The Will of God

I originally posted this in three parts for easier blog-post-style consumption. If you’d prefer it that way, you can find them here: Part I, Part II, and Part III. For your convenience, I’m also making available PDF, Kindle, and ePUB versions—just click below and it will download the selected version.

kindleepubpdf

What is the will of God for my life? How can I know it?

No other question so thoroughly vexes most of the Christians I know. We are persuaded that God has a plan for our lives that we can ascertain, and as such we are responsible to follow it, for two (very good) reasons. First, we want to honor him and we want very much to avoid disobeying the God we love. Second, should we fail to follow God’s revealed will for our lives, we will miss out on the best things he has for us. These two, in combination, make the yearning to know God’s plan profound and urgent, especially when making large decisions. Should I buy this house or stay in my current home? Should I marry this person or should we break up? Should I go to this university or that one, or none at all?

But the will of God in such areas, we soon find, is mysterious. How is it determined—perhaps by a sense of “peace” about the right decision? or by a strong feeling that we ought to follow a particular course of action? or by the idea that springs into our mind, unbidden, as we ponder the circumstances in front of us? or by some other means entirely?

There is, it turns out, an answer. But you’re probably not going to like it. The question, however, is not whether we like something but whether it is what God has said. We must remember, though, that however disorienting it can be to let Scripture upend our ways of thinking, it is always best in the end.

What Scripture doesn’t say

The idea that the Spirit leads us by inner senses of his will has become a shibboleth among evangelical Christians, especially those influenced by the charismatic movement. This is unfortunate, because the idea is completely without foundation in Scripture and is deeply unhelpful to the many Christians who live their lives as though it were true. I’ll repeat that for emphasis: nowhere does Scripture teach that the Holy Spirit gives us wisdom on personal decision-making by means of our inner state—our thoughts or feelings.

Now, let it be clear: This has nothing to do with the question of the Spirit’s indwelling presence, for He indwells and empowers all believers. It has nothing to do with the question of whether charismatic gifts continue or ceased after the death of the apostles, for the charismatic gifts were (and if they continue, are) not inner subjective senses but clear external signs. One can believe the miraculous gifts had all ceased by A.D. 100 and also that the Spirit leads us by subjective nudges, or that the gifts continue today but that the Spirit does not lead us in that way.1

So back to my thesis: God does not lead us by “giving us a peace” about things, or by “giving us a sense of what we ought to do,” or by thoughts or urges randomly popping into our heads. I imagine I have ruffled a few feathers, rocked a few boats, and possibly even stepped on a few toes by saying this. (I have certainly overdone it with the metaphors.) Those of you who disagree with me are thinking of all the times in Scripture that the Holy Spirit led people—and so am I! The question of the hour is not whether God communicates to his people, but how he communicates to his people. The most helpful thing for us to do, then, is to survey the Scriptures and see how God spoke to his people in the past, because Scripture is the baseline for how we expect him to speak to his people in the present.

Old Testament

When he spoke to Adam and Eve, he is physically present and speaks audibly. In his interactions with Cain, the two have a conversation. Every time he interacts with Abraham, the text tells us what God said to Abraham (whether or not Yahweh was visible to him in any given encounter). He speaks to Isaac and Jacob. He appears in dreams and gives interpretations thereof to Joseph. He appears in a flame and speaks audibly to (and indeed converses with) Moses over and over again, culminating in the beginning of the revelation of Scripture itself, which Exodus tells us he wrote with his own finger. He speaks audibly to many of the judges, telling them exactly what he would have them do, and Gideon carries on a discussion with him. The signs that God performs for Gideon with a fleece are the result of a conversation. Samuel was confused because he heard an audible voice and thought it must be the other person in the house, until that person explained that God was speaking to him. Various prophets were filled with the Spirit and preached the word of God to the people (even Saul, the king of Israel, at one point). Daniel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah all experience dreams and visions and both Daniel and Ezekiel interact with angels, but there, too, their experiences were explained to them.

What about the ambiguous and mysterious bits? Throughout 1 and 2 Samuel, David is seen making decisions with the Urim and the Thummim. We do not know what these were, but the results seem to have been clear and unambiguous at the least. In the New Testament, we see the apostles making a decision by drawing lots, trusting God’s providence to orchestrate the right decision. Neither of these seems to be open options among evangelicals: we do not have the Urim and Thummim, and no one I know suggests we make decisions with dice, which would be the modern equivalent of drawing lots. Perhaps most mysterious is God’s means of revelation to the prophets, but as with the other means here, it seems to have been quite clear. None of the prophets ever wondered what their message was (though Jeremiah seems to have been rather unhappy about its contents, and for good reason). Certainly the audiences of the messages knew exactly what God’s will was: he spelled it out for them, often in great detail.

