Guidance on guidance

There seems no end to books on divine guidance and discovering the will of God. How do you know what’s worth reading? Proverbs says to seek advice before making a decision, so let me offer mine. I’d steer clear of books that claim to teach you how to listen to God’s voice outside the Bible. The assumption of these books is that Scripture is insufficient and you need to discover additional messages, directly from God to you, in order to discern his will.

My contention is that God doesn’t contradict himself. So his words in 2 Timothy 3:15-16 that “all Scripture is God-breathed” and will make the person of God “complete and thoroughly equipped for every good work” must be taken seriously. The Bible gives us everything we need for life and godliness. This must be our framework for approaching guidance and seeking God’s will. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t seek the counsel of others, read extra books, or weigh up the options. The Bible itself affirms the necessity for using wisdom in making decisions. In fact, we have whole books devoted to helping us do this—Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job—and parts of many others.

If you want to read books on guidance, and I recommend you do, then read books that will point you to understanding God’s revealed will in the Scriptures. This means that the best book on guidance and for guidance is the Bible itself. And every other book must be measured against how faithfully it represents Scripture.

Here are a few that I’ve found helpful…

decisionI first read Decision Making and the Will of God by Garry Friesen in 1982, when I was grappling with where my life was headed and what God wanted me to do. It revolutionised my thinking, pointed me to the freedom God has given us to make decisions, and lifted the burdens of guilt and insecurity from my shoulders. It’s a large book, but very easy to read. My only warning is that you must read past the first section of the book. No more spoilers.

limgres-22_2The person who has given me the most direct guidance about guidance is Phillip Jensen, who was the chaplain at UNSW where I studied Social Work in the early eighties. He helped me to love and trust the Bible, and I went to more than one conference where he taught us the importance  and relevance of the Bible for understanding God’s will for our lives. Much of what I learned during this time is in included in an excellent little book called Guidance and the Voice of God by Phillip Jensen and Tony Payne. This book addresses an important matter that many overlook—and this is where God guides. To understand what God wants us to do with our lives, we must first understand where God is taking history. A clear grasp on salvation history and the purposes of God in Jesus give the essential perspective for understanding God’s will for each of our lives.

justdoLet me also recommend a third book on guidance that, I suspect, has been deeply influenced by both books above. Just Do Something by Kevin de Young is another short, clear resource for grappling with questions of God’s guidance. Some people get paralysed, wondering and confused, because God doesn’t seem to have revealed his specific will for their life. Every little decision becomes a blockage rather than an opportunity. This book aims to overcome the inertia of people waiting for God to reveal which step to take next. We have the Bible, God has revealed his plan for us to love him, to trust and obey him, and to enjoy the abundant freedom that comes from living this way.

Finally, any book on guidance is only as useful as how it gets used. A map may include the best routes and most precise details for getting from A to B, but if we don’t follow its instructions it becomes functionally useless. Let’s not render God’s word obsolete in our lives. Rather, let’s unfold the map and follow where it leads us.

 

 

Ministry in the NT

IMG_0725I was totally persuaded we should head to the NT to begin a new ministry. Everything was pointing in that direction. The burden on our hearts. The enthusiasm of family and friends. The great need. The neglect of so many. The way everything was falling into place. A job, a house, schools, coworkers. A replacement back home. The time was right. The lights were green. The decisions were made. The belongings were gone. Only the farewells to go. Except for… cancer.

My God! What were you thinking? Why did you send us down that path? What’s the story? Did you change your mind? Were you playing tricks? Wasn’t it hard enough without raising our hopes and then dashing them?

I asked God to please explain. He reminded me of these words…

In their hearts humans plan their course,
but the Lord establishes their steps.  (Proverbs 16:9)

We make plans. We have to. It’s wise. It’s prudent. But we don’t have all the information. Our decisions are always provisional. We have enough trouble controlling ourselves, let alone every other factor.

Yet God is all knowing. God is all wise. God is all capable. God is all good. He has plans for us that we do not know. We plan our course, but the Lord establishes our steps.

I’ve learned that God does want us ministering in the NT. Not necessarily the Northern Territory, though we do not know. But in New Territory, that he had mapped out for us. Who would have thought that I’d be able to minister to people with cancer, as a fellow traveller? Who’d have thought I’d ever write anything? How could we have ever been brought to trust God in the face of death, except by being brought right to the edge of death itself? He has broadened our awareness. He has deepened our empathy. He has shown us deep comfort, and called us to share.

