August 11, 2004

God's guidance: A voice from the past

A couple of years ago, I received a lecture on cassette titled "Decision Making and the Will of God" by Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason. Early in the talk, Koukl remarked that the "feeling led" paradigm for God's guidance was only around 150 years old. This intrigued me, so, feeling the research bug, I fired off a quicky email to STR to ask for a source; they responded that Koukl had been citing J. I. Packer, specifically his book Hot Tub Religion. Meanwhile, I came across the chapter titled "God's Guidance" in his indispensible volume Knowing God, which makes the same claim as to the recent history of this decision-making paradigm. (Unfortunately, at the time of writing, both these volumes are unavailable to me to cite directly. Pardon my paraphrase; if this series ever goes anywhere it'll be up to MLA standards, to be sure!)

In Knowing God, Packer quotes extensively from Hannah Whitall Smith, best known for her devotional book, The Christian's Secret to a Happy Life. Smith was the Quaker writer and evangelist who, along with her husband J. Pearsall Smith, was involved in the Holiness movement that grew out of Wesleyan theology in the United States. They moved to Great Britain in 1872 and became two of the founders of the Keswick Holiness movement, in which the "higher life" or "victorious Christian living" was attained through "absolute surrender" or "yielding" to the Holy Spirit. I am currently persuaded that Smith is a contemporary observer of the origins of this paradigm. (Of course, my research continues, and if I can push the history farther back, I will do so.)

Smith was right in the midst of this movement, one of its founders. For example, in chapter 4 of The Christian's Secret, she writes:

[W]e mean an entire surrender of the whole being to God; spirit, soul, and body placed under His absolute control, for Him to do with us just what He pleases. We mean that the language of our soul, under all circumstances, and in view of every act, is to be, "Thy will be done." We mean the giving up of all liberty of choice. We mean a life of inevitable obedience. . . .

But this faith of which I am speaking must be a present faith. No faith that is exercised in the future tense amounts to anything. A man may believe forever that his sins will be forgiven at some future time, and he will never find peace. . . . And, similarly, no faith which looks for a future deliverance from the power of sin, will ever lead a soul into the life we are describing. The enemy delights in this future faith, for he knows it is powerless to accomplish any practical results. But he trembles and flees when the soul of the believer dares to claim a present deliverance, and to reckon itself now to be free from his power.

To sum up, then: in order to enter into this blessed interior life of rest and triumph, you have two steps to take: first, entire abandonment; and second, absolute faith. No matter what may be the complications of your peculiar experience, no matter what your difficulties or your surroundings or your associations, these two steps, definitely taken and unwaveringly persevered in, will certainly bring you out sooner or later into the green pastures and still waters of this higher Christian life.

And from chapter 7 we can see something of the "centre of God's will" having its origin in the Higher Life movement:

The common thought is, that this life hid with Christ in God is to be lived in the emotions, and consequently all the attention of the soul is directed towards them, and as they are satisfactory or otherwise, the soul rests or is troubled. Now the truth is that this life is not to be lived in the emotions at all, but in the will, and therefore the varying states of emotion do not in the least disturb or affect the reality of the life, if only the will is kept steadfastly abiding in its centre, God's will.

Michael Horton has written that the Higher Life movement "turned many classical Protestants into evangelical mystics overnight." It shifted the emphasis of holiness from obedience to God's righteousness, to surrender to God's Spirit. And thanks to the influence of Dallas Theological Seminary founder Lewis Sperry Chafer, his book He That is Spiritual, and countless Bible conferences, these ideas exploded all over the church during the 20th century. And it's still with us: most notably, perhaps, in the literature of Campus Crusade for Christ, particularly their "Spirit-Filled Life" tract. Little wonder, then, that so many Christians believe that "knowing God's will" involves surrendering one's own capacity to make decisions.

In her lesser known work Religious Fanaticism, compiled posthumously by her son, Smith explains a model of knowing God's will that will be familiar to many:

[T]he only real safe guidance ever to follow is one's conviction of right. These convictions are always made up of the harmony of God's four especial voices, i.e. the voice of the Bible, the voice of circumstances, the voice of one's highest reason, and the voice of one's inward impression. (Smith Religious Fanaticism 158-59)

Scripture, circumstance, common sense, and inward impressions. Are these not some of the "signposts" commonly said to point to God's will on some matter? If we added prayer and wise counsel to the list, it might look more familiar.

However, Smith was not so naïve as some on this subject. She recognized the potential for abuse or misguidance; indeed, she found the over-emphasis on those little inward nudges to be the very basis of much of what she termed "fanaticism":

After careful study of the subject of Fanaticism, and a great deal of most intimate intercourse with the Fanatics, I have come to the conclusion that the whole explanation of it lies in the fact that the emotional nature is allowed absolute control. . . . the first beginning of this emotional evolution comes generally from the fact that people take their inward impressions as being the voice of the Lord. I cannot speak too strongly about this. Every fanaticism that I have ever known has begun by the following of these inward impressions. It is a most delightful doctrine to believe that God guides His people, and that it is really true that "the steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord," and it is very natural that every Christian heart should want to know this guidance. The difficulty is how to get at it, and one of the easiest solutions of this difficulty seems very often to lie in a yielding to interior impressions. (155-57)

The mistake arises from limiting the voice of the Lord to impressions only, and not recognizing that His voice comes to us in many other ways, and that the real voice of the Lord must be one in which all His different voices harmonize. . . . If there is a contradiction in the voices, the speaker cannot be the same. (157-58)