Perhaps most famous of all in this discussion—and the proof text for the view against which I am arguing—is God’s interaction with Elijah at Mount Carmel (1 Kings 19:9–18). Yahweh, the passage tells us, was not in the wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire. After all of them was a “the sound of a low whisper” or “a sound, a thin silence” (19:12). First, notice that the “still, small voice” was not in Elijah’s mind: it was a sound. Second, read the next part of the passage:

And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (19:13)

Then they have a conversation, in which Yahweh comforts Elijah and tells him what he ought to do next. He spoke aloud to Elijah, just as he did to so many others.

In short, the consistent record of the Old Testament is that when God led his people—whether individuals or the whole nation—he did so clearly. The majority of the time, these interactions were audible, though occasionally he used dreams or visions, but always making clear the meaning through someone explaining.

The Will of God in the New Testament

The same patterns established in the Old Testament appear again in the New Testament, though much more broadly applied as of the coming of the Spirit in Acts. Zachariah, Mary, and Joseph all experience angelic visitations with clear messages from God in plain language. John the Baptizer2 preached a God-given message of the coming Messiah in a way that seems to be analogous to the prophecy of the Old Testament prophets. Paul experienced a vision of the risen Lord, who spoke to him directly, and other visions which were explained to him or otherwise had clear meanings. John experienced a revelation which was also explained to him. Many believers in the New Testament were given words from the Lord, and these, too, seem to have been unambiguous and followed the pattern of the prophets of old. The one New Testament prophecy we have directly recorded, in Acts 21, marks someone giving a clear and unambiguous warning to Paul. Above all, Jesus himself came and declared to his followers all the wisdom of God, fulfilling the role of prophet perfectly.

Again, what about the ambiguous or mysterious aspects of New Testament prophetic revelation? In terms of mystery, the Bible does not explain to us the mechanics of the New Testament prophetic gift any more than it does that in the Old Testament. Dreams and visions, when they appear, are explained or understood automatically. Perhaps most ambiguous are two passages in Acts. In Acts 16, Paul and his company were “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.” What this means is unclear, for this is all the text says.

The other passage worth further consideration occurs in Acts 15, when the Jerusalem council wrote to the Gentile churches about the relationship between Gentiles and Jewish law. In verse 28, their letter includes the phrase, “It has seemed good to the Spirit and to us…” As we read this in the larger context, its meaning becomes clear. The letter has already stated simply “it seemed good to us” (15:25). Luke’s records that “it seemed good to the apostles and elders, with the whole church…” to send out messengers with this letter. He records that James’ position carried the day, a position James explained by saying, “Therefore, my judgment is…” This passage is arguably the strongest justification for the evangelical view today, but I actually think it argues the other way. There is no reference to any “sense” or “feeling” in sight. Rather, they simply listened to what was going on, considered the scriptures, and made a decision that seemed best to them as a group. In other words, the church simply trusted that the Holy Spirit was leading them together into wisdom.

At no time, then, does the New Testament suggest that these interactions between God and man manifested in the form of subjective “senses,” especially a sense of “peace” or strong inner urgings. At best one could argue that this might have been the case in some of the ambiguous instances outlined above. Without any other proof, though, that is a very shaky position, especially given the clear evidence of how God did speak in the New Testament.

Interpretation

Through all of this, one common thread should have become apparent. When God speaks, it is always—without exception!—clear that he has spoken. His leading is always unmistakable and unambiguous (save for the dreams, but someone always has a clear interpretation). Given that we do not endorse several means that were practiced in the Scriptures, I am at a loss as to why we make decisions by means that are never mentioned in the Bible. If we are going to allow Scripture to set the norms by which we relate to God, we must admit that we have no reason to believe that our internal “sense” about things is in any way a message from God. (That does not, by the way, make emotions useless or meaningless; they are in actuality a very useful part of decision-making. They simply are not the voice of God!)

Aside: “I just have a peace about it”

I find it fascinating that two of the most misused Scriptures in the New Testament come almost side by side, both from the book of Philippians. Along with the much-abused “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (4:13) we have Paul’s note that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (4:7). This is not, however it has been applied, a promise that he will give you a “peace” about the right decision, but a promise that supernatural peace will comfort the believer who prays instead of embracing anxieties and fears. Moreover, this peace is the right of all believers who are walking with Christ—not just those who are making the correct decisions at any given moment. Paul prays this peace for all his churches!

How do we decide, then?

There is one, and only one, passage in the New Testament that explicitly tells us how we will learn to discern the will of God:

I exhort you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God: present your bodies as a sacrifice—living, holy, acceptable to God—as your reasonable worship and do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of the mind, so that you may be able to discern what is will of God: what is good, acceptable, and perfect. (Romans 12:1–2, my translation)

As I have argued in my exegesis of this text, Paul tells us here that the way we grow to know the will of God is by pursuing the transformation of our mind as we grow in holiness. This is harder work than learning to lean on our subjective senses of things, certainly, and it really does not offer us the kind of assurance about day-to-day decisions that so many of us are looking for. It fits with the rest of Scripture’s witness, though, and (as I will argue in a moment) is ultimately a liberating reality.

