Friday, June 27, 2008

Am I Putting God in a Box?

Am I Putting God in a Box?

Over the last several posts I have tried to answer several of the most common questions people ask about my view of God’s will and Christian decision. In this last post on this topic (for a while anyway) I want to tackle one final question that is almost always asked about my view on this subject: “Aren’t you putting God in a box?”

This question goes well beyond the boundaries of this series, as it is commonly asked of anyone who questions a “new movement of the Spirit,” such as the Toronto Blessing; which many Christians, myself included, had grave doubts about. In this way, it is often not so much used as a question but a device to shut down inquiries and doubts regarding a given “spiritual” event.

I find this question somewhat illegitimate, although many who ask it are undoubtedly sincere, for one reason: It can be used to justify anything. A number of years ago, Greg Koukl (who, you may figured out by my frequent citations of him, is one of the most influential Christian teachers in my life) responded to this question this way:

What if I told you that you should come with me to a church that has a brand new work of the Spirit? You say, what is it? I say, when the Spirit moves us, we stand in a circle and urinate into a big tub. We pee in a pot. We call it "whizzing in the Spirit." You say, Koukl, that's bizarre. I say, there are no verses against it. Find a verse against it. In fact, I've got a proof text: "From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water." There it is! Works for me! After all, you can't put God in a box, can you? God can do whatever He wants, can't He? So who are you to judge Him?

This is, of course, a humorous example, but it gets at the heart of the problem with the question (or statement), “Aren’t you putting God in a box?”

Whenever we teach about God and what it means to follow Him, we must be exceedingly careful to only teach what is Biblical. Is it possible that God could speak to you through your inner feelings and intuitions? Yes it is. Is it possible that God, if He so chose, could speak to you from a garden gnome under your bed? Yes it is, God certainly could do that if He wanted to. Am I, or you, or anyone else, allowed to teach that God does things in this way? No. The reason is simple: The Bible itself does not teach that God works in these ways. As teachers (all of us are in some capacity or another), the only things we can teach about God and His ways with any authority, or any surety, are the things taught to us first in the Bible.

Series Conclusion (for now, anyway):

Am I saying that I don’t believe that the Holy Spirit interacts with us on a sometimes unconscious level to influence or to assist in bringing to mind some wisdom that we didn’t know we possessed? Not at all, I do believe that God interacts with Christians in such a way. However, the danger begins when we start claiming that our “inward nudges” are instructions from God. Such claims give divine authority to our passing whims and thus shut down the possibility of wise counsel from other Christians who might advocate a different course of action. After all, if God really told you to do X, who are they to say not to?

Whether you have read all my posts on this subject, or only this one, the thing that I want everyone to understand is this: Our inner impressions, the thoughts and “nudges” that we feel from time may be from God, our own mind, or even from the Devil, but we don’t to agonize over the source of their origin as so many Christians do. What I understand to be the Biblical response, is to evaluate every potential course of action in light of God’s moral will and of wisdom. If we follow this Biblical prescription, we will never be far wrong. We will weed out the suggestions of the Devil and our own bad ideas, and (for the most part) follow through on our good ideas and the things of God.

It may be that there are things, many things perhaps, that we attempt that don’t meet with perfect success. That is the nature of life. The thing that counts for the most in the end is not whether our efforts meet with brilliant success at every turn but whether we consistently sought to honor and glorify God with our life through wise and Godly decisions and actions. It is in this way that we will find ourselves in the center of God’s will for our life.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Doesn't God Care What I Do?

Probably the most common question I have received when discussing my views on decision making and the will of God is, “Are you saying that God doesn’t care what I do?” If you are new to this series you will probably want to check out the post here entitled, Decision Making and the Will of God - Answers, to get up to speed on where I’m coming from on this issue.

If you have always believed that God has a divine blueprint of your life and that He is daily involved in providing you little hints and prompts in order to help bring you “into the center of His perfect will,” then I can understand why the idea that He actually provides Christians with a great deal of freedom in choosing a vocation, a spouse, a ministry, etc. could feel isolating, or even scary. While it may feel that way now, many who have left this “blueprint model,” of a personal will of God, for the wisdom model have described a enormous sense of relief, like a weight of worry had been lifted from their shoulders. Some have even gone as far as describing their time believing in the “blueprint model” as being in bondage; such is the confusion, doubt, and second-guessing that it breeds in the Christian’s life.

