Book Review: Decision Making and the Will of God, by Garry Friesen
Garry Friesen’s Decision Making and the Will of God is the most exhaustive treatment of the subject of divine guidance that I have read. It runs for more than 400 pages and deals extensively with every conceivable angle of the matter at hand. The book opens with a masterful summary of what Friesen calls the “traditional view,” presented as a seminar by a typical pastor. The traditional view of God’s guidance is essentially that God has a specific ideal blueprint for every person’s life which that person may either discern and follow or deviate from and therefore miss God’s ideal plan for his life. If that happens, of course, God has another plan waiting in the wings, but it will not be his “first-choice” and therefore not as fruitful or as fulfilling. So how does one discern this ideal plan? God, of course, wants us to know that plan, but the normal way of finding it is through reading a combination of signs, both internal and external. Friesen lists those signs as the Bible, an inner witness, personal desires, circumstances, mature counsel, and common sense. When a decision needs to be made, the Christian is to look at all of those “road signs” and determine from them what is God’s unique, ideal will for that person in that particular situation.
Following this clear and fair summary of the “traditional view,” Friesen begins an exhaustive, 350 page critique. He examines every passage of Scripture that is used to support it, including those that may seem to endorse decision-making by “putting out fleeces,” “an inner peace,” or instances where people seem to have missed God’s ideal, individual will for their lives and forced Him to move on to Plan B. The exegesis on these passages is mostly very good, and the one or two places where I might have disagreed with him in certain areas are not at all important to the overarching matter. Friesen makes the case very well. His reasoning, also, is very good. Friesen points out and develops several different problems with the traditional view, including the fact that no one holds to that view in the mundane decisions of life. No one checks out all six of those “road signs” when deciding which shirt to put on in the morning. If he did, his day would probably be pretty frustrating.
In place of the traditional view, Friesen proposes what he calls “the way of wisdom.” His view is that the Scripture is fully sufficient to lead us in any decision that needs to be made during the day. He says:
The traditional view holds that the Bible (God’s moral will) gives most of the guidance needed to make a decision; but additionally, knowing God’s individual will is essential for complete leading to the correct choice. The alternative view put forth in this book is that the Bible is fully sufficient to provide all the guidance needed for a believer to know and do God’s will. (82)
What he means is that while the Bible contains some very clear moral commands for us, it may not tell us which college we are to attend, or much less which car to buy. However, even in those kinds of non-moral decisions, the Bible will give us principles of wisdom by which we can make those decisions. One of the most important things that Friesen says is that there are certain decisions in which neither alternative will violate the teaching of the Bible. In those cases the decision is ours, and we shouldn’t fret about whether we will someday be judged for failing to wear the Nikes instead of the Reeboks. Of course, God has already sovereignly determined which tennis shoes we will wear that day, but we shouldn’t waste half the day waiting for a swoosh to appear in the clouds. So long as there is no biblical principle being violated, just put on some shoes and get busy.
One obvious question that arises from all this is whether or not this is really guidance. If God leaves us morally free in so many areas to make decisions, then is he really guiding us? Isn’t this some kind of deistic God we have here? Friesen answers “no,” and his reasons are summarized in a very helpful chart on page 230. His reasons are summarized in these four statements:
- In moral conduct, God directly guides believers by revealed commands and principles according to His moral will (the Bible.)
- In nonmoral decisions, God mediately guides believers by acquired wisdom according to spiritual expediency.
- In all things God secretly guides believers by sovereign control over all events according to His sovereign will.
- In unique cases God has supernaturally guided believers by divine voice, angel, dream, or miracle according to special revelation.
I’m not sure I would limit the term “special revelation” to angels and dreams and miracles; the Bible in #1 is certainly special revelation. But enough pickiness. It’s a good chart, and I think Friesen is right in pointing out those four ways that God guides his people.
That does bring up just a couple of things that you might be careful of while reading the book. First of all, Friesen is at first a little confusing when it comes to God’s sovereign will. He finally writes a strong chapter on the sovereign will of God—“the sinner may shake his fist at the heavens, but God will determine how many times he shakes it,” (202)—but that doesn’t happen until Chapter Twelve, 200 pages into the book. Until then, I found myself confused in several places where Friesen seemed to deny that God had a specific sovereign will for every event in our lives. He seemed to say in places that there was just a general moral will, but that within that boundary, the future was unset. The problem is that Friesen needs a more careful capsule definition of the “individual will” of God that he is debunking. His definition of that “individual will” is “a detailed life-plan for each person,” (151). So he ends up writing sentences fairly often that say something like, “It is our contention that the idea of an individual will of God for every detail of a person’s life is not found in Scripture,” (82). You can see the confusion. If he is talking about a plan which is hidden, that we must find, and that can be missed if we don’t work hard enough, then he is absolutely right. But if he is talking about the sovereign will of God over every hair on our heads and every sparrow that falls from the sky, he’s wrong. A clearer definition of that “individual will” could clear that up. I would suggest something like, “an ideal, best-case blueprint that the believer may actually miss if he doesn’t correctly discern it.” That’s a mouthful, but it would be worth minimizing any confusion. As you read the book, keep this problem in mind, know that he will resolve it clearly in chapter 12, and you’ll navigate the argument with no problem at all.
You might want to simply skip the section titled “If a Horse and Chariot Were Good Enough for David . . .” on pages 169-170. The section is a somewhat confused critique of the regulative principle that is not really well thought through, and is not at all integral to Friesen’s overall argument. Besides, I think Friesen is wrong. His argument consists of a couple of quotes from Francis Schaeffer about how the idea that Christian worship should contain only elements that have specific warrant in the Bible would mean that we could not use hymnals, etc. That’s a bad argument, and only proves that neither Schaeffer (when he wrote those words) nor Friesen (when he read them) really understood the regulative principle at all. There is much more to the argument than that, which you can read about in places other than this review. The argument would still make perfect sense if Friesen took that section out. Read the book, but just make sure you’re not convinced of the stupidity of the regulative principle by that one-page section.
All in all, the book is very good, if somewhat long. In some ways, it might work better as a handy reference for answering pointed questions about certain Bible passages than as a working tool to hand to people struggling through issues like these. Better for that kind of work is Philip Jensen’s Guidance and the Voice of God. As a final note, the last two chapters of Friesen’s book, “Wisdom When Christians Differ” and “Weaker Brothers, Pharisees, and Servants” are fantastic—probably the clearest, most accessible practical treatment of the teaching of Romans 14 and I Corinthians 8 on the conscience that I have seen. The book is probably worth the purchase price just for those two chapters.