There are a number of other passages which confirm that the Christian way of making decisions is simpler than we have made it. On the one hand, we have the many examples outlined above. Most notably, the Jerusalem council simply reasoned from the Scriptures and made a decision—and this about an incredibly important decision for the health of the whole church. In his epistle, James rebuked his audience for presuming that their days were theirs to plan, but his counsel was not to look for a sense from God about their course of action. Instead, he enjoined them to simply make their plans humbly: “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that'” (James 4:15). Similarly, Paul would write of his own plans that he would visit the church at Rome if it was God’s will (Romans 1:15, 15:32).

From this completed picture, we learn a basic pattern for discerning the will of God. First, bow to what he reveals unambiguously. For us, this is both first and finally the Scriptures, where God has declared clearly what he wants us all to know, culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ. We thus know that God’s will for us is above all to know him and Jesus Christ, whom he sent into the world. This is what the Holy Spirit is doing above all: sanctifying us and bringing us into the knowledge of God. All his gifts to the body are given so that people will know and worship Jesus Christ the Risen Lord.

Second, if God should speak clearly and unambiguously to us, we should listen! I know one person who has claimed to hear God speaking directly to her about circumstances in her life—and as long as the things this person hears accord with Scripture, I would be far more inclined to grant that validity than any subjective sense, because it does accord with how God acted in the Bible! Any such revelation—whether an audible voice, a prophecy given in the church, or a dream or vision which has meaning clearly understood—must be judged against the final authority of Scripture. I would also suggest that, from my survey of Scripture, God usually speaks in that way not simply for the ordinary circumstances of our lives, but when he is accomplishing something specific to salvation history. To bring that down to earth: I think it far more likely that God would speak in that way for direction to the church than for direction to individuals (though I do not rule it out for the latter).

Third as we pursue holiness and live in close community with other believers, we will be able to come to wise decisions about the courses of action we ought to take. If the church at Jerusalem could come to a decision about a complex issue with massive implications for the future of the church in this way, we can make decisions in our own lives this way!

All of this highlights a reality that I find increasingly liberating. God does not mean for us to discover his plan for our lives and then live it out, but rather to discover it by living it out. It is not that he does not care about our jobs, or our families, or our homes, or any of a myriad other decisions we make day to day. Rather, it is first of all that he cares far more that we know and delight in him, and secondly that he is providentially orchestrating all those things to bring us closer to him.

As a result, I do not have to worry day by day whether I am doing the “right” thing. Most of the decisions in my life are morally neutral, and nearly all of the rest are obviously spelled out in Scripture. (For the remaining few, we have ethics classes at the seminary to think through incredibly complex and difficult issues for a reason.) For all those morally neutral decisions, Jaimie and I ask together, “What seems good to us? What will allow us to glorify God most effectively?” We pray for wisdom. We seek counsel from our friends and family, especially those who are believers. We invite input from our pastors and others with whom we are in fellowship at our church. If God spoke to us audibly, or clearly in a dream, we would listen! Above all, we continually seek to “be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds” as Paul enjoins us in Romans, pursuing holiness.

In the end, we make the decision that seems best to us. The bigger the decision, the more time we will spend on all of those steps—but at no point do we worry about “having a peace” about the decision or look for a subjective sense of what to do. We trust that God is good, and in his providence works all things to good, and recognize that he has not revealed his will for our lives to us, but allows us the chance to grow in wisdom and make good decisions. This is incredibly freeing. More importantly, it is in accord with Scripture.

To quote my favorite book on this subjectjust do something. Prayerfully, thoughtfully, in community, while pursuing holiness, yes—but just go do something.


  1. Or that the gifts continue and he leads us that way, or that the gifts ceased and he does not lead us that way. For the record, I am cautiously open to the ongoing practice of the gifts—but this isn’t about that, remember? 
  2. That’s right. Baptizer. 

The Will of God, Part III

In Part I, I argue that God does not indicate his will to us by means of subjective feelings, and survey the Old Testament record of God’s interactions with his people. In Part II, I look at the New Testament and how to interpret Scripture’s teaching on the subject. In Part III, I ask (and answer!) how to discern the will of God if “sense” or “peace” aren’t it.


How do we decide, then?

There is one, and only one, passage in the New Testament that explicitly tells us how we will learn to discern the will of God:

I exhort you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God: present your bodies as a sacrifice—living, holy, acceptable to God—as your reasonable worship and do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of the mind, so that you may be able to discern what is will of God: what is good, acceptable, and perfect. (Romans 12:1–2, my translation)

As I have argued in my exegesis of this text, Paul tells us here that the way we grow to know the will of God is by pursuing the transformation of our mind as we grow in holiness. This is harder work than learning to lean on our subjective senses of things, certainly, and it really does not offer us the kind of assurance about day-to-day decisions that so many of us are looking for. It fits with the rest of Scripture’s witness, though, and (as I will argue in a moment) is ultimately a liberating reality.

