A number of years ago I read Garry Friesen’s book, Decision Making and the Will of God and found it incredibly liberating. No longer did I have to seek, as Friesen calls it, “the dot” – or “the center of God’s will”. In part, the “traditional approach” to seeking God’s will was ever troubling to me if for no other reason than there seemed to be as many ways to seek God’s will as there were people seeking God’s will. Friesen’s approach to use wisdom in guiding decision-making, although perhaps not as “spiritual-sounding”, is obviously more pragmatic and, to me, logical. Friesen’s “methodology” intuitively made more sense.
With that in mind, I was recently given a copy of M. Blaine Smith’s book, Finding God’s Will, in which there’s an appendix challenging Friesen’s premise. There appears to be a subtle jab at Friesen when Smith writes,
Christians are more inclined to raise questions [as to whether or not the notion of God’s personal will for every believer] is an elaborate straw man than they were when I wrote [Knowing God’s Will] [because] Friesen’s [book] was published about a year after my own book.
Is Smith upset at having lost revenue from reduced book sales? Or perhaps Smith is frustrated with more people comparing and contrasting both books? Maybe both?
In any event, Smith’s critique of Friesen’s Decision Making at best seems muted when Smith himself states [pg 239],
I agree [with Friesen’s] biblical analysis – especially [Friesen’s] observation that Christians in New Testament times generally made their decisions through a rational process.
Smith, however, clarifies his own belief that the early Christians’ “rational process” gives testimony to the way they went about discovering God’s specific and personal will. So far as I can determine, nowhere within Scripture is there a defined “process” indicating how believers should go about finding God’s personal and specific will. Honestly, many folks seem to make the stuff up as they go – selectively pulling individual verses that may lend themselves to some semblance of a “process”. This is unfortunate as in my opinion believers of a personal will of God are making the Bible teach something that the Bible doesn’t actually teach.
Smith states, [pg 238]
Scripture gives us the basis for embracing the full level of human freedom in decision making [without] letting go of the cherished concept (emphasis mine) of a personal will of God.
Honestly, if a book dedicated to knowing God’s specific will and finding guidance for personal decisions can be distilled down to a “cherished concept”, then the author lacks the conviction of what he’s put forth in the 248 pages of this book.
Smith writes in numerous places as to an “individual will” in God’s guidance all the while seeking a wise decision. For example:
[pg 103] First, we should study Scripture [for then] we have a responsibility to use our reason to make a logical choice about God’s will, as opposed to looking for supernatural indications or purely intuitive impressions of his guidance.
[pg 115] Human reason was the channel through which God’s will was normally known. In most cases discerning his will boiled down to a matter of making a sound, logical choice.
[pg 123] For Paul, discerning God’s will was mainly a matter of making sound, logical judgments, in light of what course appeared most glorifying to God
In light of these comments, and because Smith’s book was published prior to Friesen’s book, an inquiring mind wonders whether or not Smith feels that Friesen is more than a little guilty of plagiarism?
As to supernatural guidance, Smith seems to sum up well the reality that,
We cannot always judge the authenticity of such an experience merely by looking at its psychological nature [because sometimes] we do have a good basis for believing an episode has been purely hallucinatory. [pg 137]
Eventually, Smith surmises that we can authenticate supernatural guidance against scripture. If that guidance is outside of God’s moral will, then we can rest assure that that guidance was not from God. I would agree! As does Friesen! Any decision outside of God’s moral will (law) is not acceptable to God. To which, and this is what Friesen would advocate, I can have confidence that any decision I make which does not violate God’s moral will (his laws) is therefore acceptable (and I would go so far as to say even pleasing) to God.
A couple of quotes caught my attention as I was reading Knowing God’s Will:
Within certain boundaries, however, God allows us the adventure of seeking his will, the privilege of being partners with Christ in his work and the possibility of success or failure in the whole process. [pg 88]
So, have I got this right? According to Smith, God specifically leads and directs some to fail? As I’ve noted in earlier posts, this is Calvinistic thinking at its best – God chooses to save some and conversely he chooses to damn some. In a like manner, God chooses some to succeed and for others to fail. Simply put, if I’m made in God’s image, then I’m truly hard-pressed to desire and intentionally direct or otherwise lead any of my own kids to failure. It makes no sense.
According to Smith, when making a major decision, [pg 109] we should spend some additional time reading portions of scripture that relate directly to the decision. On the face of it, this is a no-brainer. So, let’s refer to Smith’s own experience in wanting to marry a particular young gal [pg37]. In a sub-chapter entitled, “When Visions Fail”, a 25 year-old Smith is pondering his future and begins to focus on a particular young woman. As Smith states,
- He was attracted to her. He was certain that God gave him a vision of what it would be like to be married to her. Smith “cherished the belief” that he’d seen God’s future for him.
