Step by Step: Divine Guidance for Ordinary Christians
James C. Petty
Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1999, 279 pages
“What is the will of God for my life?” As followers of Jesus we all long for a clear answer to this question with which this book begins. While on one level the answer is clear – “This is the will of God, even your sanctification” (1 Thess. 4:3) – the application of such broad, general statements to the concrete, specific decisions of our lives can be challenging, even perplexing. How do we receive guidance about the big decisions of who to marry, what college to attend, what vocation to pursue, or what church to join? And what about the dozens of small everyday choices such as which shirt should I wear, where should I go for lunch, and how should I use my free time? How do we make connections between the will of God revealed in Scripture and decision making in daily life? Answering that question is what this book is about. The author divides his eighteen chapters into four parts: The Promise of Guidance, Understanding Guidance, Experiencing Guidance, and Seeking Guidance. The first three parts develop “the theology of guidance” (11), while part four presents a case study which illustrates how to apply seven steps for making wise decisions.
Part One: The Promise of Guidance
Chapter one (“Does God Guide Us?”) discusses the need for guidance from God, especially with the complexity of decision making in today’s world. This is an immensely practical question. Knowing God’s will is no mere theoretical exercise. “When we seek guidance from God, we are not like a student pondering the great questions of life safely seated in a library . . . We are more like a pilot seeking to land a commercial airliner filled with passengers. For a pilot, even the best of them, the pressing need is for current information on position, weather, visibility, and local air traffic. The thought that communication with the control tower might not be possible, predictable, and clear is more than unsettling – it is the stuff of horror films . . . Our relationships, our jobs, our health, and safety can be compromised by a single bad decision” (18). Changes in the home, the workplace, economics, and the moral climate of our culture all accentuate the need for guidance. While this topic has been addressed by many Christian authors and leaders (the author reviewed some thirty-five books on divine guidance in his research), most of them “address their issues in a nontheological way. That is, their books offer no serious study of Scripture, no in-depth interaction with larger theological principles” (26). The author’s obvious aim is to fill that theological gap while still addressing the practical issues.
The second chapter asks “How Does God Guide Us?” and compares “three main schools of thought about how God guides” (29). The view most popular in the twentieth century held “that God has a specific and detailed plan for each Christian’s life. 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). While God’s sovereign will certainly embraces the small details of our lives, proponents of this view “insert a hidden assumption – that if there is such a plan, God wants us to know it and will reveal it to those who ask [and] that God’s sovereign plan for each life is intended to be the source and pattern of guidance for the individual” (30-31). We can know this plan as “the circumstances of our daily life . . . concur with the inward promptings of the Spirit and the Word of God” (31, quoting F. B. Meyer). A second perspective, “the traditional charismatic view” is similar to the first, but contends that “God communicates directly and verbally with individuals, families, and churches to let them know his plan for them” (32). In contrast to these views is a third perspective called “the wisdom view” (33) which says “that although God does have an individual and specific plan for every Christian, this plan is strictly secret” and that “divine guidance has nothing to do with discerning this secret plan and using it to make decisions” (33). The wisdom view holds that God guides us by making us wise – giving us insight that equips us for making wise choices.
In chapter three (“Guidance and the Promises of God”), Petty asks, “Does the almighty God, the Maker of heaven and earth, actually promise to provide guidance to his small creatures?” (37). He reminds us that “the universe is so vast that there is an entire galaxy (many containing millions of stars) for every grain of sand on the earth” (38). How could the Creator of such an expansive universe care about the many insignificant details of our lives? Yet, the answer of Scripture (e.g. Psalm 8:3-4) is that God does care! And God does provide personal guidance. Petty is careful here to avoid two extremes. On one hand, we should not attempt to “divine” the will of God the way pagans do. Yet, Petty maintains, “God . . . does far more than reveal his general purposes and then leave us to link ourselves to them or pragmatically calculate the most edifying outcomes” (41). God does personally provide guidance for believers. The rest of the chapter refrains from discussion how God does this and instead focuses on how the Scriptures portray God as guiding and leading his people in various stages of redemptive history (the patriarchs, under the law, in the psalms and prophets, in the Gospels, and after Pentecost). Near the end of the chapter, in a brief comment on Romans 12:2, the author gives a hint as to where he is going: “Knowing God’s will is the fruit of a transformed mind . . . God does hold out to us the prospect of testing and approving the will of God. Such knowledge is not so much a fortune cookie as it is an education” (48-49).