There are a number of other passages which confirm that the Christian way of making decisions is simpler than we have made it. On the one hand, we have the many examples outlined above. Most notably, the Jerusalem council simply reasoned from the Scriptures and made a decision—and this about an incredibly important decision for the health of the whole church. In his epistle, James rebuked his audience for presuming that their days were theirs to plan, but his counsel was not to look for a sense from God about their course of action. Instead, he enjoined them to simply make their plans humbly: “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that'” (James 4:15). Similarly, Paul would write of his own plans that he would visit the church at Rome if it was God’s will (Romans 1:15, 15:32).

From this completed picture, we learn a basic pattern for discerning the will of God. First, bow to what he reveals unambiguously. For us, this is both first and finally the Scriptures, where God has declared clearly what he wants us all to know, culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ. We thus know that God’s will for us is above all to know him and Jesus Christ, whom he sent into the world. This is what the Holy Spirit is doing above all: sanctifying us and bringing us into the knowledge of God. All his gifts to the body are given so that people will know and worship Jesus Christ the Risen Lord.

Second, if God should speak clearly and unambiguously to us, we should listen! I know one person who has claimed to hear God speaking directly to her about circumstances in her life—and as long as the things this person hears accord with Scripture, I would be far more inclined to grant that validity than any subjective sense, because it does accord with how God acted in the Bible! Any such revelation—whether an audible voice, a prophecy given in the church, or a dream or vision which has meaning clearly understood—must be judged against the final authority of Scripture. I would also suggest that, from my survey of Scripture, God usually speaks in that way not simply for the ordinary circumstances of our lives, but when he is accomplishing something specific to salvation history. To bring that down to earth: I think it far more likely that God would speak in that way for direction to the church than for direction to individuals (though I do not rule it out for the latter).

Third as we pursue holiness and live in close community with other believers, we will be able to come to wise decisions about the courses of action we ought to take. If the church at Jerusalem could come to a decision about a complex issue with massive implications for the future of the church in this way, we can make decisions in our own lives this way!

All of this highlights a reality that I find increasingly liberating. God does not mean for us to discover his plan for our lives and then live it out, but rather to discover it by living it out. It is not that he does not care about our jobs, or our families, or our homes, or any of a myriad other decisions we make day to day. Rather, it is first of all that he cares far more that we know and delight in him, and secondly that he is providentially orchestrating all those things to bring us closer to him.

As a result, I do not have to worry day by day whether I am doing the “right” thing. Most of the decisions in my life are morally neutral, and nearly all of the rest are obviously spelled out in Scripture. (For the remaining few, we have ethics classes at the seminary to think through incredibly complex and difficult issues for a reason.) For all those morally neutral decisions, Jaimie and I ask together, “What seems good to us? What will allow us to most effectively glorify God?” We pray for wisdom. We seek counsel from our friends and family, especially those who are believers. We invite input from our pastors and others with whom we are in fellowship at our church. If God spoke to us audibly, or clearly in a dream, we would listen! Above all, we continually seek to “be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds” as Paul enjoins us in Romans, pursuing holiness.

In the end, we make the decision that seems best to us. The bigger the decision, the more time we will spend on all of those steps—but at no point do we worry about “having a peace” about the decision or look for a subjective sense of what to do. We trust that God is good, and in his providence works all things to good, and recognize that he has not revealed his will for our lives to us, but allows us the chance to grow in wisdom and make good decisions. This is incredibly freeing. More importantly, it is in accord with Scripture.

To quote my favorite book on this subjectjust do something. Prayerfully, thoughtfully, in community, while pursuing holiness, yes—but just go do something.

The Will of God, Part II

In Part I, I argue that God does not indicate his will to us by means of subjective feelings, and survey the Old Testament record of God’s interactions with his people. In Part II, I look at the New Testament and how to interpret Scripture’s teaching on the subject. In Part III, I ask (and answer!) how to discern the will of God if “sense” or “peace” aren’t it.


The Will of God in the New Testament

The same patterns established in the Old Testament appear again in the New Testament, though much more broadly applied as of the coming of the Spirit in Acts. Zachariah, Mary, and Joseph all experience angelic visitations with clear messages from God in plain language. John the Baptizer1 preached a God-given message of the coming Messiah in a way that seems to be analogous to the prophecy of the Old Testament prophets. Paul experienced a vision of the risen Lord, who spoke to him directly, and other visions which were explained to him or otherwise had clear meanings. John experienced a revelation which was also explained to him. Many believers in the New Testament were given words from the Lord, and these, too, seem to have been unambiguous and followed the pattern of the prophets of old. The one New Testament prophecy we have directly recorded, in Acts 21, marks someone giving a clear and unambiguous warning to Paul. Above all, Jesus himself came and declared to his followers all the wisdom of God, fulfilling the role of prophet perfectly.

