Tuesday, March 25, 2008

How Do We Know the Will of God: "Experientially" or through Scripture?

What is God's will? How do we know and follow it? Is following God's will a matter of cultivating an intimacy with God that develops within us the ability to "hear His voice" (inwardly and supernaturally) and thereby receive precise, specific guidance from Him day-by-day for all our choices, big and small? Or does the Bible present a different way of knowing and doing His will that does not depend upon direct supernatural revelation, but rather might be described as applying the "way of wisdom"-- obeying God's revealed will in moral matters, choosing wisely and with liberty where there is no specific biblical command, and trusting that God will sovereignly work out His plan for our good in our less-than-perfect choices?

A recent book, Walking with God, by bestselling author John Eldredge, presents the "hearing from God" approach. Blogger Tim Challies has written a critical review of the volume, taking Eldredge to task for the book's lack of "deliberate teaching" or "carefully building a case" for its teachings. Challies notes that the book is structured "more like a blog than a typical Eldrege book... four broad divisions in the book follow the seasons but there are no chapter divisions."

According to Challies, "Walking with God" presents Eldredge's very personal account of how in his own walk with God he has learned to discern and respond to God's specific directives. Eldredge claims that Christians who learn this way of walking with God and hearing Him speak specifically to their lives gain confidence that they are walking in the "center of God's will." This approach to knowing God and His will might be called an "experiential model", since in it walking closely with God in large part means cultivating the art of "hearing God's voice"--and hearing God's voice means getting specific revelations from God (experiences of supernatural guidance).

The "experiential" model of knowing God's will is now, and has been, very popular in contemporary Christianity for a long while, especially as it has been promoted by bestselling authors like Eldredge, and in such books as "Experiencing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God" by Henry Blackaby and Claude V. King.

In the review Tim Challies points out that many Christians do not believe that God communicates to us in this way [i.e., the "hearing from God", experiential model], and that knowing this,

...Eldredge makes a brief attempt to persuade in a section titled “Does God Still Speak?” His argument, it must be admitted even by his supporters, is hardly likely to convince those who have strong convictions on the matter. He primarily looks to the examples of God speaking to people in Scripture and concludes that this proves such communication is normative. Though he does acknowledge Scripture to be the first and foremost means of God’s revelation to us, and though he looks often to Scripture, he still insists that all Christians should expect to hear God speak to them personally. Nowhere does he interact with thoughtful objections to such communication. He essentially takes it as a given that God will offer fresh revelation today.

While Eldredge's book offers "little formal guidance on how to hear God’s voice, writes Challies, "it does suggest a process that goes something like this: Ask simple questions; remain in a posture of quiet surrender; sit quietly before God and repeat the question; try one answer and then the other in your heart and gauge how you feel about each. Carrying over from his previous books is the assumption that the human heart is inherently good and trustworthy. We can listen to our hearts and allow it to discern for us what is good and bad, right and wrong. Though God may speak in an audible voice, primarily we “hear” him in our hearts."

In such an approach to God's will, there appears to be an assumption that we need to be on God's "supernatural wavelength" so that we don't miss out on God's individual, specific will for us and make serious missteps in our choices. Accordingly, Challies notes, in Eldredge's model one feels compelled to ask God for "direct guidance in every area of life", from everything to "Do you want me to paint the bathroom?" to "Should I stay late at work?" to what Scripture passage He would have us read each day, lest we miss some vital word from God.

In the conclusion of his review Challies writes:

... As a glimpse into the life of John Eldredge this book may have some appeal. But as a guide to hearing from God, it has little value. What the author teaches is fraught with peril. Feeling that we need to hear direct and fresh revelation from God in every matter is a prescription for paralysis. Though such a discussion is beyond the scope of this short review, it is far better and far more consistent with Scripture to see that there is no such thing as the center of God’s will. God gives us the Bible to guide us to what He expressly commands and forbids. Beyond those black and white commands, He gives us great freedom to live our lives. He does not expect or demand that we will stop to demand answers from a “still small voice” for every situation we face. Instead, we fill our minds with Scripture, we study His commands, and we live life in the freedom He offers. Walking with God offers confusion rather than clarity. Take a pass on this one.

