Guidance and the Will of God
Which country should she live in? What job should she do? Should she marry her current boyfriend? etc. She wanted to be sure that she was being obedient to God’s will.
After all these years, have yet to find a better (ie. more faithful-to-Scripture) write-up than Phillip Jensen/Tony Payne’s three articles (reproduced with permission):
The guiding God
Co-written with: Tony Payne
Is guidance still a hot topic amongst Christians? Judging by the books being published and the surge of interest in ‘words of knowledge’, one would have to say yes.
Christians have long been tantalized by the prospect of discovering God’s individual will for their lives. What job does God want me to take? Is it his will for me to marry Edwina? What suburb should I live in? In the last 100 years especially, many theories and techniques have been proposed for receiving God’s guidance.
In recent years, the traditional view of guidance has been challenged. (By ‘traditional’, I mean the view that has been traditional for most of this century.) Garry Friesen’s book, Decision Making & the Will of God was at the forefront of this critique.
The Traditional View
In Friesen’s book, a fictional pastor presents a seminar on “Knowing God’s Will for Your Life” where the ‘traditional’ view is outlined, par excellence. We could summarize it as follows.
God’s will has three aspects: Sovereign, Moral and Individual. God’s sovereign will is his predetermined plan for everything that happens. It inevitably comes to pass. God’s moral will consists of his moral commands revealed in the Bible. His individual will is his detailed life-plan uniquely designed for every Christian. The Spirit which dwells in our hearts reveals this life-plan to us progressively, using a variety of means.
The means used to guide us along God’s individual will can be thought of as signposts. There are seven signposts which the Spirit uses: the Bible; the inner witness (or peace); personal desires; circumstances; mature counsel; common sense; and special guidance (such as dreams or visions).
Garry Friesen’s critique of this approach to guidance was quite influential. He raised doubts about whether God really did reveal an individual life-plan to each Christian, and offered what many saw as a more balanced and biblical model for guidance.
Partly as a result of Friesen’s work, the traditional approach to guidance has become somewhat less prominent in Evangelical circles. It is not talked about so much, and many have wished to distance themselves from its excesses.
However, it is far from dead. The issue still crops up, for example, in connection with ‘the call’ to the ministry or the mission field. Many missionary societies or denominational bodies feel strongly about the importance of candidates receiving divine guidance to go into the ministry. Without that clear call of God, it is argued, ministers and missionaries will never persevere amidst the many hardships that they will face.
The recent explosion of interest in ‘words of knowledge’ (and other forms of fresh revelation) has given fresh impetus to the traditional view. The emphasis may be different, but the underlying principle is the same—that God has specific, individually-tailored information about our lives to convey to us, information that we cannot glean from the Bible.
The Last Word on Guidance
What are we to make of this traditional approach to guidance? If we conclude that it goes too far in expecting God to reveal his ‘individual will’ to each Christian, what sort of guidance should we expect? Does God really guide us at all? If so, how? What should we tell Christians to expect?
In the next three issues of The Briefing we will explore these questions. It is a complex subject, made all the more complex by the multitude of theories and techniques that have been proposed. In the limited space that we have, we won’t be able to examine all the issues or provide all the answers.
However, we do hope to achieve at least two things:
- to lay some solid biblical groundwork so that you can continue to think the issue through yourself; and
- to whet your appetite for our book on guidance, which is due out in mid-July! (The book is subtly called The Last Word on Guidance and is being jointly published by Anzea Publishers and St Matthias Press.)
In this first article, we’ll look at the big picture—the grand design. How does God’s character help us understand how he guides? And where is he guiding us?
The Guiding God
It is almost a cliche to start an investigation like this with a look at ‘the character of God’. It is an accepted convention, as if it is irreverent to start anywhere else.
However, in this instance, it is far more than a safe place to start. It is the key to the problem. It is the place where many other treatments of the subject have gone astray.
If we take the time to understand the guiding God, then we will have come a long way towards understanding how he guides us, and how we should respond.
God, the Sovereign Creator
The God revealed to us in the Bible is the Sovereign Creator God of all the world. He made it all. He owns it all. He rules it all. As the Creator, he continues to create and sustain all things, down to the smallest detail:
He makes springs pour water into the ravines;
it flows between the mountains.
They give water to all the beasts of the field;
the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
The birds of the air nest by the waters;
they sing among the branches.
He waters the mountains from his upper chambers;
the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work.
He makes grass grow for the cattle,
and plants for man to cultivate—
bringing forth food from the earth:
wine that gladdens the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine,
and bread that sustains his heart. (Ps 104:10-15)
Jesus expresses this all-embracing care of God for his creation in a striking way:
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Matt 10:29-30)
God rules and sustains and replenishes his world down to the most intimate detail. And this is the God who guides his people.
