An article that appeared in "Evangel" Spring 1992 - Pastoral.
Professor Nigel Cameron here addresses the vital issue of Christian decision making - especially at the level of the individual.
[Professor Cameron, formerly Warden of Rutherford House, Edinburgh now teaches at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Dearfield, Illinois.]
THE PRESSING QUESTION
Some of the most difficult theological and spiritual problems faced by Christians focus on the question of `guidance' - how we know what God wants us to do. This is no wonder. In our individual spiritual experience, the same question keeps recurring. What should I be doing? What do I do next? Is this course of action right? From the perspective of theology it is equally central, since the goal of the Christian life is to do the will of God. Adam fell when he decided to disobey God. Jesus came to bring the remedy of forgiveness and, with the empowering of the Holy Spirit, a new ability to obey. So there can be no more pressing question than the discovery of what the divine will is for us, and how we may discern it.
So it is no surprise that ideas of guidance lie at the heart of evangelical life and experience. What is perhaps surprising is that they are so little discussed. They are communicated through the sharing of experiences, and the deductions we draw from them; or, perhaps, the assumptions on which we have acted and which we have found to work. Evangelical theology, partly as a result of its preoccupation with apologetics, has spent little time in systematic reflection on the Christian life. That is no doubt one reason why a kind of orthodoxy has been able to develop in some circles, largely unchallenged, which raises serious questions.
There is another reason, and this doubtless helps account for the lack of formal discussion. The subject of divine guidance is one that cuts to the heart of our personal experience of God, and the way in which we interpret that experience. It is therefore one of the most delicate and potentially embarrassing of all subjects. Each of us has much invested in the outcome. For we all have our own ideas about guidance: we have all sought it, found it followed it, and based much upon our confidence that we have been right-not just in the decisions we have made, but in the way in which we have made them.
So our discussion deals with potentially fragile material, and we must point out that it is not our intention to call in question individual experiences of the guiding hand of God. There are exceptions, there are special cases, where - in the narratives recorded in Holy Scripture as in the stories of our own lives God is pleased to act in a distinctive and extraordinary fashion. That we cannot doubt. The question we ask is of a different kind. How may we normally expect him to act? To put it another way, and to return to the issue with which we began, how do we decide what we should do next?
Of course, there are different kinds of decision, and some are resolved simply. There are basic ethical issues on which the Bible gives its own guidance: adultery, theft and murder are wrong and helping someone in difficulty is an obligation. And there are decisions which (from a religious or ethical perspective) are generally agreed to be trivial, and on which no kind of divine instruction would be expected to be sought: what kind of wallpaper do we choose for the living room? Shall we go to the park or the museum today?
Seemingly trivial questions may themselves reflect broader decisions about lifestyle which are definitely ethical ones. Should I make a point of spending one day a week with the children going somewhere like the park or the museum? Ought we to re-decorate the house so often, even though we can afford to? But the point is that: there are two basic kinds of decision making on which we are all agreed. There are fundamental ethical norms which settle fundamental ethical questions. And there are (ethically) trivial questions on which we simply have to make up our own minds.
Problems begin to arise when we consider decisions which lie between these two, and the area between them is a large one. It includes basic lifetime choices about marriage (both whether and who), vocation, church membership and so forth. And it includes less significant matters-everything else indeed, that is not (like the wallpaper and the park) plainly trivial and of no particular ethical or religious consequence.
We cannot hope here to suggest a comprehensive understanding of this subject, and we may raise more questions than we can answer. What we intend to do is to discuss some aspects of the question in the light of the humanity of the Christian. In a nutshell, our argument is that many evangelicals have come to assume a perspective on Christian decision-making which effectively denies that Christians are called upon to make decisions at all. It fails adequately to recognise their integrity and responsibility.
It is not difficult to characterise the most extreme pattern of 'guidance' thinking, though some will think this to be caricature. Probably more widespread than we might imagine, in the secret and often only half-formed understanding of many Christians, this idea of guidance exercises a powerful pull on others, since it seems to offer a coherent concept of how to discern the mind of God for our own, particular circumstances.
