Packer and Nystrom (P&N) set out very helpfully the heart of the issue in the prologue. Christians have always believed that:
God in his omniscient wisdom and grace is working out his plan for our lives and that he helps us in our decision making and strengthens us and strengthens us to do what obedience to his revealed will required of us (p10)
However, they identify that it is now widely held that getting and following guidance from God (over and above ‘making commonsense decisions in Christian terms’) is ‘a matter of great importance in the Christian life’, and note that many think that God’s plan is ‘thought of like a travel itinerary' – if you miss a turn (or, in their language, a connection), God’s plan A has to turn into plan B.
P&N note that this thinking was originally grounded in teaching which sought to urge people to follow plan A – to become a missionary, a minister, a teacher etc. This in itself was incredibly unhelpful - intimating a class A Christian and then the rest. To put it in language many of us might be aware of, the thinking was that if you weren't a bloke worth watching, you really hadn't made it - you weren't worth watching!
The present situation, P&N suggest, is one of fear. Fear that major decisions can’t be made without an immediate and direct sign from God, and fear that a wrong decision will ruin ones life. P&N conclude – 'it is to try and help in this area of tense sensitivity that the present book has been written'.
Clearly these issues are alive and well - they seem to have become part of evangelical culture. While Jensen and Payne's Guidance and the Voice of God has been incredibly helpful to many, I wonder if it hasn't had the wide readership that the topic it addresses deserves.
On a personal note, I have known this second aspect for many years. A family friend is convinced that s/he made a ‘bad’ decision in marrying the person they did, and this has played out in the partner’s sexual unfaithfulness. The friend thinks that s/he has been sentenced to a second-class life – God’s plan B (or C, or D, or E…) because the wrong decision was made. This fear and regret is deep-seated amongst many God fearing, Bible believing brothers and sisters.
It is crippling, demoralising, and depressing. It grows Christians who not only live in fear before God, but live with a constant sense of guilt, of ‘what-if’, or ‘if-only’. Their ‘sin’ (for that is how many see it) cannot be forgiven, and certainly cannot be forgotten, for they must live, (so they think) with the consequences of it every day.
Theologically, and I’m sure P&N will come to this, it is grounded in deficient thinking about God’s sovereignty, about the nature of the ‘new man’ and the affect of the gospel on the mind (Eph 4, Rom 12), and about eschatology. Theologically, it is at times little more than superstition.
If this book does nothing else than clearly and carefully put an end to such thinking about 'God's plan for your life' (usually justified with reference to Jer 29:11), it will be invaluable. But I have the feeling it will do much more!