Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Guidance and the Voice of God, by Phillip Jensen and Tony Payne


The title of this book is both self-explanatory and slightly misleading.

Authors Phillip Jensen and Tony Payne do talk about the means God uses to guide His people.  However, this discussion does not take place until a good 75 pages into the book.  Before delving into the nuts and bolts of guidance, the authors take pains to convince their readers that God does in fact guide His people, that our ultimate destination is heaven, and that we have a responsibility to respond to God's 'will' (in this case, what God says about right and wrong) with genuine godly repentance and active faith.  If instead we ignore God's power over our lives, deny His goodness to us, or reject His ways, we sin.  So far, so good, but also so not an answer to the average reader who picks up a book with a title like Guidance and the Voice of God.

But eventually Part 2 rolls around, and the authors are ready to engage the question of how God guides His people.  To their way of thinking (and I agree with them), God's 'guidance' really refers to two different things:  God's work behind the scenes to bring about His sovereign will (which He doesn't necessarily reveal in advance) and God's call for our conscious cooperation in His will.  It is this second type of 'guidance' that so preoccupies modern Christians.  This is the crux of the matter.  What will Jensen and Payne say about the 'guidance' of the Holy Spirit?  Simply this:  God has spoken to us by His Son through His Spirit in the Bible.  The authors do not outright reject the possibility of extra-biblical guidance, but they note that such guidance is not promised, nor should we expect it.

Does this mean we're on our own when it comes to making decisions not explicitly addressed by Scripture?  Not exactly.  Jensen and Payne point out that even where a specific outcome is not commanded, we know what godly Christian character looks like.  If we believe that God cares more about our individual sanctification and growth in holiness and faith than He does about, say, where we go to college (and Jensen and Payne argue that this is indeed the case), then we will obsess less about practical choices and concern ourselves more with the effect of those choices on our hearts.

Then, too, while many practical issues are not the subject of explicit biblical teaching, the Bible does teach us to value and cultivate wisdom.  Thus even when faced with a choice between two non-sin options, the Bible encourages us--even commands us--to use common sense and good decision-making skills in making that choice.  This may mean doing some research to determine which car is the best investment and will best serve the needs of your family.  It may mean doing some critical thinking about your goals and priorities.  The point is, we are allowed to engage intellectually with our choices.  God may not have given us explicit instruction about what school to attend, but he has given us minds equal to the task of making an intelligent choice based on our financial and academic (and social, and athletic) situations.

As a result, Jensen and Payne see decisions as falling into one of three categories:  1) matters of righteousness (a choice between sin and not-sin, as sin is defined in the Bible); 2) matters of wisdom (a choice where righteousness is not necessarily implicated, and we should use our minds to make a wise choice); and 3) matters of triviality (a choice where it really doesn't matter one way or another, so stop angsting and just pick a pair of socks already).

After laying out this general framework, Jensen and Payne move into the nuts-and-bolts case studies--that is, how do we apply this framework in the context of church, career, and marriage.  Each section is primarily a mini theology of that particular sphere.  These theologies are solid enough, but don't speak much to the 'nagging questions' connected with those areas.

I was mostly on board up to this point.

Then, in the conclusion, Jensen and Payne take a stronger stance on the issue of extrabiblical guidance than previous chapters would indicate.  Instead of limiting themselves to their earlier position that God does not promise extrabiblical guidance and we shouldn't expect it, they now claim that those who 'promote the possibility of hearing God's voice in a mystical fashion outside of the Scriptures undercut the majesty and finality of God's revelation in Christ.'

And that's where they lose me.  Because while I agree that the Word of God is sufficient and God is fully revealed in Christ, I simply do not see biblical evidence that God does not speak to His people through His Spirit outside the Bible.  In the absence of such biblical evidence, and in the presence of a wealth of reliable anecdotal evidence that, at least on some occasions, God interacts with His people in a manner consistent with but nonetheless external to the Bible, I am reluctant to dismiss this possibility completely.  Don't get me wrong--I think that most of the time, folks who 'hear from God' are maybe just kidding themselves and attributing to Divine Intervention what is in fact the product of their own good sense (or an upset stomach, or whatever).  But there certainly seems to be some evidence that the Lord interacts with His people, at least occasionally, through guidance that cannot be explicitly tied back to the Bible or even to wisdom.

In fact, we see examples in scripture of Christians being 'told' by God to do things, or having visions or supernatural knowledge.  Yes, that was a different era, and I'm not arguing that everything God did in the Apostolic Age He necessarily does now.  But if God Himself does not explicitly say that He is limiting His actions, what basis do we have for ruling them out entirely?

But then, I have the same problem with cessationism.

All of that aside, this book does provide practical and biblically sound counsel for those trying to think well about godly decision-making.  And I recognize that the current trend in the evangelical church is for Christians to be so obsessed with divining 'God's Will' for their lives that they are unable to make any significant decision with any kind of peace or confidence unless some indefinable 'feeling' confirms it to be 'God's Will'.  To the extent that Jensen and Payne seek to counteract that trend, I support them wholeheartedly.  I just think they go a bit too far.

Practical notes:  At fewer than 200 pages, including the discussion guide, the book is extremely accessible and straightforwardly written.  Plus, there's a discussion guide.  So if you want to deal with the issue of God's guidance in a group setting, well, this resource is tailor made for just such an occasion.

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