Is It Worth Another Look?
Is it worth another look? The answer to that question will depend, in part, on who is asking it. For as I submit a revised edition of a book first published over twenty years ago, I realize that I now address readers in two audiences. One audience consists of those who have never encountered the content or perspective of this book. Perhaps the book was recommended by a friend. Or maybe you’re intrigued by a presentation that claims to be “a biblical alternative” to other books on God’s will. Possibly you’re like the quarter-million readers of the first edition who had reason to explore an approach that differed from the standard teaching on the subject. For you, the question, “Is it worth another look?” means, “Should I consider another viewpoint on decision making and the will of God?” You want to know, what’s this all about?
Those in the second audience are already familiar with the original version. You’re curious about any alteration in my views. Perhaps you wonder if the questions you had after reading the first edition have been addressed. Or maybe you want to know how (and whether) the viewpoint of this book has matured over two decades. For you, the question, “Is it worth another look?” means, “Should I revisit the ‘way of wisdom’ to see if deeper insight may be gained?” You want to know, what’s new?
Begging the patience of my friends in audience number two, I will respond to new readers by narrating how this book came to be written in the first place, and by giving you a sneak preview of its main points. Then I’ll unveil what’s new in this edition.
The personal research that culminated in the writing of this book was initially motivated by frustration. Like most Christians in evangelical churches, I had received instruction on discerning God’s guidance. Yet when I followed the steps normally taught, I didn’t always obtain the clear picture that was supposed to materialize. Are believers like laboratory rats consigned to an intricate maze of decisions while God just watches? Surely not. But my efforts to apply the traditional teaching only yielded confusion.
My serious quest for answers began when I was about to graduate from high school. Entering young adulthood I had to decide, on my own, where I would spend the four formative years of college life. A full year before the deadline, I narrowed my choice to two colleges. One was in Detroit and the other in Arkansas-John Brown University. Which was God’s will? Frankly, they seemed equal. I carefully and prayerfully followed the steps I had been taught. Yet evaluation of circumstances, Scriptural principles, inner impressions, and advice from counselors did not decisively narrow my decision to a single, perfect choice.
I had never been encouraged to put out a circumstantial “fleece” unless other methods had failed. However, twelve months dwindled to two weeks and I had to do something. I resorted to a fleece. “I’ll ask my father which of two job offers he thinks I should take just before entering college,” I thought to myself. “If he says ‘radiator shop,’ I’ll go to John Brown; but if he says ‘camp worker,’ I’ll go to the college in Detroit.” Dad was not aware that he was deciding the next four years of my life by answering a simple question. I asked him. He thought for a moment and then said, “I think you should take the job with your Uncle Reiny in the radiator shop.”
“OK,” I said to myself, “God is sending me to John Brown University.”
I was content with the choice I had made, but the complexity and uncertainty of the process was disconcerting. I arrived in Arkansas with a theological issue. Why had it been so hard to find God’s will when I had so sincerely sought it? Secondarily, was this “fleece” method really plumbing the mind of God? Was I the only one who did not have 100 percent certainty for every decision? A new possibility struck me. Perhaps my understanding of the nature of God’s will was biblically deficient. Maybe there was a better way to understand how God guides.
For the next ten years I searched the Scriptures for clues about God’s guidance. Second Timothy 3:16-17spurred me on: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching…so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” Further research provided enough data for my doctoral dissertation. That material was presented in seminars and conferences and underwent further refinement. Finally, five years of writing resulted in the publication of the first edition of Decision Making and the Will of God in 1980.
Since that time, the book has been read, critiqued, and questioned. Over a thousand readers have written letters. Good questions have been asked-both by those who agreed with the book and by those who emphatically did not. Insightful observations exposed places where the original book was unclear or where further analysis was required. And so this second edition has been prepared as a much-needed update, presenting the same thesis about God’s guidance, but I hope with more clarity, additional biblical support, and answers to the most frequently asked questions.
