Guided By God
By David Feddes
All of us face big decisions from time to time. Should I seek a university education? If so, where? What kind of career should I choose? Should I accept this position with this particular company? Should I be falling in love with this person? Should we get married? 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. You want to make the right choice, one you won’t regret later. You can feel pretty confused and anxious when decision time rolls around. You’re eager to make the right choice, but you’re not quite sure which is best.
Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just type your questions into a computer that could tell you the right decision every time? Better yet, wouldn’t it be great if you had direct, divine guidance at such times, 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 those stories, I find them fascinating, but I have to admit that sometimes I also find them frustrating.
When God rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and led them toward the promised land, the Bible says God guided them on their journey by means of a special cloud that hovered above the tabernacle, the sacred tent. The people could always see the cloud, even at night, when it glowed like fire. Decision-making was easy; the people just did whatever the cloud did. Any time the cloud began to move, the people followed it. When it stopped, they stopped and set up camp. They stayed put for as long as the cloud stayed put, whether for a day or a month or even a year. And the instant the cloud moved again, whether during the day or in the middle of the night, they set out immediately and followed it. They knew exactly when God wanted them to move and where he wanted them to go (Numbers 9:15-23).
Now, that story is fascinating, but it’s also frustrating. 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.
Another Bible story tells how God guided the apostle Paul on one of his missionary journeys. Paul and his companions wanted to preach in a certain area, but the Holy Spirit prevented them. They tried to enter another area, but the Spirit of Jesus wouldn’t allow them to. And then God showed them exactly where to go. “Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us’” (Acts 16:9). Paul and his friends got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called them to preach the gospel there. That’s how God led Paul to become the first missionary to bring the good news of Jesus to Europe. Again, it’s a fascinating story, but it’s also frustrating. When you’re wondering about a job or career, you’re not likely to have supernatural visions of what God wants you to do. When you’re trying to decide whether a person is the right one for you to marry, you probably won’t have a vision of that person in wedding clothes saying, “I’m the one God wants you to marry.”
God doesn’t promise to provide a cloud or a vision to guide his people in every decision. But God has promised to guide us. In Psalm 48:14, the Bible says, “This God is our God forever 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?
First Things First
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 direct your paths” (NKJV). 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 the promise applies only if you put your trust in him. When it comes to decision-making, 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 leave 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, 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. They know about Jesus, but they figure they’ll wait till they’re a bit older before they follow him. But 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, aren’t you old enough to make the one decision that can make every part of your life better?
The sooner you turn your life over to Jesus, 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—the fact that you waited can do a lot of damage. 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 to alcohol or drugs or gambling or 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 coming to Christ that he wants you in a much different career.
So before you make any other decision, 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.”
Obey the Bible
Once you’ve done that, the next step in discovering God’s will is to listen to what he says. As the Bible puts it, “lean not on your own understanding.” Instead of doing whatever makes sense to you, listen to what God says.
Let me sound an urgent warning here. If you think “lean not on your own understanding” means you can seek guidance from a psychic hotline or a crystal or a ouija board or tarot cards or a fortune teller or a horoscope, think again. Those things are demonic, not divine. You may hear Satan’s voice that way, but you won’t hear God’s. To hear God’s voice and find yourself on God’s wavelength, the Bible is the place to go. To hear what God says, the first place to turn is God’s guidebook, the Bible. In the Bible you’ll discover timeless teaching from God 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 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 in order to 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” (Exodus 20:14), 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.
Another area where the Bible affects our decisions is career choice. 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 selling tobacco or liquor or working in the gambling business? What about real estate ventures or property rentals that exploit the poor or 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 is buying a house. Let’s say you’ve got two choices: a decent house and a dream house. The decent house is one that’s adequate; it’s one you can afford on your income and still give money to your local church, missionary work, and 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 (3:8-9). Likewise, in Haggai 1:4, God speaks 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, though that is important. There’s also the deeper reality that the more you know of the Bible, the more you understand how God acts and thinks. As you read the Bible each day and go to a church where the Bible is read and explained every Sunday, your mind is shaped more and more by the mind of Christ. You have a clearer sense of what Jesus would do in your situation. 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.”
Another important point: if you want God’s help in making a decision, make sure you’re following what he’s already shown you in other areas. Let’s say you’re struggling in the choice of a college or career, and you’d like God’s help in choosing the right one—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? 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.
Once you trust in the Lord Jesus with all your heart and count on the Bible instead of leaning on your own understanding, you have made great progress, but you still face decisions that won’t always be clear-cut. Scripture provides a framework for making decisions; it eliminates a number of options, but in the end, our choice making still is not easy. No verse in the Bible tells you exactly whom to marry or what career to 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 says to “honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12), and God also says, “If anyone does not provide for his own relatives, 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 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? Should you make the best of it in your own home? Should you place them in an institution that can provide the needed care, and then visit them frequently? Should you hire a nurse or special worker to provide extra help? Should you pursue some other option? The Bible doesn’t say which of these choices will be best for your family.
How does God guide us in decisions like that, where the Bible gives general principles but doesn’t spell out the details? Does the God who sent clouds or visions to give specific guidance in the past still give specific guidance today? In answering that question, we need to avoid two extremes. At one extreme are Christians who expect a sensational, supernatural leading every time they have to make a choice. These people act as if God speaks to them aloud 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 cornflakes 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. They’re wise enough to know you should study the Bible to make sure you don’t make a choice that’s sinful, but beyond that, they think all you have to do is consider the various factors in the situation, weigh the pros and cons, and choose the option that makes the most sense. Use your head, and never 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 the most rational choice.
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 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 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 weak and forgetful. Help us through this hard time, and show us the best way to honor and care for them.”
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 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 test your impression to be sure it’s genuine. Not every inner feeling comes from the Holy Spirit. So check again whether it’s consistent with the teaching of the Bible. Talk about it with the people your decision might affect. Ask Christian friends about it—people you trust but who aren’t directly involved in your decision and can be more objective. Remember, the Spirit doesn’t just work in you as an individual; he works in 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.
Free to Decide
At this point, though, you may find yourself wondering, what about the times I pray about something but don’t receive a strong leading from God? Well, in such cases, 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 love 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 decisions. Although God sometimes impresses on you to choose what you otherwise wouldn’t have chosen, he often simply leaves the choice up to you. In his wisdom, he already knows what you’ll choose, and he will bless you in it.
We’ve heard about the detailed guidance God gave the apostle Paul in the vision of a man from Macedonia, but let’s not forget that in most of Paul’s travels, God didn’t give him a vision telling him exactly where to go next. Paul simply went from one city to another to another, preaching wherever he could. He knew he was called to preach the gospel as widely as possible, and he didn’t wait for special promptings before preaching in another place. That was Paul’s normal strategy, and God blessed him in it. But then, at a crucial point, God interrupted Paul’s plans in order to bring him where he otherwise wouldn’t have gone.
Once you’re devoted to God, in touch with the Bible, and praying for wisdom, God may leave many choices up to you, and if at some point 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, biblically informed judgment. Pray humbly, “Lord, unless you show me otherwise, this is what I’m going to choose. I trust 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 wonderful 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. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct your paths.”
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.