These aren’t the plans I’d have chosen. It wouldn’t have been in my script. In so many ways it doesn’t seem right. Yet what seems so wrong, God uses for good. This is God’s way. He did it long ago with Joseph…

You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.  (Genesis 50:20)

He did it supremely with Jesus…

23 This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 24 But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.  (Acts2:23-24)

And he promises to do it again and again…

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  (Romans 8:28)

We will keep making our plans. We need to do this. We’ll seek wisdom. Weigh up the possibilities. Talk with others. Search our hearts. Seek the will of God. Pray and read the Scriptures. We will plan our course. God knows we must. But we will seek to do so, recognising that it is ultimately the Lord who determines our steps.

Ministry in the NT?

Yes!

Thank God it is happening!

Mentoring matters

mentoringmattersFor the last month or so I’ve been particularly focused on issues of leadership development. I’ve been considering the respective roles of mentoring, coaching, and training. These are hot topics these days in many areas and it’s been difficult to know what material to consider. My special interest has been to view distinctively Christian perspectives on these areas, and in particular to see how they can be a help to Christian ministry. I’m discovering there is much to be learned in these areas, but we need to carefully sift the helpful from the not so helpful. Mentoring Matters by Rick Lewis is full of practical wisdom and helpful advice that’s been tested by experience. However, I believe there’s a theology driving this book that is actually unhelpful.

Lewis offers this definition of mentoring:

Within intentional, empowering, unique relationships, Christian mentoring identifies and promotes the work of God’s Spirit in others’ lives, assisting them to access God’s resources for their growth and strength in spirituality, character and ministry.  (p20)

All parts of this definition are important to the author. Mentoring relationships should be tailored, focused on supporting and equipping the mentoree, for their good. The focus is on being, more than doing, and seeking to allow God’s agenda to shape the mentoree from the inside out. They’re more than a friendship because they’re grounded on an agreement between the two parties about the purpose and shape of the relationship.

Mentoring Matters shows mentoring to be an effective way of addressing many problems faced by today’s Christian leaders. The mentor can provide help in encouraging personal spiritual health; non-judgmental friendship and support; safe peer relationships in which to discuss vocational issues; accountability from a person outside the organisation with no positional power; help in integrating the theory and practice of ministry through reflection; and help in reaching specific goals for change.

Lewis argues that everyone in ministry would benefit from a mentor outside their particular church or organisation. Indeed, the advance of God’s kingdom can be helped by the focus on developing more leaders, more frequently, of a better quality, and who will last longer. He provides evidence that in Australia there are as many ex-ministers as there are current ministers and argues that good mentoring can change this sad equation.

A strength of Mentoring Matters lies in how it distils so many different factors in mentoring with clarity and simplicity. I plan to write up a number of checklists for myself based on the material in this book. A good example is this ‘rough guide’ to help new mentors quickly get their bearings on pages 111-118. This is also summarised on the Mentoring Matters website.

Build genuine relationship
Spiritual mentoring is more than an arrangement set in place for pragmatic purposes and cannot be conducted from an emotional distance. An environment of mutual positive regard, respect and heartfelt care is required.

Establish mentoree responsibility
Mentoring is effective only when the mentoree takes responsibility for his or her own spiritual growth and health. There is absolutely no domination or control in healthy mentoring.

Prioritise the inner life
While the whole person is of interest, development of the inner life is fundamental to spiritual mentoring. Our doing flows out of our being. The principal means of bringing about deep inner change is the power of the Holy Spirit in the life of the mentoree.

Put aside other agendas
Good mentors do not see mentorees as a means for achieving a preconceived agenda. The mentor’s concern is for the spiritual growth of the mentoree, beginning where the person is at, and working toward what God has designed them to be and do.

Discern God’s work
Mentoring involves a process through which two people together seek to understand what God is doing and saying. This does not need to be an obscure, mystical process. Thoughtful conversations linked with prayer comprise an effective process.

Facilitate reflection and goal-setting
Encouraging reflection and goal-setting in mentoring is aimed at achieving experience-based learning. Reflection turns experience into learning, on the basis of which mentorees can construct and commit to goals and to action steps.

Provide positive accountability
Mentorees set their own goals and action steps and give their mentor permission to hold them accountable for following through on those commitments. Accountability is an opportunity to prove progress rather then to expose failure.

Prepare thoroughly
Both mentors and mentorees will get the most out of mentoring sessions only if they are prepared to review points covered previously, complete any undertakings made, and prepare good questions for one another.

Pursue mentoring energetically
Be deliberately proactive about your mentoring relationship. If mentoring is not made a priority it will certainly be edged out by the huge number of competing demands on a leader’s time and energy.

Encourage mentorees to mentor others
Where a mentoree takes on the role of serving another future leader, the benefit they have received through being mentored is more firmly established in their own life.

