DECISION MAKING AND THE WILL OF GOD
(Garry Friesen, Multnomah Press, 1980)
A Review by Theo Todman
This is a book about guidance, and in the introduction the author asks a couple of questions - "Why do so many of us know no clear leading of the Lord? Why do we not have a clear understanding of God's detailed will for our lives?". The book is an answer to these questions, but Friesen immediately offers three possibilities for discussion.
Firstly, God may be unable to reveal his will. This is rejected straight away as being inconsistent with the Lord's nature - so the problem does not lie with him. Secondly, the problem may lie with us - our sin and insincerity may cloud our vision of spiritual things so that, though God is telling us which way to choose, we're not listening properly. Friesen readily admits this tendency in himself and others, but does not think that this is the whole answer. Guidance that demanded perfection on our part would be ineffective, so cannot be the Lord's way. The third possibility is that our view of guidance is wrong - we have misunderstood the nature of God's will.
The rest of the book is taken up with analysing the third alternative. To begin with, the author states the traditional view of guidance which he observes as being almost uniformly accepted by the current evangelical world. However, this has not stopped Christians being worried by the problem, which seems ubiquitous, making 'guidance' a popular discussion topic.
The traditional view is presented in the fictional guise of a course of lectures on the subject, by which device the author hopes to depersonalise the arguments. I found this approach most effective, with the traditional view being presented both fairly and eloquently.
What, then, is the 'traditional view' of guidance? Friesen divides God's will into three alleged classes. Firstly, we have God's Sovereign will - God's secret plan that determines everything that happens in the universe. Secondly, there is God's moral will - God's revealed commands, written down in the Bible, which teach how men ought to believe and live. Finally, there is God's individual will - God's ideal, detailed life plan uniquely designed for each person. When people talk of 'being at the centre of God's will' it is this third sort of will they have in mind.
God's sovereign will
There is the presumption that if we are only within God's moral will - sometimes referred to rather negatively as his 'permissive will' - rather than living out his individual will we are somehow missing out on 'God's best'. Friesen illustrates this by a circle, enclosing God's moral will, with a dot at the centre, illustrating his individual will and uses the not particularly felicitous expression 'missing the dot' to describe being within the moral will of God but not at his individual will.
Friesen, or rather his fictional doppelganger, then proceeds to elaborate on these different types of will by way of comparison and contrast. For instance, both the individual and sovereign wills are to do with specifics, whereas the moral will has to do with generalities. Again, both the individual and moral will of God can be known before the event while his sovereign will cannot. That is, the moral and individual wills of God are revealed (by the Holy Spirit) - the first originally to the prophets, but now written down in the Bible, the second to the heart of the individual believer by means of inward impressions and various signs.
God's moral will
Before we lose our way, what Friesen has been presenting above is not his own view but what he takes to be the traditional view. Friesen himself accepts only the moral and sovereign wills of God as having universal application. Later on, I argue for the acceptance of only a limited sovereign will in that whereas God could foreordain every last thing that happens, in fact he only sets boundaries corresponding to his overall plans, especially that of salvation. However, Friesen believes that all history is a record of God's sovereign will.
Hence, Friesen concentrates his attack on the traditional view of God's will in a critique of the supposed individual will of God. His approach is to criticise the arguments put forward in favour of an individual will of God. These are fourfold.
Firstly, there is the argument from reason - that God ought to prescribe a detailed individual will because he knows best. This idea is rejected by the observation that God trains as a wise parent with the intention of his children growing to maturity. This would be impossible if each individual decision was made for us. Secondly, the argument from experience - that famous saints of the past knew and obeyed God's individual will - is rejected on factual grounds. Rather, they were great because they knew and obeyed the Lord's moral will. Thirdly, there are biblical examples of God's individual guidance. While there certainly are such examples, these are not normative. Rather, they are exceptional indications of God's will and are given by means of supernatural revelation rather than the vague nudgings that are supposed to characterise God's individual guidance.
