we should do that at all times, not merely when things are going badly. The "fatness" of the wicked is no sign of God's approval (Psalm 73), nor is the adversity of the righteous a sure indicator of His disfavor (Job). In fact, the precise reverse may be the case (1 Peter 2:20b).
Read God's stance towards you, and discern God's will for you, in the perspicuous volume of Scripture—not in the opaque codebook of Providence.
Is the Lord "in the storm"? I think it depends on what we mean by that. Rather than guessing and second-guessing, we must at least embrace that the Lord owns the storm, and He controls the storm (Psalm 115:3; Ephesians 1:11), and can either send it (Jonah 1:4), or still it (Psalm 107:29; Mark 4:39 ["Hush! Be still!"]).
But the storm is not what tells you whether God loves you or is pleased with you, or what He holds you accountable for doing. That is found in the Word, and in Jesus Christ to whom the Word points. In Him we find God's love, and His unshakable purpose for good, a good that brings life's storms into its train of invincible purpose (Romans 8:28).
Providence, when it can be read at all, is usually read only in retrospect, in the "afterwards," the "later" -- as in "For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it" (Hebrews 12:11).
The great '50's movie The Thing from Another World ends with the words, "Keep watching the skies!"
The better watchword for the believer is, "To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn" (Isaiah 8:20).