Learn from Jesus
Spiritual mentoring is a Biblical process, modelled most perfectly by Jesus. He mentored his disciples by who he was, what he said and what he did. The gospels comprise a mentoring handbook useful to the most experienced mentor.

So what are my main concerns with this book? And how important are they?

mm2A key theme running through this book is the idea of discerning God’s particular will for the mentoree. Mentoring is seen as a specific journey of helping the mentoree to work out where they are, where God wants them to go, and how they can get there. This has to do with discovering what God’s Spirit is doing in their life. An earlier cover of the book describes the book as Identifying and promoting the work of God’s Spirit in the lives of Christian leaders. This has now changed to Building strong Christian leaders. Avoiding burnout. Reaching the finishing line. I’m not aware that the inside of the book has changed at all. My guess is that the new cover has been designed to appeal to a broader audience and to focus on the outcomes of mentoring.

Am I concerned with this emphasis on identifying and promoting the work of God’s Spirit? Am I one of those evangelical Christians ‘who don’t really believe in the work of the Spirit’, ‘who are all head and hands and no heart’?

Let me try to communicate clearly! The work of God’s Spirit must be central in the life of the mentor and mentoree. No equivocations. If we’re not on about God’s work in people, then we’re wasting our time. No amount of mentoring will be of any eternal benefit unless God’s Spirit is at work. Therefore, I believe it is critically important to identify and promote the work of God’s Spirit in the life of the Christian leader.

It’s what the author understands this to mean and his suggested methods for discovering and discerning the will of God that I take issue with. Lewis writes that Godly mentors are attuned to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Out of a deep desire to live a life pleasing to God, they are able to discern the ‘still, small voice’ and are in the habit of following that leading. (p125) While saying that tuning into the Spirit’s work doesn’t have to be a mystical experience, the overall message and vibe of this book is that it is. There is very little mention of the Bible as a source of discovering God’s will. In fact, there is very little Bible in this book at all. Its main appearance is in the chapter called an Ancient Art for a Post-Modern Context where various Bible passages provide part of the justification for mentoring today. Very helpful passages, by the way.

I worry that mentoring conducted along these lines could be unhelpful to the participants. It could lead to people believing they need to be looking for and responding to particular, personal, leadings of God’s Spirit, rather than concentrating on the given, revealed, sufficient, sword of the Spirit, the Bible. Over time the focus turns away from reading the Scriptures, that are able to make us thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:17), to reading circumstances, weighing up feelings, or looking for God to speak in other ways outside of the Bible.

My concerns about this book are not so much with mentoring per se, as they are with a perspective on guidance implicit throughout. I would love to see much more in Mentoring Matters about opening the Bible together, searching the Scriptures, seeing God’s revealed plans, to discover what this means for our lives, ministries, and the options before us. A great model of this approach is offered in Don Carson’s book on the topic of prayer, called A Call to Spiritual Reformation. He reveals how his mentor patiently and carefully helped him to pray according to the will of God as they delved deeply into the Bible together. If you’re keen to work through what the Bible teaches about guidance, let me recommend you work carefully through any of the following books:

Decision making and the will of God by Garry Friesen
Just do something by Kevin de Young
Guidance and the voice of God by Phillip Jensen and Tony Payne

If you’re serious about mentoring Christian leaders, then you will find much in Mentoring Matters that is helpful and practical. You will benefit from the emphasis on internal transformation, the priority on being before doing, and the focus on genuine relationships at the core of mentoring. But, let’s read with discernment, as we should with every book.

Journey with cancer DV 20 Mar 2012

Dear family and friends,

Today is day 14 of my 3rd chemo cycle. The cycle starts with a day in hospital attached to a drip with nasty chemicals being pumped into the body. Then a roller coaster for the next 3 weeks, before you do it all over again. In theory, and based on previous cycles, I should be feeling pretty good and getting back into a semblance of normal life. But here is the problem – patterns, statistics, predictions, and even past experience, do not determine the future.

I ‘should’ be out and about, busy with work, and getting back into some gentle exercise. Instead, I’m lying in bed (with a laptop) trying to get rid of a chest infection and praying it doesn’t develop into anything worse. In fact, the past couple of days have made me rather fearful – fearful that I would end up in hospital again with pneumonia, fearful that I might compromise the chemo, fearful that something worse might happen.

Fiona reminded me last night that these things can often be two steps forward and one step back. Sometimes even the other way round for a while. I would do well to keep putting into practice the word of God that I believe:

6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)

We are being reminded again and again that only God knows what’s around the bend and he calls us to trust him. There is a Latin phrase, deo volente, or DV, which means ‘God willing’. In days gone by it was common for Christian people to use these words as they spoke of their plans. You don’t hear it much these days, but I’ve begun using it more and more as I appreciate that it is God who is working out his good plans and purposes. In fact, this whole experience of getting cancer has highlighted how much I am not in control of my life and circumstances.

