Listening to God in Times of Choice: The Art of Discerning God's Will
Author: Gordon T. Smith
Publisher: Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997.
View: Synthesis of Traditional and Wisdom Views
The Forward is by a Jesuit who lauds the book's insights from John Wesley and Ignatius of Loyola. Smith's doctoral dissertation compared Wesley and Ignatius. The book is about the "art of discerning God's will." The main theme is that God relates to us as a friend and we must learn to listen to God's voice in our innermost being.
Smith positions himself between the traditional view ("Blueprint school", 15) and the Wisdom view (or "school" illustrated by Decision Making and the Will of God, 16). He rightly notes that what I call the traditional view "is recent in historical terms" (102). Smith goes back further in spiritual history to try and correct both views.
Smith rejects the traditional view which undercuts "the presence and voice of God in the times of choice" (16)." But his descriptions of the voice of God sound exactly like the traditional view: "prompting", "impressions", "still small voice", "inner witness", "subjective" speaking, "hearing God's voice", "peace of God".
His mystical orientation is clear. "God does not have a mouth; he does not speak audibly. Rather, God 'speaks' to us through our feelings, impressions left on our minds" (52). This description is much different than the biblical examples which he gives to show that God speaks to us (17-18). His examples don't argue for impressions: Abraham Gen. 12; Samuel 1 Sam. 3:10; Balaam Num 22:21-23; Philip led by an angel Acts 8; by a prophet Acts 13:2. Smith has substituted impressions for the biblical examples of direct revelation by prophet and even audible voice.
His summary of the traditional view is accurate (98-99). He says that the traditional view is helpless in finding God's will in every minor decision. The idea of a personal will for me leaves out the way others are affected. Or what if she misses God's will and doesn't marry me? Where does that leave me? (100) The predetermined plan of the traditional view misses the "dynamic in [God's] relationship with his children" (100). The methods used to find God's will "often come dangerously close to a kind of superstitious divination" (100) such as the use of fleeces and signs (102-104), misuse of the Bible (104-105) and wrong understanding of "open doors" (106-107). Some of his criticism coincides with Decision Making.
Smith gives a pretty good description of the Wisdom view, but finds it is also mistaken.
In his book Decision-Making and the Will of God Gary Friesen provides a compelling critique of the blueprint approach to divine guidance. He goes on to affirm that God does not expect his people to look at signs and open doors, or even listen to little voices in their heads. Rather he believes that through Scripture the Christian's mind is renewed. Through immersing ourselves in the Scriptural revelation we develop and grow in wisdom and become increasingly capable of making good choices (16).
His conclusion is that "The 'wisdom' people essentially trust their own capacities to make choices" (16). In short, he thinks the Wisdom position misses "that in times of choice we can and must listen to God. God is present; God does speak; and we can, if we will, hear and respond to his prompting" (17). Smith says, "Friesen rightly rejects the blueprint model but then loses touch with the classic mystical tradition" (102).
Smith's view differs from the traditional view. First, he says that God's will does not apply to every decision. Only those "choices or decisions that shape the fundamental parameters and direction we will take" are the ones where we must know God's will (52-53). Otherwise, "We could spend all our time trying to figure out this plan rather than living!" (99). He assumes the traditional definition for an individual will of God rather than proving it. Nor, does he show that the Bible promises guidance for only the important decisions of life.
Smith also differs from the traditional view concerning the certainty which you can have of God's guidance. The traditional view says that you can be certain, but Smith says, "In this life we will not have absolute, unambiguous peace and rational certainty that we have divine guidance" (65). If we are not sure, then we must "trust God and make our choices despite the lack of absolute certainty. We cannot wait until every questions is resolved before we act" (67).
Smith is realistic about how subjective his method is. Discussing the peace of God, he says, "But consolation may be from God, or it may reflect the deceitfulness of the Evil One, masquerading as good. Or it could reflect our own confused desires and misguided motives. It may even reflect nothing more than what we had for breakfast" (57).
Smith strongly urges the reader to "Test everything" (57). This helps transform his mysticism into something more like "discerning". He encourages the believer to test every feeling, impression or sense of peace. The believer's mind must be washed with Scripture, and motives must get a "ruthless" examination to be sure God's glory is the goal (64). Reason must evaluate the impressions. "Reason .. guides us--but reason comes to terms with the feelings and impressions that are left on our inner person." Our impressions should be judged by the church and he recommends a "clearness committee" (82).
His conclusion to the method of discernment is "(1) rational consideration of the options and obstacles, (2) extended time in prayer and reflection, and (3) accountability and discussion with others" (85). This is a careful process, and it is hard to imagine a sinful or foolish impression making it through the tests. The process seems to narrow you down to impressions that are wise and godly. And who is against that? I do not call such impressions the pure voice of God (nor give them authority), but anything that is wise and godly can be followed with confidence.
Decision Making argued for one negative thing about impressions-they don't equal the voice of God and so do not have authority. But they often reflect God's truth and wisdom. When they do, they may be followed. If you are convinced that such subjective feelings are the pure voice of God, then be sure to follow Smith's discernment process. It will keep you from falling into sinful or foolish ways. For Smith is not just reading his heart's impressions, he is sending them through a tough-minded 100 point inspection. His mysticism has so much muscle that it is almost palatable.