Monday, April 07, 2008

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

One reader expressed irritation with my recent article How Do We Know the Will of God: "Experientially" or through Scripture? (I'm not sure if he thought it was too long, or just off-base, or both). Then he said, seems to me that the approach you are prescribing is the common sense approach than anybody ought to know to do - even if they believe God regularly gives specific direction. The problem only arises when you say that a common sense approach ought to supersede and eliminate the possibility of God speaking in a more direct sense. It's such a blanket assertion, and it's hard to support from scripture.

Just for my own curiosity, can you supply just one example from scripture where a person is praised for deliberately avoiding direct direction from God, or condemned for seeking it? Because you can find tons of examples of the opposite, and it begs the question of when and why did things switch.

I think that these are good and challenging questions, to which I'd like to respond. At first I was going to reply in the comments section, but then realized that if he thought my article was overly long, what would he think of a page-long response in the comments section? But seriously, I think it would be more beneficial to address the questions raised in a new article. So here goes.

First, I wouldn’t necessarily describe the approach to God’s will I’m talking about as merely "common sense". I think that, yes, "common sense" is involved in making good decisions, meaning, one should use one’s intelligence in making choices. But the critical thing for Christians in discerning God’s will is His Word, because that is His revelation to us, and tells us what He thinks and commands (which may or may not always agree with our "common sense"). So basically I concur with the reformed view that says God’s word is sufficient to instruct us in everything we need to live godly lives that please God. Thus we don't necessarily need to hear an extraordinary "word from the Lord" in order to make good choices.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

James Montgomery Boice, in an article titled "the Sufficiency of the Word of God", wrote:

[The Bible] is what God has given us to indicate how we are to live and what we are to do to please him. All we need is in the Bible. So if there is something we want or think we need that is not in the Bible— what job we should take, who we should marry, where we should live— it doesn't matter what we do as long as we are obeying what God teaches about living a godly life. That doesn't mean that God does not have a detailed plan for our lives. He does. He has a detailed plan for all things, ordering "whatsoever comes to pass," as the Westminster Confession of Faith has it. But it does mean that we do not have to know this plan in advance and, indeed, cannot. What we can know and need to know is what God has told us in the Bible.

Second, I do not think that the approach to finding God’s will I’m talking about necessarily "eliminates the possibility of God speaking in a more direct sense". God can do whatever He wants at any time to communicate with His people. But the question is, how does He usually communicate? What is normative for today? In the Bible there are examples of God giving direct supernatural guidance to a very select group of people over a period of hundreds of years. The frequency of these direct revelations is sporadic, and aside from the select group, the Bible doesn't record that the majority of God-followers were getting personal revelations from Him. So this mode of hearing from God it would seem was not the norm but the exception. Besides, the direct revelation seen in the biblical examples is qualitatively different from what is being talked about by Eldredge and teachers along his lines. As argued in the previous article, the biblical examples reveal direct, supernatural, unmistakably-from-God revelations that came externally— via prophetic utterances, audible voices, angelic visitations, visions. These were not given in response to requests for guidance, but initiated by God to give special instructions to His people. This is certainly not equivalent to the "hearing from God", mystical approach Eldredge and others advocate, which seeks guidance for life decisions by "listening" for God to speak via internal hunches or impressions. The former is objective and God-initiated; the latter, highly subjective and initiated by human beings.

My reader asked for an example from Scripture "where a person is praised for deliberately avoiding direct direction from God, or condemned for seeking it."

