Book Review: Guidance and the Voice of God, by Phillip Jensen and Tony Payne
Most of us spend at least some part of every day wondering what is God’s will for our life, and the tendency is to treat that question like some sort of cosmic game—God sending us the clues and we trying to figure out what they all mean and piece them together into a recognizable pattern. Phillip Jensen and Tony Payne, in their book Guidance and the Voice of God, set out to show us that to approach life and decisions in that way is a most confusing way to live our lives, and in fact not at all worthy of a people who claim to serve a God who speaks clearly and forcefully into the world.
The first part of Jensen’s book is called “The Grand Design.” In it, Jensen sets out to prove that God does in fact guide his people, and that He is leading them all to one great end—righteousness and subjection to Christ at the Last Day. If you want to have a right understanding of God’s guidance, you must understand that God’s will about which job you hold down for the next fifty years pales in comparison with His determination to present you spotless and blameless before Christ on the last day. In fact, everything else is simply a handmaid to that one great aim. Whether and who you marry, what job you have, which church you attend—all these are simply tools in God’s hand to fashion you into a pure and spotless member of the body of Christ. Not only that, but we know that God will accomplish that purpose. As Jensen writes, “The God revealed to us in the Bible is the Sovereign Creator God of all the world. He made it all. He owns it all. He rules it all,” (16). Because of that, and because the Bible also reveals God as the shepherd of His people, we can have every confidence that God will guide us. By directing the events of our lives, prodding us with his shepherd’s staff, arranging circumstances, He will finally bring us to the place He wants us to be. Jensen calls this “behind-the-scenes guidance,” (63). What a wonderful thought that is! Our God is not one who is limited by our mistakes. When we look back over our lives, we can know that for whatever reason (Romans 8 says it is always ultimately for our good!), God planned that our lives should work out precisely as they did. He doesn’t make mistakes; He doesn’t use a “second best” or third best, or thousandth best. We know from the Bible what our destination is—union with Christ, and we know that God is working and moving to take us there. Not only that, but we can be fully confident that all the circumstances of our lives were divinely orchestrated to the end of finally bringing us to that destination.
Now, that doesn’t mean that all the details of that guidance will be readily visible to us beforehand. When we’re talking about God’s sovereign leading of us, we don’t often know in advance what God wants us to do. He simply brings it about by any number of means. Many times God’s hand in our lives is visible to us only after the fact, as we look back on our lives from a distance. However, Jensen is right, I think, to say that
God does not only guide us sovereignly behind the scenes. He also calls for our conscious cooperation. He gives us certain instructions and directions, and calls on us to follow. With ‘conscious cooperation’ guidance, we do know what God wants us to do in advance. God says to us ‘Go this way,’ and it is our responsibility to follow. (63-64)
Even if a person believes absolutely in God’s sovereign guidance of our lives, this is the point where we most often find ourselves confused. This is the point where we begin looking for signs and wonders and writing in the sky and talking donkeys to tell us what God’s will is. Jensen lists five propositions about how God guides us (64):
- God, in his sovereignty, uses everything to guide us ‘behind the scenes.’
- In many and varied ways, God can speak to his people, and guide them with their conscious cooperation.
- In these last days, God has spoken to us by his Son.
- God speaks today by his Son through his Spirit in the Scriptures.
- Apart from his Spirit working through Scripture, God does not promise to use any other means to guide us, nor should we expect him to.
These are probably the most useful propositions that I have seen about God’s guidance. They are the basis of the rest of the book, and Jensen explains them well. The argument is that God has promised to speak to his people through the Scriptures, that the Scriptures are still a living and vital word from God even today. He is not at all arguing that God cannot speak to His people in other ways; because He is sovereign, He can speak to His people in any way he chooses. But Jensen makes an important statement here: “To set out how God can guide us (or how he has guided people in the past) does not tell us how God does guide today or how he will guide,”(67). The fact that God spoke to Moses through a burning bush does not mean that we should expect or look for the same thing. According to Hebrews 1, God has in these last days spoken to us through His Son. Through Christ, God has revealed himself and his great plan of salvation. He has also inspired the Scriptures, and it is to those Scriptures that we should look for guidance.
If that is true, though, then “what areas of our lives do the Scriptures cover? Will they tell me whom to marry or which car to buy? What questions will the Scriptures answer, and what should I do if they don’t give me an answer?” (81). The second half of the book deals with those questions. In most cases, Jensen argues, much of the problem of “guidance” is that we far too often ask the wrong questions. “We are very concerned about getting answers to our questions—today’s questions—and we want today’s answers. But very often, God’s answer is: ‘You are asking the wrong question. You are coming at it from the wrong angle altogether. You need to see things from my perspective if you want to live my way,’” (32). I have often in my life been hamstrung by a particular decision that I had to make. Neither option was ungodly, neither was manifestly unwise, and yet I was immobilized and somewhat frustrated with God that He had not written the answer in the stars for me. After all, if I made the wrong decision, the whole universe would be kicked out of order. I’m sure that’s not unique to me. The questions of who we should marry, which church we should attend, or where we should live and work are ones that occupy our minds almost every day. Those are the questions we are interested in, so doesn’t that mean they are also the right questions? Jensen and Payne say that in fact they aren’t.
