Look at this guy, solitary, upright, clear view to the horizon. In fact he seems to stand between heaven and earth. He is the Man, surveying all before him, standing on top of the world.
And which way will he go? It's his call.
He is the captain of his soul. This is man at his most liberated and flourishing isn't it? Free to do what he wants any old time.
He's living the dream. Which is why the whole scene is shot through with romance - the sun setting idyllically on his sovereign Decision.
But this very modern view of our choices is a ridiculous idyll. It crumbles under almost any scrutiny and yet it captures the hearts of the whole world - and so many in the church too.
I reckon this false belief in our identity as sovereign choosers is mistake number one when it comes to the issue of guidance. The whole world seems to believe that what we choose leads to who we are. And while-ever we believe that then our decisions will be invested with an existential importance they were never meant to carry.
Modern Christians are obsessed with the issue of guidance in a way our forebears just weren't. To a certain degree you can explain that as a function of the greater opportunities we have today to shape our lives. In years gone past a baker's son was a baker and that was that. Today he might become a she and move to Thailand. It's his/her call!
The options have certainly expanded, but it's the underlying false belief which invests those options with such weight that they become a burden. We really think that our choices make us who we are. We believe we have the power (in ourselves, in our choices) to be self-made men and women - rather than to receive our life and being as a gift.
But a moment's thought shows how ridiculous the sovereign chooser myth is.
I could tell you some of the story of my life by telling you the choices I’ve made. I decided to take this job and not this job. To move to this city at this stage. But that tells you only a very small amount about me (but, usually, the only part of me that the world is interested in - because we're all playing the same game).
But what about the bits I didn’t decide. For instance, my parents never decided to have me – I was an accident, as my sisters would constantly remind me. I never decided to be born in the 20th century in the West. I never decided to grow up in Canberra. Would you have chosen your home town if you had the choice?? I never decided all sorts of things that have made me who I am.
And this is not to mention all the hundreds of decisions I’ve tried to make happen but they never came off. Those failures have made me who I am too.
Didn’t John Lennon say ‘Life’s what happens to you while you’re busy making plans’? That's a good observation. Life is not found in our choices and plans and strategising. It happens to us. We receive it. And if we simply learnt that lesson, the weight of the guidance issue would lessen significantly.
But what we really need to do is attack the problem at its source. We need to go to the Scriptures and learn again that what we choose does not make us who we are. Rather who we are flows out in what we choose.
Take the book of Proverbs for instance. You might read it and get the impression it's supporting the world's wisdom. It seems to say "Wise people act like this and it's good. Fools act like that and it's bad." But on closer inspection you see that the actions flow from being wise or being foolish. There's only actually one wise Person - Wisdom. And one foolish person - Folly. They both consider humanity to be simple and lacking in judgement (Prov 9:4,16) yet they vie for the hearts of the masses (see Prov 1:20ff; 8:1ff; 9:1ff). They are portrayed as women - Wisdom like the good wife, Folly like the deceitful adulteress. And belonging to their respective houses - that's what constitutes a person wise or foolish.
Then from within those houses the wise and the foolish live out their being. In the house of the wise you walk with the wise and feast with Wisdom. You learn her teachings and right choices follow.
So first it's an affair of the heart as Wisdom woos you. This constitutes a change of being and then we see a change in will, in choosing, in action.
All of which is just to stress what Luther saw as absolutely critical in his debate with Erasmus. The moment you make the will the centre of gravity, you lose the gospel. Our wills are bound. We do what we want, but we can't want the right thing until the LORD sweeps us off our feet. When He changes our hearts, then the will is liberated to act in line with our new hearts. But to make our very identity depend on our choices is to commit a fundamental theological error.
I'll write some more on guidance, but for now let's just emphasize this basic point: we are NOT the choices we have made. We are who we are in Christ who has wooed and won us and freed us to live in a new way. In that new way there will be decisions to be made. But relax. Your life and identity is not found in those plans, it's found and it's secure in Christ.
A sermon on guidance in Proverbs.
More on freedom here.