August 15, 1993

GUIDED BY GOD

“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” (Proverbs 3:5).

We all face big decisions from time to time.  Should I seek a university education?  If so, where?  What kind of job or career should I choose?  Should I be dating this person?  Should we get married?  How many children should we have?  Where should we live?  Should we buy this particular house?  Should I accept this job transfer?

Whenever you face decisions like these, you know there’s a lot at stake, and you want to make the right choice, one that will turn out for the best and that you won’t regret later.  You can feel pretty confused and anxious when decision time rolls around.  You’re so eager to make the right choice, but you’re not quite sure which one is best.

Wouldn’t it be great if you had some kind of supernatural guidance when you had to make a decision if God himself gave a clear sign of what to do?  In the Bible, there are stories where God did give guidance through clear, supernatural signs.  When I read these stories, I find them fascinating, but I have to admit that sometimes I also find them frustrating.

Take the time when God liberated the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt.  The Bible says that he guided them on their journey toward the promised land by means of a special cloud.  All the people had to do was follow that cloud.  According to Numbers 9,

On the day the tabernacle, the Tent of the Testimony, was set up, the cloud covered it.  From evening till morning the cloud above the tabernacle looked like fire…  Whenever the cloud lifted from above the Tent, the Israelites set out;  wherever the cloud settled, the Israelites encamped…  Whether by day or by night, whenever the cloud lifted they set out.  Whether the cloud stayed over the tabernacle for two days or a month or a year, the Israelites would remain in camp and not set out;  but when it lifted, they would set out.  At the Lord’s command, they encamped, and at the Lord’s command they set out.

Now, as I said, I find a story like this fascinating–and frustrating.  It’s fascinating to think about it, cloud by day and fire by night, and the amazing way God guided his people, but it’s also frustrating because I don’t have a cloud like that.  Back when I had to decide where to go to college, there wasn’t any cloud that lifted from above my parents’ home and moved to the place I was supposed to go.  And I suspect you’re in the same boat.  When you’re wondering whether to buy a new home or move to another city, you’ll probably have to make that decision without a cloud to guide you.

Or take another Bible story, this one about how God guided the apostle Paul on one of his missionary journies.  Paul and his companions intended to preach in the province of Asia, but the Holy Spirit prevented them.  They tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus wouldn’t allow them to.  And then God showed them exactly where to go.  Acts 16 says,

During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.  After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.”

Again, it’s fascinating to read how God led Paul to become the first missionary to preach the gospel in Europe, but it can also be a bit frustrating to read a story like that.  When you’re wondering about a job or career, you’re not likely to have supernatural visions about it.  When you’re trying to decide whether a person is the right one for you to marry, you probably won’t have a vision that makes up your mind for you.

Well, God never promised to guide us with visions or clouds. But he has promised to guide us.  In Psalm 48:14, the Bible says, “This God is our God for ever and ever;  he will be our guide even to the end.”  So the question isn’t whether God provides guidance;  he does.  The question is how: How can I be guided by God?  How can I follow his leading and experience his blessing?

In Proverbs 3:5-6, the Bible makes a great promise:  “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,” or as other translations put it, “He shall direct your paths.”

God will direct your paths:  he’ll help you make sound decisions and lead you in a direction that’s good for you.  That’s his promise.

But this promise applies to you only if you put your trust in him.  You can’t expect God to guide you and make your decisions work out for the best until you first make the most important decision of all:  the decision to trust him.  You need to recognize Jesus Christ as your Lord, the one who’s going to run your life.  You need to abandon your old, self-centered ways of thinking and accept a new life where the Lord calls the shots.  That’s the first step in discovering God’s guidance.

Remember, the cloud that guided the Israelites didn’t show them the best camping spots in Egypt;  it led them out of Egypt, out of slavery, and in the direction of the promised land.  Likewise, the vision that guided Paul to Macedonia came after he was set free from his old ways as an enemy of Christ and became a Christian.  Paul had to be guided out of his sin and hatred, and into a relationship with Christ before he could be guided anywhere else.  And so do we.