The question, “Doesn’t God care what I do,” shows how powerful preconceptions can be. The assumption is: if God isn’t there planning out every detail of my life, then He isn’t interacting with me at all, nor does it matter to Him what I do.

God is interacting with believers (and non-believers) on a daily basis, what Christians need to do is come to a proper, Biblical understanding of the way God does work. Please refer back to my post The Work of the Holy Spirit for more info

Other than that, if we just take a moment to and calm down a little, it should be crystal clear that God cares deeply what we do with our lives, even if He is not personally directing the specifics of our lives on a regular basis. The moral will of God is an extensive, and Christians would say comprehensive, code of morality for the followers of God. Does God care if we steal? If we lie? If we are unfaithful to our spouse? Of course He does, and everyone instinctively knows this.

The real question is: Does God care about the non-moral decisions that we make? It is easiest to provide some examples:

Example: Employment – Does God care about what Job you take?

To a degree, yes. But also no. As a Christian, would God care if you decided that drug-dealing was the job for you? Of course. Not only is it criminal in this country, but such a job destroys lives and minds. So drug-dealing is out. What if you want to be an economist? What would God say about that? Is there anything wrong with such employment legally? No. Morally? Not that I can think of. Therefore, I feel safe in saying that being an economist is an acceptable line of work for a Christian.

Now that we have determined that it is alright for Christians, in general, to become economists, what about for you specifically? Does God care if you take up such a line of work?

That depends. Is this something you have adequate ability in? Has God gifted you in the areas of organization, mathematics, theory, research, and the like necessary to pursue such a career? If not, you should probably consider a different line of work.

Is the action of pursuing a career in economics a wise one, considering your condition right now? Maybe you need several years of schooling before such a job could be earned, and school is not a wise choice at the moment. Are there greater responsibilities that you are currently meeting that would have to be dropped to pursue such a career? Would such a career adversely impact time spent with your wife or children?

If the choice is moral, legal, wise, and you have the ability, the opportunity, and the desire, I would say that you have God’s permission to pursue that course of action. Your earthly father doesn’t want you to come to him for direction every time you face a decision, but is most honored by you when you begin making choices on your own that reflect the values and character he worked to teach you. Likewise, I believe that God wants us to mature to the point where we begin to make choices and decisions on our own that reflect His values and His heart. This is the essence of freedom in Christ, and necessary to continuing our sanctification.

Here’s some Biblical support for the positions I have been taking in this post:

Ephesians 5:15
Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men, but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil.

Colossians 4:5
Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity.

Do these verses sound like exhortations to wait for a “word from the Lord” before we make a decision? Not at all, to my mind they sound very much like commands to act according to our wisdom.

Ok, so it looks I might have a case for stating that wisdom is adequate resource for making decisions, but where do I get off stating that personal preferences and desires should carry any weight in Godly decision making?

1 Corinthians 7:40
In my opinion she is happier if she remains as she is (single; this regarding the widow concerning whether she should remarry).

2 Corinthians 9:7
Let each one do just as he has purposed in his heart; not grudgingly or under compulsion; for God loves a cheerful giver.

Romans 14:5
One man regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind.

Romans 14:22-23
The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin.

These passages all sound very much like God, through Paul, is letting us know that it is proper to consider personal happiness when facing decisions. I must point, of course, that personal happiness is the least important factor in decision making; if you are faced with a choice between an immoral choice that would make you happy and a moral choice that you’re not tickled about, you really have no choice at all, your way is clear.

Let me finish up with this: I have heard many people refer to James 4:13-14 to refute what I have been saying about planning and wisdom. But in doing so they forget Bible Study Rule #1: Never read a Bible verse. If they read the very next verse down (vs. 15) they would realize that James actually endorses the opinion I have been advocating:

James 4:13-15
Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit." Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that."

