Hungry for Guidance
By David Feddes
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” (Acts 13:2)
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?
Sometimes the big decisions aren’t just personal but involve a group. People have to make choices as the board or management of a company, or as a government agency, or as a church council or congregation. What should be our goals and policies? What particular steps should we be taking next? Who should be responsible to do what?
When we face decisions, whether as individuals or in groups, there’s a lot at stake. We want to make the right choice, one we won’t regret later. We want to follow the best path, not one that’s ineffective and useless.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just type our questions into a computer that could tell us the right decision every time? Better yet, wouldn’t it be great if God himself gave a clear sign of what to do? Who knows better than God what your best course of action would be? And who better than God to make it succeed? Well, it’s not just wishful thinking to want God’s guidance. The Lord is willing to guide you and help you make good decisions. But do you really want to hear from him? Are you really hungry for his guidance?
God doesn’t always come to mind when we have decisions to make, and hunger isn’t usually part of our decision-making. When people get together to make plans, there’s usually no shortage of food. When companies do strategic planning, when government agencies do strategic planning, when churches and mission agencies do strategic planning, they usually meet in comfortable conference rooms and offer ample meals with plenty of snacks. Food seems to fuel the strategic decisions of many groups.
But some of history’s best plans and wisest decisions have been made not in a setting of plentiful food but amid fasting. This is true for individual decisions, and it’s true for group decisions. It’s not that going without food suddenly makes a person smarter or gives a group a sudden genius for planning. But when people go without food as an expression of hunger for God’s guidance, some great decisions have resulted.
One of the most important strategic decisions ever made happened in a place called Antioch. Antioch was a city in the Middle East. It was the place where followers of Jesus were first called “Christians.” It was only a few years after Jesus’ resurrection. Most cities in the Roman Empire had no church and knew little or nothing of Christ, but the church in Antioch was growing rapidly under the leadership of Barnabas and Saul (also known as Paul). The people there loved to praise God, and they wanted to follow his leading. The Bible says, “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:2-3). That decision launched a mission that would reach Cyprus, Turkey, Greece, Rome, and beyond. That decision was one of the key events in history, spreading the Christian faith worldwide.
Before God gave the Antioch church that guidance, there were all sorts of unanswered questions. What should be the church’s next step? Whom did God want them to send? Where did he want them to go? The Antioch church could not answer such questions simply by knowing God’s commandments for right and wrong. These were questions of strategy and personnel. It was only by God’ specific leading that they discovered the next step. It was only by God’s guidance that they knew Barnabas and Paul were the ones to send. It was only by God’s guidance that these missionaries knew which places God wanted them to go. The Christians of Antioch did not receive this guidance during a conference of well-fed delegates. The guidance came while they were fasting and praying, and when they sent the missionaries off, there was more fasting and prayer.
As the missionaries went from place to place, they did not forsake fasting. Paul wrote that he engaged in “fastings often” (2 Corinthians 11:27 KJV). After the missionaries led people to Christ and started churches in various cities, leaders had to be chosen for those churches. But whom should they choose? And how could they count on those leaders being successful? They fasted and prayed for guidance. They “appointed elders … in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust” (Acts 14:23).
Nowadays when churches choose new leaders, or when mission agencies need personnel for important tasks, they may appoint search committees, they may seek applications and nominations, they may study resumes and conduct interviews, they may do all sorts of things to find and appoint the right person—but do they ever fast and hunger for God’s guidance? When churches make decisions about budget or building plans or about what direction their ministry should take in the future, they may do strategic planning and bring in consultants, but do they fast? It might not be wrong to use some of these techniques in the process of making decisions, but if technique takes over and fasting disappears, we are basing decisions on human methods and not on divine guidance.
I wonder how many churches have missed out on having God’s choice of leadership because they neglected fasting and prayer? I wonder how many mission planners have missed God’s specific strategy and deprived themselves of his special blessing because they have not hungered for his guidance and have never spent time fasting and praying for God to show them the next step he wants them to take? I wonder how many of us miss out on God’s guidance and special blessing in personal decisions because we simply make our choices and plunge ahead without taking time to seek God’s face and get his guidance through worship and fasting? In the Bible, the apostle James says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God.” James also says, “You do not have because you do not ask God” (James 1:5, 4:2).
