HOW GOD GUIDES
A heads-up: If you don’t read this first, you might get the wrong idea of what I’m saying about how God guides us…
My stories and yours…
Along with what I’ve found in the Bible about how God guides, I’m going to share a lot of my own stories. This topic isn’t theoretical for me. I’ve been trying to follow his lead since I met him on August 20, 1972. I’ve seen the Lord do some very cool things as I’ve tried to hear his voice and have made tons of mistakes in the process. It’s been quite a wild ride, and I’ll share what I’ve learned along the way. I hope that my stories are an encouragement to you (both my successes and failures). I’m not implying that my experiences are necessarily a precedent for anyone else. You’ll have your own stories, some of which you might not have thought about as “divine guidance.”
If I can get you thinking about this, you might discover that God has been more involved in your life than you might have previously thought. One of my goals is to alert you recognize your “God sightings.” (If you’ve ever watched any Alfred Hitchcock movies you’ve actually seen Hitchcock without knowing it. He used to make incognito cameo appearances in each of his films – on a bus, in a restaurant, on a crowded sidewalk. I don’t know that he ever had any lines; he just sort of appears and then disappears. I call them “Hitchcock sightings.” Maybe God has appeared in your life to lead you toward his will more often than you were aware. One of things I aspire to do is help you identify your “God sightings.”)
Not an exhaustive list…
Please know that I know that what I’m saying here is not all there is to know about knowing God’s will. (I just wanted to see how many “knows” I could put in one sentence!) You won’t find an exhaustive list of principles of divine guidance here. I’m pretty sure that such a list doesn’t exist anyway. Once I think I’ve got God all figured out, he changes the rules on me. He’s much more slippery than to be captured by even the wiliest of us!
I wrote the original edition of this paper in 1985. It’s now 2012, and I’ve had 27 more years of reading the Bible, personal experiences, and stories to tell. If in another three decades I write another edition of this, I expect I’d have a bunch more to say (and might even have to “un-say” some things that have been amended in my thinking). So, while this isn’t an exhaustive study on how God guides, it does represent many years of reflection, study, and trial and error.
Nervous about making a mistake…
This paper is not meant to make you – as my dad used to say – “nervous in the service.” “Did God say this or was it that? I think he might want me to do such and such, but I’m just not sure. How can I know what he wants? What if I make a mistake about his leading?” Join the club of many members if you’ve ever had such thoughts. If I personally had a nickel for every time I thought something was God’s will, later to find it probably was not, I’d be filthy in nickels today! Knowing what God wants is not an exact science. You’ll miss it sometimes – maybe lots of times. There will also be times where you aren’t sure whether or not you “heard right.” As the “sheep of his pasture,” we’re not the brightest of beings. I’m pretty sure he knows that already, and is entirely capable of getting us where he wants us even if we don’t “hear right.”
Even the first Christians made mistakes identifying God’s will. I can’t prove it, but it’s my opinion that the first apostles were in too much of a hurry to fill the spot vacated by Judas. They cast lots (not necessarily something that is prescribed in the New Testament) and came up with a guy (Matthias) about whom we never again hear in the Bible (read it for yourself in Acts 1). If they had waited a little longer for God to do his thing, I think they’d have seen that Paul was God’s choice for the twelfth apostle. I see another example of the early Christians making a mistake about God’s plan in Acts 21. They devised a plan to keep Paul out of jail and reaped the opposite of what they were looking for. Paul himself went along with their ill-devised idea and as a result was imprisoned for the first time. I’ve learned to say to the Lord, “I know I’m going to make mistakes, but may my mistakes be seldom and small!”
If I personally had a nickel for every time
I thought something was God’s will,
later to find it probably was not,
I’d be filthy in nickels today!
I don’t think that our honest errors in judgment irritate God at all. I’m talking about times when we thought he was leading us to do something and later found out that he wasn’t. He’s a patient Father, a tender Shepherd. It’s when we try to manipulate the circumstances and put God’s seal on it that probably serves to tick him off! I don’t think he likes his name being used as an excuse for our stupid behavior.
Looking for formulas…
If it’s formulas you’re looking for, you might be more satisfied reading something else on divine guidance. I don’t think it’s a good idea to try to box him in with methods and formulas. I don’t find him to be that predictable. He’s “predictably good,” but how he chooses to express his goodness is often surprising (to me, anyway). His “ways are beyond tracing out,” meaning that sometimes we can’t even know which way he went, let alone where he’ll go next – unless, of course, he wants us to know.
In the last few years I’ve sworn off what I call “Preacher Talk,” which includes phrases like, “God always,” or “God never.” Like I said, I just don’t think he’s as predictable as all that. I don’t know that we can say with confidence that God always or never does anything in particular. Sure he never lies or sins, and he always loves. But as for specific things, I’m not sure that we can with confidence say that God will do this or that; or that God would never do something like such and such. Don’t misunderstand me – God is most definitely faithful. But preacher talk seems to turn faithful into predictable. That is, because we can count on him, it follows that we can always count on him to do things the same way he always does them. I’ve come to believe that he’s faithful in his character, but not the least bit predictable in how he chooses to express that character.
Knowing God’s will and doing it is a matter of faith. And faith doesn’t mean that we have God all figured out, it means that we can live with him without having him figured out. His paths are “beyond tracing out,” so my advice is that you try to keep your eye on him and follow him the best you can.
I know, O Lord, that a man’s life is not his own; it is not for a man to direct his steps. Jeremiah 10:23
A man’s steps are directed by the Lord. How then can anyone understand his own way? Proverbs 20:24
I am the Lord your God, who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go. Isaiah 48:17
He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being taught. Isaiah 50:4
I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you and watch over you. Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you. Psalm 32:8-9
So, this paper is not so much a study of “methods.” I won’t be giving you anything like “Ten Easy Steps To Knowing the Will of God For Your Life.” To my mind, knowing his will has more to do with living with him in intimate friendship, humble dependence, and obedient respect. He doesn’t seem to prefer to direct us from afar. I think he’d rather we be near enough to him so that he can take us by the hand and whisper in our ear.
This is what the LORD says: “Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the LORD.” Jeremiah 9:23-24
On the other hand, could it be true that God sometimes plays kind of “hard-to-get,” so we’ll want him all the more? Somehow it’s more rewarding to get something we’ve searched for than what was handed to us on a platter. I’m saying that even though God is near, his guidance isn’t always easy to decipher. Of course, part of the reason for that is our own spiritual dullness. We couldn’t find him if he shone like the sun right in our face! But I also wonder if God makes his leading a bit perplexing at times because he’s trying to develop in us a singleness of heart and a depth of desire.
[Next: Some more introductory thoughts…]