James is not saying that we shouldn’t make plans and carry them out, but that we should be humble enough to acknowledge that it is God’s prerogative to override our plans and bring us into circumstances that we had not initially foreseen. By all means, plan for the future, and make Godly and wise decisions about where to take your life, but never forget that God is sovereign over all things and He sometimes forces us to change our plans.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Work of the Holy Spirit

This next post has taken me a long time to write, partly because I have been very busy, but also because I have thought long and hard about what I would like to say and how I want to say it. The issue of the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer is a difficult subject, the “Third Person of Trinity” often appears as a mysterious figure in the background or is only seen implicitly in many passages. In my experience, many Christians admit to a very limited understanding of role of the Holy Spirit. In that light, let me share some of the conclusions I have come to about the Holy Spirit, and as always, if you have anything to add, or any disagreements, I want to hear both.

The Bible communicates that the Holy works within several arenas in both the believer’s and the non-believer’s life. I have roughly broken the Holy Spirit’s work into five areas:

The Holy Spirit Draws the non-believer to God/Is the Agent of Salvation

Whenever the Bible talks about the work of God in pursuing individuals to bring into His kingdom, the Holy Spirit is mentioned as the active party involved in that work.

Titus 3:4-7
But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

1 Corinthians 12:1-3
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware. You know that when you were pagans, you were led astray to the mute idols, however you were led. Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, "Jesus is accursed"; and no one can say, "Jesus is Lord," except by the Holy Spirit.

Before a person even makes a decision to follow Christ, the Holy Spirit begins the work of drawing him God. There are many influences working on an individual in the time before he makes a decision, the witness of friends and family, the surmounting of intellectual “road blocks,” a burgeoning awareness of spiritual emptiness, etc. But throughout the process the Holy Spirit is actively preparing the heart and mind to be open to the good news of Christ.

In John 10:1-29 Jesus relates the famous parable of the Good Shepherd. Perhaps unfortunately, the most well known verse of this passage is, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (vs 27). In isolation, many Christians have mistaken this to be a promise that Jesus will guide them in their decision making processes (i.e. I hear His voice telling me to move to Kentucky). However, in the context of the entire chapter it becomes clear that the voice is the call to salvation (made through the Holy Spirit) that the true seekers of God will recognize and respond to; not a promise of individual guidance.

Romans 8:9-11 and Titus 3:4-7 make it explicitly clear that life/resurrection from the dead is granted on the basis of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. It is through the washing and regeneration of the Holy Spirit that believers are justified and progressively sanctified.

The Holy Spirit Acts as the “Bridge” between God and Man

The Holy Spirit is a “bridge” between believers and God. When the New Testament talks about our access to God, or about God being “with us,” it is often qualified with the words “in the Spirit.” The Holy Spirit is the member of the Trinity who is “with us,” and in whom we find our place with God the Father.

Ephesians 2:17-22
AND HE CAME AND PREACHED PEACE TO YOU WHO WERE FAR AWAY, AND PEACE TO THOSE WHO WERE NEAR; for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God's household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.

1 Corinthians 12:12-14
For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many.

1 John 4:11-13
Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because
He has given us of His Spirit.

The Holy Spirit Comforts/Encourages the Followers of God

One of the primary roles of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believing followers of Jesus is to uplift, encourage, and sustain them, despite their circumstances. Besides the passages below, one only needs to read the accounts of the early believers and Apostles in the book of Acts, or the grisly accounts of persecution in Foxe's Book of Martyrs, to see the utterly unnatural peace with which believers faced torture and death for their allegiance to Christ.

Romans 8:16-17
The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.

Romans 14:15-18
For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil; for the kingdom of
God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men.

Romans 15:13
Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit "Amplifies" the Conscience

As the follower of Jesus grows in maturity and his relationship with The Savior, the Holy Spirit convicts of sin and is tirelessly working to mold him more and more to the image of Christ. This is what the Bible refers to as "Sanctification."

John 16:7-11
“But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you. And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment; concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me; and concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father and you no longer see Me; and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged.”

Romans 8:10-14
If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you. So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.