Decision Making, like many books before and after it, seeks to clarify God’s teaching on personal guidance. Where it differs from others is in some of its conclusions. Thus, it is called an “alternative to the traditional view.” Many of the books that have been published on this subject over the past two decades continue to follow a common approach to finding God’s will. Hence, the traditional view of my youth continues, with some refinement, to be propagated.
Ironically, my research into the history of this teaching indicates that its origin is relatively recent. It appears that what has become the traditional view was developed by British and American Bible teachers connected with the Keswick Movement. Arising from spiritual life conferences that began in 1875 in Keswick, England, and spreading to America, this movement became a powerful force for the cause of world missions. Through its influence, many believers around the world have been taught this traditional view, believing it to be the only view.
To my surprise (but not shock), I learned that the material I present in this book was not a discovery of anything new. It turns out that many spiritual traditions prior to Keswick taught the “wisdom view” presented here. So from a historical perspective, which position is indeed “traditional” could be debated. The significant question, however, is not which view came first. Rather our concern must focus on which understanding best expresses the teaching of Scripture. This book will seek to fairly critique what has become the traditional view, and then offer a biblical alternative.
A Sneak Preview
In Part 1 the traditional view is presented. The fictional seminar I employed in the first edition has been replaced by a more concise, expanded outline. Part 2 is a critique of the areas where the traditional view needs correction. The key material is expounded in chapter 4 where relevant Scriptures used by the traditional view are carefully reexamined in context. Part 3 presents the biblical alternative called “the way of wisdom.” It gives my answer to the question, “How does God guide?” Finally in Part 4 the biblical principles of guidance are applied to specific important decisions: singleness and marriage, choosing a vocation, and how to disagree with other believers without starting the newest church split.
“So,” you ask, “what is the ‘way of wisdom’?” In the first edition of Decision Making, I didn’t tip my hand for 150 pages. That was too long for some readers to wait-including my mother. Many couldn’t stand the suspense and cheated by reading the conclusion first. To forestall such temptation, this time I’m going to reveal right up front how the story ends. I hope this summary will whet your appetite and motivate you to keep chewing until you digest the full meal.
If you’ve been raised under the traditional view of guidance and are comfortable with the application of it in your life, a brief summary of the “way of wisdom” may not seem right at first reading. Furthermore, I won’t even try to prove that it is correct until Part 3. On the other hand, if your experience has been like mine, and you have felt frustrated in the application of traditional steps to guidance, you have reason for hope. In the next few pages you will learn that there is a refreshing biblical alternative to what most Christians have been taught about “finding God’s will.”
God’s guidance according to the way of wisdom can be summarized in four simple statements:
1. Where God commands, we must obey.
2. Where there is no command, God gives us freedom (and responsibility) to choose.
3. Where there is no command, God gives us wisdom to choose.
4. When we have chosen what is moral and wise, we must trust the sovereign God to work all the details together for good.
Part 3, “The Way of Wisdom,” will give proof for each of these principles from Scripture, supported by reason and experience. Right now I will expand these four principles to assure that you can see the forest of guidance before we inspect the specific trees.
In the Bible, the term “God’s will” most often refers to all the commands, principles, and promises that God has revealed in the Scriptures. This first biblical meaning of “God’s will” is best described as God’s Moral Will. It is fully conveyed in the Bible and so does not have to be “found”-just read, learned, and obeyed.
Though this book has been called controversial, there is nothing controversial about the concept of God’s moral will. Virtually all Bible teachers agree (including those who promote the traditional view): Where God commands, we must obey. Yet this simple truth cuts deeper into real life than we usually realize. Every action, thought, motive, attitude, and plan is affected by God’s moral will because its commands go beyond outward actions to search the motives and intents of our most secret desires (1 Samuel 16:7).
The second principle is the point where I part company with the traditional view. (It has been called “heretical” by opponents, “revolutionary” and “liberating” by those who have been transformed by it.) This principle must be denied by proponents of the traditional view or their position cannot stand. It starts to answer the question, “What do you do when there is no specific command in the Bible to determine your decision?”
