I put considerable time into thinking about the decisions I make. I’m pretty indecisive by nature, so I have things like the two-minute rule 1 and the alphabet rule 2 to keep me from being paralyzed by too many choices. Lately, I’ve been considering some of life’s most important choices. My friends and I talk (and listen to others talk) about discernment frequently. There are some things people say that have just never quite sat well with me, so I seek many opinions.
Occasionally, that seeking of opinions bleeds into my life outside of church. I’ve mentioned to some of my coworkers that I write reviews here. One of them loaned me a favorite book of his, Decision Making & the Will of God, by Garry Friesen. His copy is a brick of a book (almost 500 pages, thick paper, hardcover). I am glad to be finished with it because it gave me a lot to think about, it challenged what I believe, it confirmed what I’ve been reluctant to believe, and it was so heavy!
Friesen begins with a believable although fictional account of the “traditional view” of discernment. (He doesn’t use the word “discernment,” but most Catholics do, so I will.) This narrative technique comes dangerously close to being a straw man, but I must admit that I’ve heard it before. The gist of the “traditional view” is that God has one specific plan for all the decisions of your individual life. He has executed a plan for the universe and for the salvation of all believers, but he has a perfect plan for you, too. Just as he decided the placement of each star in the night sky, he decided whether and where you will go to college. He decided whether and whom you will marry. He decides how much money you should give to your church. Your job is to, by way of various signposts, figure out what God’s plan is and do it. If you don’t, you’ll end up with “God’s second best”, at best, for your life.
Friesen then proceeds into a much stronger part of the book as he critiques the argument he built up. That’s not an ideal way to make a case, but it’s something. He rightly points out that, if God’s “individual will” covers every aspect of our lives, we should be consulting the Bible, wise counselors, and the “inner impressions” of the Spirit to decide what to eat for breakfast. (I use the alphabet rule for that.) If that level of discernment is only meant for major decisions, the “traditional view” doesn’t hold up as well. Similarly, giving equal authority to Scripture and “inner impressions” leaves room for immature decision-making. You rarely hear about anyone called by God to be a plumber. Waiting for God to point out one specific choice can be difficult when you’re facing a deadline or when two choices are apparently equal. Searching for God’s “perfect will” in this manner might work, but there is plenty of room for failure.
Although Friesen’s own argument isn’t perfect, it has much merit. He proposes what he calls the “wisdom view” or the way of “guidance.” By his reasoning, God has set the world in motion and equipped us with some firm moral boundaries, and now, he trusts us to grow in the wisdom to make our own decisions. No good father would continue to tell his adult children what to do in every situation. He does that at first, but he gradually instills knowledge and wisdom in his children so that they can go into the world prepared to discern God’s will for the rest of their lives. God the Father does the same with us. By growing in wisdom, we can make choices that are pleasing to God and don’t have the flaws of the “traditional view.” You can eat whatever breakfast you want!
Friesen is an ordained evangelical Bible teacher, so I found myself vehemently disagreeing with him on some matters. For example, he believes that the Bible is the totality of God’s Word and is the source of all moral teaching. It’s not. Jesus is the living Word of God, and he has left us his Church and her leaders to maintain and teach morality and apply it to our ever-changing world. A further example of my disagreement lies in Christians marrying non-Christians. It’s probably not a great idea, especially if one or both spouse’s religious beliefs are central to their lives, but I believe it’s permissible, as does the Church. I have some solid wisdom to back up those ideas.
Curiously, Friesen makes the claim that proof-texting (quoting specific verses or parts of them to make a point) is unwise, but then he seems to do so multiple times. I suppose he expected me to read this book with my Bible closer at hand than it was. He also draws his support for the “wisdom view” largely from the writings of St. Paul. Jesus doesn’t get quoted very often. The Son of God is the Father’s best student, so his wisdom ought to figure highly in our learning, right?
My takeaway from this book is hope. Parts of the “traditional view” have never sat well with me. On the other hand, I believe in the authority of the Catholic Church more than I believe this one guy who wrote a book. (Like it or not, if you believe what someone says about the Bible, you believe that person, not just the Bible.) It’s encouraging to not have to fear missing out and getting “God’s second best” plan for my life, but it’s challenging to think about the wisdom I have yet to acquire.
What do you think? Which decisions do you take to God in prayer or consult Scripture for? Can you miss out on an individual plan God has for you? How should a Catholic discern all of life’s many choices? What will you choose?