God's individual will
Finally, there is supposedly specific Biblical teaching about the individual will of God. These texts are discussed one by one and shown to be concerned with some other aspect of the will of God. For instance, Colossians 1:9 '… we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding' is taken, by reference to its context, to refer to God's moral will. Proverbs 3:5-6 'Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight'. Friesen agrees with the modern translations that imply a smooth, straight and untroubled path as the reward for obedience, rather than with the Authorised Version's translation 'He shall direct thy paths', which may be taken to imply specific guidance.
Before presenting his 'Biblical alternative', Friesen raises a few other problems of the Traditional view. One of these is that if all of life's decisions have a unique divinely approved answer, there is no theoretical distinction between ordinary and special decisions - the choice of tie, no less than the choice of wife, is a decision which the Lord wants us to make in conformity with his will. Another is the problem of equal options - rather than thanking God for the choice of opportunities the holder of the 'individual will' view becomes riddled with anxiety. Yet another is the problem of subjectivity - certainty is impossible without an objective, public source of knowledge. All these aspects keep the believer in a perpetual state of immaturity.
Friesen now presents his alternative view. He replaces the concept of an individual will by a set of rules of guidance. Firstly, God's moral will, as revealed in the Bible, should always be obeyed. Secondly, where no Biblical command or principle is available (taken to be in non-moral areas) wise and spiritually expedient decisions should be made - i.e. in areas that are not explicitly spiritual, decisions should always be made with a view to their possible spiritual consequences. Finally, in all decisions God's sovereign will should he submitted to, in principle, in advance.
It seems that Friesen's presentation of God's sovereign will is not far removed from what most people understand by God's individual will, except that it is alloyed with a feeling of fatalism. Friesen hasn't really denied the individual will of God, but has effectively said that, since God's sovereign will is secret, there is no point worrying about trying to determine what it is prior to its coming to pass. However, we are still left with the spectre of God having a 'best way' in each circumstance - we are just left totally unable to find out what it is, except on general principles. While this may relieve some of the anxiety it doesn't seem to make sense for God to appear to give us freedom of choice, when all along he has decreed what will happen.
Equating God's secret will with history seems to make God actually will all the specific instances of evil in the world. It may be that the distinction between will and responsibility is the key issue. God, as creator, is clearly responsible for all that goes on in his creation. He has foreseen all the consequences of his specific actions and his allowance of limited freedom to his creatures. However, this does not imply that he wills, in the sense of decrees and wants to come to pass, everything that happens. Such passages at Ephesians 1: 11, where God is said to 'work out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will' are key, particularly the scope of 'everything'. Does it really mean 'every last thing' or is there a restricting context as so often in Scripture when the word 'all' is used? Alternatively, what is the scope of 'working out'?
It seems more reasonable to believe that, while the Lord cares and has his wishes in all situations, he only applies his irresistible will when his plans are at stake. Friesen himself refers to Job 1, where Satan is allowed freedom, and, in the parable of the wheat and the tares, the tares are described as the work of an enemy (Matthew 13:28). God allows real freedom both to the children and to his enemies, but sets bounds so that the results of their efforts are not as bad as they might otherwise be and so that even evil actions ultimately lead to the good of his elect. Hence, we can say that 'in all things God works for the good of those who love him' (Romans 8:28, New International Version).
The final part of the book is an application of Friesen's views on Christian decision making to various practical situations. Amongst those covered are the choice between singleness and marriage, the principles governing the choice of marriage partner, decisions related to full-time Christian ministry and missions, jobs and education and Christian giving. Finally, there are sections on how to handle Christian disagreements over guidance where the distinction between matters of command and matters of freedom is explored - and the problem of what to do with the 'weaker brother' and with those who might seem to fall into the category of 'Pharisees'.
Finally, the technique of the book - in having many summary diagrams and tables where the arguments or Scripture references can be taken in at a glance - is admirable, making a difficult and often confusing subject appear manageable. The style is always warm, arresting and easy to follow. This book may be recommended to all who want to clarify their ideas on 'guidance'.
© Theo Todman March 1988.
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