The guidance given to the Israelites in the Exodus was the guidance of the Sovereign Lord of Creation. The plagues, the Red Sea crossing, the manna, the quail, the water from the rock, the voice from Sinai—the whole story bears the marks of the Creator, ruling over his world in order to achieve his purposes for one particular nation.
God, the creator and ruler of the universe, can and does use everything to rule and guide his people—donkeys speak, staffs turn to serpents, and bushes burn without being consumed (see Num 22, Ex 7, Ex 3).
All things, including the hearts of men and kings, are in his hand:
A man’s steps are directed by the LORD.
How then can anyone understand his own way? (Prov 20:24)
The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord;
he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases. (Prov 21:1)
God, the Shepherd of His People
One of the most familiar, and yet most extraordinary, ideas in the Bible is that God—the Sovereign, Creator God we have just been considering—should choose to enter into relationship with human beings. It is astounding. It is like the President of the United States deciding to befriend a cockroach.
The Bible describes this extraordinary relationships between God and his people as being like a shepherd with his sheep. In Ps 80:1, God is described as the “shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock”; and there are a numerous references like this (e.g., Ps 77:20; Isa 40:11; Isa 63:11). The most well known, of course, is Ps 23, which expresses the same idea more personally. God will not only guide the nation, he will also shepherd individuals:
…he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. (Ps 23:2-3)
The leaders of Israel were also called ‘shepherds’. Their responsibility was to lead and guide the people under God’s direction. The tragedy was that Israel’s leaders were often derelict in their duty. In Ezek 34, we read about their negligence and how, as a result, the people were “scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals” (Ezek 34:5). God promises that he himself will come and tend his people, rounding up the strays, and caring for the weak and hungry.
In light of this passage, we see the significance of Jesus being the “good shepherd”. In Jn 10, Jesus paints a graphic picture of himself as the good and faithful shepherd who knows his flock by name and leads them to safety: “My sheep listen to my voice: I know them, and they follow me” (Jn 10:27). The image is taken up elsewhere in the NT, such as in Matt 9:36, where Jesus has compassion on the crowds because “they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd” (see also Heb 13:20; 1 Pet 2:25; 5:4; Rev 7:17).
God relates to his people as a Shepherd to his sheep. And we need to be under no illusions about how shepherds guided their sheep in the ancient world. They had a long staff, the shepherd’s crook—and it wasn’t just for leaning on—it was for whacking their sheep to keep them in line. We tend to have a very sentimental view of shepherding. We think that shepherds used to mosey up to the sheep and gently rub them on the back and ask them if they’d mind stepping this way. Shepherds weren’t like counsellors—they led their sheep; they showed them where to go and gave them a prod in the right direction if they were slow to get moving.
This is the relationship of God with his people. He shows them the way and leads them along it.
God, the Planner
In understanding the God who guides, we also need to realise that he makes plans. The Bible does not see history as a succession of meaningless, random events. The God of the Bible is the Lord of history, who draws up a plan and then pursues it to completion. God guides according to a plan.
This plan of God is explained in several parts of Scripture. It is foreshadowed in the promise to Eve that her seed will crush the serpent’s head (Gen 3:15). It is foretold to Abram when he is called by God (Gen 12:1ff) and reiterated when the sign of circumcision is given (Gen 15, 17). It is established by the covenant with Moses and the people of Israel (Ex 19-23). It is further elaborated to David (2 Sam 7) and through Jeremiah (Jer 31). And it finds its fulfilment in Christ (Matt 5:17-20; 2 Cor 1:20) and his people (1 Pet 1:9-10; Eph 1:3-10).
This plan of God covers centuries of human history. Abraham is told some 400 years in advance that his descendants will be captive in Egypt and then rescued by God and taken to the Promised Land. God declares that all this will happen; and it does, because God’s word is as certain and reliable as the rain that waters the earth:
It will not return to me empty but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. (Isa 55:11)
The New Testament events are likewise under God’s control and part of his great plan. Jesus died to redeem us “when the time had fully come” (Gal 4:4). There is a sense of historical necessity about what Jesus came to do. Even though it involved the brutal execution of an innocent man, Jesus’ crucifixion was part of the Grand Design. It had to happen.
The details of God’s plan need not worry us at the moment. They are very important, and we will pursue them shortly. What is important to note at this point is that God has a plan and he works—sovereignly and irresistibly— to achieve it.
Having looked at the character of God as the Sovereign Creator, the way he relates to his people as Shepherd, and the cosmic historical plans he makes, we already have a solid basis for expecting God to guide us. However, it is also worth noting briefly that there are some direct statements in Scripture that God will guide. These statements are few in number, but they are there.