Again, what about the ambiguous or mysterious aspects of New Testament prophetic revelation? In terms of mystery, the Bible does not explain to us the mechanics of the New Testament prophetic gift any more than it does that in the Old Testament. Dreams and visions, when they appear, are explained or understood automatically. Perhaps most ambiguous are two passages in Acts. In Acts 16, Paul and his company were “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.” What this means is unclear, for this is all the text says.

The other passage worth further consideration occurs in Acts 15, when the Jerusalem council wrote to the Gentile churches about the relationship between Gentiles and Jewish law. In verse 28, their letter includes the phrase, “It has seemed good to the Spirit and to us…” As we read this in the larger context, its meaning becomes clear. The letter has already stated simply “it seemed good to us” (15:25). Luke’s records that “it seemed good to the apostles and elders, with the whole church…” to send out messengers with this letter. He records that James’ position carried the day, a position James explained by saying, “Therefore, my judgment is…” This passage is arguably the strongest justification for the evangelical view today, but I actually think it argues the other way. There is no reference to any “sense” or “feeling” in sight. Rather, they simply listened to what was going on, considered the scriptures, and made a decision that seemed best to them as a group. In other words, the church simply trusted that the Holy Spirit was leading them together into wisdom.

At no time, then, does the New Testament suggest that these interactions between God and man manifested in the form of subjective “senses,” especially a sense of “peace” or strong inner urgings. At best one could argue that this might have been the case in some of the ambiguous instances outlined above. Without any other proof, though, that is a very shaky position, especially given the clear evidence of how God did speak in the New Testament.

Interpretation

Through all of this, one common thread should have become apparent. When God speaks, it is always—without exception!—clear that he has spoken. His leading is always unmistakable and unambiguous (save for the dreams, but someone always has a clear interpretation). Given that we do not endorse several means that were practiced in the Scriptures, I am at a loss as to why we make decisions by means that are never mentioned in the Bible. If we are going to allow Scripture to set the norms by which we relate to God, we must admit that we have no reason to believe that our internal “sense” about things is in any way a message from God. (That does not, by the way, make emotions useless or meaningless; they are in actuality a very useful part of decision-making. They simply are not the voice of God!)

Aside: “I just have a peace about it”

I find it fascinating that two of the most misused Scriptures in the New Testament come almost side by side, both from the book of Philippians. Along with the much-abused “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (4:13) we have Paul’s note that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (4:7). This is not, however it has been applied, a promise that he will give you a “peace” about the right decision, but a promise that supernatural peace will comfort the believer who prays instead of embracing anxieties and fears. Moreover, this peace is the right of all believers who are walking with Christ—not just those who are making the correct decisions at any given moment. Paul prays this peace for all his churches!


  1. That’s right. Baptizer. 

The Will of God, Part I

In Part I, I argue that God does not indicate his will to us by means of subjective feelings, and survey the Old Testament record of God’s interactions with his people. In Part II, I look at the New Testament and how to interpret Scripture’s teaching on the subject. In Part III, I ask (and answer!) how to discern the will of God if “sense” or “peace” aren’t it.


What is the will of God for my life? How can I know it?

No other question so thoroughly vexes most of the Christians I know. We are persuaded that God has a plan for our lives that we can ascertain, and as such we are responsible to follow it, for two (very good) reasons. First, we want to honor him and we want very much to avoid disobeying the God we love. Second, should we fail to follow God’s revealed will for our lives, we will miss out on the best things he has for us. These two, in combination, make the yearning to know God’s plan profound and urgent, especially when making large decisions. Should I buy this house or stay in my current home? Should I marry this person or should we break up? Should I go to this university or that one, or none at all?

But the will of God in such areas, we soon find, is mysterious. How is it determined—perhaps by a sense of “peace” about the right decision? or by a strong feeling that we ought to follow a particular course of action? or by the idea that springs into our mind, unbidden, as we ponder the circumstances in front of us? or by some other means entirely?

There is, it turns out, an answer. But you’re probably not going to like it. The question, however, is not whether we like something but whether it is what God has said. We must remember, though, that however disorienting it can be to let Scripture upend our ways of thinking, it is always best in the end.

What Scripture doesn’t say

The idea that the Spirit leads us by inner senses of his will has become a shibboleth among evangelical Christians, especially those influenced by the charismatic movement. This is unfortunate, because the idea is completely without foundation in Scripture and is deeply unhelpful to the many Christians who live their lives as though it were true. I’ll repeat that for emphasis: nowhere does Scripture teach that the Holy Spirit gives us wisdom on personal decision-making by means of our inner state—our thoughts or feelings.

