Book Review: Step by Step by James C. Petty (Part Four)

Part Four: Seeking Guidance

The fourth part of the book expounds “Seven Elements of Biblical Decision Making” (189) within the context of a “case study illustrating the process of wise decision making in a specific, real-life situation, the story of Don and Glenda” (187). “This case study is based on a true story but also includes elements from other actual cases to provide a broader coverage of issues that arise in real-life decision making” (187). The first step of the process is “Consecration” (chapter twelve). Simply put, “to be led of God, we must belong to God” (193). This chapter begins with reflection on Romans 12:1-2. “The sacrifice of ourselves means that we no longer pattern our lives after the motives and goals of this age, but exchange our old ambitions and ways of living for new ones God has for us” (193). This means that the kingdom of God must be our first priority in decision making (Matthew 6:33), not self-actualization. As we subject our beliefs and motives to the Lord, we are transformed and enabled to discern “the good, acceptable, and perfect will of God.”

The second step is the gathering of “Information” (chapter thirteen). Petty provides examples of “information gathering” from Scripture and exhorts us to “see with our own eyes the situation in which we must trust God and make decisions” (201). This involves not only knowing ourselves (Romans 12:3), but also “identifying the key questions” (202) that need to be answered about any given situation. This is followed by step three: “Supplication” (chapter fourteen). “In Scripture, the Holy Spirit makes it abundantly clear that we are invited to call upon God for guidance” (213). Prayer is crucial to the wisdom approach to decision making “because wisdom and insight do not come on command” (216). While answers to prayer are the primary benefit to praying, we can also gain perspective, develop perseverance, and grow in creativity when we pray. “God’s involvement tends to blow away parochial barriers [our] fears may erect” (216).

“Consultation” (chapter fifteen) or the seeking of counsel is the next step. Petty cites numerous passages from Proverbs on the importance of seeking counsel and also shows how this pattern continues in the New Testament in the lives of the apostles and the early believers. Though resistance to seeking counsel is epidemic among men in our culture, we need the advice of others. “We need advice if we are confident of a decision because most foolish decisions are ‘clear’ to the fool.” And, “we need advice on confusing decisions because we are not yet clear” (223). Consultation should be joined with “Meditation” (chapter sixteen), to which God promises success (Josh. 1:8-9). We should not confuse meditation with worrying or fantasizing about situations, nor should we “get stuck in the meditation and consideration stage of a decision, going around and around with no progress toward a resolution” (233). Yet, careful consideration is an essential step in making wise decisions, except in emergencies, where we have no time for meditation. In those cases, “our preparation and meditation must be done in advance or not at all” (231).

The sixth step is “Decision” (chapter seventeen). We may be forced by time limits to make a decision when we still do not feel ready. And “decisions expose us to the risk of being wrong, yet whenever we allow that to control our obedience, we serve self rather than God” (241). That doesn’t mean we should be rash – “there is no merit in making difficult decisions just to have them made” (242). And “when a decision is not clear and God has supplied additional time in which to make it, we must learn to wait patiently while we seek the crucial wisdom or information” we still need (242). Chapter eighteen (titled “Expectation”) asks, “What expectations can we have as Christians of the choices we make?” (251). First, we can be confident that “God’s providence works everything (including our decisions) for good” (251). And we can also be confident that our lives will bear God-glorifying fruit, if we are prayerfully aligning ourselves with God’s kingdom agenda. Don and Glenda’s story progresses throughout the second half of these seven chapters with realistic and interesting detail which model well how to apply the principles to our own lives. The book ends with a helpful appendix on assessing our priorities.

This is the fifth book I’ve read in the “Resources for Changing Lives” series written by the faculty of the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation. As with each of the other books, Step by Step is both doctrinally rich and practically helpful – the kind of down-to-earth pastoral theology that the church so desperately needs today. It is easily the best book on the topic of guidance that I have read so far, and it is hard to imagine a more even-handed treatment of the subject. I could not be more enthusiastic in my recommendation of this excellent book!


mwh said...

I'm confused about what Petty's position is. The confusion is probably on my part, but maybe you can help clarify what he is arguing for. Again, I'm sure part of the confusion is related to the fact that I haven't read the book, and therefore have only excerpts from his argumentation.

My first confusion is over the issue of the "will of God." Obviously many other people are confuse on this issue too, or else he wouldn't be writing the book. :-) Let's take the issue of who a person is supposed to marry as an example.

Position (a) God has one and only one specific person whom I am supposed to marry. This one specific person is God's will for me concerning marriage, and to marry someone else would be a mistake. In other words, Holly was who you were supposed to marry, and to marry someone else would have been a mistake. It is the job of the one desiring marriage to discern whether or not this potential candidate is "THE one" the Lord would have for me. I think this position closely aligns with what Petty calls the "Individual or Perfect Will of God."

