Our lives are made up of and in one respect are the sum of a vast number of decisions. Every day we make decisions. Some of them are of minor importance but now and then we make decisions that alter our lives in fundamental ways and indeed the lives of others as well. When we are young, most decisions are made for us by our parents or by others. But as we grow older we are faced with an increasing number of decisions that we must make ourselves, some of them decisions that will change our lives forever: whether or not we will go to college; if we go to college, where we go; what will we do for a living; whom will we marry; where will we live; where will we go to church; decision after decision. And when we get older another set of decisions have to be made: what ought I to do about my aged parents, should I retire and, if so, when; should I put a DNR order in my living will (“do not resuscitate”), and so on. In a very important way our lives are the sum of the decisions we make.
We know perfectly well that sometimes our decisions are unwise or foolish because events demonstrate that we chose poorly. We married the wrong person, or we chose a subject for study or a career for which we were unsuited. It happens all the time. Some of us know people who married unwisely and are living to regret that. There are some classic examples of this in church history, perhaps John Wesley the most famous. He shouldn’t have married, shouldn’t have married the particular woman he married, was counseled against doing so by wise friends, but did it anyway and the result was embarrassment and misery for himself, for his wife, and for his friends. And perhaps more of us know people who made a poor choice of a career.
I happen to be a minister, so I have seen the unhappy result of such poor choices many times. A man decided to become a minister who should not have, a presbytery admitted him to the ministry that should not have, and both are eventually forced to the realization that a poor decision had been made by both of them. The troubled circumstances of the man’s ministry, his lack of interest in staying the course, the congregation’s loss of confidence in him that he is unable to arrest, combine to convince the man and the presbytery that he is in the wrong job. And now he is doing something else and wishes he had never entered the ministry or lost those years of his life doing what he had no calling to do, or, perhaps, embittered, blames everyone else for the debacle. I know a number of men who used to be ministers who will tell you candidly that for them the ministry was a mistake, that they were not suited for it. I have seen churches destroyed by the ministry of a man who should never have been minister, hadn’t the gifts or graces for the work, but refused to accept what others could see until it was much too late.
But even decisions that seemed wise to everyone at the time can lead to very unhappy results. I know people who decided to become missionaries; were encouraged to become missionaries; and seemed to thoughtful people to have the gifts of a missionary, but after several years of hard work proved unable to raise sufficient support ever to reach the field or begin their work. Was that a bad decision in the first place or was something else at work?
Important as decisions are to the outcome of our lives, important as making wise decisions must be, it should be no surprise that Proverbs, a book all about living wisely, should include a lot of teaching about decision making, about what in Christian parlance is called “guidance.” How are decisions to be made wisely and well? How do we know which of several alternatives to choose?
Now, to be sure, some of our decisions should not be difficult at all. They are made for us by the law of God. One does not have to be particularly wise or artful in living to know that some decisions are foolish and ought never to be made. A Christian should never marry an unbeliever. You don’t have to think and ponder to make that decision because God has forbad you to do such a thing. You know that God disapproves and obviously any decision that is an offense to God must be both wrong and foolish. God will not bless your disobedience.
In the same way it is never a good idea to increase your bank account by stealing, to solve a problem with a lie, or to cheat on your spouse with another man or woman. There is no “art” to decision making at this level. It is a matter of simple obedience. Here we are on Sanctity of Human Life Sunday. You never have to worry about whether you should or should not get an abortion. Such an act is forbidden in the Word of God. But there are a great many more decisions that are not made for us by the law of God. We aren’t told in God’s law whom to marry. We are told whom we may not marry, a class of people from whom we may not choose our spouse, but that is all. In fact, there is virtually nothing said in the Bible to help us choose between one marital prospect and another. The Bible doesn’t give us its own version of the Taylor Johnson Temperament Analysis; it doesn’t instruct us how to measure our compatibility with another person. Nothing like that. We aren’t given instruction in the law of God as to how we should earn a living. We are commanded to earn a living, but we don’t find any instruction in the Bible as to how each of us in particular, specifically, is to earn our living. So much is left to our own initiative, our own weighing of factors, and our own freedom. We must decide.
