How does God guide?
Jensen, P and Payne, T 'How does God guide?'. The Briefing, issue 72, July 1991, pp. 3-7.
Return to the articles index.
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.