Before we make any other decision, then, we first need to make the decision to trust Christ, to turn from sin, and follow him.  I know young people who say they aren’t quite ready to do that yet.  They know about Jesus, but they figure they’ll wait till they’re a little older before they follow him.  But hey, how old do you have to be?  If you’re old enough to get drunk, if you’re old enough to have sex, if you’re old enough to join a gang–if you’re old enough to make decisions that can ruin your life, you’re certainly old enough to make the one decision that can make every part of your life better.

The sooner you turn your life over to Christ, the better.  It’s not very smart to think you can sow your wild oats, and later on pray like crazy for crop failure.  Even if you do commit your way to Christ later–and that becomes less and less likely the longer you wait–but even if you do commit to Christ, later on, the fact that you waited can do a lot of damage.  Oh, God can still forgive you, but you’ll have a lot more regrets and problems and complications to deal with.

You may have to deal with bad decisions that turned into addictions, like alcohol or drugs or gambling, or obsession with your work.  You may find yourself married to someone who wants nothing to do with Christ, and that could make it difficult and awkward for both of you if you finally do decide to follow Jesus after all.  You may have chosen a career, only to discover after you’ve come to Christ that he wants you in a much different career.

So before you make any other decision, be sure to put first things first.  Who’s going to run your life, you or Jesus?  Decide that before you try to decide anything else.  Trust in the Lord with all your heart.

Once you’ve done that, the next step in discovering God’s will is to listen to what he says.   “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.”  Instead of doing whatever makes sense to you, listen to what God says.  Above all, pay careful attention to God’s guidebook, the Bible.  You’ll discover timeless instruction that will affect some of your biggest decisions.

Take love and marriage, for example.  The Bible doesn’t give you the name of the person you’re supposed to marry, but it does narrow the field.  If you’re a Christian, and you’re in love with someone who isn’t, don’t even bother to ask God for some special sign showing whether this is the person you’re supposed to marry.  It’s not.  The Bible says very clearly, “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 6:14).  God’s Word also says a woman “is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:39).

Don’t fool yourself.  The Lord never guides Christians to marry non-Christians, just as he never guides anyone to dump the person they’ve already married and go off with someone else.  Just because you’re attracted to someone, just because a relationship “feels right,” doesn’t mean God brought you together.  I’ve talked with people involved in adultery who were absolutely convinced that God had brought them together, that this was his way of giving them the happiness they deserved.  But that’s just a case of leaning on your own understanding instead of listening to God’s Word.  The Lord says, “You shall not commit adultery,” and he also says, “I hate divorce” (Malachi 2:16).  God never leads you in a direction that contradicts what he says in the Bible.

Love and marriage is just one area where the Bible affects our decisions.  Career choice is another.  The Bible says to love your neighbor as yourself and to do everything to God’s glory.  You need to apply that to any job you’re considering.  Can you really help people and honor God by making your living in the tobacco industry or the liquor business?  What about real estate ventures or property rentals that exploit the poor, sales jobs that force you to misrepresent your product, or jobs that force you to work on the Lord’s Day when you ought to be worshipping?

the Bible doesn’t direct you to a specific job, but it says a lot about the kind of job you should even be willing to consider.

Another example of the Bible’s impact on decision-making:  buying a house.  Let’s say you’ve got two choices:  a decent house and a dream house.  A decent house is one that’s adequate, it’s one you can afford on your income and still give money to your local church, for missionary work, and for helping the needy.  The dream house, on the other hand, isn’t just adequate–it’s splendid, it’s what you’ve always wanted.  But to get it, you’ll have to be mortgaged up to your eyeballs.  It will take every spare penny you’ve got.  You’ll have no money left over for the work of the Lord.

What should you do?  Well, God says in the book of Malachi that if you stop giving him what you owe and support your own luxury instead, what you’re really doing is stealing from God (3:8).  Likewise, in Haggai 1:4, God speaks out against people who lived in expensive “paneled houses” while neglecting his temple.  When it comes to buying houses, the Bible doesn’t give you an exact address or price range, but it says things you need to know before deciding what kind of home to purchase.

