The Kwakum people, whom we work with, believe that they are surrounded by the spirits of their ancestors. This might sound romantic or even exciting, but in reality for most Kwakum people it is terrifying. I think I have shared the story here before, but early on in our ministry, we did a language survey with a man in a different village whom we had never met before. At the end of the survey we asked him if there were any ways we could be praying for him. At that point, he nearly started weeping. He told us that his mother had died a few months ago and he was unable to attend her funeral (a serious offense). Now, he wasn’t sure if she was angry with him, or what he should do to have her not be angry with him. In this situation, the Kwakum people often seek such knowledge by interpreting events that occur around them. They will try to read into their circumstances, from something simple like food falling from a plate, to severe sickness, in order to figure out what the spirits want. They also seek guidance from “shamans” who are able to communicate better with the spiritual world.
In the years since our arrival, we have been able to see Kwakum people come to faith in Jesus Christ. I have noticed that at times, their previous beliefs about spirits get translated into their relationship with God. They will try to interpret circumstances, impressions, and dreams in order to try to understand how God feels about them, and what he wants them to do. While this practice is based in their culture’s animism, it is not completely foreign to me as a non-animistic American. I once read of an American woman who was considering going on a vacation. She prayed for it one night, and the next morning woke up at exactly 7:47am. Being that 747 is also a type of airplane, she took this to be an answer to prayer and she booked a flight.
As an American, honestly, when people talk about supernatural guidance through circumstances, I tend to brush it off as absurd. While I believe in the spirit world, practically I tend to live as though the spirit world does not interact with physical reality. The Kwakum are quite the opposite. In fact, they tend to interpret most events as having a cause in the spirit world. For instance, if someone drops money in front of a Kwakum person and doesn’t know it, the finder will pick it up and tell themselves, “God sent this to me.”
There are three main dangers that I can see in trying to interpret our circumstances in this way: 1) the subjective nature of interpretation, 2) interpreting the unclear can distract us from the clear, and 3) God is not the only one who has a plan for our lives.
1. The subjective nature of interpretation
I have found that humans tend not to be the best interpreters. We tend to interpret what other people do/say based not on the person, but based on ourselves. We don’t really think, “What did they mean by that?” But rather, “What would I have meant if I had said that?” This is why we get offended, even when offense was not intended. I have seen that people seem to do this with God as well. I knew a young Christian that was in a sexual relationship with her unbelieving boyfriend. She knew the relationship was wrong, but she would say things like, “If God didn’t want me in this relationship, why would He have brought him into my life.” The truth is God could have brought her boyfriend into her life for a number of reasons, but she was choosing to interpret their meeting based on her own desires.
When we think of dreams, events, or circumstances, our interpretations are extremely subjective. I often hear from people who have started to pursue a life of foreign missions, but encountered what they call a “closed door.” Perhaps their visa is denied, or they get sick, or they are offered their dream job, or even they are rejected by their preferred missions organization. This leads them to abandon foreign missions completely. However, if you ask most missionaries, you will find that their lives have been filled with similar circumstances. Adoniram Judson became a Baptist and thus lost his support on the way to Burma, he also lost two wives and a number of children on the field. Amy Carmichael spent years on the field sick in bed. Elinor Young was crippled by polio at age 5! While some would say (and did say) that this was a clear sign that God did not want Elinor to be a missionary, she interpreted it differently. She went on to serve the Kimyal people in what is now called Papua. She literally had to be carried into the village. One person interprets a difficulty as a closed door, the other as a hurdle to jump over. The choice between the two interpretations is very subjective.
2. Interpreting the unclear can distract from the clear
I have noticed a common thread in friends who spend a lot of time trying to interpret circumstances/ impressions/dreams: they tend to be ignoring clear commands in Scripture. In college I had a roommate that spent a lot of time talking about impressions he had as to what God was wanting for his life. It came out that during this time he was also regularly using drugs and alcohol. There is a new believer among the Kwakum that is always trying to find interpretations to his dreams. Just recently, this same young man confessed that he had been pursuing an adulterous relationship.
I am not making the claim that those who rely on interpretations of circumstances and dreams are always living in sin. However, I do believe that sometimes (maybe even often) spending time pursuing the subjective can distract us from obeying the objective commands of Scripture. In my own life I can say that the times in which I felt the most uncertain about what God wanted from my life were the same times that I was not seeking to obey clear commands. Conversely, I often found guidance for my future not by seeking significance in circumstances, but in obeying what I already know God wants me to do.
3. God isn’t the only one who has a plan for your life
Recently I was listening to the book Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In the story the main character, Raskolnikov, gets the idea to commit a murder. At the beginning of the story, he wrestles with whether or not he can really do it. At some points it seems like he dismisses the idea, at others it seems as though he doesn’t even have a choice. Raskolnikov finally decides to follow through with his plan because of his interpretation of a few circumstances, including: overhearing the time in which his intended victim will be at home alone, overhearing a conversation in which someone makes a claim that murder can be justified, and finally finding an unattended axe.
When Raskolnikov finds the axe. He thinks to himself: “When all reason fails, the devil helps!” This line struck me because I realized that when people are seeking to interpret their circumstances, they are looking for an intelligent design behind these events. They are looking to find meaning, and plan in what is happening around them. People in America often comfort themselves with the saying, “Everything happens for a reason.” Raskolnikov believed this, at least in practice. He wasn’t attributing these chance happenings to God, but believed that they happened for a reason. Specifically, they were to him a confirmation that he should go ahead with the murder.
I think sometimes we should not look at circumstances as having any spiritual plan behind them. Other times, I do believe that God guides us through circumstances. But I want to propose that sometimes circumstances are guided, but not by God. I believe it is possible that Satan at times guides are circumstances for his own purposes. There was certainly some planning going on behind the circumstances in Job’s life which were permitted by God, but planned by Satan. Satan is a real person, one who has plans, one who hates God and us. I don’t doubt for a second that Satan too has a plan for our lives. But that plan is not for our good, or our success.
When we make decisions, we have to consider many factors. Some factors have a greater place on the hierarchy of values, and therefore, some have a lower place. Interpretation of circumstances is subjective, at times distracting, and even can be guided by a sinister power. So, I believe we should consider such interpretation as dangerous, and rely on more objective means for seeking to know who God is and what he wants. The clearest and most helpful resource we have for this is the Bible. Unfortunately, for many people groups, they do not have access to the entire Bible. My prayer is that the more we translate, the more that they will come to know the God who is not capricious like their spirits. They will come to know that God is consistent, and worthy of their trust, hope, and confidence. And when they do, I pray that they will worship him in the ways he has commanded.