The challenge made here though, misses the point: in biblical examples showing God speaking directly to people (e.g., Noah, Moses, Isaiah, Peter, Paul), we're not told that the persons involved were seeking direct revelation from God! But once they received the apparently unsought but direct revelation from God, they were obviously expected to obey it. A quote from Gary Gilley may be helpful here:

While God chose to occasionally give special leading to a few of the important New Testament leaders, we never find those individuals seeking such guidance (or being commanded to do so). Peter was sleeping on a roof, Paul was headed to a different country, Philip was involved in a preaching campaign. All of them were busy serving the Lord when the Lord chose to redirect them. As a matter of fact, the last time we find an example of God’s people seeking His specific will is in Acts 1:24-26 with the choosing of Matthias to be an apostle. And here they do not hear the voice of God, or even feel a prompting but rely on a game of chance. It is altogether questionable to me that the right decision was made through this methodology. Later Christ would handpick Paul as Judas’ replacement, leaving little room for Matthias to be part of the Twelve (emphasis mine)

The question of whether it's right or wrong to seek "direct direction" from God depends on our motives and our method. What we are really seeking, when we ask God to directly speak to us? Such seeking would be wrong if we're asking God to reveal secret information that He has not promised to reveal (Deuteronomy 29:29). God doesn't function in the believer's life as a kind of cosmic fortune-teller, revealing future events so we can plan accordingly. When we ask God to reveal secret information about the future, information He hasn't promised to give and forbids us from seeking, in effect we're practicing divination, which is indeed condemned in Scripture.

But if what we mean by seeking God "directly" is that we're humbly seeking His wisdom so that we can make choices that honor Him, yet not necessarily expecting an audible voice to speak to us from heaven, or even a strong inward impression, then I think we're approaching the guidance issue more biblically.

The Way of Wisdom
Of course, we ought to seek God and His will for our lives, but how are we instructed to do this? This is where I think the "way of wisdom" approach described by Garry Friesen and others provides a practical, biblical model. We should pray for wisdom (James 1:5), and of course, search out and obey the wisdom of Scripture to apply its commands concerning God's revealed moral will (Psalm 19:7-11, Psalm 119). We may seek the counsel of godly, mature, experienced persons (Job 12:12, Proverbs 11:14, 24:6). Knowing God's providential care for us, we can consider opportunities that present themselves as perhaps pointing towards His will in particular decisions we face. Yet as we seek God’s will through all these means, we should also understand biblically how God will communicate His answers. Should we be expecting God to reveal the future to us? Again, James 4:13-16 takes it as a given that creatures do not and cannot know the future, and that therefore our plans and choices are always contingent on God's sovereign control of all of life. Ecclesiastes 7:14 makes a similar point, saying "In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him." These verses teach that as we plan our lives and make choices, we must trust God in His providence, rather than proceed as if we can chart out a perfect course based on our presumptions about what lies ahead-- for how can finite creatures who don't know what tomorrow will bring devise perfect plans for the future? The implications of these verses, I believe, rule out an underlying assumption of the "hearing from God" approach- that we will be able to "hear" from God so clearly as to know exactly what to do, because we're getting direct, "inside" information from the God who knows all. I think these verses say "no" to such an idea. Only God knows the future, and that's the way it's supposed to be.

Or because God spoke to a relatively small number of people in the Scriptures directly and supernaturally, does that mean believers today should expect to hear from God in the same way? Again, the advocates of the "hearing from God" approach aren’t even saying that exactly— they're saying God speaks to us primarily through direct, supernatural, internal promptings. But when we look to the epistles written to instruct the church on the critical matter of knowing and doing God's will, do we find anything that resembles this teaching-- that we should be expecting to hear God speak to us directly via inner guidance? There are individual verses that perhaps sound as if they could support this view, but these are commonly misinterpreted (see Gary Gilley's article, God's Will, Lost or Found - Part 2). In the New Testament, God's will is sometimes:

  1. What actually happens, as guided by the providential hand of God- (e.g., Romans 1:10, 15:32; 1 Peter 3:17, 4:19) ;
  2. Moral directives--what God commands and desires His people to do (e.g., 1 Thessalonians 4:3,5:18; 1 Peter 2:15,4:2; 1 John 2:17).