In Ps 25, for example, David pleads with God to protect him from his enemies. Based on his trust in God as his Saviour, David declares his confidence that God will guide the humble:
He instructs sinners in his ways,
He guides the humble in what is right
and teaches them his ways…
Who, then, is the man that fears the LORD?
He will instruct him in the way chosen for him.
He will spend his days in prosperity,
and his descendants will inherit the land.
The LORD confides in those who fear him;
he makes his covenant known to them. (Ps 25:8-9, 12-13)
There are similar ideas expressed in Ps 32:8 and in the well known passage in Proverbs: Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. (Prov 3:5-6)
God undertakes to lead his people. As the Sovereign Creator, he has the power to do it; as our Shepherd, it is the way he relates to us; and as the Supreme Planner, he knows where he wants to take us.
This last point is crucial. We must understand where God is guiding us. God has a plan, a grand design, that he has been unfolding since before the creation of the world. What is this plan? Where is he taking us? Where does the journey end?
It is hard to do justice to the majestic plan of God in a few brief paragraphs! Perhaps the best we can do is choose a few key passages which outline what God’s plan is, and in particular the destination to which he is leading us. In the opening verses of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we find a great thanksgiving to God for the blessings which are ours in Christ:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfilment— to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ. (Eph 1:3-10)
Here is a passage which speaks about God’s plan in grand terms, and gives us some insight into our place in the scheme. Paul thanks God for our election (v4), our adoption (v5), our redemption (v7) and our understanding (v8-9). Paul praises God because all this is God’s work. God has accomplished all this in his love and grace through Jesus.
We should note particularly the purpose for which all this is done. It comes out in several of the verses:
- in v4, we are chosen to “be holy and blameless in his sight”
- in v5, we are predestined to be “his sons”
- in v10, God’s ultimate purpose is to “bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.”
Here is the goal or destination of our lives: to be under Christ. The Christian has the special privilege of already being submitted to Christ as a child of God, holy and blameless in his sight. And when the times have reached their fulfilment, this process of submission will be completed. All things will be placed under Christ’s headship—all things in our lives and in heaven and on earth.
If that is the destination, how will we travel there? By God’s gracious mercy and love. God in his rich grace has sent his Son to provide redemption for the forgiveness of sins. The children of Israel were saved from death by the blood of the passover lamb. They were purchased out of slavery in Egypt and led by God to the Promised Land. Christians are saved by the blood of the Passover Lamb, Jesus. We are purchased out of slavery (to sin) and led by God to that great day when we will be finally and perfectly submitted to Christ.
Romans 8:28-30 is another purple passage about God’s plan:
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the first born among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. (Rom 8:28-30)
This is great news, especially for Christians. “In all things”, God works for our good, that is, for “those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose”. But what does it mean “for our good”? The following sentence gives the answer. We know that God works “in all things” for our good because he has “predestined [us] to be conformed to the likeness of his Son”. In other words, “our good” equals becoming like Jesus. It means becoming what we were created to be—the image of God, in harmony with our creator, our society, our world and ourselves. This is “our good”.
Becoming like Christ is the ultimate good, but that doesn’t mean that it will be easy. Jesus, after all, was the ‘man of sorrows’, the man who suffered death on a cross. Becoming like him means becoming acquainted with grief and suffering and yet remaining obedient to the end. To say that God works in everything for our good does not mean that he will remove all pain and suffering from our path. On the contrary—if becoming like Christ is the ‘good’ that God is working for, then pain and suffering will almost certainly come our way. And through that pain and suffering, God will work in his sovereign way to mould us into the shape of Jesus.
This, then, is our destination, our promised land: to be conformed to the image of Jesus. Again we might ask: how will we get there? Romans 8 reassures us that nothing in the circumstances of life can thwart God’s plan to make us like Christ. The sufferings of this world are nothing compared with the glory that is to come (v18), and eventually all suffering will be done away with (vv19-23). In the meantime, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus—”neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation” (vv38-39).
In other words, God will get us there by his mighty sovereign power. He works in everything—in pain, in pleasure, in success and in suffering—to achieve the goal of making us like Jesus.
Ephesians 1 and Romans 8 teach us important things about where God is guiding us. They teach (in different ways) the same basic message: that, just as with Moses in the Exodus, God is taking his people to the Promised Land, to heaven, to be submitted finally and completely to Christ, perfect and holy and blameless before him. There are many other passages we could have looked at to establish the same point—you may like to consult, for example, 2 Cor 3:18; Phil 3:10-11, 19-20; Col 3:1-3; 1 Thes 1:9-10; 5:9-11; 2 Thes 2:13-14; 1 Pet 1:3-5; 3:8-13; 2 Pet 3:8-13; 1 Jn 3:1-3.
