April 2007


In A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Eugene Peterson reflects on Psalms 120 to 134, also known as the Songs of Ascent. These psalms were originally sung by Hebrew pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for worship festivals. Through a variety of reflections ranging from repentance to joy and providence to perseverance, Peterson attempts to draw back to a life of intentional discipleship. The occasional pleasurable visit to a sacred site is contrasted to the daily, lifelong obedience of the pilgrim. Though we live in a different culture from the ancient Hebrews the life-pattern of a disciple remains the same.

Thus, in the 20th year edition of the book, Peterson made no substantial change to the book beyond the use of a new translation of the Bible: The Message. Personally, of the many lessons that can be garnered from these pages, three are especially relevant.

  • Firstly, repentance is painfully beautiful. The experience of God’s judgment is a necessary prelude to my repentance. Even after the initial conversion to Christ, there will be many painful calls to repent. Repentance is the door to pilgrimage and Peterson appropriately reflects on this in Psalm 120, the first of the Songs of Ascent.
  • Secondly, as a Christian brought up in a middle-class culture I somehow expect God to provide a middle-class lifestyle for me and my family. Not so, Peterson counsels, God’s providence is not about a life free from pain. Rather, it is about Him guarding us and not abandoning us, even in the face of misfortune and evil.
  • Thirdly, my spiritual life is not to be defined by feelings. The culture tells us that if the right feeling does not accompany our action, then our action is inauthentic. Peterson reminds us that, “Worship is an act that develops feelings for God, not a feeling for God that is expressed in an act of worship” (54). This point is so important that it bears repeating at the end of the book, “Feelings don’t run the show” (195).

Resources

Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000)

MP3 Lectures by Eugene Peterson

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Many vendors sell IT by convincing buyers of its value in driving business innovation.  Dan McLean disagrees. In the March 30, 2007 issue of Computer World, Dan writes, “The truth may be that achieving business innovation has much more to do with smart people than with technology.” He cites Burt Rutan, the inventor of SpaceShipOne, as suggesting that innovation happens from the bottom-up and not the top down.  The best way to innovate? Tend the soil of culture that allows the seeds of ideas to grow from ground-level employees. Think Google and 20% time for personal projects. (Search for the article at www.itworldcanada.com)

Overheard in a swimming pool changing room: “the most important day of my life is the day I am living now.” The man had just buried someone he loved. Obviously this comment does not condone wild, reckless living with no regard for the future. Rather it is a celebration of living fully today; for, as C. S. Lewis put it, the present is where we meet eternity.

Christians Should be the Most Decisive People in the World
by Wan Phek How

Christians should be the most decisive people in the world. When confronted with such a proposition, many Christians may disagree because in their experience this does not seem to be the case. In practice, Christians are perhaps the most indecisive people in the world. As the argument is fertile ground fraught with possibilities for misunderstanding, first let us come to terms with the word decisive. Here, the word decisive is used in the sense of “having the power or quality of deciding,” as defined in the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. This article does not deal with the question of how Christians should decide, or whether Christians are better decision-makers than non-Christians, nor does it downplay the necessary rigour in the process of coming to a decision. Rather this paper argues that Christians who believe in a wonderful God, instead of shirking from risky, hair-splitting, difficult decisions, are greatly empowered and emboldened to dare to decide.

Why are Christians so indecisive in practice? The answer is due, in no small part, to the belief that God has a wonderful plan for every Christian. Like an archer targeting the bull’s-eye, the Christian aims to walk in the “centre of God’s will.”[1] If such is the case, the onus of decision-making lies with God. In fact, decisions would have already been cast-in-stone in God’s plan. The task of the Christian, then, is to find God’s will and act on it. Thus the energy of the Christian is diverted from facing the decision to discovering God’s will. Instead of daring to decide, the Christian holds back, frozen in indecision.

Does the Bible present God as having a fixed, inflexible blueprint or a directed, yet fluid purpose? According to R. Paul Stevens: “It is a myth and misunderstanding that God has a wonderful plan for your life; God has something better—a wonderful purpose (Eph 1:9) … The difference between a plan and a purpose is like the difference between a blueprint and a stream that carries people along even though they may make adjustments along the way.”[2]

Adam and Eve were given the freedom to eat from any tree in the Garden of Eden except the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Ge 2:16-17). They were given the freedom to choose within the bounds of God’s revealed will. According to Luther, the will of God is found in loving God and one’s neighbour.[3] These are the two greatest commandments and we can think of them as the two banks of the stream of God’s will. As long as our decisions lie within the bounds of these two commandments, we are flowing with God’s purposes.

Another factor that hampers the Christian’s decisiveness is a narrow view of God. If, like the one-talent man in the Parable of the Talents (Mt 25:14-30), “we have a restricted and negative view of God,”[4] we may be too fearful to take any initiative for fear of failure and end up doing nothing. However, “if we view God correctly as generous and forgiving, we will take risks”[5] and be emboldened to venture forth. For if we fail, we know that God is gracious and may likely give us another try, whereas if we do not act, we are certain to be condemned as the “wicked, lazy servant” (Mt 25:26).

Abraham, the father of faith, viewed God as gracious and generous. Hence Abraham boldly took the initiative to negotiate with God, not once but five times, to spare Sodom and Gomorrah (Ge 18:20-33). David knew God to be merciful. Thus after God had transferred David’s death sentence to the son Bathsheba had borne to him, David fasted and pleaded with God for the child’s life (2Sa 12:13-22). David would not have dared to do that had he thought of God as a cruel disciplinarian, who might well have transferred the death sentence back to David.

