Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Operating Without an Ephod

Been psyching myself up to write this post for a while. Readers who have a robust, biblical concept of God’s will that enables them to make sound decisions and always look back on them with confidence and peace can probably give it a pass and not miss too much. Readers who don’t may wish to blunder along with me.

And, yes, I’m going to ramble. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, but my thoughts haven’t got much structure to them.

Okay, maybe just a little bit of structure. A good starting point is distinguishing God’s moral will for believers from what we might call God’s directional will.

God’s Moral Will

We can keep our discussion of the former brief. God’s moral will for you is exactly the same as his moral will for me and every other believer under the sun: he desires that we all come to think, talk and act like the Lord Jesus Christ. I go into the specifics of how he intends to accomplish that in each of our lives here, if you’re interested, but it is very straightforward, if not always easy. Following it results in transformed character. Mostly it involves simple, humble obedience to New Testament commands. It is the difference between right and wrong. God’s moral will for us is right; anything else is wrong. End of story.

God’s Directional Will

As far as I’m concerned, the question of whether God has a directional will for you or me in any particular set of circumstances is very much an open one. I make many daily choices about which I am confident God cares not a whit: the flavor of coffee I drink in the morning, or whether I have tea instead; driving to work, walking or taking the bus; which brand of gas I fill up with; which profitable book I pull off my shelf when I’m looking for something to read — these are decisions that almost never have a moral component, and laboring over them in prayer would be a waste of time and energy that could be used for better things. At worst, such choices are between good, better and best, not right and wrong. It should also be clear the Lord has given us the ability to choose many more significant things freely, even such major life decisions as whether to marry or not (see 1 Corinthians 7).

And yet there are still non-moral matters about which we might like to have the Lord weigh in, because he knows innumerable things we don’t. Thus we find David occasionally consulting priest and ephod for answers to questions like “Will the men of Keilah surrender me into Saul’s hand?” or “Shall I pursue after this band?” These were not moral questions; they were simply practical matters in which David was looking for the best possible result, or at very least trying to avoid a bad one, and he recognized that God ought to have some input in his next move.

All things being equal, when we act on the information we have at the moment in order to make decisions such as which Christian woman we ought to propose to, or which job offer to take, or which small town to settle in, or which college to attend, we are not making moral decisions. And yet we know full well that all these decisions may have significant impacts on our lives that we can’t possible know in advance. Two young women may seem comparably godly today, but take off in very different spiritual directions after marriage. Two jobs may offer similar rates of pay and benefits, but one could be a total dead end for reasons not apparent today. Two colleges may have identical programs, identical tuition fees, and be equidistant from home, but one is about to go full-blown social justice in six months; the other is not. Even with due diligence, these are not things we will be able to find out at the time we are making our decision. We simply do not know the end from the beginning. God does.

No Priest, No Ephod Now

The problem is that you and I are operating without an ephod. Any “guidance” we think we have gotten through apparent answers to prayer or changes in circumstances is necessarily subjective. Other Christians may not read them the same way. And if we are too fixated on how events turn out, we may eventually wonder if what we thought we got wasn’t real guidance at all.

After all, even a choice that seems to have turned out badly in certain respects may not have been the wrong choice for my spiritual development. The school of God is a life-long project, and not all its lessons can be learned by enjoying success after success. Sometimes the school of God is the school of hard knocks. To refer back to a previous example, sometimes the dead-end job is the right choice if it frees you up at exactly the moment God calls you to the mission field.

My parents often second-guessed themselves about moves they made when I was a teen. Did they pick the wrong town to move to? Did they settle in the wrong local church? After all, I was bullied and beaten silly in school for the better part of three straight years, and seemingly came right off the rails spiritually when exposed to the youth group at that church they chose primarily for the benefit of their children. And yet I certainly bear them no grudges. Looking back, I recognize they could not possibly have known how these situations would turn out. Unlike David, they did not have Urim and Thummim to consult. Furthermore, I learned important life lessons in both situations that I could not have learned any other way. If you asked me whether I would do it over again, I’d go right back to that Grade 5 classroom and take my lumps day after day.