We have seen that God does it all. He sets the destination, and he guides us along the way to make sure we get there! “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:6). Does that mean that we do nothing? Are the things we do each day meaningless? Are our choices irrelevant? What response is required of us? What part do we have to play in God’s guidance of us?
These questions will be the subject of our next article.
The response of the guided
Co-written with: Tony Payne
In our last article, we did a brief sketch of God’s mindblowing plan for human history and our place in it. We saw that God, the Sovereign Creator, relates to his people as a Shepherd to his sheep. He has a destination for us, and he guides us to that destination, making sure that we arrive safely.
But how much of a part do we have to play? Do we just sit back and enjoy the scenery? In this, the second article in our series of three, we deal with…
When the evangelists of the NT called on people to act, what did they ask them to do? We need to take careful note of the answer to this question, for it will tell us how we need to respond to God’s plans. Typically, the required response was twofold, and Paul summarizes it in these words: “I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:21).
Repentance = Turning
Repentance is about changing your mind, or more precisely changing your direction. “I used to live this way, but now I have changed my mind and in future I will live this other way.”
Repentance means far more than feeling sorry. Sometimes it is associated with sorrow, but sometimes it is not (see 2 Cor 7:8f.). It is possible to feel very sorry about something but still keep on doing it—that is not repentance. It is equally possible to have a complete change of mind and action about something without feeling very sorry at all.
A good example of repentance is found in 1 Thes 1:9-10. The Thessalonians used to worship idols, but after hearing the gospel they turned and began to serve the true and living God and to wait for his Son from heaven. Their change of mind altered their whole lives. They had an altered relationship with God, and an altered eternity.
This is just like the repentance that Jesus demands from his disciples. He calls on them to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him (Mk 8:34). Here is a radical repentance—to pronounce yourself dead and to start living for Christ. Paul puts it like this: “He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for him who died for them and was raised again” (2 Cor 5:15).
A key part of the right response to God and his plans is choosing NOT to live for ourselves but for our Maker and Redeemer. In his death and resurrection, Jesus obliterates our past and opens up a new future for us. He makes possible a new start, a whole new life, in which we serve the living and true God rather than the dead and false god of our own Selfishness.
Faith = Trusting
The other key part of our response to God’s guidance is ‘faith’, a misused and misunderstood religious word if ever there was one. In modern Australia, faith means believing something to be true even though all the evidence is against you. Faith is a kind of blind, irrational leap (usually into the dark) in the face of all that is reasonable. This is reflected in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, which defines faith as “belief in religious doctrines, especially such as effects character and conduct; spiritual apprehension of divine truth apart from proof”.
The Bible uses the word ‘faith’ simply to mean ‘trust’. To have faith in someone is to trust them, or rely on them, or be confident that what they say is true. You may do this rationally on the basis of detailed evidence, or you may do it irrationally because you are gullible; but either way it qualifies as ‘faith’.
As I write this, I am believing in a chair. I am having faith in it. My whole weight is placed upon it and I am trusting it to do its job. It is not an irrational faith. I have been sitting on this chair for some part of most days during the last fifteen years, and it has yet to fail me. If I felt so inclined, I could examine the chair more closely to see if it was worthy of my trust. I could test its construction, analyze its design, and check all the joints. If it passed all the tests, I could then choose to sit on it, with my empirical rationality finally satisfied. However, I would still be putting faith in the chair (and, incidentally, in my empirical rationality).
Now faith understood in this sense (as trust or confidence) lies at the heart of our response to God. The gospel declares to us who Jesus is and what he has done. It tells of God’s plans for the world and for each one of us, and it calls us to turn from our present way of life (repent) and place our trust in Jesus (faith). Like the Thessalonians, we are to “wait for God’s Son from heaven”—that is, to put our ‘faith’ in him (1 Thes 1:10). The NT makes much of this response of faith to the person and work of Jesus (e.g., Jn 3:16; Acts 16:31; Rom 5:1). Here then is the NT way of responding to God—we are to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus.
Is that all?
This all seems very safe and conventional, but is that all there is? Is repentance and faith all that God requires of us? Most of us would acknowledge that repentance and faith should be our initial reponse to the gospel, but what of our on-going response to his guidance throughout our Christian lives?
When we examine this response more closely, we find that the continuing response to God is the same as the initial one. Repentance is something that we do once—decisively— when we hear the gospel and become Christians; and yet it is also something we continue to do throughout our lives.
Paul, for example, wanted the Colossians to ‘put on’ love, to keep clothing themselves in the characteristics and behaviour that befitted their new status as God’s chosen people (Col 3:5-14). They had made a decisive repentance—there was no doubt about that. They had “died with Christ” and had been “raised with Christ” to a new life (2:20-3:4). Yet Paul exhorted them to keep putting to death whatever belonged to their “earthly nature”. It didn’t stop with conversion.