These are just a few examples of how the Bible affects our decisions.  And this isn’t just a matter of knowing particular verses that apply to particular situations–although these particulars are very important–but beyond the specific instructions, there’s the deeper reality that the more you know of the Bible, the more you understand of how God acts and how he thinks.  You find yourself more on God’s wavelength.  Your mind is shaped more and more by the mind of Christ, and you have a clearer sense of what Jesus would do in your situation.  As the Bible says in Romans 12:2, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is.”

Oh, and by the way, if you want God’s help in deciding what to do with some particular area of your life, make sure you’re following what he’s already shown you in other areas.  Let’s say you’re struggling with the choice of a college or career, and you’d like God’s help in choosing the right one–but meanwhile, in your dating life, you know that God calls for sexual purity, and you’re just not obeying him.  Why should God give you any more guidance if you’re not obeying what you already know?

Or maybe there’s another area of your life where you know what God wants but you’re just not doing it.  If that’s the case, don’t even ask for his help making other decisions.  First, follow the leading he’s already provided.  Then ask for further guidance.  As Proverbs puts it, “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths.

Having said all that, however, we’re still left with questions about specific situations.  You can give your life to Christ, you can immerse yourself in the Bible, but that still doesn’t settle everything.  Scripture provides a framework for making decisions, it eliminates a number of options, but in the end, we may still have choices to make.  No verse in the Bible tells you exactly who to marry, what career you should pursue, or the address of the house you should buy.

Or consider another major decision that more and more people face:  the care of aged and feeble parents or children with severe disabilities.  In the Bible, the Lord tells you to “honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12), and God also says, “If anyone does not provide for his own relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8).  But even if you know all that, and you sincerely desire what’s best for your loved ones, you still have to answer the question, What is best?  How should you honor and provide?  Make the best of it in your own home?  Place them in an institution that can provide the needed care, and then visit them frequently?  Hire a nurse or special worker to provide extra help?  Some other option?  The Bible doesn’t say which of these choices will be best for your family.

These are just some of the situations where you and I would like specific, individual guidance from God.  How do we decide?  Does the God who sent supernatural clouds and visions to guide his people in the past also give specific guidance to us today?

At this point, we could go to one of two extremes.  On one extreme are Christians who expect a sensational, supernatural leading every time they have to make a choice.  These people make it sound like God speaks to them audibly every day.  They’re fond of saying, “The Lord told me this…” or “The Lord led me to do that.”  God makes every decision for them.  At breakfast time, they can hardly decide between oatmeal or corn flakes unless they have a special leading from the Holy Spirit.  They can’t choose between the blue dress or the red one unless they have a sign from heaven.

At the other extreme are those Christians who expect no specific leading from God at all.  From their perspective, you should study the Bible to make sure you don’t make a choice that’s sinful, but beyond that, all you have to do is consider the various factors in the situation, weigh the pros and cons, and choose the options that make the most sense.  Use your head, and don’t expect any mysterious prompting from God.

Between these extremes, there’s a better way.  Certainly, we should realize that God gave us a brain for a purpose.  He hasn’t promised to do all our thinking for us.  But we should also be open to the possibility of special leadings from the Lord, even if they don’t always match what seems to be the most rational choice.

I remember that in my first years as a college student, I did extremely well in mathematics and computer science.  Meanwhile, I didn’t do as well in my speech class.  If I had to decide between being a mathematician or a preacher, it would be no contest, right?  But I knew, I just knew, that God was calling me to preach the gospel, and I had no sense of peace until switched my course of study and began preparing for the ministry.  It’s not that there’s anything wrong with math or computer science.  Many fine Christians serve God and help others in that kind of work.  It’s just that God had something else in mind for me, and he impressed that upon my inner spirit.

When you face an important decision, by all means, use your mind to weigh the various factors, but also be sure to pray about it, and then be alert for what God’s Holy Spirit may impress on your spirit.  The Lord may have something in mind for you that you’d never figure out on your own.  His Spirit can give you a deep and powerful sense of what he wants you to do.  The Bible says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God… and it will be given to him” (James 1:5).

