Can We Miss the Will of God?
NW: Can Christians miss out on the purposes of God by making wrong choices?
AJW: Well the straight answer is yes: we can miss out on the purposes of God by sinning. God’s purpose for us is to become like Jesus, and we can spoil that through sin. If I committed adultery today, God’s purpose for me as a preacher/pastor/writer would be scuppered – though that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t find a new purpose for me, of course! There are, sadly, too many examples to count of this sort of ‘missing’ God’s purposes.
NW: So in the case of someone like me, who wandered away from God for six years but then came back, it’s possible I’ve missed out on God’s initial plan for my life, and am now living His plan B for me, which is still good, but not as good as it would have been?
AJW: No, I’m not saying it’s like that. I don’t think ‘Plan B’ (to call it that for now) is always worse than ‘Plan A’; but the sinful life is always worse than the righteous one. So your life now may be just as fruitful as before you walked away – the apostle Paul, anyone? – but your life while actively sinning was far less fruitful than it would have been. Does that make sense?
NW: It does, but it’s hard to believe that I wouldn’t be more mature spiritually if I hadn’t spent six years away, and I guess the most poignant element for me is wondering if I would be married if I hadn’t had that time away from God. But I also see the extraordinary grace of God on my life today and where I am now, and I see how God has worked the time away for my good, so I don’t regret it as such. I just wonder.
And it’s like you said, if you committed adultery today that would derail your ministry, so even assuming you repented later, you’d still presumably miss out on some fruitfulness then? Didn’t David have to live with consequences of his sin even after he repented? Which does seem to imply that though God forgives us unreservedly, the course of our lives can be changed by decisions we make?
AJW: Right. Actions have consequences!
I’m trying to say what the Bible says, but without going beyond what it says. In reality, you see, lots of sins don’t lead to that sort of radical adjustment of outcomes – and God is so gracious that he is able to make beautiful outcomes out of even the most egregious sins. (John Piper has a great book on this, called Spectacular Sins and their Purpose in the Glory of Christ).
NW: Ok. That’s helpful. What about when sin isn’t involved? If I’m faced with two options and I don’t know which to choose, can I miss out on the purposes of God? Are there biblical examples either way?
AJW: I think it’s helpful to introduce a second set of categories at this point. We’ve already talked about the fact that some decisions are sinful, and others are righteous; that’s one way of looking at decision-making. But a great many decisions we make are neither. Are they all equally valid, then?
I would say no, in that decisions can not only be sinful/righteous, but they can also be wise/foolish. It would not be sinful for me to quit my job as a pastor and try to train as a ballet dancer. I don’t think any explicit command of Scripture would be violated if I did. But it would be foolish, nonetheless: my skills, training, personality, lifestyle, finances, marriage and family life would not be well-suited to such a career choice. It would not be sinful, but nor would it be wise.
Although I don’t think there are any biblical examples of this with respect to career choices – most people in the ancient world simply didn’t have such things! – lots of Scripture speaks to wisdom versus foolishness, and there is a whole host of examples of both in the narrative sections (I think particularly of Israel’s kings, and the contrasts between Solomon in 1 Kings 3 and Rehoboam in 1 Kings 12, for instance).
Would I, in becoming a ballet-dancer, ‘miss out on the purposes of God’? To an extent, yes. I am accountable for the gifts and resources I’ve been given, and I think unemployed ballet-dancing would be a far less effective use of them than pastoring and preaching. Most decisions in life are not so clear cut, though! And I imagine that’s what you’re going to ask about next.
NW: I find your wise/foolish distinction very helpful, but there will be many times where we don’t know which choice is wise and which is foolish, and also some times when what looks foolish to everyone around us is actually what God is calling us to do. For example, when someone takes a homeless stranger into their home – one person’s foolish decision is another person’s radical obedience to God!
Even in terms of being accountable to God for the gifts we’ve been given (again, a helpful way of looking at it), there are times when we might decline a brilliant career opportunity (for example) because we know that God’s ways aren’t always to choose what looks like the obvious choice.
So, how do we muddle through all of these thoughts to make wise decisions that mean we live in the fullness of all God has got for us?!
AJW: So, just to be clear: you want a one paragraph answer on how to make any decision on anything, ever? (Not that that’s a deal breaker, of course; I’m just checking!)
NW: Yes please! ;) No, I guess I was assuming you’d go down the path of advising people to seek wise counsel and to remember God’s character and His promise to work all things for our good.
AJW: Well if there was a one paragraph answer, it might involve passages, pastors and prophecies (or Christ, counsel and the Comforter, or Scriptures, shepherds and the Spirit – although these both assume that the Spirit doesn’t speak through the Bible, which I’m not so keen on!)
Passages: are there parts of Scripture that speak directly to the issue, either on its sinfulness/righteousness, or on its foolishness/wisdom? Pastors: do the people accountable to God for me have any counsel on the issue, and is it consistently pointing one way? Prophecies: has God spoken clearly about this prophetically? And if the answer to all three is no, then I think we bring in the fourth one – passion – and simply ask: what do I want to do?
NW: So ultimately – assuming there’s no clear direction on the decision in the Scriptures, our pastors aren’t sure or are giving conflicting counsel, and the prophetic is at best ambiguous – you think sometimes God just lets us choose and either option keeps us within His plans and purposes?
AJW: Absolutely. God is a good shepherd, and good shepherds make it clear if their sheep are about to fall into a ditch, or wander into a barbed wire fence. If the sheep get no clear instructions from the shepherd, that’s not because the shepherd doesn’t care about them – it’s because they’re free to roam wherever they want, within the boundaries He’s set for them. God pastors us like that, I think. It’s so liberating!