Repentance is a continuing response to God. The good works of Christian living are a natural outworking of repentance. Having turned our backs on our old ways of life, we are now to walk in a new way, following our new Master.
In the same way, faith is the ongoing response of God’s people to their Lord. God is our Shepherd, guiding us towards home. The response of the sheep is to trust. They hear the shepherd’s voice and follow, relying on him to get them home:
My sheep listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life and they shall never perish; no-one shall snatch them out of my hands. (Jn 10:25-30)
Jesus reassures his sheep that they will arrive at their destination. And notice that Jesus equates listening with following. We follow our Master by listening to what he has to say and then doing it. The Good Shepherd calls upon the sheep to trust him, to accept his guidance, and to keep following him throughout their lives.
The New Testament describes our response to God’s guidance in the simple terms of repentance and faith. However, many Christians misunderstand this response, often because they do not understand God’s part in the process. Let us look at just two of these common misunderstandings.
We’ve already seen that one of our responses to God’s guidance is faith. But what sort of faith? If God is so completely in control, do we really need to do anything at all? As a famous Christian expression puts it, should we “let go and let God”? Is this the essence of trusting God?
Today, many people use the word faith in this do-nothing sense. Several couples I have spoken to before marriage have told me that they planned not to use contraceptives because they were “just going to trust God”. Similarly, some missionary societies call themselves ‘faith missions’ because they make no organized, human attempt to raise money—”We just look to the Lord to supply the money”.
This is how many people today use the word ‘faith’, and we cannot say that God won’t bless people who live this way. God, in his mercy, may give the non-contraceptive couple the two children they were hoping for (and no more). God is able to control the reproductive process—just look what he achieved with Abraham and Sarah! In the same way, God can finance a missionary society without the normal fund-raising efforts. The people of Israel did not leave Egypt empty-handed—God provided them with plunder from the terrified Egyptians (Ex 3:21-22; 11:2-3; 12:35-36).
But if we want to use the word ‘faith’ in its biblical sense, then we must not equate it with doing nothing. In some circumstances, doing nothing may signify a great trust in God; in other circumstances, it may signify unbelief of the worst kind. Faith in the Bible is an active reliance on God such that we choose to live his way. Having faith in God means taking action as he directs. If he directs us not to organize our missionary finances, then doing nothing is indeed the response of faith. But if he does direct us to organize ourselves, then doing nothing is lack of faith.
It is just this confusion that James addresses in the second chapter of his letter. Faith without works is dead, says James. It is not faith at all. Real trust in God will always result in good works, actions, deeds. Real faith will listen to what God says, accept it as the truth, and seek to put it into practice. Deeds are not the opposite of faith; disobedience is the opposite of the faith. (A careful reading of Heb 3-4 brings this distinction out very clearly).
Some may raise other parts of Scripture such as this:
In repentance and rest is your salvation,
in quietness and trust is your strength,
but you would have none of it.
You said, “We will ride off on swift horses.”
Therefore you will flee!
However, when we look at such passages in context, we see that trusting God in that situation meant doing nothing because God had told his people to do nothing. This is quite different from saying that faith always means doing nothing and waiting for God. God does not get angry with people because they take action. He gets angry with them for taking their own action, rather than his.
In the Bible, ‘faith’ is not fatalistic. It is not sitting back and letting God do it all. Faith is an active relationship of trust and dependence and it is expressed in thousands of ways. If we trust God’s power and love towards us, then we will pray to him for our needs and thank him for all that he gives us. We will listen to what he says and obey it. We will confidently follow his directions, knowing that they lead heavenward.
The ‘second best’ heresy
A second common misunderstanding revolves around the strange idea of God’s ‘second best’.
Some Christians are taught that if God wants them to follow a particular course of action (marry Mary-Lou, or serve on the mission field of Bolivia) and they choose not to do it, then they are committed for the rest of their lives to God’s ‘second best’. God had something better for them, but they missed out on it and so are required to settle for Plan B, so to speak. Many Christians today live in resentment, disappointment and guilt, believing that they have irrevocably missed out on God’s perfect plan for them.
This view is a travesty of the biblical understanding of God. It contains numerous errors.
Firstly, there is a misunderstanding of sin and its consequences. The ‘second best’ theory seems to assume that there are only relatively few decisions that might place us outside God’s will. However, our wrong decisions are not limited to a few areas (like marriage and career). We choose to rebel against God in hundreds and thousands of ways throughout our lives. Does each of these mistakes take us further and further away from the perfect plan? By the end of our lives, are we somewhere up around the ’10,000th best’?