For such decisions as these decision making is indeed an “art” and that “art” is what Proverbs is all about: the art of living well, of living skillfully in the world. And to live skillfully one must obviously make decisions wisely.
Now, for many Christians, this “art” is not really necessary to acquire because they believe that God will tell them what to do. They expect God to reveal his will for them at every important fork in the road. They needn’t study Proverbs’ teaching about guidance because they have a pipeline to heaven and can learn directly from God what they ought and ought not to do. They wouldn’t put it like that, of course, but that is effectively what they think. True enough, they think, his law in the Bible does not direct us; it is not as specific and detailed as that; but he will tell us in other ways. A great many Christians have this view, have always had it, but very few think carefully or deeply about the claim that they are making: that God will reveal to them what decision they ought to make, what choice they ought to make, what direction they ought to go when they find themselves at a fork in the road.
But it is no wonder that they think this way. Virtually everyone in the Christian world speaks as if this were so, it doesn’t make any difference whether they are Reformed in their background or Arminian in their background, whether they are charismatic or decidedly uncharismatic and anti-charismatic in their theology of the Holy Spirit: they believe that God directs our steps by revealing to us what he would have us to do. In that case, we don’t have to decide because God has decided for us. Think of what you have heard and I have heard times without number. “The Lord told me to do such and such a thing.” “The Lord opened the door for us…” “The Lord laid it upon our hearts to do such and such a thing,” “The Lord led me to do this…” and many statements like those.
Now, I suppose, the more thoughtful of Christian people will recognize at least some of the problems inherent in this view of guidance as direct communication from heaven.
- The first is that you can search the Bible from stem to stern and you will not find it once teaching you to get information from heaven in this way or to make decisions on the basis of information granted to you in this way. The Bible never teaches us to get our guidance this way. That should be a real problem for a biblically minded Christian, more of a problem than it usually is. You cannot find this view of guidance of decision making ever taught in the Bible. But the simple truth is that the Bible not only never tells us to make our decisions in life by listening for the voice of the Lord or waiting for some providential sign it provides us a complete and adequate view of guidance that does not involve such things. The inevitable argument in reply is that we see men being guided this way all the time in the Bible. Paul was prevented from going into Asia and in a dream saw a man in Macedonia saying to him, “Come over and help us.” Now that’s guidance! But there is a very great difference between a prophet or an apostle and the ordinary run of Christian like you and me. It is true that they received visions and that the “word of the Lord came to them,” but there is nothing in the Bible to suggest that such will be the case in the ordinary Christian life. We don’t write Holy Scripture or perform miracles either!
- The fact is, in comparison with what we read in Holy Scripture of divine guidance and direction being provided to the prophet and the apostles, some Christians will at least admit that the form of guidance they claim to receive is something less than what Moses or the Apostle Paul received. How many times have you heard this: “Now I didn’t hear a voice but the Lord said to me…” or this: “Now I wasn’t given a vision but the Lord directed me…” They know very well that the Lord didn’t direct their steps the way he directed the steps of those long ago prophets and apostles and that it would sound arrogant and unbelievable to claim that he did, so they describe it in much less definite terms. But why, why do they if indeed they believe that the Lord directs us today in the same way he directed his prophets and apostles long ago; all the more if those historic examples of guidance are their whole argument for such guidance being given still today? Since the Bible doesn’t teach us to make our decisions based on this kind of information received directly from God, the argument that is left is the example we have of such guidance being given to the Lord’s prophets and his apostles..
