We’re nearing the end of reading Knowing God by J. I. Packer along with Tim Challies’ Reading Classics Together Series. This week we are in chapters 19 and 20, and there is only one more week to go in this particular reading group.
The chapters in this last section have been very long, so in a sense there is proportionally less that I can say about them. One thing that has helped me this week is to remember to tie the individual chapters back to the main point of the book: knowing God. It’s easy to get occupied with the individual topics or chapters and forget that they are there in connection with how we know God. Thus studying the attributes that we’ve discussed (God’s love, grace, wrath, goodness, jealousy, unchangeableness and majesty) are a part of getting to know Him better, His Word is the main means by which we learn about Him, His propitiation of our sins is what makes it possible for us to know Him, and once we do know Him by faith, we become His children, the topic of chapter 19, and then we can trust Him to guide us, the topic of chapter 20.
Chapter 19 is “Sons of God,” and Packers says the most basic definition of a Christian is that he or she is a person who has God as Father. We are not all God’s children: we become His when we believe on Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. John 1:12.
This chapter traces through Scripture what it means when it says we are “adopted” by God. Adoption in Rome in Biblical times wasn’t so much the modern conception of taking in of a child not born into a family and making them, by legality and love, a child of that family. It was more the idea of taking in a male heir, usually at adulthood (interestingly, this same concept was being taught on the BBN radio station by Dr. Donald R. Hubbard as I was cleaning up the kitchen after dinner last night. I am not usually still in the kitchen when this program comes on.) “God has so loved those whom he redeemed on the cross that he has adopted them all as his heirs, to see and share the glory into which his only begotten Son has already come” (p. 201). What an inheritance!
Our sonship changes everything. The emphasis in the Old Testament is on God’s holiness and our unfitness to be in His presence because we are so far from holy. Now we can run into His arms as trusting children. God’s fatherhood implies authority, affection, fellowship, and honor (p. 205). It affects our conduct, prayer, and how we live our lives: by faith, trusting in His care and provision. It shows us His love, provides a basis for hope, helps us understand the Holy Spirit’s ministry to us (making “Christians realize with increasing clarity the meaning of their filial relationship with God in Christ, and to lead them into an ever deeper response to God in this relationship,” Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:6 (p. 220), provides a different motivation for holiness (pleasing our Father), and is the basis for our assurance.
Chapter 20 is “Thou Our Guide.” Packer starts out by showing many instances in both Old and New Testaments that God had a specific plan for specific people at specific times. This is one of the main reasons I can’t subscribe to the idea that it doesn’t matter what we do (whom we marry, where we go to school, what our life’s work should be, even what our plans for the day should be). And the Bible in many places promises God’s guidance. But the main question then is how does God communicate that plan to us?
The first avenue is His Word. No, we won’t find the names of a future spouse or college or employer there. But we will get to know our Father and His character and preferences there and learn the many principles by which He wants us to live. Any seeming “leading” which contradicts a clear principle in His Word is not from Him.
When it comes to what Packer calls “vocational” decisions – the specifics about what God wants us to do, like marriage, etc. – he says, “The work of God in these cases is to incline first our judgment and then our whole being to the course which, of all the competing alternatives, he has marked our as best suited for us, and for His glory and the good of others through us” (p. 237).
As a personal illustration, I had a hard time coming to a decision about whether my husband was the man God wanted me to marry. My own parents had divorced, so I knew that just getting married didn’t insure a “happily ever after,” and I had been engaged before, in a relationship that had numerous red flags that I didn’t see until after it was broken off, so I knew it was possible to be deceived in matters of the heart. How to know if I was really on the right track? It was something I agonized over. Finally I reminded myself that I had asked God to guide me in this area, and when I told Him I didn’t want to play “dating games” any more and only wanted to date the guys He wanted me to date, Jim was the very next person to ask me out. There was no reason to doubt that he was God’s will for me. In making decisions about job changes and moves over the years, two verses that I especially relied on were Psalm 37:23 (The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord: and he delighted in his way – prayed this esocially for my husband as the main family decision-maker), and Jeremiah 10:23 (I know, O LORD, that a man’s way is not in himself, Nor is it in a man who walks to direct his steps.)
Packer does point out, however, that we can be deceived. It’s sadly possible to quench or grieve God’s Holy Spirit. If we are out of fellowship with God, we can’t trust our sense of His leading: we need to confess any known sin, be willing to submit to His leadership, and renew spending time in His Word. Packer then gives six pitfalls that hinder our discernment of God’s will, but I am going to try to recast them into positives:
- Be willing to think. “God made us thinking beings, and he guides our minds as in his presence we think things out–not otherwise” (p. 237).
- Be willing to think ahead and weigh the long-term consequences of alternative courses of actions. “O that they were wise, that they understood this, that they would consider their latter end!” (Deuteronomy 32:9).
- Be willing to take advice. “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.” (Proverbs 12:15).
- Be willing to suspect oneself. Sometimes we don’t realize we are being unrealistic or rationalizing. We have a tendency to be self-serving. We need to ask God to “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).
- Be willing to discount personal magnetism. Sometimes someone else’s personality or attraction (whether a personal friend or a teacher or leader) can pull us in certain directions. Some people use this magnetism on purpose to mislead: some do not but people idolize them. “Test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
- Be willing to wait. God does not often give guidance ahead of the time it is needed.
Even when we’ve prayerfully and carefully sought God’s guidance, “it does not follow that right guidance will be vindicated by a trouble-free course thereafter” (p. 239). Numerous examples in the Bible show people falling into trouble who were directly where God led them: the Israelites between Pharaoh and the Red Sea; the disciples in a boat in a storm, a boat that Jesus sent them off in; Paul in prison, Jesus Himself on the cross, just to name a few. An easy path doesn’t always mean we’re on the right road: a troubled path doesn’t necessarily mean we are on the wrong one.
Finally, Packer acknowledges that it is possible to miss the path sometimes, but we can trust our Father to let us know and to set us right again. “The Jesus who restored Peter after his denial and corrected his course more than once after that (see Acts 10; Gal. 2:11-14), is our Savior today and he has not changed” (p. 241).