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Anticipation, they say, is half the enjoyment. Was that why my long awaited viewing of The Two Towers brought a little less pleasure than I had expected? Had I overdrawn on my quota of enjoyment in the twelve months of anticipation?
How do we best understand God's guidance?
Possibly. Not that the movie is anything less than superb. The visual translation of Tolkien’s narrative is brilliant. And, as in The Fellowship of the Ring, the content is as true as could be to my imagined Middle Earth (not least in the characterisation of Gollum!) But perhaps that very fidelity contributed to the slight flatness I felt. In a movie that focuses so much on action and the unfolding of events, there are fewer surprises and moments of dramatic tension for those who know the story well.
Some people like to know how things will work out before they get to the end of a movie or a book. Not me. If you want to live dangerously, tell me the final match score while I’m watching the delayed broadcast! Along with anticipation, a significant part of my enjoyment derives from intrigue, tension, discovery, surprise and imagining how things will unfold.
This unexpected response has set me thinking beyond movies and stories to my approach to life more generally. I’ve realised that I like to feel that the options are genuinely open, that things really could develop in a number of directions, that the future is not predicated on a closed, predetermined script. Otherwise the creative, life-embracing part of me threatens rebellion.
Inevitably, this impinges on huge theological questions — predestination versus free-will, the ‘openness of God’ debate, and the like. I don’t want to become entangled in those debates here, but there is one related issue that I cannot ignore or avoid. It concerns God’s will for our individual lives and the correlated quest for divine ‘guidance’.
Let me be clear that I have no doubt that God’s purposes extend to individuals, or that there are times when God might guide us in quite specific ways. To deny this would be to negate my own experience. But often Christians go beyond this to speak of God having a perfect, detailed plan for their lives. In making decisions, therefore, they are always looking for the ‘right’ path — the right job or ministry, the right church, the right place to live, not to mention Mr or Mrs Right!
Terms like ‘right’ and ‘should’ permeate many of the conversations I have with people about their experience of the Christian life. Their desire to live according to God’s will can’t be faulted, but the actual fruit of this ‘perfect plan’ or ‘blueprint’ model in their lives gives cause for concern:
• Fear and anxiety — the ‘blueprint’ idea frequently creates anxiety about ‘getting it wrong’ and suffering the consequences of being ‘out of God’s will’. When people consider the possibility that in making a choice they might be stepping off the ‘narrow way’ approved by God, or when faced with two equally viable options, they can experience an almost paralysing fear. Fear of what? God’s disapproval, perhaps even eternal judgment. Some fear that because of wrong choices their lives will now be second best (or third, or fourth . . . ), or that God will have to lead them through trials in order to teach them a lesson.
• Guilt — when something goes wrong, people are therefore inclined to believe they must have strayed somehow from God’s perfect plan. Even when they begin to move away from the blueprint model, they still experience residual guilt when allowing themselves to think about what they would like to do, rather than simply asking “what does God want” (note the presumed dichotomy).
• Confusion and frustration — given that finding the ‘right’ path is so important, it is perplexing to many people that finding that path is a difficult and confusing endeavour. Remember the Fellowship of the Ring in the Mines of Moria? Sometimes the traditional means of guidance leaves two options equally viable. How do I know which is the one God wants? There is a tendency then toward self-blame for being so hard-hearted, blind, or deaf to God’s voice.
• Self-doubt and immaturity — the belief that it is only what God wants that matters, combined with the struggle to discover just what God does want, often leads to self-doubt and tentativeness in decision making. In their desperation to hear from God, people sometimes resort to immature or unwise means of getting guidance (“if that shirt I like is still in the shop window tomorrow then I’ll know God wants me to have it”). Having God make all the decisions might be convenient, but it does little to develop personal responsibility or thoughtfulness.
• Devaluing of ordinary pursuits and pleasures — there is a tendency to assume that explicitly ‘spiritual’ endeavours (evangelism, Bible reading, church attendance, etc) are more likely to be part of the divine plan than ordinary ‘human’ pursuits (dichotomy number two). Again, even after moving from the blueprint model, people have considerable difficulty allowing themselves to make choices or pursue interests simply for their own enjoyment.
• Later regrets and resentment — as a corollary of the previous point, when people do move to a different understanding, they may experience regret and resentment toward their former beliefs. Some grieve for years of lost opportunity to follow dreams or make choices that were formerly seen as purely ‘selfish’ or ‘worldly’.
There isn’t the space here to adequately critique this model of God’s individual will. Others have done that, notably Gary Friesen in his book Decision Making and the Will of God.1 My main concern has been to note some of the emotional, psychological and spiritual effects this model has had on many people I have met. That in itself doesn’t disprove the model, but it invites serious reconsideration.
Friesen argues that all the guidance we need has been revealed to us already in Scripture. In making decisions, we are free to choose within God’s revealed will. Within those parameters of freedom our choices are to be made wisely, for the glory of God, and with an openness to God’s sovereign overruling.
I believe that Friesen’s critique is sound, and I warm to his emphasis on biblical revelation, freedom, wisdom and the glory of God. It stimulates me to cultivate personal responsibility, mature biblical understanding, thoughtfulness and creativity in decision-making. Some will prefer the safety and predictability of a detailed script. I prefer a kind of ‘choose your own adventure’ or ‘theatre sports’ approach!
Yet I think we also lose something in Friesen’s approach. God becomes rather distant, detached. Having given us a manual for living we are left to get on with it, or so it seems. Is there a way that embraces God’s intimate involvement, along with a sense of genuine freedom and creativity in living?
I have found it helpful to move away from talk of ‘plans’ and ‘blueprints’, and to seek a more creative, relational, dynamic model of God’s involvement in our lives. One image that suggests itself is that of a dance. Every type of dance has its guidelines, but the dance itself entails a moment-by-moment creative interplay between the dancers. Each is attuned to the other’s movements: initiating, responding, adjusting, appreciating, creating fresh expressions of the dance all the time.
Surely God is intimately, lovingly, creatively involved with creation in this way. And God invites us to be part of this ‘dance’. Yes, there are given parameters for the dance, and God has every intention that the dance will, in the end, bring his purposes for creation to fruition. But the actual dance involves freedom on our part as to how we respond to God’s involvement in our lives, how we co-create the dance with God in fulfilling those purposes.
The blueprint model suggests a dance in which we must look to God as leader and judge, seeking direction and approval for every step. No creativity, no initiative, no passion is required of us. In Friesen’s way of freedom and wisdom God becomes a benign but distant coach, who instructs us in the basic steps and then sends us out to do our own thing, alone, on the dance floor.
Isn’t there a third way in which we are invited to follow attentively yet freely the dancing God? God is intimately concerned with the specifics of our lives, big and small. Not in the sense of having a deterministic blueprint for them, but rather in the presence of the Spirit who dances in and out of our lives freshly each day, each moment. God the dancer invites us to listen for the music of the Spirit and the “unforced rhythms of grace,”2 and to respond in our living with all the uniqueness and creativity that has been gifted to us by the same Spirit.
If we should miss a beat, falter in our steps, or even fall over in a heap, it’s not the end of the perfect dance! God’s matchless grace and creativity are seen in the way he lifts us up again and weaves our movements into a new sequence — one that could never be described as second best.