In the area of discovering God’s will how do you and how should we distinguish between what we want and what God wants? Do you regard the Bible as the inspired word of God and if so how should the Bible influence our decision making?
The Bible is ‘useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness’ (2 Tim 3:16); constitutes not just ‘elementary truths’ but ‘solid food for the mature’, ‘the teaching about righteousness’ by which we ‘train’ ourselves to distinguish good from evil’ (Heb 5:12-14); and ‘is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart’ (Hebrews 4:12); and the Bible is ‘the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God’ (Eph. 6:17).
That is, the Bible does indeed contain the elementary truths of the faith, but is more than this: it is that instrument, being the Word of God, that the Spirit brings alive as divine speech-action – as we engage with the Bible in prayerfulness and openness to God – so as to ‘form’ (i.e. build) and ‘transform’ both Christian and church. Through the Bible, the Spirit teaches, but also trains us in righteous living, in distinguishing good from evil, in critical self-examination. In Acts we see also that the Word ‘spreads and flourishes’ despite persecution: ‘Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died. But the word of God continued to spread and flourish’ (Acts 12:23-24). So, the Word is central to evangelism, not least because of the Great Commission, in which we are to ‘go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’ (Matt 28:19-20).
The Bible should influence our decision-making all the time.
(a) Jesus said, ‘heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away’, and ‘the Scripture cannot be broken’. So, the Bible depicts reality as it really is, as it really works, and the future as it will really be – what theologians call the ‘horizon of promise’. Since God is faithful to all his promises, the future will be conformed to his will. So, the Bible is our ‘framework for orientation and life’. It is not just a systematic theology, important though that is; it is ‘reality as it actually is and will be’ – a map of created, fallen, and redeemed history.
(b) The Bible should influence decision-making in a general sense as indicated above: training us in righteous living, in distinguishing good from evil, in critical self-examination – and in making decisions on this basis. Romans 12:2 is important here: ‘Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.’ Ability to test and approve what God’s will is comes from having a mind transformed by engagement with the Bible.
(c) It is possible – though there are certainly pitfalls – to ascertain God’s specific will on specific issues through immersion in the Scriptures. The Holy Spirit can highlight from the Bible patterns in how God ordinarily operates in certain situations, and of what constitutes wise behaviour in such situations. This can become a form of guidance more specific than having a generally transformed mind.
So, the Bible should influence our decision making by its being the true reality in which we already exist, by us having our minds transformed by the Bible generally, and by us being immersed in Scripture and prayer (alongside wise counsel) in a more specific sense of looking for pertinent wisdom for specific situations.
None of this is to absolutely exclude dreams, pictures, and so on. But these should not be prioritized to the exclusion of biblical discipleship and orientation.
What has already been said above gives us clues as to how to distinguish between what we want and what God wants. An additional point, though, is to gain a good understanding of (a) personal sin, and (b) cultural sin.
Thus (a) if love for God and neighbour sums up the law and the prophets, sin is distorted relating to God and neighbour. Here, Ephesians 4:17-19 is important: ‘17 So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. 19 Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.’ This gives us the following pattern to be aware of: hardening of heart (wilful rebellion), leading to ignorance (of truth), leading to both separation from the life of God and being darkened in understanding (relational separation from God’s Spirit and lack of understanding), leading to loss of sensitivity (to God, others, and how things are), leading to being given-over to the sensual realm and sensuality, leading to indulgence in every kind of impurity (experimentation), leading to a continual lust for more (addictive greed). Basically, if we shut God out, we’re left with the sensory or material realm alone. This cannot sustain us by itself (‘Man does not live on bread alone’), so our relationship to it becomes distorted.
Another key text is the temptations in the wilderness: ‘Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And after He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry. 3 And the tempter came and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” 4 But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.’” 5 Then the devil took Him into the holy city and had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command His angels concerning You’; and ‘On their hands they will bear You up, so that You will not strike Your foot against a stone.’” 7 Jesus said to him, “On the other hand, it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8 Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; 9 and he said to Him, “All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Go, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.’” 11 Then the devil left Him; and behold, angels came and began to minister to Him. (Matt 4:1-11).
