August 28, 2004

Fleece, peace, and the "still small voice"

In this installment of my series on God's will, I will examine three of the most common, Biblically based methods used by some to determine what God's will is for their life at a given moment.

For the purposes of this discussion, I am limiting myself to three. This doesn't mean there aren't other methods other people use, based on the Bible. It just means I have to draw the line somewhere, otherwise these posts will be impossibly long. (In fact, if someone wants to drop me a line saying "Have you considered such-and-such verse so-and-so," along with a brief rationale why it teaches that God's will is sought through fleeces, circumstantial signs, inward promptings, or whatever, then I'll be glad to take a look at it.)

Second, I don't intend to discuss any of the really off-the-wall ideas, such as opening a Bible at random and applying the first verse their eyes happen to fall upon. Treating the Bible as a tarot deck or Magic 8-Ball is, frankly, beneath any sort of serious discussion.

"Laying out a fleece"

We all know this one. Heck, we've probably all done this one in some way or another. When we "lay out a fleece" before God, what we are doing, essentially, is seeking to know God's will in a matter by asking him to arrange circumstances to indicate his answer to our question. In his book Decision Making and the Will of God, Garry Friesen uses the humourous example of the "phone fleece": Suppose you want to ask Gladys out, but you don't know whether it is God's will that you do so. You decide that you will call her up. If the phone rings and someone answers (and you hope it's Gladys), then God is telling you to ask her out. On the other hand, if you get a busy signal, God is telling you that Gladys is not for you. (She might be accepting a date from someone else.) If there is no answer, then you will try again later. Now, be honest: This is silly. Yet you've tried something like this in the past, haven't you? I have.

The idea of a "fleece" comes from the story of Gideon, which involved a literal fleece:

And Gideon said unto God, If thou wilt save Israel by mine hand, as thou hast said, Behold, I will put a fleece of wool in the floor; and if the dew be on the fleece only, and it be dry upon all the earth beside, then shall I know that thou wilt save Israel by mine hand, as thou hast said. And it was so: for he rose up early on the morrow, and thrust the fleece together, and wringed the dew out of the fleece, a bowl full of water. And Gideon said unto God, Let not thine anger be hot against me, and I will speak but this once: let me prove, I pray thee, but this once with the fleece; let it now be dry only upon the fleece, and upon all the ground let there be dew. And God did so that night: for it was dry upon the fleece only, and there was dew on all the ground. (Judg. 6:36-40)

And so, we are told, once Gideon received the sign from God that he and his army would surely save Israel, he went out and did so. We too display Gideon's exemplary faith when we follow his example. It sounds so pious, so spiritual, so faithful. But is it? Is this story about Gideon intended to authorize the practice of laying out fleeces to determine God's will? I think not. Here is why the context of this story militates against the practice of laying out fleeces:

  1. Gideon already knew what God's will was. In fact, God had even sent an angel to tell him that he was God's chosen instrument to defeat the Midianites (Judg. 56:13-16). In fact, when Gideon requested the sign of the fleece, he acknowledged this: "And Gideon said unto God, If thou wilt save Israel by mine hand, as thou hast said . . ." (Judg. 6:36, emphasis added). He wasn't trying to find God's will, he was trying to find a way out of it.
  2. Gideon's fleece was motivated by doubt, not faith. Already knowing what God expected of him, Gideon apparently didn't believe it though the message came directly from an angel. So he requested a sign. Then he requested a second sign (Judg. 6:39), perhaps realizing that the first sign was rather stupid (there is nothing remotely miraculous about wool remaining wet after the ground has dried, after all).
  3. Gideon must have realized he was trying God's patience. He pleads with the Lord not to be angry with him for making yet another request for confirmation (Judg. 6:39).
  4. Gideon still wasn't convinced. In fact, after explicit instructions from an angel and two confirming signs, Gideon still needed to hear from the mouths of the Midianites themselves that they feared him (Judg. 7:9-15). Spying in the bushes accomplished what three supernatural events couldn't.

In short, this idea that Judges teaches us to lay out fleeces before God to know his will turns the meaning of the text around 180°. This is a classic example of misappropriation. The point is not that we should seek God's will by praying for signs. It is that God, in his grace, can use even his weakest people to accomplish his plan. Laying out fleeces in fact comes dangerously close to the pagan practice of augury - telling the future through signs and omens - which Scripture forbids.

Give peace a chance

You meet your friend Henry at church one Sunday at evening service. Henry has been house-hunting for a few months, and you decide to touch base with him and see where he's at.

"I've looked at about a dozen houses in the last few weeks," Henry says, "but none of them really seem right. They're too small, too large, too old, too run-down, or, if they're just right, too expensive."

"That's rough," you agree. "So there are no likely prospects on the horizon?"

"There is this one place," Henry replies. "It's in a nice neighbourhood, the size is about right, and because it's been on the market for some time, the owner is willing to consider a lower price than the one she's been asking. As far as I can tell, it's nearly perfect for me."

"It sounds great. What's stopping you from making an offer?"

"The problem is, I just don't know if this is the place God wants me to have. I don't want to settle for his second best. So I'm going to pray over it this week and seek his will before I do anything stupid."

Next week, you meet Henry again.

"So how's the house-hunting going? Did you decide on that one place yet?" you ask.

"Yes!" Henry replies, enthusiastically. "When I got home from church last week, I sat down and I prayed about whether that was the place God would have me buy, and when I was done, I had an incredible peace about it. So I called up the realtor the next morning and made an offer."