Closely related to the first error, is the very selective nature of the decisions that can consign us to the ‘second best’. Things like marriage, career, answering the call to the mission-field, and so on, seem to be viewed as very important matters of guidance, while the thousands of other decisions we make each week are somehow unimportant. This perception is false. The things we think are very important are often quite unimportant to God—and vice versa.
Most importantly, the ‘second best’ heresy denies the power of God. According to this view, once I have chosen my course of action, God is powerless to redeem the situation. He cannot rewrite the script. In fact, he is no longer a God with plans; he is a God with hopes. He is unable to achieve his goals without my indispensable co-operation, and is dependent on me making the right choices. He becomes subject to the whims and follies of human sinfulness.
Needless to say, this view of God is at complete variance with the way God is revealed in the Scriptures. God over-rules the minds and hearts of people to achieve his plans. He uses even our sinful decisions to bring about his purposes. He can take an action that was wrong and intended to do harm, and achieve his own good purpose through it.
The story of Joseph is a good example. His brothers did an evil thing in selling Joseph into slavery, but God “intended it for good, to accomplish what is now being done: the saving of many” (Gen 50:19-20). The cross of Jesus is the supreme example of this (see 1 Cor 2:7-8; Acts 2:23; 4:27-28).
God over-rules everything—including the hearts and minds of people—to achieve his purposes. We reject God’s power (and his guidance) when we act as if this were not true.
God’s power stretches over all things, even over our wilful and sinful decisions. He may, and indeed does, call us into conscious cooperation with him in his plans. As we have already seen, he does demand a response from us.
However, we must not think that the accomplishment of his plans are somehow dependent on our participation, as if he were limited by our freedom. The ‘second best’ heresy makes this mistake. It is a classic instance of what is a distressingly widespread problem amongst Christians—the rejection of God’s power.
So far, then, we have looked at the big picture. In the first two articles of our series, we have thought about the character of the guiding God, at his plans for us, and at how we should (and shouldn’t) respond. However, we have yet to explore the means by which God guides us along the way. How does God guide us? What methods does he use? How do we hear his voice so that we can follow?
It is to this subject that we will turn in the third article in the series.
How does God guide?
Co-written with: Tony Payne
In the first two articles in this series, we have looked at the grand design. We have thought about the character of the guiding God, at his plans for us, and at how we should (and shouldn’t) respond.
However, we have yet to explore the means by which God guides us along the way. How does God guide us? What methods does he use? How do we hear his voice so that we can follow?
It is to this subject that we now turn in the final article of the series.
What do we mean by ‘guide’?
Up till now, you may have noticed that we have been using the word ‘guide’ in two quite different senses.
On the one hand, we have seen that God guides his people ‘behind the scenes’. In his sovereign, irresistible way, God works in all things to move his people along the path he has planned for them. He turns our hearts this way. He pushes us in that direction. He arranges circumstances so that this may happen to us. And so on.
This ‘behind the scenes’ guidance is only visible to us after the event, as we look back on what God has done in our lives. We know that God is moving and working in all things for our good, but the day-to-day details are not revealed to us in advance. We do know the destination, and we do know that he will get us there, but God guides and shepherds us on our journey in ways that we can only guess at.
However, God does not only guide us sovereignly behind the scenes. He also calls for our conscious co-operation. He gives us certain instructions and directions, and calls on us to follow. With ‘conscious co-operation’ guidance, we do know what God wants us to do in advance. God says to us, “Go this way”, and it is our responsibility to either follow or disobey.
In the following pages, we need to bear in mind this distinction between ‘behind the scenes’ guidance and ‘conscious co-operation’ guidance.
How, then, does God guide us?
Given the intense interest that modern Christians have in the subject, the surprising thing is that the Bible says very little about how God guides his people, especially in the area of conscious co-operation. There have been countless books written about guidance, outlining countless ways to determine ‘God’s will for your life’. Yet, in the Bible, the subject hardly ever arises.
Furthermore, when guidance does come up in the Bible, the answers are very different to popular Christian piety.
We would like to suggest four propositions about how God guides:
- God, in his sovereignty, uses everything to guide us ‘behind the scenes’.
- In many and varied ways, God can guide us with our conscious co-operation.
- God does promise to guide us by his Spirit and Scripture.
- God does not promise to use any other means to guide us other than his Spirit and Scripture.
1 God, in his sovereignty, uses everything to guide us ‘behind the scenes’.
As we have seen in our first article, God is at work in everything. He is sovereign. Nothing is too small for him, if the hairs on our head are numbered. Nothing is too evil, if the death of Jesus was part of his plan. Nothing is too difficult, if half-dead Abraham and Sarah could have children. Nothing is too great, if the kingdom of darkness has been overthrown and Jesus sits at the right hand of God.
