Divine Guidance Through Community

Part 9 of series:
How Does God Guide Us?

Today, I’m getting back to my series: How Does God Guide Us? You can find the first eight parts of this series here.

So far I’ve shown that the Spirit of God guides us through circumstances and Scripture. But, as I have admitted, both circumstances and Scripture can be variously interpreted, and we all have a tendency to shape our interpretations to fit our personal biases. If I really want something, then I’m apt to see God’s blessing in circumstances and Scripture, even when it’s not there at all.

I used to be in a group of Christian men and women that prided itself on deep relationships as we held each other accountable in the nitty-gritty stuff of life. Yet, every now and then, a couple in the group would proudly surprise us with their joyous announcement: “We are engaged to be married.” The rest of us would be shocked, since we hadn’t even known that the couple had been dating, let alone considering such a monumental decision as marriage. Their behavior communicated a not-so-subtle message: the input of the community is just fine for most things, except in matters of the heart. These are private, and we can discern God’s guidance without the help of anyone else, thank you very much.

By way of contrast, I once had two Christian friends who, after a long, deep relationship, informed me of their desire to marry. “We’re not engaged yet,” Ben and Sue explained, “because the elders of our church haven’t considered our request yet.”

“What request is that?” I queried. “A request to use the church for your wedding?”

“Oh, no!” they laughed. “In our church we have to get the permission of the elders in order to marry. We won’t get married unless they give their blessing to our relationship.”

I was floored. At that time in my life, I could hardly imagine letting other people have such authority over a personal decision like this. But, for Ben and Sue, it was a normal part of committed Christian fellowship.

As I look back on their situation, I can certainly see the potential dangers in giving away so much personal freedom to a Christian community. In the best case scenario, the elders would give godly, gracious, helpful direction. In the worst case scenario, they would be hard-headed, hard-hearted, and downright harmful. But I am still moved by Ben’s and Sue’s willingness to submit such a personal matter to others for guidance. Their behavior seems to me far more consistent with biblical teaching than what I had experienced from the folks who made surprise announcements to their supposedly close Christian family.

Even those who have a deep knowledge of Scripture and whose minds are well along in the process of spiritual transformation can misconstrue the Holy Spirit’s guidance. That’s one of the reasons God places us in Christian community. When we come together in Christ, when we seek divine guidance together, when we are open to the Spirit’s leading, the odds of correct discernment increase exponentially.

Near the end of his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul advises his young church to engage in a communal process of spiritual discernment:

Do not stifle the Holy Spirit. Do not scoff at prophecies, but test everything that is said. Hold on to what is good. Keep away from every kind of evil (1 Thess 5:19-22).

The agora (marketplace) of ancient Thessalonica as it looks today. Picture thanks to HolyLandPhotos.org.

Paul assumes that the Holy Spirit will be active in the church. Here he mentions prophecies, occasions when Christians speak forth God’s messages directly. In another of his letters Paul includes many more ways the Spirit speaks and acts within the church (see 1 Corinthians 12-14). But just because someone claims to have a message from the Spirit, that doesn’t guarantee the correctness of the claim. The community needs to “test everything,” to discern whether the message is from the Holy Spirit or some other source. If something is truly from God, then it should be embraced. If something is found to be evil, it should be rejected.

Analogously, if you believe that the Holy Spirit is guiding you in some specific area of your life, you ought to submit your conviction to your Christian siblings for help with discernment. In my case, I would share it with a more mature Christian whose wisdom I respect, or with my small group, or with my wife, or, in all likelihood, with all of the above. It’s scary to do this, of course, because those around us are generally more open to God’s will for our lives than we are, and would be less likely to project our desires onto God than we would be.

I’ll continue this conversation in my next post in this series.

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