- Take, for example, the case of Gideon, who wanted confirmation that he was indeed to do the remarkable thing the Lord had summoned him to, to take on the Midianites virtually by himself. You remember his cowardice and the Lord’s patience with him. Gideon asked that if God was really going to save Israel by Gideon’s hand that he would prove it by putting the dew only on the fleece that Gideon had placed on the threshing floor. In the morning Gideon wanted the fleece to be wet with dew but the threshing floor all around it to be dry. And so it was. But Gideon wanted still further confirmation. On the next night he asked that God would reverse the result, no dew on the fleece but dew on everything else. And so it was again. When I was growing up people were always talking about “laying out fleeces” to discover the will of God. But they didn’t do what Gideon did. They didn’t actually put a wad of cotton in the backyard and ask God to put dew on the cotton but not on the grass. No; they always asked instead that something that would happen anyway be a sign of God’s will in this way or that. “Whichever company calls me first, let that be the one I should go to work for” or “Whichever girl I see first at school, let that be the one I should take to the prom.” But, of course, that isn’t divine guidance; God hasn’t agreed to such a proposal; that is simply a rather desperate effort to claim some divine direction for oneself. Again, the Bible never tells us to get our guidance in this way and if we are going to use Gideon or Paul as examples, we should do what Gideon did. And, of course, the dew will be both on the cotton and the grass two nights running!
- Usually what people mean by divine guidance of the direct variety, what they think of as a revelation of God’s will for them, is that they have received an “impression.” That is what the old writers used to call it: an impression. George Whitefield in his early days as a celebrated evangelist used to make a good bit of his “impressions” as if they were God’s voice in his head. On one occasion, Jonathan Edwards even warned him about the reliance he put on such impressions. But later he had an impression, which he unwisely communicated to one of his great congregations, that his newborn son would grow up to become a greater preacher of the gospel. “In the company of thousands I solemnly gave him up to God…. and all went away big with hopes of the child’s being hereafter to be employed in the work of God.” But a few weeks later the child took sick and died. It was a lesson learned the hard way but thereafter and throughout the course of Whitfield’s great career to the end we hear nothing more about him being led by impressions that God had given to him. [Dallimore, i, 540; ii, 167-169]
- Or instead of impressions people will rely on providences. You perhaps remember the story of Francis Schaeffer’s early Christian life. There are two very interesting and useful new biographies of Francis Schaeffer. He continues to be a subject of great interest and both of them would repay your reading. But you will remember that early on in Schaeffer’s life not long after he had become a Christian as a teenager he made plans to go to college and study for the ministry. The very morning he was to leave for college his father met him at the front door and told him that he didn’t want him to become a minister and didn’t want him to leave for college. He asked his father for a few minutes to pray and went down to the basement. There in a kind of desperation he asked God to show him what to do. Like Gideon he put God to the test. If he should go no matter his father’s wishes the coin he was about to toss would come up heads. Heads it was. Not content, he tossed again, saying to the Lord that this time it should be tails. Tails it was. He asked God to be patient with him and he needed assurance that this was the right thing to do, and so he tossed the coin a third time, asking that it be heads again. Heads it was. He told his father, “Dad, I’ve got to go.” And he went. He would later advise people not to do what he did. [Duriez, 26] Dr. Schaeffer would have been the first to say later that it was not a fair test of the divine will. The Lord would have had to say in advance I am willing to disclose my will to you in this way. The coin was going to come up heads or tails; it’s not that remarkable that it was heads, tails and heads again. A better test would have been to say, “Lord, if I am to go to college against the wishes of my father, have the coin land on its edge three straight times.” Because that is something that wouldn’t ordinarily happen, in fact, would almost never naturally happen. Now that would be a sign hard to deny. Remember, we’ve all heard stories, such as Dr. Schaeffer’s, where the Lord seemed to have honored the request for inside information but these are the happy ones. There are plenty of others less pretty. The Lord told John Wesley, by his casting of a lot, or so Wesley claimed, to publish his sermon against Whitefield’s Calvinism, a publication that did great harm to the unity of the Great Awakening. Did the Lord really tell Wesley to do that? I don’t think so! I suspect you don’t either.