Fasting can help groups to discover God’s guidance, and fasting can help individuals who need God to show them what to do. Nehemiah was a person with a problem. He held a high government position as personal assistant to the ruler of the Persian Empire. But Nehemiah was Jewish, and his heart ached for his own people and his homeland. Jerusalem had been destroyed decades earlier, and the people had been exiled. Lately a growing number of Jewish people had been straggling back to their homeland, but the walls of Jerusalem remained in ruins and the people remained disorganized. They needed skilled political leadership. Nehemiah thought he might have the ability to provide such leadership, but he already had a job, and it wouldn’t be easy to get out of it.
He couldn’t just walk up to his boss, the king of Persia, and say, “I quit.” That might be a quick way to get himself killed. Persian kings ruled with absolute power, and one wrong move could be fatal. What should Nehemiah do? Should he just stay in his present job and hope somebody else would take charge of the situation in far-away Jerusalem? Or should he ask the king for permission to leave the Persian capital and go take charge in Jerusalem and direct a rebuilding project?
Nehemiah decided to fast and pray. He did this on his own. He didn’t ask the king or other officials to fast with him or to join him for a prayer meeting. They were of a different religion and didn’t share his faith in God. But he could still seek God’s guidance on his own, and he could still ask God to direct the king in a way that would be favorable. Nehemiah writes,
For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. Then I said:
“O LORD, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. (5-7)
Nehemiah was hungry for guidance for himself and for influence on the king, but first had to honor God’s majesty and express sorrow and repentance for sin. As he continued praying, Nehemiah reminded God of the Lord’s promises to have mercy if his people turned back to him. Then he prayed specifically, “Give your servant success” in dealing with the king and deciding how to approach this matter.
He still wasn’t sure when he should talk to the king. He still didn’t know exactly what he should say if he got the chance. But he was alert for opportunities and counted on God’s guidance. One day the king asked him if something was bothering him. God gave Nehemiah the right words and gave the king a receptive attitude. As Nehemiah later wrote, “Because the gracious hand of my God was on me, the king granted my requests.” God opened the way for Nehemiah to go to Jerusalem. There he did an excellent job of governing the people and directing the rebuilding of the city.
Do you ever follow Nehemiah’s approach? Do you ever fast for God’s guidance and pray for God to give you success? Success often depends on deciding the right course of action, choosing the right words at just the right time, and having God prepare the circumstances and other people involved to accept your words and support your action. Going through life without God’s help and guidance is like trying to fly an airplane without fuel and without a guidance system. Without power you can’t get off the ground, and without direction you can’t go where you need to go. But when God’s gracious hand is on you, he grants you success.
Seeking the Lord’s guidance is not just a matter of wanting God to tell you what to do and where to go, and then following orders. It’s wanting to be with God and have God with you at all times. It’s wanting not to go anywhere or do anything without God. It’s making his priorities your priorities, making his strategy your strategy, making his will your will, making his power your power, making his success your success. It’s being able to say, “For me to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21). It’s having Christ go ahead of you to prepare your way, Christ beside you to befriend and strengthen you, Christ above and around you to protect you, Christ behind you to take any good you’ve done and establish and multiply it even when you’re no longer there.
What Sort of Signals?
I hope you’re convinced that when you face important decisions, you should fast and pray for God’s guidance. But you still might wonder, “How does God communicate which decision to make? Suppose I do fast and pray. How do I know what God is telling me? What sort of signals does he send?”
The Bible tells of times when God spoke in a clear voice or when he guided people through clear, supernatural signs. When God rescued the Israelites from slavery and led them toward the promised land, the Bible says God guided them on their journey by means of a special cloud. 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).
I love that true story, but I don’t have a special cloud guiding me. 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. 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 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. 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 headed for Macedonia, concluding that God had called them to preach the gospel there.
Again, it’s a fascinating story, but how many of us have supernatural visions to guide our decisions? Let’s not rule it out entirely or say it was possible only in biblical times. Four hundred years after Paul’s vision, a similar dream came to a British pastor named Patrick. He heard Irish voices calling him to come to Ireland, so Patrick went to Ireland and had a mighty impact there. It’s possible that God would communicate through such visions at crucial moments in history, but at best such visions are rare. 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 whom 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 those who trust him. 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?