A Conversation with My Father

I remember having a conversation with Dad a few years back about a decision he made in the late eighties to move the family to a new city. All indications were that it was time to move on. He had accomplished everything he had set out to do in the little northern church where he had been working for years, and was convinced the men he had been spiritually mentoring would grow and thrive better if he moved on. But where to move? Dad prayed about that for many months, and finally chose a mid-sized southern city where he felt his gifts would be utilized and where he might eventually be able to do some church planting in harmony with local elders. You know how these stories go: none of that worked out, and only a few years later, my parents moved again. Looking back on it, Dad wondered if he had made the wrong choice.

I never thought so. The move came at a crucial time in my brother’s life. He met his wife because of that move, and my sister met her husband because of the next one. Nobody could have known that in advance, and no end of prayer about whether the family should move to this town or that one would have produced an answer anywhere near an unequivocal as questions like “Should I enter into an unequal yoke?”, “Should I have this fifth beer?” or “Should I punch my romantic rival in the face?” These things we know, even if we don’t always respond appropriately.

Actives and Passives

I find Christians fall broadly into two categories in the matter of discerning God’s directional will. There are the Don’t Worry About It Too Much and Just Charge Ahead types, and there are the Sit Tight and Wait for Circumstances to Change types. We might call them Actives and Passives. I would be one of the latter. I used to be one of the former. I’m not sure either type is always good or bad, but both have their dangers. The Actives can get so caught up in pursuing the thing they want to do that along the way they miss moral cues intended to change their direction, while the Passives can become so inert waiting for a sign from heaven that we never do anything at all.

Immanuel Can and I recently spent a profitable few hours chewing over the way in which we differ on such matters. He’s an Active, I’m a Passive, and we simply do not make decisions the same way. Partly this is a personality thing, and partly it’s lessons learned from prior experience. But each of us stands or falls to our own Master, and we have to behave in accordance with the direction of our consciences. I have found historically that when I push to make things happen, the results are generally not good. For IC, that has not been the pattern. We each have to go about making non-moral decisions our own way and trust that the Lord will direct us as we go.

Charting a Course

With respect to God’s directional will, I have often heard it said that we “prove the will of God” over time rather than knowing it up front. I’m not sure that passage in Romans really has to do with God’s directional will. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed” sounds to me more like it has to do with God’s moral will. Looking back on past decisions and the things that resulted from them, there is often more than one way those events may be interpreted. Choices that look like they ended well at one point may not look so great at another. For example, a Christian blog I used to read regularly has gone dormant. Are its writers ignoring God’s will for them? Are its writers responding to God’s will for them? Was the blog a right response to God’s will at one point and a wrong response today? Or does the Lord not care whether they do one thing or another?

Frankly, who knows? The lesson, I suppose: We can waste a lot of perfectly good time overanalyzing things we chose to do in the absence of a direct scriptural command or principle to follow.

When making a non-moral decision these days, my strategy is usually to make it a daily matter of prayer until I come to a conclusion I am comfortable moving on. Usually that will involve a change in circumstances of some sort, or a change in the way I’m thinking about my situation. Maybe an opportunity will appear that didn’t exist before. Maybe some obligation currently holding me back will be suddenly discharged. Maybe a fellow believer will offer a piece of advice or a way of looking at the issue that sheds some light on it for me. Maybe a need will appear that really should be addressed, and I’m in a position to address it. Maybe a decision that appeared to be non-moral will reveal a moral component that wasn’t obvious earlier. Maybe a door will shut with a resounding bang, and eliminate one of many possible moves. Maybe I’ll run into a financial windfall that will make possible a move that isn’t possible now. All of these things have happened to me before at one time or another. I usually consider anything that changes my options a good thing.

Hey, it’s not Urim and Thummim, but for me, it works better than deciding what I want and setting out to make it happen. Other Christians operate differently, and maybe someday I will too. As you can see, operating without an ephod is very much a work in progress.

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