Of course, there is much in this pattern which is by no means to be despised. It consists of good elements and bad, a curate's egg of popular theology; and those who believe it - to whatever degree - do so with conscientious piety, which we gladly respect. But sincerity and piety do not of themselves guarantee truth; while a mistaken approach, here as in the case of evangelism, does not guarantee error. If we honestly seek to determine the will of God for our own circumstances by the throwing of dice, we may be foolish, we may even be doing something positively evil, but it is always possible that in his grace and goodness God will use this curious method to show us what to do.
The same may be said, the more so, for the more common idea we are discussing. The crucial point is this: as in the throwing of dice, God MAY choose to concur in our scheme. He MAY choose to unravel his will through these means, though we have no reason to believe that he should. He may well not. So our method is flawed: it may, and it may not, lead us to an understanding of the will of God. Conscience and piety notwithstanding, it might equally lead us in the opposite direction.
The common idea of guidance which we have called 'extreme' - or Guidance, with a capital G runs something like this. If we seek to know what to do, if a decision is required of us, we come to God in prayer, we clear our minds, and we listen for his voice. This theory is often combined with others: being on the look-out for coincidences (we hear three times in quick succession about a town in Africa: are we being called to go there?); sticking pins in texts or taking promises out of boxes. We could add other common ideas, and we are not suggesting that they are all to be rejected. Some may have a real role to play in our making of Christian decisions.
The point is this: they do not provide us with a foolproof formula by which we can determine the will of God. Whatever role they have, it cannot be that one. And the first idea we mentioned-the emptying of the mind in prayer-is profoundly suspect. Not that illumination is forbidden to us in the course of prayer, or that God may not sometimes speak to us with great directness; but this is not a formula, and we shall come unstuck if we try to use it as if it were.
By focusing on the extreme view, which would use some combination of these and other indicators as a way of determining the will of God, we may find some light shed on the question of guidance in general. For it raises a number of problems which go deep into this difficult subject. First, there are essentially practical problems. Why do we seek the will of God-as something outside of ourselves, and our own general experience of what is right and wrong? It is generally because we suspect our own
judgement, we do not place sufficient trust in our own ability to make the right kind of decision. There may be special reasons (I know I would rather like to go and live there; the question whether I should take the job must be decided independently). But the general reason is simply that of sin: we are fallen men and women, left to ourselves we will always tend to serve our own interests rather than those of God; and since therefore our own wills are out of line with his, we must find out what to do from him in order to make the right choice.
READING THE EVIDENCE
But what guarantee have we that we shall read the signs aright? How do we know whose voice it is, when we empty our minds in prayer and listen? Is it not possible that it is our own, telling us what we would really like to do after all? That is the real problem, and it is seemingly insoluble. We think it is an advantage to remove making a particular decision from the normal processes of decision-making, as if this somehow made it more likely we would make the right choice. Yet this holds true only if we have good reason to believe there to be an objective certainty about the guidance process. There was that kind of objectivity about the God-given Urim-and-Thummin processes in ancient Israel. The question is whether we have reason to believe it is there also in our modern equivalents.
And. it is difficult to avoid the answer that they are likely to be as reliable, and as unreliable, as the 'normal' decision-making process which they are supposed to supersede (which we may perhaps define as a process in the Christian that is essentially analogous with all human decision-making). Of course it is considered to be fatally flawed by sin. Yet sin is as well able to twist our reading of the promise box or to inject self-serving prejudices into our carefully emptied heads as it is to skew our honest efforts at making a balanced, prayerful and biblically informed decision, in the same kind of manner as we weigh up whether to go to the museum or the park.