Where there is no command, God gives us freedom (and responsibility) to choose. The principle actually is not as radical as it may sound. It does not say that God does not care what we decide. It does not mean that there is no further guidance from God (there are two more principles). It does not say that our decision does not matter or that we can do our own selfish thing. It does say that we are morally free to decide. This freedom is God-given. But alongside that freedom is a God-given responsibility to decide.
Grasping the reality of freedom and responsibility has resulted in a very common response to the first edition of the book: “This book is both liberating and sobering. With freedom comes relief that I am not missing God’s will. At the same time, being responsible for my decisions means that I cannot blame bad decisions on God.”
Principle three says, Where there is no command, God gives wisdom to choose. We are never free to be foolish, stupid, or naive. The freedom in the second principle is limited by the guidance God gives through wisdom. Put differently, wisdom is commanded of believers by the Moral Will of God and must be applied to all non-commanded decisions.
I will support this principle by citing numerous biblical commands that exhort believers to act and choose wisely. I will also illustrate it with Scriptural terminology and examples. The wisdom books of the Old Testament make a great contribution and can be taken at face value as models of God’s primary method of guidance. In the area of freedom, it is God who promises to give wisdom when we ask.
Principle four states, When we have chosen what is moral and wise, we must trust the sovereign God to work all the details together for good. God’s sovereign superintendence of all the particulars assures that after we have followed His guidance in the first three principles, God secretly works all the unknowns and details together for good. He is involved in the smallest particulars even when He does not tell us exactly what to do. This work of God gives the peace of mind that God is guiding in everything.
These four principles form the core of the way of wisdom. It takes the rest of the book to explain them, prove them from Scripture, and apply them to life.
New and Improved
Now, how is this revised edition different from its predecessor?
First, this update contains a clearer presentation of the view. Years of interaction with students and readers have resulted in the discovery of statements that were confusing to people or inadvertently led to faulty inferences. There is more than one way to get across an idea, and some ways of saying things are clearer than others. The most obvious example of this is the vocabulary used to express the four fundamental principles of the way of wisdom. These simpler, shorter statements are less subject to misunderstanding.
Second, this edition discusses additional key passages. One of the distinctive features of Decision Makingis a thorough examination of relevant biblical texts carefully analyzed in context. During the past two decades, I’ve encountered additional key passages that were overlooked in writing the first edition. Some of these passages were identified by readers who asked “What about…?” A few surfaced in other books on the will of God. My own Bible reading brought me into contact with some very helpful verses. So this edition includes exegetical treatment of previously omitted passages inserted in the appropriate sections of the book.
Third, while some sections of the original book have been pared down, new material has been added. For instance, my explanation of the traditional view in Part 1 has been reduced from fifty pages to five, from three chapters to one. Instead of a narrative, I’ve provided an outline. That was done in part to make room for new content, most of which was added to the chapters on the “way of wisdom” in Part 3. This new material reflects the impact of twenty years of living with the way of wisdom and learning additional insights about God’s marvelous guidance.
Fourth, this edition includes my replies to frequently asked questions. I owe a lot to hundreds of students and readers who have raised significant questions about the concepts in the first edition. Some of these questions have called for clarification of central points. Others have explored inferential or applicational ramifications of the way of wisdom. With the advent of the computer age (the first edition was written on typewriters!), most current readers are familiar with “frequently asked questions” (FAQs) from internet web sites. So the best of these questions (and my answers) have been packaged in that format. A list of the questions is included in the index.
Fifth, this edition adds an appendix containing brief reviews of over twenty books on God’s will that have been published in the intervening years. One good way to increase one’s understanding of a position is to see how it contrasts with others, so each review focuses mainly on those areas where my views differ from those of the author..
Sixth, a group study guide originally published separately is included with this edition.
And finally, both Robin and I are older and our youthful pictures on the first edition now qualify as false advertising. I hope we not only look more mature, but have written a more mature exposition of the wisdom view.
So, is it worth another look? Well, I think so. That’s why I wrote, then rewrote this book. But I can’t answer that question for you. That’s one decision you’ll have to make for yourself.