If then, the "hearing from God" approach to finding and living out God's will described in "Walking with God" is not helpful (because not supported by Scripture), how can we know and do God's will? What are the alternatives to this teaching? And how does one decide which view is correct and biblical?

In the first paragraph of this article, I hinted at my current understanding of God's will when I asked the question, "... does the Bible present a different way of knowing and doing His will that does not depend upon direct supernatural revelation, but rather might be described as applying the "way of wisdom"-- obeying God's revealed will in moral matters, choosing wisely and with liberty where there is no specific biblical command, and trusting that God will sovereignly work out His plan for our good in our less-than-perfect choices?" The "way of wisdom" approach is the one I follow today, and seems also to be Mr. Challies' view, if I am judging the remarks he makes at the conclusion of his review correctly. I'll explain more in a moment what I mean by the "way of wisdom" approach to finding and doing God's will.

A brief testimony regarding the evolution of my understanding of God's will
We are very fortunate and blessed that the topic of knowing God's will is one that has been tackled thoughtfully and with careful study of Scripture by many excellent teachers and that we in the West have access to such valuable resources. Since 1983, when the Lord brought me to Himself, I have read numerous books on the topic of how to know God's will, including:
Discovering God's Will
God's Will and the Christian by R.C. Sproul
The Mystery of God's Will by Charles Swindoll
Every Life is a Plan of God by J. Oswald Sanders
Knowing God's Will: Finding Guidance for Personal Decisions
God's Guidance: A Slow and Certain Light with Study Guide
The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life

Over the years, I learned a lot about making better decisions as a Christian by reading such books, but often felt as if there was something missing-- that I ought to be crystal clear that my decisions were really in God's will-- for I thought perhaps there was a dimension of hearing from God I was lacking-- after all, you did find many people in the Bible who were being led supernaturally, and then there were people I knew personally who would speak as if God often and specifically told them to do things. Then I began a several year journey in the exploration of more charismatic churches and practices, and the more "mystical" approach to finding God's will presented itself and was quite appealing. The idea of communing so closely with God that He would direct me and my family personally by specific revelations sounded quite exciting. And this view of discerning God's will seemed also to fit in well with other new concepts I was learning about and exploring-- the "baptism in the Holy Spirit", speaking in tongues as a form of communion with God, and the possibility of receiving fresh visions or prophesying by the Spirit of God. And yet I somehow was never able to get completely comfortable with this approach to knowing God's will that was obviously so subjective and therefore seemed impossible to validate. If a brother or sister told me that the "Lord told them" to do such an such, what could I say, except "Amen", for how could I object? After all, God told them (but secretly I wondered, how could such claims be proven)? Occasionally I'd hear of someone getting a word from the Lord that indeed came to pass and this seemed truly remarkable. But then there were other times when the expectations created by "a word" occasioned deep disappointment when the events simply did not turn out as predicted. Besides, in the epistles of the New Testament, where one would really expect to find teaching for the Church about how to walk in God's will, the approach to hearing from God and following God's plan was not at all a mystical, experience based approach, but rather there are calls to obedience to the commands of Scripture, to study and preach the Word, to a lifestyle of repentance, and to decision-making based on sound reasoning from the wisdom of Scripture.

Discovering the "Way of Wisdom" Approach

I returned on several occasions to reading the most thorough (and long!)volume in my extensive library on this subject, Garry Friesen and J. Robin Maxson's "Decision Making and the Will of God- A Biblical Alternative to the Traditional View". In their book, Friesen and Maxson evaluate the "traditional" model of finding God's will and find it deficient for making good decisions, as well as lacking in biblical support. As an alternative, they present another model which they call the "way of wisdom", which they claim is more true to the Bible's teaching and therefore, much more freeing and practical. The book was carefully researched and made a very strong impression on me because their case was extremely persuasive. Yet at the time, I wrestled with how their arguments squared with some of my still charismatic ideas.

