God's Will and Our Decisions
How can God's revealed and secret will help church leaders when life seems to be full of more decisions than ever?
Once upon a time, you drove onto a garage forecourt and an attendant would fill the car up for you. The man from the Pru called round and sorted out any issue you had with your insurance. If you could afford to go abroad, the travel agent would do all the checking, booking and sorting for you.
It was a different world, but it really wasn’t all that long ago!
Today there is a cascade of choices to work through. You can’t buy anything without first checking endless comments and reviews. It leaves you prevaricating for ages, even on the most trivial issues because you're paralysed by information overload.
Despite what we think, according to the research, we’re not actually working longer hours than our forefathers, but we have to process lots more mental stuff. It has been said that a modern Brit has to assess more information from around the world in a week, then John Bunyan did in a lifetime. Amidst all that frenetic activity, having to make endless small decisions robs us of mental space for other things, generating a feeling of fatigue.
Life seems to be more full of decision-making than ever.
Then COVID-19 came along and it got a whole lot more difficult, especially for church leaders.
On top of all the normal things going wrong, there is now an abundance of factors which make decisions harder for anyone in leadership. What recently looked wise, clever, astute and bold, can soon appear – when new information is available – to be uninformed, reckless or (conversely) far too cautious. Who knows what a new day will bring?
We are all having to do risk assessments when risk is such a difficult thing to assess. Our decision-making is happening in a, ‘no one really knows for sure’ risk environment.
Added to that, our culture has made corporate/church decision-making harder. Individualism, consumerism and entitlement culture means that it just feels so easy and natural to ask, "what am I getting out of this for what I put in?" The focus on ‘I, me, and mine’ means that leading decision-making processes, where individuals need to think of others’ best interests, don't come easily.
COVID-19 has made it all the harder.
Subtly we are all having to concentrate on the things of self – my health, my safety and security, my food supply, my job, my finances, my mental well-being, and even my holidays. Thinking of ‘the body of Christ’ is harder when we don't see one another. Out of sight, out of mind.
And just practically speaking, it is almost impossible to have an interactive Zoom conversation with more than a handful of people. Consulting, discussing and agreeing to make a collective decision (think of a church members’ meeting) is difficult to do.
No wonder many leaders experience decision-making stress and consequent fatigue. So how can we help ourselves?
We’re going to start with this article about the Biblical distinction and then focus on two other pointers and areas of application in the articles to come.
Respect an important biblical distinction
a) The Revealed will of God
The key verse is Deuteronomy 29:29, "The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever; that we may follow all the words of this law."
The reference here is to ‘the secret will of God’ – all things that he has ordained that will unfold. Then there is, ‘the revealed will’ – all the things he has told us. That revelation has come in its fullness, and to completion, in Christ Jesus. As the writer to the Hebrews puts it:
"In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right-hand of the Majesty in heaven." (Hebrews 1:1-3)
"We must pay the most careful attention to what we have heard… this salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will." (Hebrews 2:1-4)
As that great preacher Dick Lucas characterised it, here is, ‘A Final Word on a Finished Work' 1.
All this helps us understand our role as leaders. What is it? Primarily we are preachers and teachers of that word. We explain, and apply, and model in our lives the revealed will of God. The holy Scriptures equip the man of God – the pastor-teacher – to “preach the Word” (2 Timothy 3:15-4:2).
Paul also stresses to whom we are accountable for our decisions: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
Our leadership authority is rooted in this. It is not about our personality, gifting or vehemence. Our authority is ministerial. That is we have the authority given by Christ, and recognised by the church, to authoritatively teach his word.
Of course, everyone has the right to privately interpret Scripture, but the formally recognised leaders are the ones who authoritatively say: "This is what we as a church believe the Scriptures say." Their authority comes from teaching the word of God faithfully. It is no light matter to lead people into all the will of God.
Our forefathers thought long and hard about this area of decision-making authority. May I commend to you James Bannerman’s two volumes, ‘The Church of Christ’ as an example of work which shows just how carefully church leaders have to be when making decisions. You may not agree with all his conclusions, but the balance/tension he describes about what should or should not be imposed on others, or what could or might not be allowed is admirable.2
His main thesis is that Christian leaders lead through the explanation and application of that which has express Biblical warrant or can be inferred as a good and necessary outworking of a clear principle. He shows how complex this can be, needing a fine and mature sense of all that the Bible might say on a subject. We need to be self-aware when we move from the authoritative, "This is absolutely required," to the subjunctive tense with its, "It seems to me that, on balance, this is what Scripture might be saying."
This is part and parcel of our embracing the revealed will of God, and respecting the secret things of God.
b) The Secret will of God
A very fine discussion can be found in Gary Friesen's book, Decision-Making and the Will of God.3 He elaborates at length what Jay Adams describes, with brilliant conciseness, in his work, More Than Redemption.4 If you have not read either, it would be well worth investing your time in one of them.
Their basic argument is that that we do not try to second-guess, or read the signs, or look for the clues into what is the secret will of God. Guidance in decision-making is not so much working out what God is trying to say to us, rather we use all that his complete word says, and then, given the circumstances we are in, apply what he says. All the time we should be submitting and trusting in his overruling.
There is both a ‘backwards-looking’ and a ‘forward-anticipating’ aspect to our role as leaders interacting with the secret will of God. As the secret will of God unfolds, a lot of our pastoral work will be to bring sympathy, comfort, and understanding to those who experience the difficult providences of life in a fallen world.
An Old Testament example
Job is the book that shows us, when ‘the curtain of reality gets pulled back’, what else is going on. Mrs Schaeffer’s wonderful book on suffering, Affliction, has that memorable phrase, "Imagine being Job with no Job to read."5
It is one of the key, and few, times we get an insight into the unseen world of the will of God. The lesson is that what happened to Job is happening all the time and to everyone in our lives. It should teach us humility and tentativeness as we seek to explain providence, or figure out the answer to the ‘why?’ questions.
But we also have a forward-looking leadership role. Armed with the commands, examples, and principles of scripture we seek to inspire, lead, risk, adventure, obey, and put into practice what God says, even though it is a largely unknown future and where we aren't certain what God’s secret will is.
A New Testament example
In Acts 15:36 you see Paul thinking of how helpful it might be if he and Barnabas re-visited the churches God had established on their first missionary journey. Good plan.
As soon as Paul stepped out, unforeseen problems arose. He and Barnabas disagreed about how they should proceed. Later, after miraculous divine intervention when the Holy Spirit clearly but mysteriously closed doors of opportunity, they were called to Europe. They preached the gospel, exploiting the various evangelistic opportunities which arose, and the church was formed.
What is happening here? The revealed will of the Lord, ‘Go and make disciples of all nations’, was being applied in all the topsy-turvy realities of life. You will sometimes experience marvellous ‘open’ and ‘closed’ divine interventions. But our role is to help the people of God keep making gospel-driven decisions to go onward and upward ‘into’ the secret will of God by obeying the commands of the Lord’s revealed will and relying on his promises.
With this biblical foundation laid, next time we’ll turn to the different kinds of decisions we have to make. In the meantime, you might find my article about gospel-shaped decisions helpful to flesh this point out a little more.
1. Richard C. Lucas, Preaching the Melodic Line, retrieved on 04/08/20.
2. James Bannerman, The Church of Christ (Banner of Truth, orig 1869, this ed 1974, 2 vols).
3. Gary Friesen with J. Robin Maxson, Decision Making and the Will of God (Multnomah Press, 1980).
4. Jay E. Adams, More Than Redemption (Presby & Ref, 1979).
5. Edith Schaeffer, Affliction (Baker, 1993 pbk ed).