To say that it is not to trivialise decisions which may have profound implications; it is simply to suggest that there is a fundamental analogy between all human decision-making. Relying on deeply subjective techniques like sticking pins in the Bible and trying to make some sense of the result, or listing coincidences in our experiences, will be no more and no less likely to be influenced by my sin than making deliberate personal choices in the context of prayer and in the light of Scripture-but also in the light of day. Indeed, there is reason to think that this may be more reliable, since we are more likely to be conscious of the personal factors and preferences which might influence our choice. We are under no illusion that we have somehow escaped from the need to make our own mind up in the face of what we know about ourselves.
This raises the question of certainty, and there can be no doubt that part of the attraction of seeking God's will in extraordinary ways is that our answers, if that is what they are, have an appearance of objectivity. They seem to be able to by-pass the inbuilt fallibility of our human judgement, of which we are painfully aware in our general decision-making.
But a crucial question to be faced is what kind of status we believe we should attribute to such extraordinary (as opposed to merely ordinary) perceptions of divine guidance. Do we treat them provisionally and therefore humbly ('I may be wrong but this is how things seem to me. . .'), or do we accord them the status, in effect, of special revelations from God? The problem of whether to regard extraordinary perceptions of divine guidance as essentially analogous with ordinary decision-making (with its mixture of confidence and doubt) or with the reception of special revelation (with its certainty) emerges as the nub of the issue.
It is hard to defend a model of guidance as special revelation, if only because conscientious Christian people are so evidently 'guided' in different directions - on issues like baptism, which are in principle plain alternatives. From a theological perspective there are deep problems of principle with the notion that, through whatever procedure we adopt, we are able to gain direct access to the divine mind. For many people, the use of the kind of extraordinary means of guidance we have outlined is understood to give answers with the certainty of the Urim and the Thummim. Yet this is really a misapprehension, and few would actually argue that, as a general rule, the Urim - and - Thummin analogy would hold.
In fact the test of the status we give to our perceptions of the divine will is whether they continue to be open to review. Do we actively seek further confirmation of the direction in which we are to proceed, once, on the basis of extraordinary means, we have drawn our initial conclusions? In practice this will mean review by means that are ordinary, by the normal decision-making processes; by the means which those who take a different view of guidance themselves normally adopt. Yet if this is the case-if perceptions of the divine will, gained in prayer or from the promise box, are only provisional-then it is hard to see how the claims which are made for them can stand.
But what do we mean by the 'normal' or 'ordinary' means of taking decisions? There is an almost infinite range of possible courses of action which come under this heading. We can only illustrate from the general manner in which human beings use their human judgement. A salesman weighs up the price he can get from a particular customer. An art expert makes up his mind on the authenticity of a painting. The housewife judges just the right proportions of which ingredients will make the best soup. Other, more significant, examples return us to matters which, for a Christian, have a distinctive ethical or religious connection. A young couple ponder whether they should get married.' There is a job advertisement in the paper, and the worker who is browned off with
Now in each of these cases the person concerned will weigh up all kinds of different factors, and they may include ethical principles operating in the background. In the more serious instances, help may be sought from trusted advisers. But the decision making processes will all be human, and the human faculty of judgement will be called upon to make the choice. How well the choice will be made must depend on many factors; and, though the judgement of the individual concerned will not be faultless, the decision may prove to be the correct one; or there may be different possibilities, equally good or equally bad.
Christians are called to make responsible human decisions, and it is hard to see how this process can be conceived as anything other than analogous with the general decision-making process in which other human beings are constantly involved. It would be readily agreed that this is the case in certain categories of decisions taken by Christians; for example, 'professional' decisions involving acquired skills (such as those faced by the art expert, the salesman and the housewife in our illustrations) do not differ, whether taken by Christians or others. The Christian may seek God's help in facing particularly challenging professional problems. And he or she will regularly lay his day-to-day responsibilities before God. But no special divinely aided process would be claimed or sought in the course of the exercise of those responsibilities.
