Book Review: Finding the Will of God, by Bruce Waltke
The title of Bruce Waltke’s book, Finding the Will of God, seems innocuous enough. It fits rather snugly, in fact, into the popular Christian jargon of the day. Just before you open the cover, though, the benignity ends. In understated but somewhat self-satisfied italics, the subtitle of the book grins out from the lower left-hand corner: a pagan notion? It’s an attention-grabbing title, since the phrase “finding the will of God” is about as common an expression in today’s Christian lingo as any other you might imagine. The thesis of the book, as you might have guessed, is that the idea of “seeking” or “finding” the will of God is in fact a notion that springs more from pagan misconceptions about a pantheon of gods than it does from the Word of the One, True God. Waltke argues that much of what many evangelicals use to try to find the will of God for their lives is really what the Bible calls “divination,” a process used by pagan idolaters to search into the secret counsels of their own capricious and mischievous deities. Waltke discusses a whole list of what might be called divination—casting lots, looking for signs, opening the Bible and pointing, astrology, communicating with spirits, leaving your mind blank and waiting for a thought to pop in, seeing a strange concurrence of events, etc. All of these, Waltke says, are common even among Christians, and are ultimately just “silliness.”
I think he’s right. I don’t know how wide-spread astrology is among evangelical Christians, or casting lots, but I know many people who are often hamstrung in decision-making because they are waiting on some kind of “direction” from the Lord, whether that comes through a billboard, or a movie, or a sense of peace, or whatever. No matter the form, Waltke says, this is divination. It is an attempt to get a look inside the mind of the Almighty in order to know what we should do, and it is part of the pagan past from which God saved us. Waltke writes that the error of divination comes from faulty thinking. Many Christians, he says, think along these lines: “God has a plan, and therefore he intends that I find it.” Waltke’s very sound reply to that, though: “That is a non-sequitur, a conclusion that cannot logically follow the premise. Simply because God has a plan does not mean that He necessarily has any intention of sharing it with you; as a matter of fact, the message of Job is in part that the lord in His sovereignty may allow terrible things to happen to you, and you may never know why,” (15). He’s right. There are many parts of God’s plan for us that He does not tell us about in advance. That doesn’t mean that there is no plan; it simply means that God may want us to use the information that is given to us to make a decision. All of the methods that Christians so often use to try to pry into that secret will are often unwarranted and sinful divination. How much difference is there in looking for God to speak to you through movies or the newspaper and looking for him to speak through the entrails of a slaughtered goat? Not much.
So what’s the alternative? Waltke proposes a six-point program of following God’s guidance. The six steps are: 1) read your Bible, memorize it, meditate on it, and obey it; 2) develop a heart for God so that your desires are in tune with His word; 3) seek wise counsel from other Christians; 4) look for God’s providence in circumstances around you; 5) ask yourself if what you’re doing makes logical sense; and 6) be prepared for, but do not expect, divine intervention. Most of what Waltke says in the chapters devoted to these six steps are very good, and would be helpful to someone trying to determine how to follow the guidance that God has given. Waltke’s chapter on the Bible is very good at showing how important it is for knowing and doing the will of God.
Just a couple of cautions that I would give about the book, however. Waltke says that these six steps are a program that God has given for following his guidance, and he is unnecessarily dogmatic that they must be followed in this exact order. He writes (59), “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.” I can see a loose logic of priority among the steps, but I don’t think it’s Scripturally warranted to make it an absolute rule that one’s own desires must come before the counsel of other Christians. Waltke doesn’t really show where in the Bible these six steps are laid down in this order by the Lord. After the prime importance of the Scriptures, the other five would be more accurately presented, I think, as five loosely prioritized principles of following God’s guidance.
A more important consideration about the book is that I found myself left with some confusion about what Waltke believes about direct, personal communication from God beyond the words of Scripture. In the chapter on Scripture, there is a section on meditation. Waltke writes there (80), “[As you meditate,] I encourage you to write your thoughts down, to keep you focused and to keep a record of your thoughts. Some people find themselves writing messages to God, or receiving a message from Him.” In the next paragraph, he says, “Meditation is actually a form of praying, the flip side of prayer. It is a chance to listen to the voice of the Lord as He speaks. I don’t hear an audible voice, but I find that the Lord is able to fill my mind with His thoughts. This isn’t a form of inspiration, but illumination.” I’m not sure what Waltke means there. If he is talking about simply a deeper and fuller understanding of a particular text of Scripture, then I am with him entirely. But the language he uses here comes close to the kind of direct, personal, specific “hearing” of God that Dallas Willard, for example, teaches. The same problem comes up again on page 120. In trying to prioritize the seeking of counsel from others, Waltke writes there, “Wise counsel should be sought when the Bible and your inner desires are not clear, but the counsel of others should never negate what you heard the Lord say to you through the Scriptures.” I can understand that, if Waltke means that you should never follow the counsel of others in contradiction to the teaching of Scripture. That phrase, though—“what you heard the Lord say to you”—follows on the heels of Waltke’s use of the story from I Kings 13 of the young prophet being told by God to go up to Bethel, condemn the altar, and then go home. When Waltke talks about “what the Lord said to me,” does he have in mind something so specific as that? The book is unclear at this point.
Also, I should say in passing that the section on “Make your decision in light of giftedness” seems a bit simplistic. I am not sure it is quite fair to say that the apostles decided in Acts 6 to appoint deacons because waiting tables “was just not the best use of their apostolic gifts” or “talents”. In the same vein, it strikes me as the understatement of the Christian era to say that Paul spent his time traveling around and preaching the gospel because “he had the gift of evangelism.” (152-3). I’m sure there are other examples Waltke could have used that would make the same point and not leave the reader feeling quite so under-whelmed.
All in all, Waltke’s book is useful, and it’s probably worth the price of purchase just for the section on divination and modern practices of “finding God’s will.” That is without a doubt the most useful part of the book. For the actual nuts and bolts of how to follow the guidance God gives us, I’m more hesitant. Instead of Waltke, I think I would turn to Philip Jensen and Tony Payne’s Guidance and the Voice of God.