How Does God Guide Us?
Can I Know God’s Will for My Life?
Divine Guidance from a Christian Perspective
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts
Copyright © 2011 by Mark D. Roberts and Patheos.com
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How Does God Guide Us? Introduction
As a pastor, some of the most common questions I’ve received have do to with divine guidance. What is God’s will for my life? Is God leading me to take this new job? Does God want me to marry this person? Could God be pointing me in a new direction for my life?
Of course the question of how God guides us isn’t just a pastoral matter for me. Ever since I first put my faith in Jesus Christ over 40 years ago, I’ve been more or less eager to do what God wants me to do . . . if I only knew what he wanted! As hard as obedience can be at times, I’ve found that discerning God’s will can be even harder.
I think back to the summer of my sixteenth year. My parents really wanted me to go to Malibu Club, a Young Life camp in Canada. I didn’t want to go, partly because I didn’t know anybody and felt pretty shy, and partly because I just wanted to hang out at home with nothing to do. But my parents were persistent, reminding me of the exceptional beauty of Malibu, which stands guard over a salt-water inlet on the Canadian coast a few hours north of Vancouver. As a lover of natural beauty, especially mountains, I must admit I was tempted. But still I didn’t want to go.
Finally I decided to see if I could determine God’s will for whether I should go to camp or not. After praying for a while, I didn’t have any divine revelations. So I decided to do the only sensible thing. I told the Lord that I would go to camp if he wanted me to go, and that I would let the Bible give me his answer. Picking up my Bible and closing my eyes, I let the Scripture fall open, and then put my finger on a passage. “God,” I prayed, “if this passage tells me to go to camp, I’ll do it. Otherwise, I’m staying home.” I opened my eyes, looked down, and read:
By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance,
O God of our salvation;
you are the hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the farthest seas.
By your strength you established the mountains;
you are girded with might.
You silence the roaring of the seas,
the roaring of their waves,
the tumult of the peoples.
Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs;
you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.
As I read about the farthest seas and the mountains, and about “earth’s farthest bounds,” I felt sure I had received God’s answer. So I went to camp, and, to this day, my experience at Malibu remains as one of the highlights of my life.
Though I can’t prove it, I still believe that God used my silly little divination game to get me to Malibu. In his grace, he went along with my immature discernment scheme. But I do not believe that the “close-your-eyes-and-flip-to-a-Bible-passage” approach to spiritual guidance is God’s recommended approach. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever used this mode of discernment ever again, for good reason.
Yet this still leaves us with the question: How does God guide us? Today, I’m beginning a blog series in which I will propose several answers to this question. Indeed, I believe that God guides us in a variety of ways, besides the “flip-to-a-Bible-passage” method.
If you’re new to my blog, I should briefly explain my assumptions as I begin this series. I am a Christian who finds a theological home in the Reformed/evangelical tradition, though I’ve learned much from other Christian traditions as well. I believe, above all, that God has given us the Bible as our supreme guide in matters theological and practical. Thus I might be tempted to answer the “How does God guide us” question with a simple “Through the Bible.” But this answer is too simple, since the Bible itself reveals a large number of ways through which God guides his people. So, as this series unfolds, you’ll find that I turn to Scripture again and again for direction.
Tomorrow, I want to examine some of the silliness associated with seeking God’s guidance.
Spirit Guide Silliness
Spiritual guidance is a marketable commodity these days. If you’re willing to fork over a few bucks–sometimes, a few hundred–you can receive personal guidance from people who claim to have a special channel to “the spirit world.” Many of these gurus hock their supernatural wares at expensive conferences and workshops. Others have turned to the Internet. Yes, you can visit websites where, for a fee, you will receive personalized guidance that purportedly comes from some immaterial being. This “spirit guide” may be an angel, or a departed loved one, or a person who lived thousands of years ago. (I’m not going to put up any links because I don’t want to encourage use of such websites. But if you’re curious, you can find them easily through Google.)
Your spirit guide could even be the spirit of a plastic doll! Some years ago, Barbara Bell, an architectural illustrator from northern California (where else?), operated the world’s only Barbie channeling service. For only $3.00, Bell summoned up the spirit of Barbie to solve the problems of those seeking her advice. “I appreciate and understand Barbie,” Bell explains. “She has been forced to be shallow all these years, but underneath she’s a profound person.” And to think I never realized there was anything underneath her slick plastic exterior! (Little known fact: Barbie’s last name is “Roberts,” according to Barbie’s creator, Ruth Handler. So Barbie must be one of my distant cousins.)
