Tuesday, November 6, 2012

God's Will: Finding Guidance for Everyday Decisions, by J.I. Packer and Carolyn Nystrom


J.I. Packer, author of the Christian classic Knowing God, tackles the issue of discerning the will of God.

In the past few months, I've read several books on this topic. There seem to be two main camps--those who allow for extrabiblical guidance (that is, the supernatural or 'felt' leading of the Holy Spirit) and those who do not. The issue works itself out primarily in the realm of decisions where sin is not implicated, i.e., what college to attend, where to eat lunch, what socks to wear, etc.

Writers like Philip Cary (Good News for Anxious Christians, which I have not gotten around to reviewing yet) believe that the sum total of God's guidance is contained in the Scripture. Thus, God has given us guidance on how to be obedient to Him and live well. If the Bible does not address the issue, then it is up to us to use our intelligence to make an informed choice. (Under this view, it would seem that the Holy Spirit's work in Scripture ended with the original inspiration; there does not appear to be any allowance for the Holy Spirit's continuing work in applying the Word to the individual lives of believers.) A similar position is articulated by Kevin DeYoung in Just Do Something and by Phillip Jensen in Guidance and the Voice of God (which my church uses in its Sunday School class on guidance). DeYoung and Jensen are not quite so militant in their opposition to perceived extrabiblical guidance as Cary, but they clearly view such phenomena with skepticism and disinterest.

At the other end of the spectrum, Dallas Willard (Hearing God) believes that God may give guidance even where sin is not implicated, and that believers should be sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit in such areas. Willard does not claim that God always gives such guidance--only that He may, and that Christians should, essentially, give Him a chance to weigh in on the matter. If no guidance is forthcoming, then the Christian may make a decision guided by intelligence and even our own desire. It is worth noting that Willard--and, I would hope, all orthodox writers--would oppose any perceived 'guidance' contrary to Scripture. So, if a man claims that the Holy Spirit is 'leading' him to cheat on his wife, he is, quite simply, mistaken. The Word of God is the only certain source of guidance; the Holy Spirit may occasionally supplement it, but will never, ever contradict it.

Fortunately, there are some writers who take a more moderate position. Sinclair Ferguson has written what is, thus far, my favorite book on the subject: Discovering God's Will. Ferguson allows for the possibility of supernatural guidance, but points out that such guidance will be facilitated by faithful study of Scripture. After all, we are fallen and sinful and may thus mistake our own desires for the 'leading' of the Holy Spirit. The Bible, on the other hand, is inerrant, and by knowing it well we can better test the 'leadings' we feel. And anyway, we can't very well expect God to reveal His will to us supernaturally if we neglect His revealed will in Scripture. Additionally God's will is for us to obey Him, thereby bringing glory to His name, and we will 'hear' Him better as we are increasingly sanctified and walking in obedience to Scripture. Ferguson thus avoids going toe to toe with those who advocate extrabiblical guidance and instead explains why Scripture study is paramount regardless of one's position on the issue.

Packer's position in this book is most closely aligned with Ferguson. He cites to both Willard and Jensen, freely acknowledging the anecdotal evidence in favor of supernatural guidance while still encouraging his readers not to actively seek the supernatural but to first and foremost saturate themselves in Scripture. (He also encourages the practice of wisdom (Chapter 5), seeking godly counsel (Chapter 6), and having good role models (Chapter 7).) He cautions against the dangers of overspiritualizing and underspiritualizing the search for God's will--and offers excellent advice for responding to those who claim to be 'led' by the Spirit. There is also a fairly helpful discussion of the intersection between the will of God and human vocation.

The substantive points Packer makes are all excellent. He is very measured and reasonable, acknowledging the arguments of both camps and addressing them thoughtfully and wisely. If there is a weakness in this book, it is in the writing. Packer is fond of using complex sentence structures that I, for one, found distracting; I often had to read and re-read his statements several times in order to grasp the grammatical gist of his points. (This is not a problem I remember having with his excellent work Knowing God.) I don't mean that the points themselves are dense--that would be no criticism at all, but a compliment. Rather, he unnecessarily bogs his reader down by expressing his points in hard-to-read, convoluted sentences. It is difficult to explain precisely what I mean, but suffice to say that this book was harder and slower to read than its content required. Similarly, the overall structure of the book was not terribly forthright (which, given the topic, is either amusingly ironic or entirely appropos in a meta sort of way). Packer makes good use of headings and lists, but it is not clear how the lists all relate to one another, and I wished I had a better idea of where he was going and how it would all fit together. Likewise, the summaries at the close of each chapter were surprisingly unhelpful; they felt somehow simultaneously superfluous and confusing. I think another solid round of edits would do wonders for what is obviously a very sound and potentially quite helpful book.

As a result, though Packer's analysis is more in-depth than Ferguson's, I think Discovering God's Will retains its position as my favorite book on the subject--it is clear and concise, meaty yet accessible, and addresses the dangers of extrabiblical guidance without abandoning it (or disavowing it) altogether. Still, if you're looking to go a bit deeper and don't mind a bit of a slog, Packer's book is well worth reading.

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