The point is this: if we ask the wrong question, we either get the wrong answer or no answer at all. And if we get no answer, we are tempted to turn elsewhere to find an answer. Many of our problems with guidance stem from precisely this: we ask the wrong questions, and then wonder why we cannot find answers. (85)
Then, of course, we turn away from the Bible thinking that it isn’t helping us much, and look to other sources of guidance—signs, “fleeces,” “a sense of peace,” inner promptings, etc. If we were asking the right questions, though, we would find that the Bible has all we need to know.
We are terribly concerned about choosing between Druscilla and Mary-Lou. We think the success of our whole married life will depend on the right choice, and we agonize over it. However, God’s priority is for us to be godly, whether we are single or married, and whether we marry Druscilla or Mary-Lou. (85-86)
Looking to the Bible, we would find that God wants us to marry someone who is a Christian, who is not already married, and who is of the opposite sex. And he wants us to love that person as Christ loved the church. Within those parameters, we may choose to marry anyone we please. Of course, God has a sovereign plan for who you are to marry, if at all. But that does not mean that He will reveal that plan to you in advance. He may simply give you the guidelines in His word, call on you to conform to them and make a decision, and then have you look back in a few years to realize that all the while He was guiding you “behind the scenes” to the right person. If your life and decision is conformed to the guidelines laid out in the Scriptures, you cannot make a sinful or wrong decision. Anything within those guidelines is good and right.
One of the best parts of this book is Jensen’s description of the three basic categories of decisions that we make in everyday life. First, there are matters of righteousness, which are decisions clearly addressed by the word of God (i.e., do not commit adultery). When we come against one of these decisions, we should simply obey. Second, there are matters of good judgement, which is where wisdom is so absolutely necessary. There are many times when more than one option seems right. Good judgment and wisdom help us to know that some decisions simply work out better in this world. In the third category are matters of triviality. When we finally stand before the throne of God and see our lives from his perspective, I wonder if we will be shocked to find out how many of the decisions we agonize over in this life actually fall into this category.
The whole discussion of these categories falls into a great section on wisdom, which Jensen defines as “the art of living successfully in God’s world,” (88). Because so many of our decisions in life fall into the “good judgment” category, any Christian should eagerly desire to have wisdom, to be able to look at a situation and be so instructed by the Word of God that the best course of action seems clear. One of the best ways to so train your mind and heart is to read the book of Proverbs. Each of those verses that you hide in your heart is one more principle you can apply to any given situation in order to come to a sound and wise decision. But what if we make a decision that is unwise? What happens then?
Will I have to suffer the consequences? Most likely, yes. God wants us to learn wisdom, and very few people learn wisdom if their folly is continually rewarded. However, God does protect his people—we do not need to be anxious about it. He won’t allow us to be lost because of our own folly or to be tempted beyond our strength. He will pick up the pieces and make sure that we survive and grow through the experience. If it is in our best interests to suffer the consequences of our folly, then God will bring them to us, but if it isn’t, then God will spare us. We can trust his generosity and power to do so. (95-96)
The three chapters at the end of the book apply these truths to the areas of marriage, work, and church. So much confusion and frustration about finding the will of God for our lives could be avoided if we would simply recognize that God sovereignly guides his children, and that he has given us all we need to know in the Bible. What is to be gained from being tyrannized by the thought that buying the “wrong” car or choosing the “wrong” major or even marrying the “wrong” spouse will ruin our lives forever? The reality is much more complex, and at the same time much more liberating. The Lord has given us guidelines within which we are to live. Inside those guidelines, it is not for us to worry about figuring out beforehand which of those options is God’s sovereign will for us. If both options are within the guidelines set by the Word of God, then neither of them is the “wrong” option. You can move ahead knowing that either choice would be good and right. So far as he has revealed it to you, God’s will for you in any situation is to be godly, and either choice fits that bill. Make a decision and move on it. You can then look back and know that God sovereignly willed you to buy the red car over the blue, or even to marry Druscilla over Mary-Lou. To demand any further specificity from God in advance is to pry into an area that He has not invited you to see. God’s secret, decretive will for your life is His own. Don’t pry your way into what is not yours to see. Live your life according to the divine will that has been revealed to you, and trust God to be working “behind the scenes” for your ultimate good.