Thursday, August 18, 2005

Fighting Paralysis & Presumption: More on Finding the Will of God

I want to point you to the input of others who responded to my previous post on finding the will of God. I intended to get this out a lot sooner but life got hectic and more pressing demands took over. I would have had it posted last night but when I was almost done and tried to save the draft, Blogger went batty and I lost everything I worked on yesterday.

Thanks to Brian for directing me to this article by Garry Friesen that appeared in Discipleship Journal a few years back. I didn't want it to get lost in the comments section. It's currently under construction but I look forward to reading what Brian has to say at his blog, Reasons Why.

David Wayne, the Jolly Blogger, has some thoughts about what is to account for the obsession with finding God's will. He chalks it up to evangelical narcissism and, in agreement with Bruce Waltke, one of the authors I recommended in my last entry, claims that the way many believers think about discerning God's will has more in common with pagan occultism than the Bible. He includes an excerpt from Waltke's book, Finding the Will of God: A Pagan Notion? as well as a link to Rusty Lopez's thoughts on the topic at New Covenant .

On Adrian Warnock's UK Blog as well as on his own, Cadmus inquired about the relationship between living God's will and the fruit of the Spirit as he studies Galatians 5:16-26. I particularly like the way he put this:
In our culture we are told to do something with our lives, that we have to be successful and that's why so many struggle with doing God's Will. So many want God to hold a career fair and tell them what they should do, when he tells us so often throughout the Bible: "Live this way so others can see Me and want to know Me personally and become disciples."
So very true. One of the young men I spoke with in Wisconsin related how he was thinking about looking for a new job but thought he had to stay where he was until he got a "clear sign" from God. He was so relieved to learn that what's required of him is to make a wise, biblically-informed decision, trusting that the Lord will providentially order his steps.

More recently, Adrian Warnock posted his sermon notes on Proverbs 3: 5 - 6. Certainly, no discussion of God's will would be complete without reference to these familiar verses. They're frequently portrayed as a promise of specific personal guidance in critical decisions, especially because the King James Version renders the latter part of verse 6: "....and he shall direct your paths" instead of the more accurate translation of the verb which means "to make straight" or "to make smooth." Garry Friesen, in Decision Making and the Will of God quotes Old Testament scholar, Bruce Waltke recounting a fellow scholar's difficulty coming to terms with this:
All of us have had the shock of discovering that a favorite verse in the King James Version was inaccurate.... I recall the astonishment of one of the committee members assigned to translate the Book of Proverbs for the New International Version when he discovered that Proverbs 3:5-6 had nothing to say about guidance.... [W]hen confronted with the linguistic data he had to admit reluctantly that the verse more properly read 'and He will make your path smooth.'
One of the reasons I risk recommending Garry Friesen's 400+ page book to people is its fourth chapter, "Does Scripture Teach the Dot?," in which the author examines the biblical passages most frequently offered as prooftexts for the teaching that God has a prescribed path which we must discern beforehand through various means in order to be "in the center of God's will." This chapter is, in my opinion, worth the cost of the book because in each instance Friesen models sound interpretive methods, paying careful attention to the literary and thematic contexts of the verses that are frequently ripped from their surroundings to support the idea of an individualized will that must be discovered in order to make God-pleasing choices.

Concerning the significance of the imagery of a "path" in verse 6, Friesen writes:
The noun "path" is frequently employed in the Psalms and Proverbs. But it does not have the idea of an individual will of God. Hebrew writers use it to describe the general course of fortunes of life (see Proverbs 4:18-19; 15:19). When the verb "make straight, make smooth" is connected withi "paths," the meaning of the statement is, "He shall make the course of your life successful." This meaning is clearly indicated in Proverbs 11:5:
The righteousness of the blameless will smooth his way,
But the wicked will fall by his own wickedness.
This verse contrasts the righteous man who experiences true success in life with the wicked man who brings trouble upon himself by his devious behavior. This is a common theme in Proverbs (4:18-19; 11:5; 15:19; 22:17-21).
Friesen notes that the first ten verses of Proverbs 3 consist of a series of two-verse couplets. Each couplet contains a command to obey the Lord followed by a description of the blessing that generally accompanies godliness. "The true intent of Proverbs 3:5-6," he concludes, "is to set forth a pattern the believer should follow to experience true success in life - a pattern in which he demonstrates his trust and obedience of God by following the directions of God's moral will." Given this understanding, the imperative to not lean on our own understanding is not a call to abandon the processes of fact-finding and deliberation as though they were somehow antagonistic to following the Lord. God is not prohibiting the use of our minds to evaluate the various options before us and settle on a course of action. What is prohibited is an evaluative process that operates independently of the fear of the Lord. Instead of relying on my own understanding, I am to trust the understanding that comes through God's interpretation of and instruction about life (see Proverbs 2:6 and 9:6).

The popularity of what Friesen calls "the dot theory" of God's will (the idea that God's individualized will is like a bullseye that we must hit) is due to a number of factors. Among them is our tendency to approach the Bible atomistically. We tend to focus on individual verses with a zoom lens when we need to set our minds on telephoto so as to best understand them in terms of their relationship to each other. Of course, we practically train people from childhood to approach the Bible in this piecemeal manner. But that's fodder for a future post, perhaps.


John Haller said...

This is a great post. Thanks. I'm actually going to be teaching on this in the fall.

Mike said...

I've taught Friesen's book in Sunday school and at Bible studies: it results in more heated discussion than anything else I've ever taught. Many - or most - Christians are very deeply invested in the notion.

Part of the reason for this, I suspect, is that having a specific will to be followed means that people are ultimately not responsible for the decisions they make or the consequences of those decisions. If they marry "the one" and it goes badly, it wasn't their fault. If they take a financial risk that "God led them to take," they're not to blame if they lose all their money. If God tells them to confront you about something, you shouldn't be upset with them if it hurts your feelings. After all, they're just God's faithful messenger.

Obeying God's individual, specific will rules out decisions altogether: God makes the decisions and we simply obey or not. But we can't be held accountable for the decision itself.

Our culture is awash in irresponsibility. The notion of every detail of our life being a matter of "God's will" that we have to know and follow is simply the baptized, evangelical version of that irresponsibility. As Friesen demonstrates, it's not a biblical teaching.

mrclm said...

I want to point you to the input of others who responded to my previous post on finding the will of God. I intended to get this out a lot sooner but life got hectic and more pressing demands took over. I would have had it posted last night but when I was almost done and tried to save the draft, Blogger went batty and I lost everything I worked on yesterday.

We the dirty, unwashed bloghordes expect sooooooo much more from you :-) Really though, life happens, and when your blog overtakes more important life things, your blog needs to die. So I think you've had the right priorities.

Big Chris
Because I said so blog