- The fact is a great many Christians have done a host of stupid things claiming that the Lord told them to do one thing or another. But if we conclude that the Lord in fact did not tell that man to go into a business for which he was wholly unsuited, or to marry a person whom anyone could tell was not a good match, or to leave a church for this reason or that, how do we know that the Lord told us to do this or that. How can we tell whether the voice we are listening to is in fact the Lord’s and not our own?
Why do people feel they need such direction in their decision making? Why are they so confident that God will tell them what to do? Well, for several reasons.
- First, we want assurance and to believe that God will tell us what to do provides a measure of confidence we can’t have if we are making the decision ourselves, or so we think. We know how easy it is to make the wrong choice, we know what bad things can come from them and naturally we want to avoid mistakes. That is why usually when divine guidance of this type is invoked – signs or impressions or the like – it is for a decision of real importance, a decision that anyone can see has some serious implications. The world can be a scary and uncertain place. We want the Lord to take some of that uncertainty away. Believe me, it would be a great help if the Lord were simply to tell me what to do at this fork in the road or in that. People want that and we can understand that because we would love to have it ourselves.
- Second, this is the way they have heard others speak of God’s guidance and of decision-making and so it is natural to assume that they ought to get the same guidance the Lord has afforded others. It is simply unnatural for us to think that when other Christian people speak of the Lord telling them this or pointing them in that direction or laying some particular choice upon their heart that they are either deluded or lying. We know, of course, that there are charlatans who claim that the Lord told them that if we would give them money he would give us a new car or a new house. We know very well the Lord told them nothing of the kind. A few years ago a faith healer, exposed on a TV news magazine, claimed that the Holy Spirit had told him to pretend that he was getting information directly from heaven about people coming to the front for healing when, in fact, the information had been collected in what were called “pre-healing interviews” and was being fed by radio to a small receiver in his ear. We know that’s bunk. I have a minister friend who once claimed – not in so many words but unmistakably – that the Lord had led him into an affair. That’s worse than bunk.
But with well-meaning and sometimes impressive Christians it is another story. Surely they’re not all deluded about this? Fact is, this way of thinking and of speaking about guidance is pervasive in the church and rarely does anyone call attention to it, ask the obvious questions, or probe for some kind of verification. Think of the pastor who says, “The Lord laid it on my heart to preach from such and such a text this morning.” That sounds very spiritual. It even sounds like the sort of thing the Lord might very well do. Who am I to question whether the Lord did any such thing? But that is precisely the question that must be asked whenever someone claims to have received revelation, direct communication from heaven: did God really tell you that? How do you know that it was God and that this is not simply a way of sounding pious about a choice you made for any number of reasons? Remember what the man is claiming: God communicated his will to me in some direct and immediate way. If that is not the case – and I fully realize that a great many Christians who have used such language about guidance would be horrified to realize this – you have just claimed that what you say, God says. And that is blasphemy: putting yourself in the place of God and venturing to speak on his behalf. It’s one thing to do that when he has revealed his will and his truth in his Holy Word. You can say that and be absolutely sure you are speaking God’s Word. It’s an entirely different thing when you are talking about a career choice or the choice of a mate, a church or a place to live or anything else. I know very well that no one intends to do that, or realizes that they are doing that with what seems to them an innocent way and even a spiritual way of speaking, but that is precisely the problem with this language. If you are claiming to speak for God, the living God, the Almighty, you better darn well be sure that you are!
- Third, and here, I think, is the largest part of the problem, people are confused about guidance and in many cases have a seriously defective understanding of the Bible’s teaching. They think they are supposed to get this kind of information from heaven and so they expect to get it and that expectation leads them to claim that they have in fact received such heavenly direction as they stood at some fork in the road. So let’s take another look at what the Bible actually says. We still aren’t to Proverbs and won’t get there tonight, but this foundation is necessary if we are to appreciate the rich teaching we will find in that book regarding how to make decisions.
