Part 18 of series:
How Does God Guide Us?
Sometimes we won’t know for sure if we have correctly discerned the Spirit’s voice until we step out in faith. This is surely the scariest part of spiritual guidance because it requires both trust in God and a willingness to be embarrassed. But if you ask people who have risked their pride in order to confirm what they believed to be God’s direction, they’ll tell you that the rewards greatly outweigh the risks.
Most of the time, what I’m describing here isn’t all that spectacular. For example, when I was pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, each year we sponsored a number of “mission trips” to other parts of the world. These trips might have been to Mexico, or South Africa, or China. They often involved lots of hard work on the part of those who attended, and in some cases people were expected to raise quite a bit of money to pay for their trip. Some had the means to pay their own way, while others asked friends and family for financial support. All of this, especially the financial part, could feel daunting to someone who might have been interested in a certain trip.
Nevertheless, each year I’d have people say to me something like, “I think God is calling me to go on the South Africa trip.” Then they’d explain some deep sense of calling, rather along the lines of the whispering Spirit. Often folks tried to convince God that they shouldn’t go on the trip, but had felt his strong direction. “What should I do next?” they’d ask. My answer was that we needed to confirm what they were sensing in their hearts. Had they checked with their small group? Had they talked with a mature Christian who knew them well? These were important elements of the confirmation process. But then came the scariest part. Would they step out in faith? Would they (in many cases) talk to folks about their financial need? Would God supply the needed funds?
Time and again in my ministry, I watched people step out in faith, sometimes with very small steps. When they did, God graciously confirmed the guidance they had sensed previously. Confidants were encouraging. Supporters were generous. Sometimes funding came from completely unexpected sources. When they finally went on the trip, they knew without a doubt that this is what God wanted for them, not only because of what they were able to contribute, but also because of how they grew in faith and discipleship.
Now, of course, God doesn’t always confirm what we take to be his guidance. Sometimes the opposite happens. This disconfirmation can come as people share their sense of leading with their Christian community and run into lots of loving concern. Often, however, the disconfirmation comes after folks step out in faith. I expect that God would be perfectly happy to bail us out in advance, at least much of the time, but we’re often unwilling to follow his lead. As I’ve said before, it’s terribly easy for us to project onto God what we think ought to be there.
For example, a pastor friend of mine once received a “call” (Presbyterian language for “job offer”) to become pastor of a church a couple thousand miles away. He truly believed this is what God wanted for him, even though some of his closest advisors were uncertain. So my friend went to the new church, began his ministry there, and only then realized that he had made a terrible mistake. What this church wanted differed largely from who my friend was as a pastor. So, after six months, he resigned from this pastorate and sought a new call.
When we step out in faith, sometimes we’ll get out of line. And in some of these instances God will redeem our efforts and work things out. In other cases we’ll end up taking an altogether different course. Even some of the most spiritually mature people can, at times, misconstrue God’s will. I wish this weren’t true, or at least I think I wish it weren’t true. But the fact is that sometimes we aren’t sure of God’s guidance until we test it by our actions. And in these instances there will be times when we learn the hard way that we missed something along the way.
But here’s the great news: God can and will work in and through all of these situations. If you get off course, God isn’t up in heaven wringing his hands, wondering what to do next. Rather, he’s already at work redeeming and, if necessary, redirecting. I know Christians who get stuck in indecision because they’re afraid of messing up. The bad news is that we will mess up. The good news is that God cleans up.
As a seasoned “messer-upper,” one of my favorite verses of Scripture is Romans 8:28: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” The “all things” that God works out for God include our mistakes and miscues. That’s not to say that we don’t pay a price for our errors. Often we do. But God is still at work in and through us, transforming us to be more like Him and using us for His kingdom purposes.