A few days ago Adrian Warnock e-mailed me asking if I would like to engage in a little friendly debate regarding my prior posts on finding the will of God. I said sure - love to. Adrian said that this is probably one of the few areas that he and I disagree on. Well, judging from this post on is blog, where he engaged the debate, we're not that far apart. I have a few quibbles with some of the things he says, but all in all I can agree with almost all of it. I guess if we are going to have a real honest to goodness debate we're going to have to find something else to debate on.
Nevertheless, let me share a few of my thoughts and quibbles.
First of all, Adrian says:
Begin with clearly considering all the relevant teaching of the bible on the subject. Is their direct biblical teaching that tells me what I should do? Which of the options before me are most consistent with biblical understanding? Prayer and seeking God to ask him to reveal the truth of his word and its application to your life is important even at this stage.I couldn't agree more. In that same paragraph he even gives a good insight that I had not noticed on how Paul let a prior Scriptural commitment override a subjective impression of the leading of the Spirit.
A biblical understanding should always trump all the other concerns.
I also agree with points three and four of his comments:
3. A thorough consideration of the circumstances in which we find ourselves can also often give an indication of God's leading.My quibbles are with his second point, which deals more with the subjective experience of discerning the leading of the spirit. I say these are quibbles because he has already acknowledged that the Word of God trumps subjective experiences and he is also not making the subjective experience determinative. The subjective sense of God's leading is one among several methods of determining God's will in a particular situation. But now, on to the quibbling.
4. Discussion with godly men and women who will be able to confirm the leadings we are feeling.
Adrian offered John 5:19, Ephesians 2:10 and Acts 13:2 in defense of his position that:
their is a place for seeking God, and listening to the impressions he places on our hearts.Rusty Lopez offered a comment on Adrian's blog about John 5:19 that I agree with - I don't see it as dealing with the process of decision making. I also think Ephesians 2:10 states a general principle, not a specific means of finding guidance. I think his most helpful citations is Acts 13:2 where it says:
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”However, the difficulty I have with that passage is that, though it is clear that the Holy Spirit spoke to them, it doesn't tell us the mechanism by which he spoke. I don't think we can use that as a normative passage in discerning the will of God.
I think there are two issues that come to the forefront here. The first is the issue of what are we to do in matters where God's word does not give us clear guidance. The second issue is what are we to make of the subjective in the Christian life?
It is in the realm of those matters where God's word doesn't give us clear guidance that the issue of the subjective experience comes into play. Believers know that they shouldn't marry unbelievers, but how is Billy Sue to decide between Jim Bob and Joe Bob, who are both fine Christian men who want to marry her? This is where the debate is engaged. I would say that she prays for guidance, and searches the word to see if there is anything that would cause her to violate God's word in marrying one or the other, or neither. She should seek wise counsel, check her own life to insure that she is walking in obedience, then she is free to make the decision without waiting for a sign from God. If all things are equal she is free to pick the one she likes better and she doesn't have to go through life wondering if she missed God's will.
I do believe there is a subjective element to the Christian life. Even us stodgy old traditional Westminsterites have a doctrine of providence that allows for the subjective: Shorter Catechism question #11 says this:
What are God’ s works of providence?I don't doubt that, as a part of His work of governing His creatures, that God can do so through subjective impressions. I have a kid in my church whose dad was driving down the road one day and suddenly had a strong impression that he should pull off the road as he was approaching a curve. As he did another car or truck came by in his lane - had he been there he most certainly would have hit the guy head on. This isn't a guy out selling books and starting a ministry over the whole incident, so I have every reason to believe him and to see this as a merciful intervention from God.
God’ s works of providence are, his most holy, (Ps. 145:17) wise, (Ps. 104:24, Isa. 28:29) and powerful preserving, (Heb. 1:3) and governing all his creatures, and all their actions. (Ps. 103:19, Matt. 10:29–31)
The Westminster shorter catechism : With Scripture proofs. 1996 (3rd edition.) (Question 11). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
The trouble comes when we make such things normative and come to expect such "leadings" whenever we face a decision.
If I may share a bit of my own tradition and experience with you, we have in the PCA a method for discerning a call. There must be an internal call and an external call. Neither is sufficient to constitute a call. The internal call is the subjective sense of calling to a particular work. The external call is when the church itself calls you. Actually, you could say there are two senses of the external call that must be present. The external call involves the approbation of the body - there are those who know you who affirm your fitness for ministry. Then there is the call from a particular church to serve with them.
Anyway, all elements must be present. Some folks raised great concerns about me because, when I was asked if I was called to pastor the church I am now pastoring, I said "I don't know." I explained that I had that internal sense of calling, in that I wanted to come and pastor this church. This was not the "want" of a mere whim, I had prayed over the matter, sought much counsel, and interviewed the church very thoroughly while they were interviewing me. However, that wasn't sufficient to confirm it was God's will to me until I received the call from the church. Even though I wanted to pastor this church and subjectively felt like God was leading me, I could have been entirely wrong. It may have been my own voice I was hearing and not God's. Some of the more mystical folks took that as tantamount to saying that I wasn't listening to God's voice. But the truth was, I was simply using the means God gave me and when the church extended the offer, I confidently told everyone I met that I was called to pastor this church.
That's a long winded response and story. My guess is that Adrian and I are extremely close on this. I think the crux of the matter is "what place does the subjective play in discerning the will of God?" We both agree that it plays a role, any differences we have is probably over degree.
I would just encourage Christians to relax a little in this matter. As Garry Friesen has said so well, God doesn't have dot in the center of a circle known as His "perfect will" which we must spend our lives trying to find out. Yes, in His sovereignty He does have an individual plan for our lives, but He doesn't reveal it to us and doesn't tell us we must seek it. He simply gives us tools for discerning His will - prayer, the Word of God, godly counsel, and circumstances. Lets just use the means He gives us, make decisions and go with it. God is big enough to change our course if we are not doing what He wills, and He will do so when He is ready.
I would also like to refer you to some more stuff I have found in the blogosphere on this subject.
Rebecca writes refers us to a terrific set of articles from the in-depth studies page on finding the will of God - this is from a conference and the teachings here fall in line with Garry Friesen's terrific book Decision Making and the Will of God. You can find these articles here, here, here and here. The material on those pages are thoroughly biblical and state my position better than I can.
Greg Koukl from Stand to Reason has an article critiquing Henry Blackaby's book Experiencing God, which hits on many of the points from this discussion. Hat tip to Sozo at Reasons Why for recommending this article.
Rusty Lopez has followed up his original post that got the ball rolling here.