THE MIDDLE AREA
The question which arises in the case of other kinds of decision, in which ethical-religious considerations are present but do not suggest an obvious outcome. This is the middle area outlined above, between those simple ethical questions on which the Bible gives its own guidance, and those issues on which there is general agreement that specific seeking of such guidance is unnecessary: the minor matters which we have already discussed, together which the kinds of decision which we have referred to as 'professional'. There are others which could be added. Granted that there is a considerable area between these two, how is the Christian to discern the will of God?
Rather than seek a special revelation which will give him immediate access to the mind of God, the Christian is called to make his own responsible decisions. We need to recognise that the net effect of the 'extraordinary' approach to Christian decision making is effectively to by-pass the Christian judgement, and to pass the decision on to God. From one perspective, this is laudable, and speaks of the conscientious desire of the believer to live his life in accord with the divine will. But from another perspective it represents an alternative to responsible decision-making, a passing up of the need to make choices. God is left, as it were, to make the choices himself. Human decision-making has almost come to a halt.
We need to ask whether this is what the New Testament means by obedience, and whether it can really be harmonised with the humanity of the Thummim view of divine guidance to this entire middle area would be deeply subversive of human dignity. That needs to be borne in mind as more moderate and selective approaches are adopted which nonetheless contain elements of the same principle: let God decide this for himself. And, we must add, there are some alarming parallels between an extreme pin-in-a-text, empty-minded approach and the burgeoning interest in horoscopes and other occult forms of divination; and what they hold chiefly in common is their radical de-humanising of the person.
A PATTERN FOR CHRISTIAN DECISION MAKING
What then is an appropriate pattern for Christian decision-making in the light of the will of God? Let us approach the positive question by means of a summary of the chief points of our discussion so far.
First, the Lordship of Jesus Christ extends over the whole of our lives, and we must submit ourselves to him in all things. About this there is no disagreement at all.
Secondly, there is agreement also that there are basic ethical questions on which guidance is plainly to be found in Scripture; and other matters for which it is inappropriate-skills we have acquired and all the minor questions on which we can simply do as we please.
Thirdly, the guidance of God in the Christian life is not some kind of special revelation. We have no Biblical warrant to seek this kind of direction from God [See MB note below], and - given the diversity of 'guidance' which people claim to receive - we have little reason to believe that it actually works like this. There is a major subjective element in our perception of God's will.
Fourthly, our discovery of the will of God is in ways which are fundamentally analogous with the other ways in which we make human decisions. That is, decisions about which we specifically seek divine guidance are not different in KIND from decisions about which we do not; or from decisions made by people who do not believe in God. They are responsible decisions of the human will, and it is neither possible nor desirable that we should seek to obviate our own human judgement as the source of such choices, enlightened as we would wish it to be by all possible aid. Such aid may take the form of a direct Biblical injunction (Thou shalt not, or Do unto others), or it may include a variety of religious and ethical considerations. If we make our decisions as Christians, then we make them in the unique context of our submission to their Lordship of Christ. But we have still to make human decisions, in all our subjective and sinful frailty.
THE UNIQUE QUALITY OF CHRISTIAN DECISION-MAKING
What then is the unique quality in our Christian decision-making' It is our Christian intuition. 'Intuition' is a good word to use in this context, since it suggests a quality which is human and yet transcends the normal run of human experience. Perhaps the best analogy which we can offer for the Christian intuition is that of the intuition which so frequently develops within a marriage or other close relation ship, such that one partner perceives the likely response of the other to some new situation with an accuracy which can be uncanny. Yet it is not telepathy. It is the fruit of a common life in which hearts have been open, desires are known, and no secrets are hidden. Now that is not a perfect analogy, but it says something about intuition and also about the way in which we can take decisions which will please another, and yet which are irreducibly our own. .