God guides us along the path in ways which are quite beyond our understanding. He uses anything and everything to achieve his plans for us, even turning our hearts and minds to follow his course (Prov 16:9; 21:1).
Moreover, he doesn’t need our conscious co-operation to do this. Nothing can thwart his plans. We must never underestimate God’s ability to guide us ‘behind the scenes’.
2 In many and varied ways, God can guide us with our conscious co-operation.
As we have already said, God’s guidance is not only of the ‘behind the scenes’ variety. He does tell us which way to go and calls on us to hear and obey.
From the very beginning of the Bible, God talks to man, giving him instructions, directions, wisdom and knowledge. God speaks to man in the Garden, telling him what he can and cannot do, and even spelling out the consequences of doing the wrong thing. This is safe ground. We all agree that God speaks to man, that he gives us guidance by talking to us. The real issue is this: How does God talk to us? Should I expect a still, small voice? An inner prompting? A dream? Writing on the wall?
Heb 1:1 is a key text in answering this question:
In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways…
God can use anything to speak to his people and offer them guidance. He has spoken at many times and in various ways. The Bible records an immense variety of ways that God has spoken to his people—for example: direct speech to Moses in Ex 3-4; the pillar of fire and cloud of smoke in Ex 13; the many OT prophets, like Jonah and Nathan; the writing that appeared on King Belshazzar’s wall in Daniel 5; not to mention angels, dreams, visions, and even casting lots.
The list could go on. God can speak to his people in any way he chooses and call on them to go his way.
However, here we must make a crucial distinction. To set out how God can guide us (or how he has guided people in the past) does not tell us how God does guide today or how he will guide. This is worth repeating: to set out how God can guide does not tell us how God will guide in our daily lives.
I have never been to Egypt. I don’t have a staff, let alone one that turns into a snake. My situation and Moses’ situation are quite different. Even if I met a man with a snake/stick and a hand with optional leprosy, I would not expect him to lead me out of slavery in Egypt. God did guide his people in that way. And I have no doubt that God could guide his people again in that fashion if he should so choose. Yet I cannot draw the conclusion that God will guide me in the same way today.
If we look at all the various ways that God has guided his people in the past, we do not find many promises that he will guide in the same way in the future. All of the above illustrations occur in narrative sections of the Bible. They describe how God guided/spoke in a particular time and situation. They say nothing of how God promises to guide his people in other times and situations—such as ours.
Modern Bible readers often make the mistake of assuming that because God has acted in a certain way in the past, we should expect (or even demand) that he act in the same way today. People choose stories like Elijah’s “still, small voice” or Gideon’s fleece, and expect that God will guide them in the same way today. This is a grave misunderstanding. It is not only quite selective in the stories it chooses (you won’t find many proponents of wall-writing in modern guidance books), it also ignores the uniqueness of the biblical narratives and their place in God’s overall scheme. Worst of all, this way of reading the Bible takes no account of the difference that Jesus makes.
Let us clarify our question. What we really want to ask is not “How can God guide?” or “How has God guided in the past?”, but “How does God promise to guide us now in the area of our conscious co-operation?”. Having clarified the question, the Bible’s answer is not hard to see.
3 God does promise to guide us by his Spirit and Scripture.
The OT looked forward to a time when God would send his Spirit on all his people:
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. (Ezek 36:26-27)
In the NT, this hope is fulfilled. Jesus, the risen Christ, pours out the Spirit on his people (Acts 2:33). The NT continually assumes that all Christians receive God’s Spirit as a guarantee of their relationship with God (Rom 8:5-7; Gal 4:6; Eph 2:18). Genuine Christians, writes John in his first letter, need not be worried by divisive heretics who deny Christ, because the anointing of God’s Spirit will teach us the truth (1 Jn 2:18-27).
However, before we say too much about the Spirit’s role in our Christian lives, we should realize that it won’t help us much in answering our question (“How does God promise to guide us now in the area of our conscious cooperation?”). For who is the Holy Spirit but God? To say that God guides us by his Spirit is to say that God guides us by God. It doesn’t answer the real question.
How, then, does God, the Spirit, promise to guide us? The answer is simple: by the sword of the Spirit, the Scriptures (Eph 6:17). God speaks to us by his word. He tells, directs, encourages, advises, commands, informs, reveals and exhorts us to live his way. The Spirit takes this word and applies it to our hearts. He awakens a response in us and leads us to put it into practice. This may sound very dull and pedestrian, but God speaks to us in words, and these words have been written down, and we are supposed to read them and find out what God wants us to do! This is not very mystical or magical or spectacular, and it therefore lacks some fascination for unspiritual minds.
When we look at what the Bible says about itself, we find a consistent pattern of promises that God will continue to guide his people by his word. And all the books on guidance agree at this point. They all give a prominent place to the Bible as a means of guidance. This is hardly remarkable, for the evidence within the Scriptures is overwhelming.
