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.