The focus in our thinking must shift from the passive idea of 'discerning guidance' to the active one of 'making Christian decisions'. The difference in terminology is important. 'Guidance' carries the implication of decisions passed up the line to a commanding officer, and suggests the absence of a decision instead of the making of a right one. The form of prayer as we seek divine help in such circumstances will be decisively affected by our understanding at this point. Do we pray, 'Show me what to decide'? Or do we pray, 'Help me to make a wise decision as I weigh up the pros and cons'? Our prayer is not for the decision to be made for us; it is for us to be able to make the decision well. The former would detract from our humanity, the latter affirms it and seeks to strengthen it in Christ.
And it raises the question, why have we been given choices? Why ARE there decisions to be taken? The answer lies in the probationary character of our life in this world: we are being trained, prepared, matured. Our humanity is being transformed by the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit into a humanity fit for fellowship with God in glory. That is why it makes no sense to believe that we should pray, 'What do I do?', when we could pray instead, 'Help me to make the right choice'.
This contrast suggests another illustration, one that is particularly apt. There are many parallels, some of them drawn in Scripture, between God's relationship with us and ours with our children. What is it that we are seeking to do with them, if not to train, prepare and mature them for the adult life that awaits them? So what do we seek from them? Not that they should come to us and ask, 'What do I do here?' whenever a decision has to be made: that is not the way to maturity, but to dependency and the stunting of growth. The question we seek is rather, 'Help me to make the right choice', keeping the decision where it belongs-with them-but opening up the possibility of clarifying the options and their consequences in the light of all that we know of the relationship between us.
Intuition fits well into this picture too. Our children well know what we think about things. They have absorbed our attitudes and made many of them their own, by that informal osmosis which bears striking resemblances to some aspects of the work of the Holy Spirit in us, making us like Christ as he is formed in us and thereby creates in us a new humanity. What we most desire is that they should learn to make their own decisions, and that they should make the best decisions we could wish for them. That is a world apart from the adult son or daughter who seeks parental guidance or approval at every stage, in a bitter caricature of the filial relationship.
As in this example, the fact that God chooses not to make our decisions for us does not imply that he has no interest in our decision-making. Neither does it mean that he has no plans and preferences for us. Far from it. And there can be no doubt that at crucial points in our lives and careers he may have very particular intentions. But the decisions remain ours, and while there will be cases in which he chooses to employ particular intuitions in a striking fashion, we can erect no rule that depends upon, or demands, or even assumes, that this will regularly be the case.
GUIDANCE AND HUMILITY
There is a special problem which often arises when guidance is assumed to have been working in an extraordinary manner. The subjective conviction which it brings ('God told me to do this . . .'), while it can cause some obvious difficulties ('Well, he didn't tell ME . . .') has undoubtedly contributed to the divisive spirit which so often to be found in the evangelical church. For it provides a major discouragement to humility, and a spur to the notion that what I happen to think is also what God thinks: so if you disagree with me, you have set yourself against him. This arises partly from the specific seeking of 'guidance' on controverted issues, and partly because of a habit of mind inevitably encouraged in a Christian life lived around the 'guidance' motif.
Take the example of division in a congregation about some issue on which there are different views. It may be a theological matter like the gifts of the Spirit, or something more practical like what kind of minister they should have, or whether women may take up the collection. If those on both sides of the argument take a high view of guidance-believing that, in effect, there is special revelation available to those who ask in the right way-then both parties will entrench, convinced that the Lord has spoken to them and in their favour. Very reasonably, neither group will yield or agree to a compromise: a great deal of hurt, and perhaps some kind of split, or the departure of leading individuals, can be the result. That kind of scenario has been terribly common in the evangelical church.
By contrast, take a congregation, similarly divided, where another view is held. Contending parties both recognise, in humility, that their view could be wrong. Though they feel strongly, they find peace in compromise. No-one is accused of impiety or lack of prayer. The children agree that they disagree in their intuition of their father s wishes, but agree also that the family must stay together. And there are implications for the degree of conformity which we demand in our fellowships, in matters on which Christians are not of one mind. '
We must take care lest a corporate extension of the notion of guidance as special revelation lead us to a view of the church as the arbiter of the will of God. There is surely a lesson in the fact that one of the most controversial of all Roman Catholic ideas, that of the infallibility of the Pope, says little more than that on rare occasions he has the authority to pass on 'guidance' of the special revelation variety. In some evangelical circles there are perilously high doctrines of the authority of the church, and ideas of personal authority which are almost papal in their implications.