Back in December everything pointed to us moving to Darwin to begin the second major chapter of our lives. We had people on board with us, support structures and finances in place, a house to move into, kids enrolled in schools, tenants for our house in Canberra, a successor in my role at church, belongings in transit, and excited about the future. And then… a visit to the hospital changed everything. These verses from the Bible came to mind very powerfully:

13 Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” 14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”
(James 4:13-15)

My life has been given to me by God. He calls me to make plans and to consider the circumstances and to do things wisely. But he also calls me to act with humility, to know that I belong to him, and that I can rely on him to do what is in my very best interests. Even when I would prefer things not to be happening! We’ve been learning this more and more.

But does this mean that all our preparations last year were going against God’s will, that somehow we were being disobedient and straying off the path? No, I don’t believe so. Our desire was to contribute to growing followers of Jesus in the Northern Territory. This desire was placed in our hearts by God and as we read the Bible we were reminded that this is pleasing to God. We sought wise council from many, and took years to come to our decision as a family. There was and is a big need, and we were drawn to respond. That need continues to exist and we pray that our passions to move north will be filled by others, or yet that I will be healed and one day serve God in that place, DV.

So is it possible to see the hand of God in what has happened? Absolutely. God has been at work in our hearts and minds, moving us to depend upon him more deeply than ever before. He has encouraged us, and literally thousands of others to pray. He has raised questions in the minds of friends that have nudged them to consider what we believe about God. He has deepened our empathy and love for people suffering under similar and worse circumstances. He has used our words to encourage others far and wide in their own struggles. He has caused us to appreciate our family and friends and church all the more. He has reminded us to number our days.

We can see God’s kindness in many of the details. My cancer was discovered because a doctor friend had the awareness to rush me to hospital when I complained of numbness and breathlessness. It was a time when all our family were at home. I had finished my final series of preaching at church. The church had already gone through a careful process of choosing my successor. It didn’t happen while we were on the road to Darwin. We still had our home in Canberra to move back into. Our friends have taken extraordinary care of us. Our church has continued to provide for us, and have welcomed my continued ministry among them. We’re receiving top shelf medical attention. I’m even allowed a tv in the bedroom! And there is so much more!

Let me tell you about the weekend just gone. It was a special time for our family (only we missed Matt). Fiona and Grace both entered large teams in the Cancer Council’s Relay for Life. They set up camp at the AIS athletics track and walked for 24 hours to raise money and awareness for cancer research and support. I wasn’t that keen to go – who wants to be surrounded by people with cancer? But the relay had a carnival vibe about it, with music, dancing, stalls, fancy dress, and lots of people having fun in the sunshine (& rain). Some ran lap after lap, others walked as best they could. I did a few laps at different times of the day, and must have been the slowest walker on the track each time.

FamilyThe first lap was exclusively for people who had cancer (either now or previously) and for carers. I wore a sash saying ‘survivor’ and members of my family wore sashes saying ‘carer’. It seemed strange to wear the sash, as though I should’ve had to go into remission to ‘deserve’ it. But, I have cancer, I am alive – so I guess I’m a survivor! As we walked the lap it was very moving to be clapped by hundreds of people lining the track, including many friends in Grace and Fiona’s teams. I shed a few tears that I kept well hidden behind my sunglasses! I was glad that I’d gone along.

We joined in another event on Saturday – a commissioning for friends of ours, Klaus and Grace & MorphJudith and family, who are heading overseas. As we were making our plans to plant a church in Darwin, they were planning further afield in Germany. It was a thrill to share with them as they count down the days to leaving. Klaus is German, and it is his great passion for his kin to know the good news of eternal life. As one friend reminded me on later, we had two celebrations over the weekend – one of life here and now, and the other of life for all eternity. Our prayer is that people will value their lives here and now, but not so much as to ignore God’s wonderful invitation of life forever with him. Some people seem to think that Christian faith is ‘life-denying’. Our experience is the exact opposite. Jesus came so that we might have life in all its fulness – now and forever.

Thank you again for your encouragement and support. The chemo roller coaster is a tough one, but made much easier in the knowledge that people are praying and helping us in so many ways. There is one cycle to go and we don’t know the plan after that. It could be more of the same, or part thereof. It could be something radically different. Our desire is for the treatment to completely destroy this cancer, and for us to be able to make new plans for a life beyond cancer, deo volente.

With love,

Dave (and Fiona)