A brief comment on Romans 8:14: When read in isolation (and when a specific meaning is poured into the word “led”) it can appear to be saying that Christians will be “led by Spirit,” as in “led to the job God wants me to have,” “led to marry this person,” or “led to go into this ministry.” However, I hope that it’s clear from the context of the passage that “being led by the spirit” means helping the believer to “[put] to death the deeds of the body;” i.e., the Spirit convicts the believer of sin and “leads” him to live in a righteous manner.

The Holy Spirit Provides Insight/Inspiration

These are interesting passages which not only exemplify the work of the Spirit in inspiring the prophets and apostles, but seem to provide for some manner of similar inspiration in the lives of all believers. I’m sure many of you know of people who came to Jesus later in life and have described the Bible as being unintelligible before their acceptance of salvation, but clear after such acceptance (at least the essentials were). While I’m not entirely sure how I feel about such statements as a whole, I don’t doubt that the Spirit did play a role in helping these new believers to a place of some increased understanding.

2 Peter 1:20-21
But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

Acts 1:15-17
At this time Peter stood up in the midst of the brethren (a gathering of about one hundred and twenty persons was there together), and said, "Brethren, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit foretold by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was counted among us and received his share in this ministry."

John 16:12-15
“I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine; therefore I said that He takes of Mine and will disclose it to you.”


As I wrote at the beginning, my main purpose for this post was to touch briefly on a large part of God's work in the lives of believers that is often a mystery to us. In case you didn’t notice there were not any passages that identified a role of the Holy Spirit in guiding believers to the specific decisions that God wants them to make . The Holy Spirit accomplishes many works in the lives of believers, but offering specific guidance in day-to-day decisions doesn’t appear to be one of them.

P.S. As always, if you disagree, or have something to add, please post it. I want to know when I’m wrong and if I have missed wonderful point that could have been made.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Bible Study: Rule #1

Before I put up my next post addressing four of the most common questions I receive when talking about the “Wisdom Method” of understanding God’s will (next post will be on the Work of the Holy Spirit), I want to take a brief moment to talk about my thoughts on the proper reading of scripture itself. Whole books have been written on this subject, but I want to focus on one guideline that, more than any other, prevents the misuse and abuse of scripture.

This guideline has been labeled “Never Read a Bible Verse,” by Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason. Upon hearing this, one may think, “That’s easy, I do that already. Can’t remember the last time I even cracked my Bible.” Obviously, this isn’t the point the title is meant to drive home. What it means is: never read a Bible verse, read at least a passage, better yet several paragraphs, in order to get the flavor of what the author wants to communicate.

We Christians would never read any other book the way we often read the Bible, and the way many pastors and teachers teach from the Bible: single verses snatched, almost at random from various places throughout the book. If you think about it for just a moment, the problems with this approach are clear. Reading just one verse, without taking the time to read the context can lead to incorrect conclusions about the passage. For example: What if the author is being sarcastic (as Paul and even Jesus were known to be from time to time)? Reading a single, sarcastic verse divorced from the greater context would prevent virtually anyone from catching the sarcasm and cause him to take what was being said in precisely the wrong way. Even the meanings of common words can be easily misunderstood and a wrong understanding of them arrived at (thus changing the meaning of the verse) without the larger picture of the author’s subject and line of thought clear in the minds of the reader (I will address a specific example of this precise error in my next post on the Holy Spirit).

This single-verse-grabbed-here-and-there approach many often take when reading the Bible causes us to think of the Bible more as a collection of single sentence sayings rather than well thought out, coherent ideas developed over many pages, as most books in the Bible actually are (I don’t even exclude Proverbs, as I can think of several passages that I have seen regularly misused because the verse was removed from it’s context).

I write all this as an explanation of the way I tend to quote verses, particularly when I write. As you will see in my next post, which will be unusually heavy on scripture quotation (sorry), I am often primarily interested in one verse, but will post several more surrounding verses as well in order to confirm that I am not misusing the verse and to provide the context for understanding the idea I believe is communicated in the verse.

There is a method to my madness. Unfortunately, that means you have to plough through a lot more text.