Let us spend a few moments looking at some of these promises, because the conclusions we will draw from them go far beyond what is said in most books on guidance.
Psalm 119 is easy to remember because it is so distinctively long. This is a shame in some ways, because people rarely read it or preach on it as a unit. Yet as we read its 176 verses, we are struck by the consistent emphasis on the importance of God’s word to guide us in life. The psalmist strayed from God and was afflicted. He has now turned back to God and looks to him for salvation. He finds delight in obeying God’s word and observes that his enemies ignore God’s word. He longs for God and for salvation and for further opportunities to obey God’s word, which he cherishes so highly. Almost every verse refers in some way to God’s word—many give general statements about guidance:
Blessed are they whose ways are blameless,
who walk according to the law of the LORD.
Blessed are they who keep his statutes
and seek him with all their heart.
They do nothing wrong;
they walk in his ways. (1-3)
How can a young man keep his way pure?
By living according to your word. (9)
Your statutes are my delight;
they are my counsellors. (24)
I gain understanding from your precepts;
therefore I hate every wrong path.
Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light for my path. (104-105)
Great peace have they who love your law,
and nothing can make them stumble. (165)
The way to life, wisdom, light and righteousness is in keeping God’s word. As another psalm puts it:
The ordinances of the Lord are sure
and altogether righteous.
They are more precious than gold,
than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
than honey from the comb.
By them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward. (Ps 19:9b-11)
In the NT, Paul directs Timothy to persevere diligently in his obedience to the gospel and his teaching of the Scriptures, because in so doing he will save both himself and his hearers (1 Tim 4:11-16). The word of God teaches, rebukes, corrects, and trains in righteousness. It is the tool which the man of God uses to thoroughly equip both himself and those he teaches (2 Tim 3:16-17).
How is God going to guide me? By talking to me. How do I hear him talking to me? By reading the Scriptures. Do they show me the way I should go? They most certainly do, for they teach me how God wants me to live. They rebuke me when I depart from the way. They correct me to show the way back. They train me in the right way to go. The word of God is there to guide me every step of the way.
This is not just another example of how God can guide us; it is his description of how he does and will guide us. His word makes our pathway clear.
Of course, not everyone agrees with this view of God’s word. Some people reject it outright, claiming that the Bible is only a fallible, human document, and not divine Scripture. Others acknowledge the Bible’s divine authorship and authority, but in practice allow other authorities to rule over it (the other authorities usually being the Church, human reason or spiritual experiences.)
However, even amongst Christians who venerate the Bible as the supreme and only authority, there is an alternative view to the one we have been presenting.
Many Evangelical Christians regard the Bible as a good strong light which clearly shows the way to go, but for only part of the journey. According to this view, the Bible lights up part of our lives and tells us how to live, but other sections remain in the dark. The Bible is said to give us help in a general way, but not about certain decisions—like marriage and career choice. For these additional decisions, other forms of guidance become necessary: such as direct words from God, inner promptings, feelings of peace, the counsel of godly friends, laying out a fleece, and so on.
This alternative view is so widespread among Christians today that it is virtually taken for granted. It is common to hear Christians say things like: “I’m waiting for the Lord’s leading about that decision”—as if God has not already given them sufficient guidance and is about to send them some special word or indication. Many are surprised to learn that this approach is a fairly recent development in Christian history—and even more surprised to find that it is not at all how the Bible views guidance.
Each of these alternative views of the Bible do not do it justice. They claim to use the Bible as their guide, but they do not take it seriously.
4 God does not promise to use any other means to guide us other than his Spirit and Scripture.
It is always hard to prove a negative—ask any atheist. Unless you know everything, you cannot be sure that something does not exist. It may exist outside the bounds of your knowledge.
It is a little difficult, then, for us prove to you that God does not promise to use any means to guide other than his Spirit and Scripture. It may be that there is a promise in Scripture that we have not yet found. We are happy to be corrected. However, at this stage of our understanding, we cannot find a promise of God to guide by any other method.
Of course, we must remember that we are talking about ‘conscious co-operation’ guidance. We know from our first proposition that God uses everything at this disposal to guide us ‘behind the scenes’.
We must also remember our second proposition: In many and varied ways, God can guide us with our conscious co-operation. If he should so choose, God could still send us dreams, write on the wall, or appear to us in a burning bush.
However, in terms of what we should expect or look for; in terms of what God has promised to do—he has promised to guide us by Scripture (in the hands of his Spirit) and by no other method.
This brings our brief series on guidance to a close. There are numerous subjects we have not covered, and if you’d like to read more on the subject, we suggest you wait for our book, which is due out in a few months time.
all material © 2013 phillipjensen.com