Peace, we are told, is one of those "signposts" God uses to confirm that we are in his will. The Scriptural rationale for this practice comes from a verse in Paul's letter to the Colossians: "let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful" (Col. 3:15). The word translated "rule" means "to govern" or "to arbitrate." It's supposedly the same word that would be used for an umpire's job in a ball game (or whatever the first-century Greek equivalent was). When we make good decisions, God gives us peace. When we make bad decisions, we lose our peace.

But, again, we have to ask whether this passage is actually teaching that our decision making ought to be governed by the presence or absence of inner peace. Here is the verse again, in its wider context:

Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry: For which things' sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience: In the which ye also walked some time, when ye lived in them. But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth. Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him: Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all. Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye. And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him. (Col. 3:5-17, emphasis added)

Look how often the words "one another" appear in the passage. Paul is teaching about how relationships within the Christian community ought to be. Christians are to be honest with one another; patient with one another; forgiving with one another; teaching one another. It is in the midst of this teaching that Paul writes to "let the peace of God rule in your hearts."

In other words, the "peace" that Paul is talking about is not some sort of inward peace that we experience when we do the will of God. It is an outward peace between fellow believers that we are to strive for by obeying the revealed will of God. There is a lesson about decision making and the will of God here, but it is not that if we make the right choices, God will give us peace. Rather, it is that we are to conduct ourselves in such a way that we promote peace between the brethren. Our choices must reflect this ethic.

Finding that still small voice

What do you think of when you hear the words "still small voice"? No doubt it brings to mind the "inner witness" that all Christians have, those quiet inward promptings by which we are guided by the Holy Spirit. I found it interesting, therefore, that the only commentaries on 1 Kings where I found the "still small voice" described as the internal, rather than the external, voice of God were literature that was influenced by either Quakerism or liberalism.

Picture the scene. The prophet Elijah has just scored a spectacular victory in a showdown with the false prophets of the false god Baal, forcing them to acknowledge that "YHWH, he is God" (1 Kings 18:39) before destroying them. Queen Jezebel, getting word of this, sends word to Elijah that he is a dead man. Despite seeing God's power manifested in a mighty way at Mt. Carmel, the very frightened Elijah runs for his life, eventually ending up cowering in a cave atop Mt. Horeb. Here he pours out his complaint to God: "I have been very jealous for the LORD God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away" (1 Kings 19:10).

"Wait for me on the mountain," comes God's reply. So Elijah does. Standing there in his cave, he is about to see a powerful object lesson. First a great wind rushes through the mountains, powerful enough to smash boulders. Then there is an earthquake. Then there is fire. Mt. Horeb is Sinai, the same mountain where Moses met with God and received the Old Covenant. No doubt the author of Kings is trying to recall that previous meeting to mind between the prophet and the Lord, where the presence of God was announced by fire and earthquake.

But this time, God was not in the wind. Nor was he in the earthquake, or the fire.

Rather, these spectacular displays of God's power are followed by a "still small voice" (1 Kings 19:12), or as some translations render it, a "gentle breeze" or a "gentle whisper." And although the text does not say how Elijah knows this, evidently he realizes that God has finally come, and he leaves his cave to speak with him. The text says nothing about the "still small voice" being an inner voice; rather, I think we are left with the impression that it is outside. The contrast does not appear to be "inward" vs. "outward," so much as "huge, crashing, loud displays of divine power" vs. "hardly any sound at all." The lesson for Elijah is that that God is more complex than just earthquakes and fire and smashing rocks.

Again, Elijah voices his complaint. We might expect God's retort to be something along the lines of, "Look, buddy, I just shot fire from heaven. What more do you want from me?" But his actual response is a lot more surprising:

Go, return on thy way to the wilderness of Damascus: and when thou comest, anoint Hazael to be king over Syria: And Jehu the son of Nimshi shalt thou anoint to be king over Israel: and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abelmeholah shalt thou anoint to be prophet in thy room. And it shall come to pass, that him that escapeth the sword of Hazael shall Jehu slay: and him that escapeth from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha slay. Yet I have left me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth which hath not kissed him. (1 Kings 19:15-18)

In other words, "Go and appoint a new king and your own replacement, and by the way, you're not really the only one left, you know." The point? God has already delivered a decisive blow against the false gods with the spectacular face-off on Mt. Carmel. Now it's time for the "still small voice": the quiet, subtle, yet no less devastating workings of Providence. Yes, sometimes God smashes the rocks, but more often he puts the right man in the right place at the right time.

But if the "still small voice" has nothing to do with inner nudgings from God's Spirit, is there any lesson at all from this passage about knowing and doing God's will? Yes, there is. Don't expect God to answer all your prayers in the most spectacular way possible. When you make choices, submit to the outcome of Providence. And trust that God has your best interests in mind, even if it is not immediately apparent.

Some concluding remarks

If my past experience is any guide, people have an unfortunate tendency to draw the worst possible conclusions they can from the premises I provide. "You're saying that God doesn't lead," comes the retort. Or, "You're saying that God doesn't give us peace." "You're claiming that God never speaks through circumstances." "You're saying that God never speaks to our hearts."

I respond: Read carefully. That is not what I am saying. I am willing to state, categorically, for the record, that I believe laying out fleeces to determine God's will is unbiblical and should not be done. But regarding the inward peace and the "still small voice," I am saying this, and no more than this:

These things are not taught where we are told they are taught.

But if the classic proof-text for a position, and the one place where certain traditional words are used, do not say what it is claimed they say, then where do these ideas come from?

Anyway, after four weeks of negative apologetics, I think it's about time to turn to some positive teaching, and so next time I'll turn my attention to what the Bible does say about the will of God.


Friesen, Garry L. Decision Making and the Will of God. Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1980.

Provan, Iain W. 1 and 2 Kings. New International Bible Commentary. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995.

See also

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

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

Next entry: God's guidance and "open doors"

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