Here, we find out more about sin, since Satan tempts Jesus to sin in three different ways.
(i) The first temptation looks like it has to do with physical appetites, so maps closely onto what Paul says in Ephesians 4:17-19 (see above).
(ii) The second temptation, though, is different. Satan tempts Jesus, on the basis of Jesus’ knowledge of Scriptures, to leap from the temple so as to invoke, on demand, God’s rescue of him by angels. God’s rescuing power ‘on demand’, via knowledge and an act of self-destruction, is the issue. This, though, is like a magic rite that purports to control spiritual power through the performance of a ritual on the basis of knowledge about ‘how things work’. So, Satan is tempting Jesus to try to control God-like (i.e. angelic) rescuing power ‘on demand’ through a kind of rite that forces God’s hand. This temptation, though, can easily be shown to expose legalism (trying to force God’s hand of forgiveness by acts of obedience to law) and super-spiritualism (trying to force God’s hand of healing by ‘speaking over’ or ‘commanding’ illnesses to leave as though doing this automatically gave us the authority). Modernity’s development of nuclear weapons could also be seen as wanting God-like rescuing power ‘on demand’ in order to dispense with enemies.
(iii) The third temptation is interesting in that Satan offers Jesus the kingdoms of the earth – that is the highest social position – if Jesus would but worship Satan, where Jesus’ answer shows that what is at stake is also serving Satan. That is, the temptation is to worship and serve Satan so as to self-exalt oneself socially unto self-enthronement. Paul, though, tells us that ‘13 such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14 No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will be according to their deeds.’ (2 Cor 11:13-15). That is, to serve Satan is to masquerade as an angel of light – which is to project a deceitful image of oneself as righteous when really serving Satan. But we have just seen that the third temptation concerns serving Satan. This means that the third temptation is easily interpreted as worshipping and serving Satan so as to self-exalt oneself socially unto self-enthronement through deceitful image projection. Or, social self-exaltation unto self-enthronement through deceitful image projection is what serving Satan looks like. The Pharisees fell into this trap: all their religious acts of righteousness were for men to see so that they would be honoured by men. So Jesus and John the Baptist calls them ‘children of serpents’ (i.e. of Satan, of demons).
(b) The individual sins – of loss of self-control in the sensory realm through suppressing relationship with God and the truth; of trying to force God’s rescue (healing, forgiveness, wealth) ‘on demand’ by a ‘technique’ applied like a magic rite; of seeking one’s own social self-advancement through deceitful image-projection – all have their counterparts culturally. (i) Modernism is like the first temptation – combining naturalism, materialism, consumerism, and sensualism, resulting in the destruction of the environment and massive humanitarian inequalities; (ii) Postmodernism is like the third temptation – combining massive deceitful image-projection (advertising, over-concern with appearances, politicizing of everything, flattery, propaganda of positivity) with corporate self-promotion (companies, governments, etc. seeking to monopolise); (iii) Trans-Postmodernism is like the second temptation – an ‘on demand’ culture of expecting instant results that becomes unmerciful and legalistic in its application of law, just as the Pharisees always challenged Jesus on points of law, but missing what was really important.
We could go on. The point is that without developing this kind of biblical exposure of the desires of the sinful nature, we will remain unable to distinguish between what we want and what God wants, where our desires are sinful. And even where our desires are good, the temptation narrative teaches us to wait on God’s providence, rather than to ‘go in search of many schemes’ (Eccl 7:29), or to say ‘“Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.” 14 Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. 15 Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.”’
NOTE: This is a new series on Gralefrit Theology, and is a collaboration between me and Dr Rob Knowles, who is an expert in the Western philosophical tradition, biblical hermeneutics and specialises in the work of Professor Anthony Thiselton. He has been featured on this blog before.
All the questions are from the people in the pews – ordinary people asking great questions that vex them in some way.
If you have a question that you are vexed by, please submit it via the comments box, I would be thrilled to hear from you.