Position (b) God in His sovereignty has a specific will as to who I should marry, but because of His sovereignty it would be impossible for me to marry anyone else. In other words, Holly was who you were supposed to marry, and there was no way (sin or otherwise) that you could have married anyone else. I may be misunderstanding something here, but this position seems hinted at by Petty's quote: "'(1) God does have one specific plan for your life and (2) the events and choices of your life irresistibily and sovereignly work that plan in every detail' (59) which means you can't miss it! 'For those who are in Christ, there is only one plan, Plan A' (59)."

Position (c) God does not have one specific person in mind for me to marry. Rather, God has some general issues in mind concerning who I should marry (i.e., moral issues, compatibility, etc....), but intends for me to exercise Godly wisdom in the making of the actual decision, a number of people who might be correct choices. In other words, Holly was a wise choice to marry, and in keeping with God's guidance concerning who you should marry. But, there could have been other people, with similar compatability, morality, gifts, etc... who you could have just as easily married and still been in line with the will of God.

I know my positions are probably not properly nuanced as I'm sure Petty provided in his book, but I'm confused about what position (or another) Petty takes.

Second, I'm confused on this issue of guidance. Petty makes quite a deal about rejecting subjectivity. I'm agreed; let's reject subjectivity out of hand. But unfortunately that is often very hard to do. (I would postulate it's impossible.) The subjectivity issue relates back to the former question, because it appears as if Petty rejects Position (a) because of the subjectivity he feels like it introduces. Quote: "The author contends that this concept is unbiblical and points our numerous problems with it, not least of which is that it drives believers away from Scripture in search of the elusive perfect center. Some resort to...'reliance on hunches, impressions, circumstances, intuitive senses, open doors, and other shaky methods for discerning the will of God' (102)." "'Guidance involves discerning that plan' (29). This plan is discerned by 'looking carefully into a combination of circumstances, spiritual promptings, inner voices, personal peace of mind, and the counsel of others' (30)." But I fail to see how a belief that God has one specific, perfect will for me concerning some decision, necessitates subjectivism. In fact, one might just as easily argue that such a position DRIVES us to Scripture in order to find that center.

Moreover, I don't see how Position (b) or Position (c) (or any other imaginable position) eliminates that subjectivity. In fact, it seems like Petty reintroduces subjectivity when he later gives advice about making decisions: "'A third way God guides us through discernment is through moral and spiritual insight' (158)." Spiritual intuition? "'Fifth, we experience guidance through being 'led by the Spirit'' (162)." That doesn't introduce subjectivity? "'A sixth but related guidance experience centers on what theologians call 'the internal witness of the Spirit' (163)." Spirit. Indigestion. Here we go again. "(4) learn from those who are wise..." Counsel of others as mention before in arguing against position one? What about the argument that Petty uses concerning God's providence in circumstances being use to reveal God's will? Open doors?? I could go on, but needless to say it seems like there is still plenty of subjectivity involved in the steps that Petty recommends. It doesn't make the steps wrong--in fact I would say they are probably good steps. But the point is, subjectivity is never relinquished no matter what path we take in decision making.

Petty has the unfortunate disadvantage of having to work with a very abstract topic. I think much of the confusion comes over semantics; I suspect that's why he's left tracing back over himself. And unfortunately, although I'm confused by Petty's position, I'm afraid I don't have much helpful clarification to offer on the issue.

Thoughts? Comments? Response? Clarification?

Brian G. Hedges said...

Short answer: read the book.

Semi-short answer: Petty would agree with both position (b) and (c) in your illustration, taking God's will in two different senses. In God's sovereign will, there is a perfect unalterable plan. But that is not revealed. His revealed will gives (in your words) "general issues in mind concerning who I should marry (i.e., moral issues, compatibility, etc....), but intends for me to exercise Godly wisdom in the making of the actual decision."

Re: subjectivity - yeah, it is not inescapable and maybe I've misrepresented Petty (and myself) by pretending it is. What is at issue is the whole idea of relying on subjective things, esp. feelings, hunches, dreams, etc. in order to discern the "individual will of God", as if we can expect more revelation from God than Scripture. Sure, counsel is subjective, personal desires are subjective, "wisdom" is subjective to a degree - but these I would argue (as well as Petty) are legitimate factors to consider in making decisions within the general revealed will of God AND are used by God (along with everything else) to work out his sovereign will.

RE: the list of ways we gain guidance that you quote in your third from the last paragraph (including being "led by the Spirit" etc), you have to read Petty. He takes these passages in context, not as you might assume. For instance, being led by the Spirit in Romans 8 always involves being led in the mortification of sin. In other words, Petty is still fleshing out the revealed will of God right here.