I’ll admit it right at the outset: the title of this note is not original with me; it is borrowed from a book I read sometime in the 1980s and which massively influenced my thinking on this subject.
As a young Christian I was taught, first in a basic Christian Life course by the Navigators, and then in an evangelical Bible School, a five step method of knowing God’s will in any situation of your Christian life. In Bible School it was specifically attributed to George Mueller, early Brethren leader and founder of orphanages. These five steps or aspects were very confidently presented as an objective, fool-proof and almost infallible method for making decisions which matched God’s will for your life. Here they are:
- What does Scripture say about the choices before you?
- Pray about the decision you need to make
- Ask older believers for their advice and counsel
- Consider the circumstances, i.e. are there “open doors” or “closed doors”
- And finally, as you consider the possible options, about which one do you “have peace”?
As I went through a situation in my early twenties which required a decision I tried my best to put these five steps or aspects into practice — and fell flat on my face!
Some heart searching was required, because to me it felt like I had trusted God and had landed in this ditch of failure. I could either continue to believe that this was a fool-proof method to experience God’s leading, in which case He had led me into failure, or I could re-evaluate what I had been taught. To my chagrin I realized that this method was neither objective, nor fool-proof, nor, indeed, infallible. Here’s why:
- There are many decisions you have to make in life, many alternative paths before you, about which Scripture does not say very much. At best Scripture will eliminate some of them (i.e. anything that violates the Ten Commandments is out, as is anything that clearly contradicts Christ’s command to love your neighbour as yourself), but it may still leave many acceptable alternatives. And Scripture needs to be interpreted to be helpful, which is a very subjective process unless you claim for yourself the infallibility of the pope.
- In the Evangelical tradition in which I became a committed Christian, prayer is very much a one-way street. Unlike Charismatics or Pentecostals, Evangelicals don’t do visions or voices. Yes, after praying about a situation you may have an impression which way to go, but it is very much subjective.
- The older believers you go to for counsel may have their private agendas, their own ideas about what you should do, which may or may not actually line up with God’s will for your life, as was indeed the case in my situation.
- Circumstances also need to be interpreted, and they may not be unambiguous at all. More than one door may seem to be open, how do you decide which one to take? Others may appear closed, but with a bit of determination you could open one of them and successfully walk through. Again, this is very subjective.
- And then, “having peace”: Depending on how you were socialized as a Christian, it is very easy to “have peace” about a possible decision which suits your natural inclinations, which you like, which feels comfortable and easy, or alternatively, if you were taught that the Christian life is one of constant strife and sacrifice, you will find it very easy to “have peace” about a possible decision which takes you out of your comfort zone, while being very suspicious of options that look and feel “easy”. Again, extremely subjective.
The realization that my failure was my own fault, because decisions taken via this method were still my decisions and thus, together with their outcome, my responsibility rather than God’s was on the one hand a relief because it left me with a good and infallible God rather than an unreliable monster who had led me into failure. On the other hand, because of the strong emphasis in my evangelical environment on knowing the will of God for your life (living in the center of God’s will, as the Navigators put it), it left me very uneasy.
A short while later, while living in Austria and working with a mission organization helping believers in Eastern Europe, I came across a new book, Decision Making and the Will of God, by Garry Friesen. Since I still had this unresolved uneasiness about knowing God’s will, whether it is even possible and how to go about it, I devoured the book. It was a revelation.
Garry Friesen points out that God is our father, and that we can learn things about how he relates to us from the way we, as human fathers/parents, relate to our children. As human parents, when our children are very young and immature, we make a lot of decisions for them, telling them what to do in any given situation. But as our children grow, learn our values and gather life experience we leave more and more decisions to them. To use a very trivial example, we don’t really care whether they wear the green or the blue socks, and because of the way we raised them they know to wear a matched pair without being explicitly told every morning. Similarly, there are many situations in life where God does not really care which fork in the road we take, as long as the direction we choose to walk is compatible with what we have learned from Him by reading His word and living in the fellowship of His people.
Just like we as human parents expect our children to make decisions using common sense, taking into account the values we taught them and the circumstances they find themselves in, so God also expects us to make decisions using sanctified common sense, taking into account the values of Scripture and the circumstances He has placed us in.
And unlike human parents who are sometimes surprised by their children’s decisions, the omniscient God who stands outside time and space is never taken by surprise by our decisions. Even when we make decisions that are not as optimal as they could have been His Word promises that “all things work together for the good of those who love God; those who are called according to His purpose.” (Rom. 8:28)
This was an extremely liberating realization for me which finally resolved the lingering uneasiness, and it made many decisions I have need to take since then a lot less stressful. Have I always made the right decisions? Nope. But I could no longer blame God for my wrong decisions, which meant He was still on the throne and was faithful to bring a good outcome even after I had messed up.
Many years later, after GPS navigation devices had become common, I occurred to me that this is similar to what happens when we ignore the instructions given by the GPS device: say the digital voice tells me to turn right, and I go straight on. Will I get lost? Not as long as I “repent” of my wrong decision and return to follow the instructions, because as I continued straight instead of turning the GPS device “re-calculated” the route and re-directed me, getting me to my destination, albeit a little while later, depending on how long I had ignored it.
And I learned one very important lesson from all this: Never blindly accept whatever you are told in your church or school or by other Christians, but like the Bereans (Acts 17:10&11), think through everything with the Scriptures to determine whether it matches reality.
- Decision Making and the Will of God, by Garry Friesen and J. Robin Maxson (updated edition, 2004).
- The Navigators
- George Mueller
- I would link to the Bible School, but it no longer exists. Here’s at least a picture of the building it was in — many great memories despite struggles and crises. I lived for one year in the room at the top of the tower to the right of the entrance.