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Richard P. Hansen

Finding God's Will, or Hearing God's Voice?

Rejecting formulas to find guidance

Bruce Waltke is fed up. Christians "ought to stamp out of our vocabulary the nonbiblical and misleading expression 'finding God's will.'" God is not a divine sleight-of-hand artist with an elusive will that we must find like the proverbial pea in a heavenly shell game. God's will, after all, is clear! God wants us to be holy, to be mature, to be more like Jesus. God is all about forging our character and welcoming us into greater intimacy with him.

Who or what is to blame for this unwholesome fixation on God's will? In Finding the Will of God: A Pagan Notion?, Waltke blames disintegrating authority structures, lamenting the loss of guidance that family used to provide, but he especially fingers spiritual immaturity. Christians today, Waltke says,

are willing to try to follow a specific pattern of behavior their pastor draws out for them, but the abstract concept of "loving God" is harder to grasp. Consequently, they are leery of someone telling them to, in the words of Calvin, "love God and do what you please." They would prefer that someone tell them exactly what to do. That's why they resort to divination to seek God's will.

Conservative evangelical churches are often guilty as charged. As Waltke observes, far too many sermons promise "5 Steps to a Better _____ (you fill in the blank)," based on a view of the Bible as an AAA map to life—all road hazards clearly highlighted, of course—rather than as the essential book of stories we need to sustain us on the journey. In such a culture, perhaps it's natural that God morphs into a heavenly computer ready to spit out answers, but only with the correct passwords—in short, divination.

All techniques to "find" God's will—letting the Bible fall open to the first verse you see, laying out fleeces, analyzing signs and the like—Waltke labels as nothing more than pagan divination (hence his subtitle). An Old Testament scholar, he offers a thorough survey of divination techniques. (Did you know rhabdomancy means using arrows to get a sign from God?) After the disciples cast lots to select Matthias to replace Judas (Acts 1:24ff), Waltke says, never again in the New Testament does the church seek God's will with such means. In fact, he adds, whenever God does offer miraculous guidance (Peter's rooftop dream, for example), it is to people who have neither asked for nor are expecting it.

Having established that Christians are too often caught up in seeking shallow formulas that "tell them exactly what to do," Waltke proceeds to devote the final three-fourths of his book to his own six-point program! The six points are familiar—Scripture, a heart for God, counsel from others, providential circumstances, our own good judgment, divine intervention—but he stresses that we must take them in prioritized sequence if we expect to hear from God. While most would agree, for example, that Scripture should take precedence over circumstances, seasoned believers realize God is not contained in six-point systems. God begins at different points with different people—circumstances may drive us to Scripture, or the Lord might first capture our attention by a word from a friend. Chapters on each of the six points offer conventional advice—occasionally quite good—but cannot shake the shadow of the formulaic mindset Waltke himself criticizes.

If Waltke wants to save us from veering off into the stagnant shallows called "finding God's will," Henry Blackaby and his son Richard's more comprehensive Hearing God's Voice keeps us in the strong center of the current. Terminology is important. Whereas "God's will" is static and nonpersonal (something to find like a misplaced map), hearing God's voice is personal and relational. Just as in Henry Blackaby's Experiencing God series, used in churches throughout North America (including the one I serve), the strength of Hearing God's Voice is that the authors never tire in expressing a simple but surprisingly elusive truth: God really wants a relationship with us! "God's choice to communicate in so many diverse ways forces us to put our faith in him, not a method," the Blackabys write. "We do not seek a word from God to prove he is real so we can have a relationship with him. Rather, as we seek to develop an intimate relationship with him, we will hear him speak to us."

Guidance is not complicated: the better we know God, the better we will recognize God's voice. We may not identify every voice on the telephone, but we (hopefully) never mistake our own spouse's or child's voice. The Blackabys ask: do we have hearts, minds, and spirits becoming increasingly familiar with God's voice? In the parable of the sower, the seed is scattered evenly; the crucial variable is the receptiveness of the soil. God is speaking—are we listening and willing to obey?

The Blackabys investigate other methods by which God speaks—inner witness of the Holy Spirit, Scripture, prayer, circumstances, other people—along with novel suggestions about family history and spiritual heritage. However, methods are never raised above relationship or presented in lockstep formulas. For example, the chapter on hearing God through the Bible tells how God spoke to George Muller to establish orphanages for homeless children in 19th-century industrial Britain. Muller began feeling a personal burden to meet this particular social need among many others. He prayed and asked God to examine his motives. He sought advice from trusted Christian friends. Finally, he heard God speak in the Scriptures and knew he should move forward, even though he had no money, expertise, or other resources. God speaks by different methods—and confirmation comes (or not) as we keep listening.

Two other emphases are noteworthy. Too often "God's will" (i.e., what I need to ensure a good life for myself—marrying the right person, pursuing the best career, etc.) is framed as the end, with God as the means. The Blackabys never diminish God as a means to our ends. On the contrary: "At times Christ is inaccurately viewed as a cosmic best friend who only exists to make us happy and successful. God turns our focus away from us and on to him." Yes! The primary reason we should listen is because it is God who is speaking.

Coupled with this refreshing emphasis are strong statements challenging American individualism. Hearing God's voice is a community process—not the quest for a personal holy grail. I wish more books about discovering God's guidance were saying this: "God designed people for interdependence and community. As Christians commit themselves to their fellow believers, God speaks through the church to benefit every member. Estranged from the church, Christians will not hear all God has to say to them."

This is meat-and-potatoes writing. If one might at times wish for some pinches of intellectual seasoning, it is always sane, nourishing, and easy to digest. Richard Blackaby shares a couple of humorous personal stories, instances where he fails to hear God's voice, but overall there are few nods to the mystery, paradox, or human frailty many experience in seeking divine guidance. While I agree that the reasons we fail to hear God's voice are not God's problem, a little more empathy for the hard task of dissolving our own blockages would be welcome. Maybe I am one of only a few modern Samuels who does not always recognize God's voice right away, but I suspect not.

Indeed, the one significant shortcoming of this solid work is the authors' insistence that anyone who wrestles or argues with God's voice "obviously does not really know God." For the Blackabys, this is a no-brainer. If indeed God is perfect love (1 John 4:7-8), who could (or should) argue with him? And yes, some in the Bible who wrestled with God suffered consequences—Jacob walked with a limp, Zacharias was struck mute after questioning the birth of his son John the Baptist. But others who "really knew God" in Scripture did wrestle, sometimes strenuously—Abraham argued to save Sodom for a few righteous men, Moses argued for the wayward Israelites when the Lord was ready to annihilate them, Jeremiah argued against his prophetic call, and, most famously, Jesus certainly wrestled in Gethsemane with what he was hearing his Father ask of him. In the first two cases, the Lord even modified his plans in response to the argument, however we understand that theologically.

Is not occasionally wrestling with what we hear from God exactly what we might expect if we are in relationship with a Person? Do not all authentic relationships—even the relationship between Perfect Love and far from perfect creatures—have at least some wrestling intrinsic, even necessary, to their growth? (On our side, at least.) Allowing more room to be honest with each other about such give and take might be just what we need to hang in there and keep listening.

Richard P. Hansen is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Visalia, California.

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