Now, let it be clear: This has nothing to do with the question of the Spirit’s indwelling presence, for He indwells and empowers all believers. It has nothing to do with the question of whether charismatic gifts continue or ceased after the death of the apostles, for the charismatic gifts were (and if they continue, are) not inner subjective senses but clear external signs. One can believe the miraculous gifts had all ceased by A.D. 100 and also that the Spirit leads us by subjective nudges, or that the gifts continue today but that the Spirit does not lead us in that way.1

So back to my thesis: God does not lead us by “giving us a peace” about things, or by “giving us a sense of what we ought to do,” or by thoughts or urges randomly popping into our heads. I imagine I have ruffled a few feathers, rocked a few boats, and possibly even stepped on a few toes by saying this. (I have certainly overdone it with the metaphors.) Those of you who disagree with me are thinking of all the times in Scripture that the Holy Spirit led people—and so am I! The question of the hour is not whether God communicates to his people, but how he communicates to his people. The most helpful thing for us to do, then, is to survey the Scriptures and see how God spoke to his people in the past, because Scripture is the baseline for how we expect him to speak to his people in the present.

Old Testament

When he spoke to Adam and Eve, he is physically present and speaks audibly. In his interactions with Cain, the two have a conversation. Every time he interacts with Abraham, the text tells us what God said to Abraham (whether or not Yahweh was visible to him in any given encounter). He speaks to Isaac and Jacob. He appears in dreams and gives interpretations thereof to Joseph. He appears in a flame and speaks audibly to (and indeed converses with) Moses over and over again, culminating in the beginning of the revelation of Scripture itself, which Exodus tells us he wrote with his own finger. He speaks audibly to many of the judges, telling them exactly what he would have them do, and Gideon carries on a discussion with him. The signs that God performs for Gideon with a fleece are the result of a conversation. Samuel was confused because he heard an audible voice and thought it must be the other person in the house, until that person explained that God was speaking to him. Various prophets were filled with the Spirit and preached the word of God to the people (even Saul, the king of Israel, at one point). Daniel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah all experience dreams and visions and both Daniel and Ezekiel interact with angels, but there, too, their experiences were explained to them.

What about the ambiguous and mysterious bits? Throughout 1 and 2 Samuel, David is seen making decisions with the Urim and the Thummim. We do not know what these were, but the results seem to have been clear and unambiguous at the least. In the New Testament, we see the apostles making a decision by drawing lots, trusting God’s providence to orchestrate the right decision. Neither of these seems to be open options among evangelicals: we do not have the Urim and Thummim, and no one I know suggests we make decisions with dice, which would be the modern equivalent of drawing lots. Perhaps most mysterious is God’s means of revelation to the prophets, but as with the other means here, it seems to have been quite clear. None of the prophets ever wondered what their message was (though Jeremiah seems to have been rather unhappy about its contents, and for good reason). Certainly the audiences of the messages knew exactly what God’s will was: he spelled it out for them, often in great detail.

Perhaps most famous of all in this discussion—and the proof text for the view against which I am arguing—is God’s interaction with Elijah at Mount Carmel (1 Kings 19:9–18). Yahweh, the passage tells us, was not in the wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire. After all of them was a “the sound of a low whisper” or “a sound, a thin silence” (19:12). First, notice that the “still, small voice” was not in Elijah’s mind: it was a sound. Second, read the next part of the passage:

And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (19:13)

Then they have a conversation, in which Yahweh comforts Elijah and tells him what he ought to do next. He spoke aloud to Elijah, just as he did to so many others.

In short, the consistent record of the Old Testament is that when God led his people—whether individuals or the whole nation—he did so clearly. The majority of the time, these interactions were audible, though occasionally he used dreams or visions, but always making clear the meaning through someone explaining.


  1. Or that the gifts continue and he leads us that way, or that the gifts ceased and he does not lead us that way. For the record, I am cautiously open to the ongoing practice of the gifts—but this isn’t about that, remember? 

Reflections on 6 (7!) Weeks of Devotional Reflections

Starting in mid-July, I decided I was going to help focus my daily habit of Bible-reading by writing posts about what I learned every day, aiming to hit 6 weeks (though at this point it has actually been 7) with a considerable degree of consistency. My goal was to write every day, but of course I ended up missing that mark within the first week, and while I have still written several times a week throughout the whole process, it has been substantially less than daily—about half that, actually. While that didn’t exactly match my goal, I was never as concerned about the writing as about studying Scripture consistently and faithfully through the period, and in that I succeeded.

My Bible-reading habits have been inconsistent for years—not for lack of desire, but because, until this last month and a half, I have had a very hard time finding a good routine that I could maintain for any stretch of time. If I try to do my devotions in the morning, I usually find myself falling asleep, or very distracted. (There are a few things I can do well early in the morning, including writing; reading is generally not on that list, though.) Likewise, if I read right before bed, I tend to end up falling asleep while reading.