About the middle third of the book consists of anecdotes of personal encounters with people who were sincerely trying to know God's will but got the "impressions" right out of balance. Consider this extreme example:

[H]er first conscious thought was to consecrate the day to the Lord, and to ask Him to guide her every step of the way throughout the whole day. She would then ask Him whether she was to get up or not; and, very often, although it was apparently very important that she should get up, the Lord told her to stay in bed. Then, perhaps, in a few minutes the voice would order her to get up. Then she would proceed to get up. As she put on each article she asked the Lord whether she was to put it on, and very often the Lord would tell her to put on the right shoe and leave off the other; sometimes she was to put on one stocking and leave off the other; sometimes she was to put on both stockings and no shoes; and sometimes both shoes and no stockings; it was the same with all the articles of dress. She said also that often during the day, when she was seated at work, the Lord would tell her to get up and go out of the room, and when she god out would tell her to come back. And often she would be told to move from one chair to the other, or to go and stand on the front doorstep, or do all sorts of erratic things. She said that the object of this was to make her pliable so that she would be ready to follow the guidance of the Lord on the instant. (184)

Another such story involves a boarder in a house who, convinced that the Lord was leading her to give her landlord an object lesson, swiped a sum of money. Needless to say, this didn't go over well. In yet another anecdote, Smith recounts the shock of hearing that an acquaintance frequently "felt led" to help friends experience the baptism of the Holy Spirit by lying with them, unclothed, in bed, apparently in disregard of, or oblivious to, the inappropriateness of such behaviour.

As an antidote to this kind of fanaticism, Smith suggests the rather radical notion (for someone steeped in Holiness thinking) that all one truly needs to discern the will of God in a given situation is the teaching of Scripture, informed by one's own God-given wisdom:

I would, therefore, always urge every seeker after the deep things of God to ignore emotions and care only for convictions. . . . Beware of impressions, beware of emotions, beware of physical thrills, beware of voices, betware of everything, in short, that is not according to the strict Bible standard and to your own highest reason. (164)

Finally, have you ever had a friend (or maybe even you yourself) who sincerely wanted to get married or do missions or some other "big" decision, but was racked with indecision because he was afraid of missing God's will for his life? Smith admits that her main motivation for acting was simply to do the right thing in a given circumstance:

Out of all my personal experiences as to Divine Guidance I feel at last that my guidance mostly came in very commonplace ways, and chiefly through impulses of kindness or courtesy. Nearly always when I did things purely to oblige people or to be kind to them, without any especial thought of guidance, they were very apt to turn out to have been the most direct guidance possible and to have led to quite remarkable results. (251)

There are numerous problems with this mystical paradigm for decision making, amongst them:

  • Rather than foster Christian maturity, it actually stunts it. Scripture says that spiritual children are expected to grow into adults, for example: "As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby" (1 Pet. 2:2). As a child grows into adulthood, does he come to rely more on his father to make decisions for him, or less? Less, of course. One of the tasks of parenting is to impart that practical wisdom into children that will enable them to make decisions and act independently. Higher Life teaching gets this exactly backwards, saying that the heavenly Father's increased micro-management of even the most minute details of our lives (such as the order in which we put on our shoes) is a sign of spiritual maturity rather than immaturity.
  • Subjective impressions often trump objective truth. No doubt the woman who stole her landlord's money knew that the Bible teaches, "Thou shalt not steal" (Exod. 20:15). But that didn't stop her from ignoring the objective standard of God's moral law in favour of her subjective impulses which, we may assume, she took to be signs of her "yielding" to the Holy Spirit. Again, to quote Michael Horton,

    these "victorious Christian life" proponents lowered the expectations of the Law. No longer did God require absolute perfection, but "absolute surrender." . . . God's Law is replaced with "suggestions," short-circuiting the conviction of sin, while God's Gospel is basically merged together with this single category of "suggestions" and "beseechings." It is neither Law nor Gospel, but a confusion of both.

  • It is unworkable in daily life. This truth is borne out in the fact that most Christians don't try, at least publicly, to "sense" God's leading in all the mundane decisions they make. This kind of discernment is reserved for the big ones: Which car should I buy? Should I marry this person? Am i being called to the ministry? No one wonders whether God is leading him to eat chicken or tuna sandwiches for lunch today, let alone which shoe to put on first. If we did, Hannah Smith's anecdotes wouldn't seem so bizarre. Realizing that nothing would be accomplished if God's perfect will must be sought for every single choice, the paradigm is simply applied inconsistently and ditched for all the small decisions.

Next time, I will examine a Biblical prooftext used by some teachers to argue that God's will is something like an itinerary for our lives which it is our responsibility to discover and follow. Does God have a personal will for our lives with multiple "levels"?


"Have You Made the Wonderful Discovery of the Spirit-Filled Life?" Jesus Who? Homepage. Campus Crusade for Christ. 28 Oct. 2003. 11 Aug. 2004 <>.

Horton, Michael S. "The Higher Life at the Orlando Prayer Summit." Modern Reformation. Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. 11 Aug. 2004 <>.

Smith, Hannah Whitall. The Christian's Secret to a Happy Life. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. 11 Aug. 2004 <>.

---. Religious Fanaticism. Ed. Ray Strachey. London: Faber & Gwyer, 1928.

See also

First in the series: Finding and doing the will of God: Prolegomena

Next entry: God's "perfect will" and Romans 12

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