Guidance for the Decision of Marriage
It is revealing to see the instruction the New Testament gives for what is certainly one of the most important decisions in life: whether or not to marry, and how to select a spouse. According to Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians 7, we have liberty to marry or to remain single-- neither is a sin. If the "hearing from God" approach were one advocated by Scripture, here is one place especially you would expect to find Paul saying a believer should not proceed with marrying a particular person unless (or until) he or she received strong inner confirmation that "this is the one". But Paul's counsel to believers is not that they wait for a special word from the Lord that will tell them whether, and whom, they ought to marry. He advises believers that they have freedom to make a choice, and that each person ought to take into consideration their own God-given gifting and desires, so that they may decide whether being married or staying single is best in terms of maintaining "undivided devotion to the Lord". If one chooses to marry, they may marry whomever they wish, so long as that person is a believer (1 Corinthians 7:39).

Finally, my reader had said "... you can find tons of examples of the opposite, and it begs the question of when and why did things switch." I'm not quite sure what was meant here, especially the first part of the statement. If it is meant that you can find tons of examples of people seeking direct revelation from God, we've already shown that in the biblical examples the ones who received direct revelations from God were not in fact seeking them. Perhaps the meaning here is that many received direct revelation in Bible days, so why shouldn't that be the case today? I would agree that there are a number of examples in both the Old and New Testaments of God speaking directly to certain people. However, as already stated, I would qualify this by noting that it wasn't "tons" of people who were getting revelation of this kind, but a select and relatively small group of God-followers. And again, these revelations were not given given by God in response to sought after guidance about God's will, but mostly God chose certain prophets to reveal in an unmistakable manner His plans, vision and agenda for His people.

So has God's way of communicating to His people indeed changed since the coming of Jesus Christ and completion of the New Testament? Bob DeWaay writes,

The teachings of Jesus Christ are contained in the New Testament and constitute the further divine revelation that Moses promised when that new "Prophet" came. These writings are authoritative and combined with the Old Testament constitute "the revealed things" (Deuteronomy 29:29) that belong to us. This is the limit of authoritative, divine revelation. Prophecy in the New Testament is not adding to authoritative revelation, but exhorting from it and applying it. Just as the Old Testament prophets (except Moses) were not law­givers but law-appliers, so are the "prophesying ones' in the New Testament. The other function of Old Testament prophets was to inerrantly predict the future of Israel and her Messiah. Since the One to whom the prophets pointed has come and spoken in full and final revelation, that role no longer exists. All the prophecies about the future that we are allowed are already contained in the Bible (from The Dangers of Divination by Bob DeWaay)

DeWaay's argument to me is very convincing. If the full and final revelation of God is found in Jesus Christ, and if the New Testament is a Spirit-inspired record of all of the teaching of Christ and all other instructions that are authoritative for the Church, then of what value are so-called prophecies that may be inaccurate? Or how can we ever be certain that our inward impressions concerning God's will are really God speaking? The way of wisdom approach is much more helpful, since through it I can make decisions I know are pleasing to God (because they abide by His teaching) and at the same time, trust that God is working providentially in all my choices. The "hearing from God" approach leads to second-guessing myself, as I question if I really heard from the Lord and try to judge this by whether subsequent events prove my choice a good one. But in the way of wisdom I can fully rest in God's providence after I've made a decision, so long as I know from Scripture that the choice was not against God's moral will.

I think it very fortunate that we have such fine teaching resources available to us on this topic of God's will, through men like Friesen, DeWaay, and Gilley, among others. I recommend to all the following articles for further study (some of the links also were provided with the previous article):

Overview: Principles of Decision-Making by Garry Friesen

God's Will and Christian Liberty- Explaining God's Revealed Will and God's Providential Will by Bob DeWaay

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

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

Contemporary Christian Divination- The False Claims and Practices of Christian Mystics by Bob DeWaay

The Lord Told Me – I Think! by Gary Gilley

Guidance and the Voice of God by Phillip Jensen and Tony Payne-- a review by Tim Challies

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

Decision Making and the Will of God by Garry Friesen- A book review by Greg Gilbert

Recommended Books on God's Will (Way of Wisdom Approach)
Decision Making and the Will of God: A Biblical Alternative to the Traditional View
Guidance and the Voice of God
Decisions, Decisions: How (And How Not) to Make Them
Discovering God's Will

Garry Freisen's reviews of books on God's Will

Previous Article in this Series
How Do We Know the Will of God: "Experientially" or through Scripture?

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