Reviewed by Ray Van Neste
Bruce Waltke has done the church a great service in the writing of this accessible, pastoral and theologically sound book. It is heartening in this book, like some other recent books, to see a prominent scholar address a key pastoral need in the church bringing to bear his scholarly insights in a manner accessible to all.
The book is divided into two parts. The first section in entitled “God’s Will: A Pagan Notion” wherein Waltke argues the basic point that seeking to “find God’s will” is not a biblical notion but one that is very common in pagan religions, particularly in the texts which are preserved from ancient Near Eastern religions—texts with which he is quite familiar from his research in Old Testament studies. This may sound like an overstatement, but Waltke is correct. With poignant anecdotes Waltke illustrates the typical way church members go about seeking to discern God’s will and shows how clearly these practices line up with pagan divination which is clearly forbidden in Scripture (cf. Deuteronomy 18:10). When a group of people in our church studied through this book, practically everyone winced (as I did) at the discussion of these pagan practices realizing that each one had done some of these things in the past. As Waltke states:
God is not a magic genie. The use of promise boxes, or flipping open your Bible and pointing your finger, or relying on the first thought to enter your mind after a prayer are unwarranted forms of Christian divination (12) … I think “laying out the fleece” is generally a lazy man’s way to discern the will of God. It requires no work, little discipline, and almost no character development (51).
Waltke’s argument is that we are seeking shortcuts to divine the mind of God, when God calls us to develop a relationship with Him and to grow in wisdom. However, this takes time, effort and struggle, and we want shortcuts. Waltke states, “The reliance on signs from God is the mark of an immature person” (12). Indeed, as Waltke points out well, special revelation for guidance was not even the norm for apostolic guidance in the New Testament. We typically find the apostles and others busy about the task of spreading the gospel and when special revelation for guidance comes it was not being sought. We, too, are to be about the task. If God intervenes with something dramatic to shift our direction, fine. If He does not, fine.
This initial section is a real strength. Waltke does not simply say, “People are pursuing God’s will in wrong ways,” but shows how far we have strayed by comparing typical practices with pagan religions contemporary with Old Testament Israel.
Part Two of the book is entitled “God’s Program of Guidance” wherein Waltke argues that, “The Lord provides a six-point program of supervised care in directing His elect” (59). Waltke stresses that the order of the steps is crucial (see for example page 59), so the six steps in order are:
- Read Your Bible
- Develop a Heart for God
- Seek Wise Counsel
- Look For God’s Providence
- Does This Make Sense?
- Divine Intervention
A chapter is devoted to each of these steps. The chapters are engagingly written and full of well-used Scripture quotations. Personal anecdotes are also well used to illustrate the concepts.
The formulation of these six steps is useful. Waltke is clear about the reading of Scripture being foundational to all else. Before we can hope to understand God’s will for us in specific situations we must be learning and living God’s will as directly stated in Scripture. Once we are reading the Scriptures, we are, over time, to develop a heart for God, and, as God shapes our hearts after His, we can follow the promptings of our hearts (cf. Psalm 37:4). This can easily be abused so Waltke provides some critical questions in evaluating the desires of one’s heart. Subsequently, we ought to seek wise counsel (mature believers, church leaders, etc.). After this we are to watch for God’s providence in our daily circumstances to see if God is leading a certain way. Then we employ sound judgement asking if this path makes good sense, and lastly we are to remain open to God’s sovereign interventions. These do not often happen, but can happen; and we should be open to them.
One of the strengths of Waltke’s formulation, in my opinion, is that it is rooted in objective revelation, but also has a place for a subjective element, noting still that the subjective elements must always be under the control of Scripture. The key weakness, I think, is in the insistence on a certain order for the elements. Waltke is quite firm on the order as seen in the way they are introduced:
The Lord provides a six-point program of supervised care in directing His elect. The order of those six steps is very important. You cannot start in the middle or skip to the end. If you want to be clear on God’s guidance for your life, you must begin with the first step, then move to the second. There is a prioritized sequence for the way He guides His saints, and it begins on the basis of Holy Scripture (59, italics original).
Of course insistence on the priority of Scripture is crucial, but after that the order is not always so clear in my mind. Yet, Waltke clearly argues that wise counsel comes only “after guidance from our own desires” (104, italics original). The point he goes on to make is right—we cannot simply live based on others’ relationship with God. We must develop our own relationship with God. Certainly this is a true and important point. However, I do not think this means that the order of discernment always flows in this order. Even as I develop a heart for God there is still the potential for self-deception, and I must be very careful about pitting my desires against a significant array of contrary advice from wise counselors, particularly those charged with the oversight of my soul (cf. the comments on pages 119–120). Rather than listing the categories in a strict order, I would prefer to weigh them with the objective ones receiving more weight—Scripture trumping all.
This critique, however, is more directed at how the book can be taken than what the author intends. Waltke primarily stresses the importance of knowing the Scriptures (note the Afterword on the importance of theology!) and the development of a heart of wisdom by living under those Scriptures in relation to God. I think this is the best book on the will of God that I have seen. It is engagingly written and would make a good group study, as was done in my home church.