The approach I took these past seven weeks has thus been quite helpful. First, I picked late evening (but not bedtime) to do my devotional reading. This necessitated some adjustments to the rest of my schedule, and in particular I have had to figure out how to make sure I spend good time with Jaimie earlier in the evening, as late evenings were usually when we hung out before I started this. Second, planning to write after I did my reading usually helped me stay awake (computer screens will do that), and always helped me think about the passage I was reading more carefully. It is one thing to take notes on a passage and observe the facts and details and theological points being made. It is another thing entirely to reflect and to turn one’s exegesis to doxology. Because of the devotional nature of the posts I have written, though, I have found it much easier to direct my heart to worship in the devotional times, which in turn has further helped me sustain the time, because the point of devotions is not merely increasing knowledge but worshipping the living God.

I have yet to decide exactly what course I will take in the weeks ahead. I have so greatly enjoyed this that I expect I shall continue it (though I will of course have to change the descriptive editorial text at the top of the posts, since it will neither be perfectly daily nor only a 6-week practice). The habit of writing, as I have often mused, is a good one for me: I often think things through by writing about them. At the same time, I am very busy, and do not have the time necessary to write the kinds of posts I might like to—longer, more careful explorations of political, cultural, and theological topics. Rather than slumping back into another season of not writing simply because of that lack of time, continuing to write these short posts—posts that rarely take me more than half an hour, and sometimes much less—will be a helpful discipline going forward.

And of course—lest I forget—I also intend to keep up with it because it is simply fun.

Reflections on Knowing God, Chapters 3–4

I am writing up reflections on my devotions every day for six weeks. This is one of those posts.

One of my assignments for Christian Theology I at Southeastern is writing short devotional reflections on J. I. Packer’s Knowing God. On the days I read it, I am using this as my primary devotional material, so it will take the place of reflection on Scripture on those days.

Chapter 3: Knowing and Being Known

A few things were particularly moving to me in this chapter, so I shall quote them and then comment and the ways in which they moved me.

What makes life worthwhile is having a big enough objective, something which catches our imagination and lays hold of our allegiance; and this the Christian has in a way that no other person has. For what higher, more exalted, and more compelling goal can there be than to know God?

It can be easy for me to lose sight of the profundity of the Christian calling. I am called to know and be known by the living God who made the universe and upholds it by his power every moment. He is infinite, but invites me to know him. This is, in a word, marvelous—it makes me marvel. God, so great he can never be known completely, nonetheless wants me to know him truly. He has communicated himself to me: he speaks through his Word, which he himself inspired. He took on flesh that he might perfectly communicate deity to humanity—so that I might know him, and not be forever kept from my ultimate purpose for existence. It moves me to prayer: “Oh God, that I might know you, and delight in knowing you! There is nothing more glorious, nothing better!”

But knowing Jesus Christ still remains as definite a relation of personal discipleship as it was for the Twelve when he was on earth. The Jesus who walks through the gospel story walks with Christians now, and knowing him involves going with him, now as then.

I had never thought of this before. I have considered how the Holy Spirit teaches us, of course, and I have even pondered what it meant when Jesus told his disciples that it was better for him to leave, so that the Spirit would come and indwell them and us (John 16:7). It never really crossed my mind, though perhaps it should have, that Jesus is making us his disciples. That is, it occurs to me, precisely what the Great Commission teaches us, of course! I am called to go and make disciples—not disciples of myself, but disciples of Jesus Christ. Something about Packer’s putting it just that way reminds me that as I read the gospels, I must see myself as Jesus’ student, seeking to follow his ways. Yes, by all means think about the theological focus of each author; yes, by all means consider the implications of this statement or that; yes, by all means integrate the books of the New Testament into a systematic and Biblical theology—but always with the singular point of following Jesus Christ. That is the only reason to do those other things: to know the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he sent.

Chapter 4: The Only True God

I find it interesting that Packer takes as the subject of his fourth chapter the prohibition on images. The more I chew on it, though, the more sense it makes. Chapter 3 points us to the necessity of knowing the God who knows us, and Chapters 5 and following trace out the doctrine of God in much more detail. Packer is right to follow the commandments, though, and emphasize that in knowing God we must be careful not to know the mere imaginings of human beings. Substituting our own ideas of what God is like, rather than submitting to his self-revelation, is the heights of arrogance—but we are all guilty of doing just that at times. May it be ever more rare in me!

As someone who loves the arts, I found Packer’s thoughts on the use of the arts in worship insightful and accurate. He comments:

Whatever we may think of religious art from a cultural standpoint, we should not look to pictures of God to show us his glory and move us to worship; for his glory is precisely what such pictures can never show us.