God providentially has led me to embrace, during these past few years, the reformed doctrines of grace. With their strong emphasis on the sovereignty of God in the life of the believer and proper context in interpretation of Scripture, I feel that my spiritual vision has been cleared and refocused. I see more readily now that many concepts about God's will I had picked up from the books by reformed authors were indeed based on sound exegesis of Scripture, while the more mystical concepts I had begun to explore about discovering God's will via subjective experiences were mistakenly presenting the supernatural experiences of biblical characters as normative for today. The main problem with this is that the guidance experiences of the saints of old were not the subjective, internal, feelings-guided, vague impressions touted by contemporary teachers on finding God's will, but rather, clear, unmistakably supernatural instances of guidance from God, in the form of audible voices, angelic visitations, supernatural visions, and the like. God may guide like this today if He so chooses, but because of the completion of the canon of Scripture, such ways are not His main mode of communicating His plans today.

May I present then below, a summary of key principles for decision-making as presented by Garry Freisen. At the end of the article I will also point you to other helpful resources on finding God's will, which teach along these same lines. Note that what Friesen calls the traditional view is still a very widely taught approach to finding the will of God, though in these days it seems even more emphasis is being placed on the mystical aspects of discovering God's will.

Friesen contrasts the "traditional" view against the "Way of Wisdom":

Four Principles of Decision Making (The Traditional View)

1. Premise: For each of our decisions God has a perfect plan or will.

2. Purpose: The goal of the believer is to discover God's individual will and make decisions in accordance with it.

3. Process: The believer interprets the inner impressions and outward signs through which the Holy Spirit communicates His leading.

4. Proof: The confirmation that one has correctly discerned the individual will of God comes from an inner sense of peace and outward (successful) results of the decision.

Four Principles of Decision Making ("The Way of Wisdom" Approach)

1. The Principle of OBEDIENCE: Where God commands, we must obey.

2. The Principle of FREEDOM: Where there is no command, God gives us freedom (and responsibility) to choose

3. The Principle of WISDOM: Where there is no command, God gives us wisdom to choose.

4. The Principle of HUMBLE TRUST: When we have chosen what is moral and wise, we must trust the sovereign God to work all the details together for good.

There is much more from Garry Friesen at his website, including his very insightful and charitable reviews of other books that have been written on the topic of God's will. Others have such fine resources available on this topic that rather than try to present a teaching here I will direct you to their teachings via the links below.

Of the books on God's guidance I have read over the years, perhaps my favorite was the "Knowing God's Will" by M. Blaine Smith, which, as Friesen describes in his own review of it, presents a "wisdom" approach but uses more "traditional" terminology. Although I was not "reformed" at the time I read it, Mr. Smith's teaching on making good decisions within God's will I believe are based on sound reformed principles.

Links to further resources:

How Do We Know the Will of God, Part 2 (The Way of Wisdom)

Principles for Decision Making- An Overview (A concise web version of the key teachings of the book Decision Making and the Will of God)

Garry Freisen's reviews of books on The Will of God and Decision-Making (Overview) and List of Books Reviewed

M. Blaine Smith's Nehemiah Ministries (features many excellent articles about discovering God's will)

God’s Will, Lost or Found - Part 1- by Gary Gilley
God’s Will, Lost or Found - Part 2- by Gary Gilley
God’s Will, Lost or Found - Part 3- by Gary Gilley
God’s Will, Lost or Found - Part 4- by Gary Gilley
God’s Will, Lost or Found - Part 5- by Gary Gilley

The Problems with Personal Words From God-How People Become False Prophets to Themselves by Bob DeWaay

God’s Revealed Will-Understanding God's Boundaries by Bob DeWaay

What Is the Will of God and How Do We Know It? by John Piper

The Will of God- Article by R.C. Sproul

Discovering God's Will- Article by Sinclair B. Ferguson

God's Will and the Christian By R.C. Sproul-A Review By Greg Gilbert

Knowing God's Will by M. Blaine Smith- Reviewed by Merle Harton, Jr.

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