How do Christians determine God’s will? Should we listen for Him to speak to us, even directly, before making choices about where to move, whom to marry, what Kingdom work to do?
My friend Isaac and I are having an email discussion about these topics, to adapt into this series called “God’s will hunting.” We began Jan. 1 with part 1: Christian assumptions, and last week’s column was part 2: Watch your language. All of the series will be available here.
Hey back, Isaac,
From the start in your last message, you zoomed right in on how our views of the Bible affects our views of God’s will. Is the Bible a book whose meanings can be plain to any reader? Or do we go to it with our Dan-Brown-style magnifying glasses, trying to find the Special Personal Meaning, a “Bible code” that is all so much more spiritual and high-falutin’ than the plain meaning of a text? 1
Do you think a lot of this is rooted in how people view the audience of the Bible? Along with the evangelical “life decision” jargon you mentioned, there’s an idea about (I often fight it in myself) that Scripture is “life’s little instruction manual.” Or people say it’s “God’s love letter.” While surely both instructions for right living and truths of God’s love are in the Bible, saying these things without a bigger picture can lead to unhelpful misunderstandings. Scripture is primarily the story of God and what He has done. It is not mainly about us.
We’ve talked before about The Chronicles of Narnia and how people try to identify Lucy as Mary Magdalene or the Tisroc as King Herod, and things like that. Have you seen, perhaps, that Christians who do that with Narnia do the same thing with the Bible, and themselves?
I’m guessing this is another main source for the assumptions that lead to the “burning bush” notion of how to find God’s will. In addition to the confusion of God’s revealed will (in the Scriptures) and His hidden will (which none knows save Himself), it is the “violent flattening” (as blogger Dan Phillips called it) of Biblical descriptions into behavior prescriptions.
In this kind of view, the stories about King David are not just about how God used him, from a shepherd boy to a warrior to a king, to fulfill a role in the history of Israel, God’s chosen old-covenant people — and especially as a type of the real Christ to come. No, in the wrong way of seeing it, you, gentle reader, are like David, and you need to figure out how exactly God worked with him so you can follow the same guidelines. Do you think God may want you to be a “king” (wink wink) too? What are the “giants” in your life? Etc. …
And instead of seeing, say, Moses’ revelation from God in a burning bush (Exodus 3) as an example of how God was working with him at that point in the Story, people react as though God ought to work the same way with us too and give us a “burning bush.”
Instead of seeing Peter’s visions of a sheet filled with creatures as God’s unique word to the apostle that His Spirit would be bringing Gentiles into the faith (Acts 10), some people see having a vision as normative. It happened to Peter; why shouldn’t it happen to us? 2 Thus something really vital in God’s Story, the blockbuster news that Gentiles and not just Jews would be brought into Christianity, is flattened right alongside whether you should get the more-durable Ford or the cheaper Volvo.
But the people in God’s Story (consisting of stories, poetry, history, records, etc.) are not stand-ins for us. He doesn’t say He will give everyone a burning bush, or a vision, or a “peace about it” as you said before.
I think the alternate view comes from the sense of un-Biblical pride that you also talked about. How often we find this in our own lives! Yet figuring out that the Bible, while written for us to be sure, is not about us personally, helps kill that pride. We see ourselves as players in God’s Story, not the stars of a story God writes about us. The self-centered view is subtle, and part of our sin nature. Yet God can change that.
And more and more, as God is helping us grow, we discover we like it that way! He is glorified. We give Him glory, not vice-versa. Slowly we begin to see that the Word is not merely a mirror to reflect our lives, or a collection of various Book of Proverbs-style slogans we can pick out and make refrigerator magnets out of and apply for better choices in daily living. Instead, we learn further to get under His Word, humbly, and let it teach us about Himself. That includes how He has directed people in the past, and how He directs us now.
… Which may lead us to the Holy Spirit. This past Sunday my church study group did a survey on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. He gets ignored a lot in some circles, and overly promoted in others — either side of which oddly falls into the quasi-Biblical God’s-will-hunting views. I wonder how that is?
But anyway, the Holy Spirit — we’ll have to tackle that One soon. How has He worked in the past to direct people? How does He work now in the lives of believers to direct them?
Also a huge issue in this is God’s sovereignty. Can we mess up His revealed commands, such as when we disobey His edicts about encouraging each other or staying holy? Yes, absolutely.3 Is that still part of His will? Yes, absolutely, in the sense that He is sovereign and has a “hidden” will, and no one can step outside of it.
I wonder — what would happen if, in some parallel world, God’s people did know about His hidden will in advance? We’d be too much like Him. He would lose glory. We would trust the knowledge, rather than learn to trust Him. And besides that, when we are finally beyond this old Earth and can review our lives from His perspective in Heaven (and later the New Earth), our stories would be much more boring, don’t you think?
His hidden will is a comfort: He is in charge. We can’t fail, because He can’t fail.
His revealed will is a caution: we’re still responsible. We can fail. But still, He never ever will.
Next Saturday: Isaac responds with further thoughts on how Christians, by saying “God told me this” specifically, actually risk taking His Name in vain, and how any of His direct commands to His people are never vague, in Part 4: Asking for wisdom.
- Some readers might misunderstand me here. I don’t mean to imply that reading and understanding Scripture is easy, or be some kind of populist type of person who rejects Biblical scholarship. Absolutely, we need in-depth knowledge to get the tougher parts of the Bible. But God meant its plain meanings to be found. ↩
- Of course, that could go too far. Someone could say God only punished David because a king shouldn’t commit adultery, but I’m not a king, so what the hey! But we have clear mandates elsewhere in the Bible that adultery and lust are always wrong. ↩
- It seems well established that God won’t ask us to do anything He said not to do in the Word. A lot of “God told me to do this” stuff could be debunked in just that. The philandering pastor I mentioned last time, who (supposedly) told a churchgoer she had to sleep with him — that’s out. So are a lot of things. ↩