I think this is a good corrective not only to our use of visual arts, but to our reliance on certain musical movements to “feel” worshipful. Our Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters may find themselves relying on images and incense, but I know it easy for me to rely instead on the bass coming in or the toms rumbling or the effect of all the instruments building up to a great crescendo and then cutting out to leave just the sound of congregational singing. To be sure, these are all fine things in their own right, but they can become a crutch and prevent me from making sure that I am in fact worshipping God, and not merely enjoying an emotional flow.

Finally, Packer’s relatively brief aside on Isaiah’s prompting (‘”To whom, then, will you compare God? What image will you compare him to?” The question does not expect an answer, only a chastened silence.’) provocative. Like God’s questions to Job, these questions remind me that I am but a man and he is God—infinitely above me, impossibly great and beyond comprehension, and worthy of all worship. Theological rigor is excellent and essential to real worship, but my knowledge of God will always ultimately end in humbled silence as it ultimately shows me the boundaries of that knowledge. There will always be more to know of God. Hallelujah!

Don’t Miss It Just Because It’s Familiar

If one turns away his ear from hearing the law,
even his prayer is an abomination.
—Proverbs 28:9

Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool,
but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered
—Proverbs 28:26

Every time I hit the first of these two proverbs, it reminds me of the profound importance of submitting to the Word of God as our final standard. Combine it with the second, and a two-by-four to the head might be less clear. Tempting as it is at times to turn to our own wisdom, doing so is folly of the highest magnitude. The person who will not listen to God’s ways—the ways he has gone to great lengths to reveal to us—will not even be heard when he prays. This should lead Christians to shudder at the thought of willful disobedience to God’s word. Our own wisdom will lead us nowhere good. Wisdom is found only with God. This is a good encouragement to me to press on in this habit of daily devotional study.


I have been reading and rereading Philippians as Jaimie and I start working on memorizing it together this week. I find that reading books as a whole makes their meaning much clearer to me,1 and especially having a sense of the flow of the book is especially helpful for memorization. A number of points stood out to me as I worked through Philippians as a whole, instead of focusing on the few verses usually emphasized (whether by pastors or simply by my own interests and focuses in previous study).

First, Paul really delights to see the gospel advance. This is obvious, of course: he built his life around proclaiming the life, death, resurrection, and reign of Jesus the Jewish Messiah to the Gentiles. Still, nothing brings it home like his declaration that he is even happy to see the gospel proclaimed by others out of envy and rivalry (1:17)—just so long as the result is that “in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed…” (1:18) That is Paul’s final grounds for rejoicing. Likewise, Paul points out that his imprisonment has really served to advance the gospel, and therefore is a cause for joy. I’m not sure most of us—myself certainly included—would be equally happy under the circumstances. May I ever grow to be more like that!

Second, it is easy to simply skip over or fail to grasp the enormity of Paul’s Christ-hymn in chapter 2. We have heard it preached so often that it is easy to miss the depths in his exploration of how much Jesus humbled himself. The eternal second person of the Trinity, the divine Son, the everlasting Logos, put on mortal humanity and embraced mortality in the most agonizing, humiliating way possible. He was publicly shamed in death that he might put our shame to death.

When Paul enjoins the Philippians to continue in their obedience, and to work out their salvation with fear and trembling, it is on this basis. His argument: Christ has done these things, and so God exalted him—now you obey, for you God is working in you, giving you both the will and the ability to obey him.

Third, I was struck again by how central the resurrection was to the way Paul thought about his life, and about the Christian life in general. Paul embraced suffering—great suffering—and counted everything this life offers and all his former credentials as nothing, as rubbish2. Why? So that he might know Christ and the power of his resurrection and share in his sufferings. We might understand why Paul would want to know Jesus and the power of his resurrection, but why would he want to share in his sufferings? He answers: “so that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” He staked his whole life on the belief that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, and offered the same to any who would pick up their cross and follow him.

That let Paul have the perspective that all this life has to offer is as nothing compared to the surpassing value of knowing Jesus. It enabled him to keep in mind that we are not citizens of this world, but of heaven—the heaven from which our Savior will come again and “transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (3:21).

Finally, a brief note that deserves considerable expansion. In 3:18–19, Paul describes those who walk as “enemies of the cross”—people who are ruled by their desires, who glory in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things. From Paul we might expect biting anger towards such bad examples. Instead, Paul writes that he tells the Philippians of these men and women with tears. No doubt Paul was angered at times by those who led others astray; we see that clear enough at other places in his letters. But here, he is moved to sorrow that there are some who would lead others astray and are so led astray themselves. All of us would do well to see our lives more characterized by this kind of sorrow.


  1. If I ever get around to writing the series on studying the Bible that I’ve been tossing around in my head for a while, I’ll expand on this idea at length
  2. The KJV’s “dung” is still probably the best non-vulgar English translation of this word.