Thus the Christian has the freedom to act within God’s revealed will and is emboldened to act decisively by an enlarged view of God. However, the Christian in his actions “has not to decide simply between right and wrong and between good and evil, but between right and right and between wrong and wrong.”[6] Choosing between right and wrong should be relatively straightforward for a Christian who knows God’s moral will as revealed in the Bible. Choosing between right and right, and between wrong and wrong usually gets Christians into a quandary.

In the former, choosing the best option from two or more good options requires discernment.[7] What affects decisiveness in spiritual discernment is the posture adopted: passive or active. The “blueprint model” of God’s will encourages a passive posture of waiting and seeking God’s perfect will. At the other end of the spectrum, decision-making through the “way of wisdom” promotes an active posture. After all, there is no wrong answer; any option is good. So, we ask for wisdom then decide, and God works with us to fulfil his purposes. In the middle of the spectrum, the “discipline of discernment” advocates an intentional approach to decision-making while adopting a passive listening posture.[8] The “blueprint model” has already been critiqued earlier on. Yet, while “there is no place in the New Testament where we are taught to seek a special revelation,”[9] we should be open to divine guidance if it comes. As long as we understand God’s will to be a purpose rather than a plan, whatever variant model of guidance we practice in reality, we will be leaning towards an active posture.

Therefore, in decision-making, the Christian is free to choose, emboldened to act, and adopts an active posture, but how can a Christian be decisive when choosing between two wrong options? For Helmut Thielicke,

The phrase [of Martin Luther’s] ‘sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly’ … sums up what should be the Christian’s attitude when faced with a difficult moral dilemma. The Christian should acknowledge the sinfulness which pertains to either option, but nevertheless feel emboldened to act, confessing his sin and secure in the promise of God’s forgiveness.[10]

When impaled on the horns of a dilemma, we often fall back on moral principles, ethical codes, and decision-making models; but when these fail us, we should be guided by love for God and neighbour. Undergirded by love, the Christian should “be ready to incur guilt for the sake of the brother” and “dare to act and surrender the deed to God.”[11] In the face of nazism, Bonhoeffer participated in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler, for which he was executed. In Scripture, Rahab decided to lie and boldly concealed the spies in Jericho (Jos 2:1-6), and it was credited to her as righteousness, and she emerged in the “hall of fame” of faith in Hebrews 11:31.

There is no one correct way of responding to dilemmas. In 1 Kings 17-19, Elijah and Obadiah pursued two different strategies in resisting King Ahab.[12] Elijah openly confronted Ahab’s god Baal, winning a contest against the prophets of Baal, but had to flee for his life. Obadiah, while in charge of Ahab’s household, successfully hid and fed a hundred of God’s prophets. With or without knowing it, they worked together to resist Ahab’s regime, swimming along the stream of God’s purpose.

However we respond, we are certainly not to adopt the “Gamaliel Principle” of “taking up an ambiguous middle ground” and “putting off a final decision to some unspecified point in the future.”[13] We cannot fail to respond, like Adam did by his silence when Eve was tempted by the Serpent: “She [Eve] also gave some [fruit] to her husband [Adam], who was with her” (Ge 3:6). All along, Adam was with Eve during her conversation with the Serpent, but he remained silent.[14] Adam’s silence betrayed his indecisiveness, neither saying yes or no to the temptation. At the very least, Adam could have said, “Wait. ” Instead, by failing to decide, Adam inadvertently decided to fail.

Above all, when faced with a dilemma, Christians have to decide; God expects us to decide. In order to become Christians, we had to make the decision at some point to repent and follow Christ. Joshua challenged the Israelites to “choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve” (Jos 24:15) and expected an answer that very same day, before the sun went down.[15] When Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mt 16:15) he expected an immediate answer. Peter decided: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16: 16). Adam’s indecisiveness led to the Fall; Christ’s decisiveness led him to the Cross; our decisiveness leads us back to God.

In conclusion, since we have such a great, gracious, forgiving God who has given us the freedom to act according to his wonderful purpose, and expects us to exercise that freedom with boldness and initiative, we Christians really should be the most decisive people in the world.


Copyright © 2004 Wan Phek How. All rights reserved.


Notes

  1. Garry Friesen, Decision Making and the Will of God (Portland: Multnomah Press, 1980), 36.
  2. R. Paul Stevens, “Guidance,” in Robert Banks and R. Paul Stevens (eds.), The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 471.
  3. Gary D. Babcock, The Way of Life: A Theology of Christian Vocation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 83.
  4. R. Paul Stevens, “Talents,” in The Complete Book, 1002.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, trans. Neville Horton Smith (London: SCM Press, 1955), 249.
  7. Gordon T. Smith, Listening to God in Times of Choice: The Art of Discerning God’s Will (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 28.
  8. Ibid., 69-70.
  9. Bruce Waltke, Finding the Will of God: A Pagan Notion? (Gresham, Oregon: Vision House, 1995), 38.
  10. Richard Higginson, Dilemmas: A Christian Approach to Moral Decision Making (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1988), 131.
  11. Marvin Bergman, “Teaching Ethics and Moral Decision-Making in the Light of Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” in A. J. Klassen (ed.), A Bonhoeffer Legacy: Essays in Understanding (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 135.
  12. Higginson, 135.
  13. David Mills, “The Gamaliel Principle,” Touchstone: A Journal of Ecumenical Orthodoxy, 11 (1998): 5.
  14. Selwyn Hughes, in a marriage enrichment seminar (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 1997).
  15. Charles B. Bugg, “Joshua 24:14-18—The Choice,” Review and Expositor, 95 (1998): 283.