- However, feelings were apparently not mutual and in due time this young lady became engaged to someone else.
- Then Smith began to think that he’d taken more guidance from those thoughts and feelings than God had perhaps intended and sums up his experience, “These feelings [might indicated that I should take some action] or they might simply be feelings and nothing more.”
Trust your feelings? Wow! There’s some high-level spiritual discourse. Honestly, what guy in his 20’s doesn’t have “feelings” regarding marriage? Really, I’m not criticizing Smith for those feelings if only because I’m convinced that those feelings are God given. However, it’s interesting to look at Paul’s thoughts regarding marriage. So far as I know, 1 Cor 7:1-40 is the longest passage of scripture dealing with marriage and if one is contemplating marriage, this would be a good place to look for guidance. Paul instructs that it would be better to remain unmarried. But if you are married, then do not seek a divorce. The chapter goes on about the advantages of being unmarried and being able to more fully serve God. Of interest to me within this passage is that at no point does Paul indicate any manner to discerning whether it’s God’s will to marry or not. Paul explains that if one isn’t able to control himself (sexual temptation, I presume) then “it’s better to marry than to burn”. This, to me, isn’t discerning God’s will. Rather, this is simply a matter of wisdom. To which, I find it astonishing that throughout these 40 verses, Paul never mentions or indicates through the entire passage anything related to a specific, personal or individual will? It’s as though – maybe – we get to decide for ourselves.
With regard to getting married, how come Smith didn’t put out a fleece (Judges 6) or roll the dice (Prov 16:33)? These things are in the Bible. And yet, I know of no one who’s ever “fleeced” or “rolled the dice” in the course of any decisions. Think of the godly focus (I say this facetiously) that would occur in people’s lives if when looking at a prospective spouse, the respective parties tossed dice. Or a coin. Heads I win and get the pretty one. Tails I lose – and, well, I lose.
Smith does discuss the putting out of a fleece [pg 132, pg 156] and believes that
Scripture points us away from fleecing as a healthy approach to knowing God’s will. [pg 157] I would agree. What Smith does not discuss, however, is the obvious inference from the passage in Judges 6 that Gideon KNEW exactly what God wanted him to do. Gideon, according to scripture, was one of those rare individuals who received direct revelation from God. Gideon was being disobedient to what God had instructed him to do. I can only surmise that it appears as though God “played along” Gideon and perhaps even “messed” with him by way of keeping the ground dry but the fleece wet.
The study of scripture, according to Smith, brings about five things: [pg 105]
- Deepens our consciousness of God
- Brings us into contact with God
- Informs us of God’s principles
- May inspire or conform [us] to a particular decision
- Invaluable aid in praying for guidance
I have no doubt as to these statements – particularly in relation to decision making. And I would submit that the more Christ-like we become, the more our decisions will reflect his nature and not our own.
I’ve heard many reference Rom 8:28 that God’s intention for an individual will is paramount to understand his love and care for his creation. However, I would submit that this verse, and others used in similar ways don’t diminish God’s love and care. Instead, these verses are more oriented to God’s sovereign will. If anything, it seems to make more sense to realize that God doesn’t stipulate an individual will in order to sovereignly work out his purposes in the life of a believer (Matt 6:25-34). Furthermore, there are many passages related to Paul making a decision without any indication of a seeking-out of God’s specific will. For instance, twice in 1 Thess 3 Paul makes decisions:
(vs 1) So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best (emphasis mine) to be left by ourselves in Athens.
(vs 5) For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out (emphasis mine) about your faith.
If, as Smith says, one applies Scripture and wisdom to every decision, the end result will resolve in sound decision-making. What Smith calls God’s individual will, Friesen calls godly and wise decision-making. The terminology, I believe, is paramount to whether or not one accepts responsibility for decision-making or is more inclined to “be the victim” and otherwise “blame someone else” (i.e. God) when things don’t go as well as might be hoped.
In conclusion, then, I find Smith’s Knowing God’s Will (as I find so many other books on the subject of determining God’s personal and specific will) confusing and ultimately not helpful. For every methodology Smith discusses or otherwise outlines on how we ought to discover God’s will, there’s a corresponding caution on using that methodology. This leads me to think that Smith is playing with theological constructs trying to prove something that, at least in my opinion, is either a) unknowable, or b) easily changeable to accommodate personal whims and desires. Ultimately, then, I think it best to focus my attention on that which is knowable; God’s moral will. Let God be God. Let God deal with that which is sovereign to him. Let me focus on the joy that inevitably comes by way of the fruits of the spirit when I live my life in holiness according to God’s moral will.