Let me review then the Biblical Doctrine of Guidance in its most general sense. We’ll get to the details next time.
A Biblical Doctrine of Guidance
The biblical idea of the will of God is complex in the Bible, it is multi-dimensional, but it is not as complex as the popular understanding. The Bible uses the term and the idea of the will of God in two ways, but we use it in three and from that difference comes most of our confusion.
- The Bible uses “will of God” to refer to God’s commandments, his revealed will, that is, what we read concerning our duty in the Word of God. For example, we read in 1Thess. 4:3: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality, that each one of you know how to control his own body, etc.” Or think of the Lord’s statement, “Whoever does God’s will is my brother, and sister, and mother.” [Mark 3:35] Many uses of the idea and the terminology of “will of God” mean God’s revealed will, his commandments.
- The Bible also uses the term “will of God” to refer to God’s decree, his counsel, his plan for all men and all things. In Eph. 1:11, for example, we read of “the plan of him who works out everything according to the counsel of his will.” And in 1 Peter 4:19, speaking of one particular aspect of our lives we read of those “who suffer according to God’s will.” These are the things God has predetermined or ordained to come to pass.
- The Scripture, however, does not use the term or the idea of the will of God in the popular sense of guidance. What is God’s will for me, left or right at this fork in the road? The Bible never uses that language for that purpose. Nowhere in the Bible are we commanded to find God’s will in the sense in which that idea is used by many Christians today, in the sense of learning what way God wants us to take. Nowhere in the Bible are we taught how we might discover that information if indeed we need it for the right making of decisions.
- Rather we are again and again pointed to the Word of God, God’s revealed will, as a sufficient guide. In Deut. 29:29 we have a classic statement of the Bible’s position: “The secret things belong to the Lord out God [i.e. what is going to happen tomorrow and the next day, what God has foreordained to come to pass through the course of our lives in the future], but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” And Paul says a similar thing in his famous statement about the Bible in 2 Tim. 3:16-17: “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.” What is not said there and is not hinted at or anywhere else in the Bible is that while the Bible gives you a lot of information you still need some more divine information to make your choices and your decisions. In other words, you have in the Bible all the communication from God that you need for living your life in a holy and fruitful and wise manner.
- This is all the more remarkable because the Ancient Near Eastern world (ANE) was thoroughly absorbed by efforts to discover in advance the intention or will of the gods. Everywhere there were experts pursuing this sort of knowledge: what do the gods want me to do, what will they do if I do this or that? There were entire professions of highly respected people devoted to discovering the will of the gods at such fork in the road moments for a king or a nation or, for that matter, for an individual. Alexander did not proceed into Asia without first consulting the oracle at Delphi. 90% of the cuneiform texts discovered have to do with divination, the ascertaining of the divine will. The library of the Assyrian king Asshurbanipal in Ninevah was almost exclusively a collection of divination texts. It was a developed science, or so it was thought. They studied animal livers. In Ezek. 21:21, for example, we read, “For the King of Babylon will stop at the fork in the road, at the junction of the two roads, to seek an omen [i.e. he needs to know which road his army should take]: he will cast lots with arrows, he will consult his idols, he will examine the liver.” Later they consulted the stars. But in the Bible divination was not given a particular Hebrew twist, a particular covenantal form, but was forbidden and was regarded as a great sin. God had told his people what they needed to know; to seek for more was not to revere him or his Word and was, in fact, to look at life and the outcome of life as pagans do.
“There shall not be found among you anyone who…practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens…” [Deut. 18:10]
- According to the Bible, the blessedness of our future is not determined by knowing ahead of time what the future will bring so that we can line up our behavior accordingly. It is not determined by the acquiring of inside information. It is never that in the Bible. It is determined instead by character and obedience. “If the Lord delights in a man’s way, he makes his steps firm.” [Ps. 37:23] “In keeping the commandments of God there is a great reward” [Ps. 19:11]
- Christians today who seek to ascertain God’s plan for them by fleeces or impressions or open doors or whatever certainly do not imagine that they are practicing divination, but that is in fact what they are doing. They are trying to discover insider information on God’s plan A for them so that they can line up with that plan. But God does not guide us that way, at least he never tells us he will in the Bible. Nor does he tell us how we might discover that secret information if indeed we are supposed to look for it and find it.
