It’s not very often I’m given the opportunity to review a book authored by a man I admire and respect as much as J. I. Packer. His clear biblical thinking and wisdom has helped countless others like me to understand God’s Word more deeply and stand in awe of God’s incredible grace through his Son and our Savior.
Because of the wisdom he has contributed to many other important discussions, I was excited to read his latest book, God’s Will: Finding Guidance for Everyday Decisions, which he recently co-authored with Carolyn Nystrom. The authors bring clarity and comprehensive theological thinking to the issue of what it means for Christians to discern and follow God’s will.
In Need of Guidance on Guidance
“God’s will” evokes a variety of responses. For many Christians, there’s an unspoken secret to getting in on God’s primary plan for us—provided we have all antennae tuned perfectly to the station of God’s will. That perspective comes with harmful side effects. As Packer and Nystrom point out, fear and anxiety paralyzes many who think that “mistake or misstep can deprive us forever of God’s best” (16).
The church needs guidance on guidance. We need to be lovingly steered away from relying on impulse, feelings, impressions, and subjective inklings for direction. We need reminders that our covenant God intends that we respond to his will in the same way we respond to him in everything else—to “trust the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, the Triune God who guards and guides” (50). That is the both the central thrust and chief value of this book.
Everyday Decisions, Ethics, and . . . Casuistry?
Our lives are full of decisions. Christians run aground on what they should decide when one of “life’s fine messes” presents a situation without an obvious better option to choose. For those types of circumstances especially, Packer and Nystrom present a “biblical situation ethic” for how to proceed. The ethic is this: “The Good Shepherd loves and cares for his flock; the Father is faithful to all who look to him to guard and guide them; those who truly seek divine guidance in each situation as it arises will surely receive it” (59). The book, from cover to cover, develops that ethic and teaches us how to apply it to daily decision making.
God’s Will: Finding Guidance for Everyday Decisions
J. I. Packer and Carolyn Nystrom
Seeking God’s guidance is a focus for many believers. We want to know what God has planned for our lives. Are we making the right decision? Are we in his will? For some people, knowing God is guiding their lives makes them relax and enjoy the ride. But others fear making the wrong choice and find themselves paralyzed as they wait for signs from above. J. I. Packer and Carolyn Nystrom answer these fears with God’s Will. With solid biblical footing, they shed light on the notion of God’s guidance in response to the many misunderstandings well-meaning Christians can have.
When was the last time you brushed up on your casuistry? Yeah, I had no idea what that word meant either when I first ran across it in this book. In classic Packer form, following his arguments sometimes requires we also receive a few vocabulary lessons along the way. Christian casuistry means applying Scriptural principles to the specific decisions of our lives. Practically, this process serves as the bridge between the ethic and the everyday. It is the way to follow God’s guidance.
Harder and Easier than You Think
Some may be disappointed that Packer and Nystrom’s instruction for good decision making is following the Word, seeking wisdom, pursuing the counsel of others, depending on the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and patiently waiting on God. Nothing revolutionary about that list. But that’s their point. Following God’s will doesn’t mean “putting out the fleece” or interpreting the “nudgings of the Spirit.”
Frankly, it’s both easier than that, and harder than that. Easier because we don’t have to spend our lives wondering if what we are supposed to do is what we think God may be subjectively impressing on us to do (my italics mean to emphasize all the uncertainty in that phrase). Harder, because there is something expected of us. Receiving guidance from God, Packer and Nystrom emphasize, is not a passive affair. The process requires something of us.
For example, we need to pay attention to our spiritual health, because “holiness of life leads to discernment in the heart” (81). We have to be humble enough to ask other people what they think about our planned decisions, and patient enough to wait a day, a month, or longer before pulling the trigger on tough calls. And no matter how convinced we are of where God seems to be leading, we need nothing more than to know what God has instructed us to do in his Word.
Packer and Nystrom present many helpful and practical pieces of counsel. There are several spots where he gives steps and directions for how to make decisions in certain situations (212). I don’t mean to downplay their usefulness when I say they aren’t the best part about the book. There is great value for the church today in heeding the message. For those who are willing to hear it, the authors issue a call to clear off the cluttered table of what we personally think it means to be guided by God, and rebuild our understanding from the Word of God.
A Few Little Things
My critiques, although minor, I hope are worth mentioning for those who may read the book.
First, I do not think this is the clearest book you will ever read. The reader may find that the introductory pages do not prepare them to map the course of the pages that follow. The entire book presents the “biblical situation ethic,” but that framework doesn’t appear until the second-to-last chapter of the book (210). Readers would benefit from keeping a pen and pad handy to track the argument.
Second, the authors do not fully handle the area of God’s subjective guidance, what Packer and Nystrom call “God’s nudges” (219). On the one hand, they admit that people may receive “private revelations” from God (17), yet repeatedly in the book, the authors minimize the legitimacy of such an occurrence as genuine guidance. While happy to tolerate that tension, I would have expected them to offer further direction in a book about following God’s guidance to discern what it looks like for God to guide through impressions and “nudges.”