Knowing God's Will: Finding Guidance for Personal Decisions (Revised and Expanded)
Author: M. Blaine Smith
Publisher: Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1991
View: Wisdom View in Traditional Vocabulary
Discipleship Journal contacted me about doing a point-counterpoint article on God's will. My counterpoint author was to be M. Blaine Smith of Nehemiah Ministries. I immediately read his book, Should I Get Married?, and the new edition of his Knowing God's Will. The latter book contains an appendix titled: "Does God Have a Will for Our Personal Decisions? (With Reflections on Garry Friesen's Decision Making and the Will of God)."
I enjoyed reading Smith's books. I like his thinking and his writing style. When we conversed over the phone, I instinctively liked the author himself. After reading his books, I wrote my article, but the journal editors did not like it. I was supposed to be "counterpoint" and I was agreeing with Smith's position. I had come to the conclusion that we held practically identical views though we were using different terminology. Smith did not think so, but it sure looks that way to me.
Some critics of Decision Making have said, "It is just semantics. The traditional view looks for the perfect will of God and you look for the wisest decision." But there really are substantial differences between the views. The fact that Decision Making stirred up such controversy testifies to the reality of the differences. But with Smith's book-well, I am ready to make an exception.
At first there appears to be a great difference. He argues for the "individual will" in God's guidance, and I argue long and hard against the concept. Smith accepts this foundational concept of the traditional view, but looks for this individual will just as if he were seeking a wise decision. Every time Smith says "individual will" you could pencil in "godly, wise decision" and our two books would be nearly identical.
For example, he writes, "First, we should study Scripture.... Then we have a responsibility to use our reason to make a logical choice about God's will, as opposed to looking for supernatural indications or purely intuitive impressions of his guidance" (p. 103). "Human reason was the channel through which God's will was normally known. In most cases discerning his will boiled down to a matter of making a sound, logical choice" (p. 115). "For Paul, discerning God's will was mainly a matter of making sound, logical judgments, in light of what course appeared most glorifying to God" (p. 123).
We should make clear that the differences between Smith's conclusions and those of the traditional view are substantial.
1. The key to the traditional view is knowing God's individual will. They say that God has promised to make it 100 percent clear, and you must discern it to know what God wants you to do. In contrast, Smith says that it is the believer's responsibility to take the initiative. Furthermore, he says that you can proceed even when you are confused about what to do. If you are obeying His Word and seeking wisdom, you can trust God to automatically bring you to His individual will. "Where we lack understanding, he'll so arrange our circumstances that we still end up doing what he desires. He's simply too big to allow our lack of understanding to keep him from leading us in the path of his will" (p. 60).
Smith has solved the knowledge problem of the traditional view by saying that you don't have to know the will of God before a decision. With his solution he has jettisoned the traditional view and in practice is following the way of wisdom.
In all the small decisions, Smith commends praying at the start of the day for God to guide you. "Then go ahead and apply yourself to the day's decisions in the faith and confidence that God is answering your prayer." Through prayer we have "confidence that our decision process is being guided by him and that what we decide reflects his will" (p. 75).
2. The traditional view usually regards personal desires with suspicion and warns against being unduly influenced by them as one seeks to know God's individual will. Smith says, "Remember that Christ is even more concerned that you understand and respond to the desires he has put within you than you are" (p. 182). Other immature practices of the traditional view are also set aside by Smith with humor, wisdom, and grace.
3. The traditional view understands inward impressions of the heart as the voice of the Holy Spirit. Smith says that they can never be equated. Impressions often reflect your personal feelings, needs, and wisdom, but they don't equal the voice of God.
Smith got to his view by good exegesis of the key passages and by large amounts of personal wisdom. I not only agree with his discussions of inward impressions and "putting out a fleece," but they were often more insightful and better explained than my own.
4. The traditional view interprets circumstances as a sign from God pointing to His perfect will. Smith rejects even highly coincidental circumstances as signs from God. Circumstances should be judged by wisdom as to the effect they will have on the decision at hand.
If Smith does not hold the traditional view, what does he hold? As earlier stated, Smith believes in the "individual will" of God, but goes about seeking it exactly as you would seek to make a wise decision. He seems to equate the two. Regarding the prayer for wisdom in James 1:5, he writes: "In the New Testament the most explicit command to pray for a knowledge of God's will is given in James 1:5-6." God's will is not mentioned here, but the prayer for wisdom is. Smith has in practice equated the two.
His second appendix specifically critiques Decision Making. In it he raises some interesting questions about God's individual will and wisdom. He suggests that Decision Making has overlooked the implications of spiritual gifts as an indicator of each believer's individual distinctiveness. I discussed spiritual gifts under the moral will of God since we are commanded to use our gifts. When this command is obeyed by each Christian, its expression will be very specific and individual. The beauty of God's moral will and of wisdom is that they guide each individual in their particular situation. The command to obey one's father and mother is a general command, but in practice, that obedience will be given to a specific father and mother with their specific directives. The command to be wise or modest is very general. In application, however, it will be very specific and very different for each individual. None of this demands an individual will of God; it only requires an individual response to the moral will of God and wisdom.
Smith believes that to jettison the concept of God's individual will leads to a loss of confidence in God's personal care. In Decision Making I argue that God's care is individual and detailed. But it is not an expression of His individual will, but rather of His sovereign will. We have the direct assurance that "God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose" (Romans 8:28). But that does not require an individual will that the Christian must discover in order to please God. It requires a loving Father sovereignly working out His purposes in the life of each individual believer (Matthew 6:25-34).
Smith also argues that the concept of wisdom itself is evidence of the existence of an individual will. He reasons that if God applied wisdom to a decision, would He not come to the wisest choice? If He did, would He not prefer it? Would He not want to reveal this best choice to the believer? Smith concludes that this choice is the same as the individual will of God. He has a good argument. In Decision Making I acknowledge that it is reasonable that God could guide by creating and revealing an individual will. But reason does not require an individual will. And the clincher, for me, is that Scripture doesn't teach the individual will of God for each decision. What it does teach is the second principle in Decision Making: Where there is no command the believer is free to choose. And this is what is missing from Smith's treatment of the will of God. He does not discuss the passages, such as Genesis 2:16 that plainly teach freedom within the moral will of God: "Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat." There are many passages in which this freedom is explicitly taught. What does this freedom mean if God has one individual will for each decision? To say you are free when the believer must always find the one decision required by God's individual will is a contradiction in terms.
Smith should also explain why the apostles described their decisions in terms of wisdom if they really meant they had found God's individual will (1 Thessalonians 3:1). Why would Paul write a chapter on the decision of marriage and not mention God's individual will? (1 Corinthians 7:1-40).
Really, the only point of disagreement between Knowing God's Will and Decision Making is the concept of God's individual will. This sounds significant, but in Smith's presentation it makes little difference. If you apply Scripture and wisdom to every decision, you will practice sound decision making. Smith will call the final decision God's individual will, and I will call it making a godly, wise decision. I believe the latter terminology is more biblically accurate, but the end result under either method will be a godly, wise decision.
Despite its traditional terminology, I am convinced that Knowing God's Will does not teach the traditional view. I recommend it as a practical expression of the wisdom view. So if you believe in the wisdom view but don't want to drop the traditional terminology, this may be the book for you.