I once visited the Sunday School class of a Bible believing church. The study that morning was on Joshua 9, the story of the Hivities who came from Gibeon. Because they were afraid of the Israelites, they sent delegates requesting Israel to make a treaty with them. These delegates disguised themselves as travelers from a distant land outside the area Israel had been commanded to occupy. They wore old sandals and threadbare garments, carried old sacks and wineskins, and brought food that was dry and crumbly. They spoke only of victories that had taken place far in the past, not recent ones.
The teacher did a good job of reiterating the facts of the incident. Then he went on to apply it to us. Rightly, he showed that God had forbidden His people to make treaties with the people of the land of Palestine (Deut. 7:1-5; 20:16-18). Rightly, he pointed out that the people were deceived by failing to inquire of the Lord (Josh. 9:14), and rightly, he warned us of the deceptions of Satan in leading God’s people to violate God’s plain commandments. Then he asked, “How can a Christian know he is making a decision in accord with the will of God?” It was the question of guidance. The question was appropriate, and Joshua 9 has something important to say on this vital subject. His answer was something like this: “I asked my Christian friends and consulted some Christian books, and what I have come up with is that there are six ways in which you can know God’s will in reaching a decision.” Then he wrote the following six guidelines on the chalkboard:
- Advice of Others
It is time Christians stopped following such advice!
Items 1 and 2, rightly understood, must stand. In his explanation of item 2, however, he did not properly tell us the place of prayer in the process of receiving guidance from God. His idea (a very common one, unfortunately) was that when you pray, you must be still and listen for some sort of answer from God. If that is true, why were the Israelites to consult the Urim and Thummim (Numbers 27:21)? Moreover, if God whispers answers in stillness, why bother with the other five items? Such replies would be better even than Scripture since they would be in English (we wouldn’t have the translation problem from Greek or Hebrew), and they would be directly applied to our individual situations. No, any such idea, even ideas of deep impressions or feelings received in prayerful waiting, must be eliminated, since they would render the Bible’s teaching either unnecessary or negligible. You would also face the problem of distinguishing impressions from God from those that arise out of your own prejudice.
Prayer to discover the Lord’s will should be that you may understand and use the Bible in a proper way. It should be prayer for ability and strength to do whatever you discover God wants of you as you study the Scriptures. We are not given the Urim and Thummim for our day, but we have been given an inerrant and infallible Book, which contains all we need by way of precept and example for living a life pleasing to God. All that is necessary to love God and our neighbor is found, in one form or another, in the Bible. Today we consult God by turning to His written Word.
What of the other four items the teacher listed? Is seeking the advice of others or looking at circumstances helpful when making a decision? Look at what happened to the people of God when they did just that. Joshua listened to advisers who investigated the claims of the Gibeonites, and sinned (Josh. 9:14). Looking at the circumstances—old wineskins, crumbly bread, etc.—was precisely what deceived them. Surely, their reasoning in the situation failed them. And their peace, or assurance that they were doing the right thing, was utterly false. Indeed, if the teacher had stayed with the Biblical passage itself rather than consulting his friends, he would have seen that the text is totally opposed to the notion that divine guidance is found by these procedures.
Consider the idea of “open doors” (another way to speak of circumstances). Suppose I apply for a visa to India and am turned down. That is a “closed door.” But what does that tell me? I can interpret it any number of ways. I can say, “OK, that means God does not want me to go to India; I’ll try somewhere else.” Or, I can say, “God is testing me to see if I mean business; I’ll go back to India if I have to swim!” Just what guidance does an open or closed door give? Absolutely none. The position of the “door” must be interpreted, and in the circumstances itself there is nothing to tell you just how to interpret it. So circumstances do not guide; they require careful understanding and are factors in decision making because the Bible applies to circumstances, but they are not sources of guidance. Some open doors lead to elevator shafts!
In the matter of advice from others there can be help, just as commentaries and other biblical expositions can assist in making a Scriptural decision; but that advice must be evaluated. Other’s opinions are no more valuable than, and can be just as misleading as, those of Joshua’s advisers who were deceived by the Hivites. It is not their opinions on what you should do that you want; what they can give you that is of value is help in discovering and in using Biblical principles that apply to your situation. Also, others may be of help in assisting you to understand the parameters of the situation about which you must make a decision. But when you discuss this matter with them and think about it yourself, be sure the problem and the situation are described and understood in Biblical terms.
Reason must be used in moving from the Scriptures to the problem as you apply Biblical teaching to your decision. But the effects of sin on the human mind have been considerable, and you must pray that God will enable you to interpret, to apply, and to implement His Biblical principles that converge on the issue at hand. Help from the consensus of commentators at this point, when it can be found, ought to be of some value too.
As for peace, let me clarify a passage that has been so frequently misunderstood and misused. That passage, to which the Sunday School teacher referred, is Colossians 3:15: “Let Christ’s peace have the final say in your hearts, to which you were called as parts of one body.” Because peace is to have final say or act as an umpire in our hearts, many have concluded that Paul is teaching that once we have peace about a decision we can know we have made the right one. Nothing could be more wrong. The passage has nothing to do with guidance or decision making. It has to do with love and getting along with other Christians as members of the body of Christ (cf. vs. 12-14 for context). When all is said and done, Paul writes, in the final analysis you must let the principle of peace among the members of the body control your words and actions. There is nothing whatsoever in the passage about individual peace. Your heart (the place where you think about such matters, and the source of your words and actions) is to be influenced by considerations of what will bring about and maintain peace among the members of the body. That is Paul’s concern.
Guidance comes from the Bible, prayerfully used. Circumstances affecting a decision must be evaluated with the Biblical parameters, and the conclusions of such evaluations must be stated in Biblical terms. The advice of others is to be sought, not for their opinions but for their assistance in using the Bible to help you make a decision that honors God. Your reason is not to be trusted and must always be subjected to the Bible at every point. Peace has no relevance whatsoever to the matter. Questions about other aspects of guidance, especially concerning the application of general principles to particular cases, cannot be discussed here. The Bible is the source of revelation from God and the only sure guide to pleasing God. Nowhere else can we find His inerrant Word: why then should we turn to other sources?