- No doubt God has a plan for our lives, an absolute blueprint. “All our days were ordered for us before there was a one of them.” [Psalm 139:16] But we do not know what it is and, frankly, since it concerns absolutely everything, down to the minutest detail – the number of hairs on our head at any moment – and because everything in that plan is connected to everything else in the entire world we couldn’t understand it or make decisions based upon it even if we somehow could see a snapshot of a single part of that plan, say that part in which you marry this man or this woman and not that, or take this job and not that, or move to this city instead of that. When you talk this way your assumption is that if you marry this woman because it is God’s will for us you will be blissfully happy, but what if the Lord has appointed for her or for you an early death (that certainly is sometimes his will), or a tragic accident that leaves one or both of you in great distress (likewise sometimes his will)? Is that what you meant when saying that God told you to marry him or her, or led you to take this job or that, or directed you to move from this city to that? I doubt it. But God’s ways are far above our ways and past finding out. If somehow you could see a snapshot of your life in the plan of God, you still would have absolutely no idea what decision you are supposed to make because even your sins are in the plan. “All things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to his purpose.”
Fact is the Bible never once teaches us that our lives or even our decisions depend for their good and their blessing upon obtaining inside information from heaven. The Bible does not use “will of God” in this way, as something we are to find or discern or discover; a peek behind the veil so to speak. Next time we will begin working out what the Bible does say about how to make decisions – that is where Proverbs comes in – but we begin by reminding ourselves of what it does not say.
Here is Donald Macleod, one of the Reformed Church’s finest theologians, writing about the popular way of thinking and speaking about divine guidance among Christians.
“Young Christians react to this ideology in two ways. Many quickly conclude that because they lack such experiences [of direct divine guidance] they are very poor Christians, if indeed they are Christians at all. Others, more impressionable, seek the experiences they hear so much of, adopt the canonical terminology and soon begin, like everyone else, to feel led and spoken to.
“We are now so familiar with this thought-world as to be completely unconscious of the staggering claims it involves. In effect, the people concerned are saying that they receive special revelations. God has revealed to them that they should marry or change jobs or become ministers or missionaries.
“One problem with this is that it puts pressure on the rest of the Christian community. Revelation cannot bind only the person who receives it. It binds everyone else as well. If God has revealed to someone that he is calling him to be a minister, he is also revealing that he requires the church to recognize, train, license and ordain him. It then becomes sacrilegious to ask questions implying a doubt or a desire to test the call. Who are we to question God’s revelation? This probably explains why in every branch of the church people are admitted to the ministry who are unsuited to the work. How can a mere committee ask mundane questions about heath, academic background, spiritual gifts, and working experience of an applicant to whom God has spoken directly?
“In fact the claims go beyond what the church enjoyed even when God was clearly giving her canonical special revelation. During that time certain men undoubtedly received direct disclosures of the divine mind. But the privilege was not common to all believers. It was confined to prophets who received an audience, heard his secrets and were commissioned to act as his spokesmen. The rest of the believing community were not spoken to directly. They received their guidance from the prophets.
“Conceivably things might have changed under the New Testament and every single believer receive special revelation as he receives Spirit baptism. But this is not what we find…” [The Spirit of Promise, 57-58]
Making good and wise decisions is essential to a happy and holy life. We all agree about that, I’m sure. Proverbs has much to say about how to make such decisions, but it will say nothing about asking the Lord to tell you what he wants you to do or using some means to discover his plan for you at this moment. We’ll consider what it does say next time.