All of this talk about spiritual guidance from angels, dead people, and even dolls ought to give us pause as we consider the topic of spiritual guidance. Just because somebody claims to be guided by some supernatural being, even if this being is God, we ought not instantly to believe the claim. Spirit guide silliness should make us careful, even if we’re Christians who believe that God actually can and does offer supernatural guidance.
Sadly, however, some Christians have been caught in the current of spiritual silliness, claiming to be led by the Holy Spirit into all sorts of nonsense. I know a man who once claimed that God told him to have an adulterous affair with the wife of one of his best friends. He truly believed this, as did his friend’s wife. For some reason, they just didn’t think the “Thou shalt not commit adultery” part of Scripture applied to them. They ended up acting on their convictions, breaking up a marriage and messing up many lives in the process.
Attributing one’s peculiar behavior to God is nothing new. It’s been going on for centuries. Over thirty years ago, for example, I found myself in Mrs. Poole’s Sunday school class. She was a fine teacher, well-prepared, biblically-literate, and interesting even to a sixth-grade boy. Mrs. Poole’s Bible lessons were almost always succinct and compelling. Almost always, I say, because every now and then Mrs. Poole would claim that the Holy Spirit led her to depart from her notes and launch into the stratosphere of more direct revelation. As she spoke under the impetus of the Spirit, I was struck by how hard she was to follow and, frankly, how boring. If I took Mrs. Poole at her word, then I could only conclude that she was a much better a teacher than the Holy Spirit! Whereas she was succinct, the Spirit was long-winded. Whereas Mrs. Poole had a way of speaking right to the hearts of sixth-graders, the Holy Spirit could hardly keep our attention. Even then I suspected what I now believe to be the truth: Mrs. Poole was confused about the Spirit’s guidance. Her ramblings may have contained grains of genuine inspiration, but they issued more from her exuberant imagination than from the Spirit of God. Though I can’t claim to be the final authority on such matters, I have a sneaking suspicion that the Spirit actually inspired Mrs. Poole’s careful preparation of lessons more than her spontaneous sermons.
These days religious people are claiming divine inspiration for all sorts of behaviors that are, not only nonsensical, but downright horrible. The most obvious case is that of Muslim extremists who kill innocent victims in the name of Allah, something that is contrary to the beliefs of most of the Islamic world. Christian extremism of this sort rears its ugly head every now and then, especially in some conflict-ridden sections of Africa. These examples have led some critics to conclude that all spiritual guidance is nonsense, and even that the idea of God is both wrongheaded and dangerous.
I don’t agree with these conclusions. But I do take seriously the tendency for people, even well-intentioned ones, to misconstrue God’s direction. It’s especially tempting for all of us to project our own desires onto God, reading them back as confirmation of what we ourselves want. We believe God is speaking to us through our experience, when it may just be that our experience is drowning out God’s authentic voice. So, we must approach the subject of divine guidance with due caution. At the same time, we must not shrink back from one of the most precious aspects of the Christian life: divine guidance through the Holy Spirit.
Divine Guidance Through Circumstances
Yesterday, I showed how Scripture teaches that the Holy Spirit guides the people of God. As I continue my series on divine guidance, I’m beginning with this post to address specific ways we are guided by the Spirit of God. Today I begin by noting how the Spirit guides through circumstances.
Consider, for example, the following story.
In Acts, 16 the Apostle Paul and his colleague Silas were in Philippi, where they shared the good news of Jesus with a man and his family (Acts 16:16-34). The whole household believed the message and all members were immediately baptized. How did Paul and Silas get to the home of this man and his family? Not through inner spiritual guidance, that’s for sure. Not through dreams or angelic visions. Not through biblical interpretation. Rather, they got there through circumstances, rather odd circumstances at that. The man was a jailer who had been assigned to guard two prisoners, Paul and Silas.
The two missionaries got in trouble with the authorities when they cast an evil spirit out of a girl who had been used to make money for her opportunistic masters. Her spiritual freedom took away their source of income, so they grabbed Paul and Silas and accused them before the civic leaders of Philippi: “They are teaching the people to do things that are against Roman customs.” The officials had the Christians beaten and thrown into prison, where they met the jailer, who had no idea what was about to happen to him and his family.
Around midnight, when the two prisoners should have been licking their wounds and bemoaning their fate, Paul and Silas were praying and praising God. All of a sudden, a great earthquake shook the prison, knocking the chains off the prisoners. The poor jailer, supposing that his prisoners had escaped, was about to fall on his sword when Paul shouted: “Don’t do it! We are all here!” In shock, the jailer fell instead at the feet of the missionaries. He then took them to his home, where they proceeded to convert him and his entire family.