He Will Direct Your Paths
The Bible says, “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” (Proverbs 3:5-6 NKJV). Before you can expect God to guide you in specific decisions, you must first make the most important decision of all: the decision to trust him. Do you trust Jesus as your Savior from sin and hell? Do you acknowledge Jesus as your Lord, the one who’s going to run your life? You must do that before you can expect guidance in other matters.
The next step in knowing God’s will is to listen to God’s guidebook, the Bible. Before you even try to decide between different options, first rule out any options that go against the Bible. Take 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 a Christian, you don’t need prayer and fasting to find out whether this is the person you’re supposed to marry. It’s not. The Bible says, “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 6:14). God gives Christians much freedom in deciding whom to marry but that person “must belong to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:39).
Or take church decisions about mission outreach. A church doesn’t have to pray or fast for guidance on whether it should be involved in missions and spreading the gospel. The church already knows the answer to that. In the Bible Jesus commands the church to make disciples of all nations. The only decision a church can even consider is which mission efforts to support, not whether to do any mission at all.
The Bible provides a framework for making decisions, it commands some things and eliminates other options, but 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. No verse in the Bible tells a church what building plan to pursue or what mission strategy to follow or what leaders to choose. How does God guide us in decisions like that, where the Bible gives general principles but doesn’t spell out the details?
Some Christians might say that we shouldn’t look for any specific guidance from God at all. They’re wise enough to know we should study the Bible to make sure we avoid sinful decisions, but beyond that, they think all that’s necessary is to think hard and choose the options that makes the most sense. “Don’t expect any mysterious prompting from God,” they say. “Just use your head.”
I agree that God gave us a brain for a purpose, and he hasn’t promised to do all our thinking for us. But we should still be open to the possibility of special leadings from the Holy Spirit, even if they don’t always match what seems the most rational choice.
I’m the sort of person who analyzes things carefully. I usually try to make the most rational decision possible, but one of the biggest decisions of my life was contrary to what seemed rational. As a student, I did extremely well in mathematics and computer science. My worst grade was in speech. If I had to decide between being a mathematician or a preacher, wouldn’t it be more rational to go where my talent seemed greatest? But as I kept praying and seeking God’s guidance, I became more and more certain that God was calling me to preach the gospel. I couldn’t explain why, but I just knew it. I had no sense of peace until I changed my course of study and began preparing for the ministry.
When you face an important decision, use your mind to weigh the various factors, but also open your spirit to the leading of God’s Spirit and pray about it. It’s wise to pray about all sorts of decisions. Prayer for guidance should be more common than fasting for guidance. But some decisions are especially important, and in such cases it’s good to add fasting to your prayers. Get hungry for guidance. If your decision involves other believers, such as church or family, ask them to pray and fast with you. Then be alert for what God’s Holy Spirit may impress on your spirit.
God may answer your prayer for guidance in a variety of ways. He may do it through circumstances. He may put obstacles on one path and pave the way for you on the other path. 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. Sometimes the guidance will be subtle; sometimes it may be quite specific and unmistakable.
When you think God is showing you his will, be sure to pay attention. Then test your impression to be sure it’s genuine. Not every inner feeling comes from the Holy Spirit. Check again whether it’s consistent with the teaching of the Bible. Ask Christian friends about it. The Holy Spirit doesn’t just work in you as an individual. He uses fellow believers to confirm his leading for you.
But what if you pray and even fast, and you still don’t get any clear guidance from God on what to do? In such cases, God may 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 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. God sometimes impresses you to choose what you otherwise wouldn’t have chosen, but he often simply leaves the choice up to you. You won’t know your choice is his choice unless you first ask for his guidance and seek his blessing.
If no special leading comes even after you ask God, then just trust that the Holy Spirit is living in you, that he’s at work in the choices you make according to your best, biblically informed judgment, and that he’s leaving the choice to you, already knowing what you’ll choose. 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 move ahead with the confidence that God is guiding you. Psalm 48:14 says, “This God is our God for ever and ever; he will be our guide even to the end.”
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.