Many lesser illustrations could be offered of the way in which the notion of personal special revelation, either in answer to prayer or through circumstances, hardens and divides Christians. It diminishes their sense of perspective, and relegates the humility in which they should learn to disagree to something approaching a vice. The divisions of the evangelical (and broader Christian) world owe much to this single fact. The disparagement and suspicion with which contending parties on a host of theological and practical issues have come to view each other is a disgrace to the name of Christ. It is interesting to speculate on the implications for the Christian world of the simple admission that (in whatever matter divides us) we could indeed possibly be wrong; and that, though we think we are right, we do not believe that God has spoken the words 'Yes, you are' straight in our ears.
THUS SAYS THE LORD
Which leads us to an even more serious consideration, for this way of understanding the immediacy with which we have access to the mind of God has serious implications for his own dignity. It positively encourages men and women to put words into the very mouth of God. With the best of intentions, the believer who is forever suggesting that 'the Lord led me to do such-and-such, and then he said this to me' is trespassing upon the majesty of the Holy One. When we lose sight of our sinful frailty, and cease to be distrustful even of our firmest intuitions, we have brought God down to the level of the chessboard of our small affairs.
Perhaps most disturbing of all the effects of distorted ideas of guidance is their undermining of reality in the Christian life. Christians who believe that their every decision is dictated to them by God are very seriously mistaken-mistaken in the voice to which they are listening, or in the way in which they interpret their own inclinations. And there will be a tendency for those who do NOT themselves believe that they get this kind of 'guidance' to imagine that they do - or to feel themselves very much inferior. There is a developing pattern of unreality in the way in which decisions are understood by those who make them, and discussed with others and shared with the fellowship at large. The guidance of God, instead of being the experience it is said to be, becomes a convention, and 'spiritual experience' mere talk. We see this same sense of unreality pervading other areas of the Christian life, in marked contrast to the human realism of the Bible.
In that wide range of human life in which Christians face choices - the middle area we have already sought to define they have no opinion but to take responsibility for what they decide. They cannot look to God to tell them what to do, with a specially revealed instruction from heaven. But they can look to him, call on him, to aid them in their choice; so the decision they make is an intuition of his will in which their mind and the Holy Spirit resonate with a common purpose, that of parent and child.
Yet it is a human choice, made by analogy with every human choice. It will be affected perhaps spoiled, by sin. It must remain subjective, and not have more claimed for it than what is true. Yet, carried through in faith, it will conform to the pattern of all God's dealing with his children, and build them up in his image.
[MB NOTE. Re "We have no Biblical warrant to seek this kind of direction from God." Cameron is right in that we should not SEEK such directives. There is Paul being warned by the Holy Spirit not to go into Asia and to go to Macedonia instead - Acts 16:6-10 but he did not SEEK this guidance. This, and other instances, was in the special time of Acts and what is clear is that there is no warrant for teaching this if the letters of the NT are considered. There is no mention of this in any of the instructions given to Timothy and Titus who were to become pastors of their flock that they should either use this in the making of decisions or seek it or teach it to their people. It is entirely an UNSOUGHT gift from God in certain circumstances. We should seek WISDOM from God to help us make the right decisions.
If we insist on calling upon Him for "special guidance" over every event in our lives, could we not be effectively adopting a presumptuous attitude by calling upon God to answer our prayer which may not be spiritually warranted? Seeking wisdom from God IS approved in the Bible.
Hebrews 5:14 is very clear when it says "But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, THOSE WHO BY REASON OF USE HAVE THEIR SENSES EXERCISED TO DISCERN BOTH GOOD AND EVIL." God expects us to train ourselves to make wise decisions.]
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