So when you face a decision, be sure you’re trusting Christ, be sure you’re listening to the Bible’s guidelines, and then pray.  Pray for God’s leading.  “Lord, I know that people can serve you in many different careers, but show me the one you’ve got in mind for me.”  “Lord, we’re in love, and we’re both Christians.  Now confirm whether we’re meant for each other and can serve you best by getting married.”  “Lord, I don’t know whether to make a move or not.  Show me the way.  Either open the doors of opportunity or give me a sense of peace in staying right where I am.”  “Lord, this is a big financial decision.  Show us the choice that will best serve you and be blessed by you.”  “Lord, I love my parents, but they’re getting so weak and forgetful.  Help us through this hard time, and make clear to us which way of honoring and caring for them is best.”

God may answer your prayer for guidance in a variety of ways.  He may do it through circumstances:  he may close some doors and open others so that it becomes clear what you should do.  He may speak to you through the suggestions of a friend or a pastor.  He may give you a powerful prompting in your spirit to recognize what he wants.  He may even guide you in a way that utterly surprises you.

But however it happens, when you think he’s shown you his will, be sure to pay attention.  And then be sure to test your impression to be sure it’s genuine.  Not every inner feeling comes from the Holy Spirit.  So check once again whether it’s consistent with the teaching of the Bible.  Talk about it with the people your decision might affect.  And ask Christian friends, people you trust but who aren’t directly involved in your decision, what they think about it.  Remember:  the Spirit doesn’t just work in you as an individual;  he works in your fellow Christians, and he often confirms his leading through them.

And once you’ve discovered and tested God’s leading, be sure to thank him.  Then do what he says with joy.

At this point, though, you may find yourself wondering,  What about the times I pray about something, but I don’t receive a strong leading from the Lord one way or the other?  Well, in that case, God may well be leaving it up to you.  For example, the Bible says a woman can “marry anyone she chooses” as long as the man belongs to the Lord.  So if you’re in love with someone, you’ve prayed about it and God hasn’t impressed on you that you shouldn’t get married, you can get married in the confidence that he is guiding your choice.

That’s true of many other decisions.  Although there are times that God somehow impresses on you that you must choose what you otherwise wouldn’t have chosen, there are many other times that he just leaves the choice up to you.  In his wisdom, he already knows what you’ll choose, and he will bless you with it.

Look at the apostle Paul.  It’s important to realize that his vision of the man from Macedonia was the exception, not the rule.  In most of Paul’s travels, he didn’t have a vision telling him where to go next.  He simply went from one city to another to another, preaching wherever he went.  He knew he was called to preach the gospel to as many people as possible, and he didn’t wait for special promptings before he would go preach in another city.  That was his normal strategy, and God blessed him with it.  But then, at a crucial point, God interrupted Paul’s normal travels, to lead him where he otherwise wouldn’t have gone.  The Holy Spirit prevent Paul from going where he intended and then sent that remarkable vision which brought the apostle to Europe for the first time.

In a similar way, once you’re devoted to God and in touch with the Bible, God may leave many choices up to you, and on those occasions when he wants you to pursue a path you wouldn’t have chosen otherwise, he can make that clear to you as well.  So remain open to his leading.  Pray about each important decision. And if no special leading comes, simply trust that the Holy Spirit is living in you and that he’s at work in the choices you make according to your best judgment.  Pray humbly, “God, unless you show me otherwise, this is what I’m going to choose.  I trust this it’s in keeping with your will, and I pray that you’ll bless my decision.”  Then make your choice with the confidence that God is with you.

It’s a wonderful thing to know that you’re guided by God, that he is always with you, that his Spirit lives in you, and that he leads you each step of the way.  So “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.”

PRAYER

Father in heaven, thank you for promising to be our guide.  Give us the faith to trust you and to recognize Jesus as our Lord and Master.  Help us to listen to your Word, the Bible, and to understand how it applies to each part of our lives.  Then by your Spirit guide us in the decisions we have to make.

I pray especially for the friends listening to me who at this very moment are facing hard decisions.  Assure them of your nearness, and guide them in what is best, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.