Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Casting Lots and Knowing God's Will

I posted this at Stand Firm, but I thought it might be helpful here too:

Very recently a parishioner asked about the practice of casting lots. It seems that a good friend was planning to make a relatively major life-decision by lot casting (after all, the friend said, "there are many examples of casting lots in the bible"). My parishioner, wisely, was concerned that this might not be the best way to determine God's will. I answered his question in the email posted below (with permission) and thought little of it until recently when I learned that a number of orthodox Anglican groups and apparently even congregations have also cast lots to make very significant corporate decisions. This practice is most prevalent, oddly--and you will see why I say that in a moment--among a few (not all) of those Christians who consider themselves "Spirit filled."


Thanks for your note. Casting lots is mentioned quite a bit in the Old Testament. In fact, the High Priest--with divine sanction--regularly used the "Umin and Thumin"(Exodus 28:30 etc...) to determine God's will which may have involved a form of lot casting (Some suggest that the "Umin and Thumin" were two stones of different colors--presumably one representing a "yes" and the other a "no")

In the New Testament casting lots is mentioned as well...but there is a little less clarity. The practice is mentioned most in the gospels. It is not, however, mentioned in a positive way. "The soldiers cast lots for his clothing...." I'm not so sure that your friend would want to emulate that example. This is, by the way, why it's so important to actually read the bible for yourself rather than taking someone else's word for what it says--that a practice is "mentioned" however many times in scripture does not mean necessarily that it is a "biblical" practice. I know you know that...but you might want to mention that in a gentle way to your friend.

The last New Testament mention of casting lots is found in Acts 1. Following the Ascension, the disciples met to decide who would take Judas Iscariot's place among the disciples. Matthias was selected by lot. There is no reason to assume that God did not act in and through lot casting in that instance.

But (I'll bet you knew that was coming) I think it telling that the very last mention of lot casting comes in Acts1...what happens in Acts 2? Pentecost. The Holy Spirit indwells the church in Acts 2 and from that moment on all those who believe receive the Spirit of God.

In the remainder of Acts, God directs the apostles directly through the Holy Spirit and the various prophetic "gifts" he brings--not through lots. In fact, the passage in Acts in which one would most expect, on the basis of the Acts 1 model, to find lot-casting--Acts 6: the choosing of the seven deacons--a passage that closely parallels the choosing of Matthias by lot--the practice is noticeably absent. Lots, it seems, are no longer necessary for a community indwelled by the Holy Spirit.

The possibility of casting lots to discern God's will is also absent from the epistles...particularly in those sections you would think it would be mentioned. For example, in 1 Cor 12-14 when Paul discusses the "gifts of the Spirit" (see also Romans 12) there are a number of gifts that are given precisely for the purpose of helping the church discern the will of God...prophesy, the interpretation of tongues, the word of knowledge..."lot casting" is never mentioned, discussed or considered.

In addition to its absence among the NT gifts explicitly mentioned in 1st Corinthians and Romans 12, there are some key texts that give us insight the ways God expected early believers (and by extension, present day believers) to be "led" by the Holy Spirit.

Look in particular at 1 Cor 2:11-15:
For who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.

14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. 16 “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

Believers are indwelled by the Spirit and have, therefore, the "mind of Christ." We do not need to cast lots to determine the mind of Christ, we are indwelled by the Spirit of the Living God--we have his "mind" already. This fact undergirds Paul's constant prayer for the Philippians... "asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding..." (Phil 1:9). Paul assumes that the discernment of the will of God is a spiritual...not a mechanical matter.

You see a very similar assumption underlying Paul's exhortation in 1st Corinthians 6:1-5.
When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers,

Here Paul tells the Corinthians not to take disputes to secular courts because even believers of "little account" have been equipped by virtue of their standing or status "in Christ" with the capacity, the wisdom, to "judge" between believers.

Does this mean that a Christian or a Christian community, with the "mind of Christ" earnestly employing the natural and spiritual gifts God provides to determine a future course will always make good decisions? Of course not but there seems to be, and I am less certain about this, an understanding on Paul's part that the decision of a community--and I think this would apply individual as well--may be "blessed" by God in so far as the "resolve" is "good" other words in so far as the decision represents a good faith attempt employing divinely given natural and spiritual resources to discern God's will and follow it. Here's Paul's prayer for the Thessalonians: "To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ." (2 Thessalonians 1:11-12)

I don't think you have to be a cessationist (and I am not one) to come to a relatively solid conclusion that believers indwelt by the Holy Spirit are not to "cast lots" to determine God's will. We have the mind of Christ.

The import of all of these considerations leads me to believe that in circumstances not governed by a biblical injunction or instruction, believers are (no shocker here) to use both their natural wisdom and spiritual gifts to make decisions. And in so far as we have sought to be consistent with God's purposes and to bring him glory, it is reasonable to assume that God can and will work through and bless even our mistakes.

Here are a few questions I think believers should ask themselves before making a decision.

1. Is there a biblical principle or instruction implied or expressed that governs this circumstance...if so, well, follow it.

2. Has the believing community to which I belong (in this case_____) committed to a corporate mission, decision, or direction? If so, is my personal decision consistent or inconsistent with it? God speaks through the Body of Christ

3. Have I prayed consistently about this decision?

4. Does one way seem more reasonable than the other...remember God gave us minds as well as spirits. Many Christians, far too often, hold plain reason suspect--indeed some seem to purposefully make decisions contrary to it in order to demonstrate that they are "walking in the Spirit"...which is simply foolishness.

5. Are circumstances narrowing the decision-making process...has God closed or opened any doors in one direction or another?

6. Will this decision hurt or harm or in any way negatively effect my Christian witness, my ability to contribute to the mission of the community of which I am a member, or any brother or sister who may hear about it?

7. Do I sense in my prayers that God is guiding me in a certain direction? This "sense" is, of course, quite subjective...which is why I have put it last...but there is often a strong sense of God's leading one way or the other. Two caveats: 1. God never leads us to act in ways contrary to scripture...2. Unless the believing community to which we belong is waaay off base, he rarely calls us to act in ways that conflict with its mission and call.

Hope this helps...please feel free to follow up with any questions, objections etc...


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