A few years ago now a friend and mentor gave me a beautifully bound collection of Puritan prayers entitled The Valley of Vision. It is quite well known, first published back in 1975. The prayers it contains are old style, not just because of their use of sixteenth century English, but because they are suffused with a rich knowledge of and confidence in God. There’s nothing superficial here. I’ve found I’ve returned to them again and again over the past few years.
Among my most favourite of these prayers is one entitled ‘God the All’. The section that captures what it is all about it is this (I’ve modernised the English):
I am well pleased with your will, whatever it is,
or should be in all respects,
And if you bid me decide for myself in any affair,
I would choose to refer all to you,
for you are infinitely wise and cannot do amiss,
as I am in danger of doing.
I rejoice to think that all things are at your disposal,
and it delights me to leave them there.
These are wonderful words of faith. They express a trust that such is God’s character—infinitely wise, infinitely good, just, right and fair and yet also infinitely compassionate, gracious and loving—that his will is always the best option. It is always what is for our best in the end. It is always what will bring most honour to Jesus in the end.
The caricature of the English Puritans that has come down to us is of dour, depressed and depressing kill-joys who did not know how to delight in anything. They banned celebrations, festivals and entertainment, dressed in black, were preoccupied with death, and were so intolerant they cut the head off the king because he did not agree with them. It is a caricature, a distortion of history penned and spread by those who were opposed to the Puritans and all they stood for.
Yet this prayer speaks of pleasure and choice and rejoicing and delight. It is not an expression of legalism or resignation. And it is anchored in an extraordinary confidence in God and his goodness that is sadly absent in many Christian circles. Against the lies of the evil one that there is a better way, and easier way, a way that will prove more fulfilling and bring more joy than the express will of God, this prayer says ‘No’. ‘The God who made me and redeemed me is entirely committed to my welfare and so even if he takes me through hard times he will not abandon me and it will turn out for my most lasting good.’
There is a certain hard-hearted arrogance in suggesting that I or we know better than God’s written word, whether it be in matters of faith or doctrine, Christian living, the controverted issues of our day, or even the practice of ministry. Of course, it’s rarely expressed in such a bold and direct fashion. ‘Of course God’s way is best’, we say, ‘but is this really God’s way?’ ‘In such a different context, in the light of recent developments, given what we now know about ourselves and our world, do we need to think again? Did God really say?’
Doubt about God’s will and purpose, and ultimately about his wisdom, goodness and love, has a long pedigree. And it most often begins with doubt about God’s word. In the account of the Fall given in Genesis 3, the serpent began by sowing doubt about what God had told the man and the woman. ‘Did God really say?’, he asked. ‘Surely not. Surely that’s not what God meant. It flies clean against all that makes real sense. We all know better than that.’ But what began as doubt about God’s word very soon became doubt about God’s intention and finally about God’s character.
Perhaps we’ve become more sophisticated in the way we sidestep God’s word. We can even convince ourselves that this is not what we are doing at all. We are being more careful about the historical context, taking responsible note of the remarkable advances we have made since biblical times, acting with compassion in the midst of a broken world. We have moved ‘beyond the Bible’ as one writer put it, despite the fact that Paul warned the Corinthians not to ‘go beyond what is written’ (1 Cor. 4:6).
I’ve deliberately avoided specifics so far in this article. I am sure you will be able to think of your own examples from the controverted issues of our day. There are quite a number of examples of where those labelled ‘conservatives’ are considered less generous, less truthful and less kind than those who offer a more ‘progressive’ take on human sexuality, the sanctity of all human life from conception to the grave, gender relations and the practice of ministry, the priority of gospel proclamation in a lost world, and much more besides.
However, what is worth very serious consideration and what is my real concern is the question of whether I want God’s will and word to prevail even in those areas where I have strong convictions and settled practice. Am I willing to have my mind changed by what God has caused to be written for us? Since theology is simply the knowledge of God and all things in relation to God as this comes to us in Scripture, am I willing for my perspectives and decisions to be theologically shaped? Am I really willing to pray ‘your will be done’?
To pray like that is really only possible if you know and have confidence in the God whose will you are praying will be done. Since he is who he is, since he fully and entirely true, good, generous and kind, I can trust him and so I can trust his will. It might not be what I would have chosen, what left to myself I would have decided for myself or for us. Yet as the Puritan prayed, ‘you are infinitely wise and cannot do amiss, as I am in danger of doing’. And the proof — the overwhelming, irrefutable proof — is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ so that people like us could be forgiven and reconciled to our heavenly Father in the Spirit.
In a month in which our synod will meet, we need to be reminded of the goodness of God and of his will. Our world has no interest in following his will. Tragically, there is increasing evidence in various denominations, dioceses and churches that some Christians share that indifference if that not always the same hostility. We have an opportunity to take a stand, not on our own wisdom, but on the wisdom of God and what he has made known to us of his will in his written word. May his will be done.