Given the whole tenor of Acts of the Apostles, we are surely meant to believe that the visit of Paul and Silas to the jailer’s home was no mere coincidence. Though not identified explicitly in this passage, the Holy Spirit was directing the action of Acts 16, just as the Spirit oversaw the mission of Christ throughout Acts. The Spirit got Paul and Silas into the jailer’s home by manipulating circumstances, some of which were obviously miraculous, others of which appeared on the surface to be both ordinary and distressing.
The Bible is full of stories in which God’s guidance comes, not by word or vision, but through circumstances. Such stories also fill most Christian communities where people seek God’s direction. We often don’t realize the guiding hand of the Holy Spirit until we look back in retrospect. But, later on, we see how God wove events together to accomplish his will in our lives.
Of course, the skeptic would deny that God was involved with such things. “Mere coincidence!” would be the claim. But sometimes the coincidences are so astounding that I find it very, very hard to believe anything other than that some Supreme Being is guiding events. In my next post in this series, I share one of my own experiences in which I’m convinced God was guiding me.
An Experience of God’s Guidance Through Circumstances
In my last post I explained that God guides us, in part, through circumstances. In this post I want to tell a story from my own life in which I experienced this sort of guidance.
When I was a sophomore in college, I wanted to share my Christian faith with others. But, as an introverted person, I wasn’t likely to walk up to a stranger or even a friend and get into a conversation about God. So I decided to pray and ask God to help me.
One brisk Saturday evening in October, I decided to go down to Harvard Square–which was always bustling with people–and see if I could share my faith with somebody. The Square was filled with students from all over the Boston area and it seemed a likely place for God to drop a seeker into my lap. I prayed earnestly for God to guide me to someone with whom I could talk openly about Christianity. “Lord,” I prayed, “you know I’m pretty shy about this. So it would be great if you’d work a little miracle here and find me somebody with whom I could talk about you. And if you could make it obvious, that would be really helpful.” With this prayer in my heart, I set off for the Square.
I wandered around for a while, wondering where “my person” was. “Lord,” I kept on praying, “please bring me somebody who wants to learn about you.” Still nothing happened. After a half hour or so, I began to feel both discouraged and silly. It almost seemed as if God was having a good laugh at my expense.
Just then, two young women approached me. “We’re going to a party at Dunster House,” they explained, “but we don’t know how to get there. Could you help us?”
“Sure,” I said. “Glad to.” Meanwhile I thought to myself, “This is great. Not only has God brought these people into my life so I can talk to them about my faith, but they happen to be two attractive women. God, you’ve outdone yourself this time!” Dunster House was about a ten minute’s walk from Harvard Square, so I figured this would be plenty of time to engage these women in a conversation about God.
On the walk down to Dunster, I kept bringing up subjects that I felt sure would lead to a productive dialogue about Christian faith. “I’m majoring in philosophy,” I said, “Are you interested in philosophy?” They weren’t. “Sometimes I wonder why we’re here on this earth? Do you every think about this?” They didn’t. Basically, all they wanted to do that night was to party at Dunster House, not to reflect on the meaning of life with their overly-eager guide. For ten minutes I tried everything I could think of to get these women to talk about God. Nothing doing. Of the thousands of students in Cambridge that night, it seemed as if they were the least interested in God.
When we got to Dunster House, I walked them to the door. They thanked me and left quickly, no doubt glad to be away from that stranger who kept asking invasive questions. I felt like a complete idiot. “Okay, God,” I prayed, “I get the point. You’ve probably had a good chuckle over my silliness. Well, that’s enough. I’m going home. This was a stupid idea.” I left the entrance to Dunster House and headed back to my dorm.
Just then I passed a student I recognized as being a friend of a friend, somebody I had met briefly during my freshman year. He said “Hi” so I returned the greeting as we went off in opposite directions. All of a sudden he stopped, turned around, and called to me, “Hey, are you Mark Roberts?”
“Yes,” I said, surprised that he remembered my name.
“Well, I’m Matt. I’m a friend of your roommate Bob.”
“Oh, yeah. Hello, Matt,” I said.
“I’ve been wanting to talk to you,” Matt said.
“Me?” I asked incredulously.
“Yes, you!” Matt asserted.
“Because I hear you’re a Christian. I need to talk to you about God.”
That’s the line, exactly as it happened. I need to talk to you about God. It couldn’t get much clearer than that, could it?
And so began a conversation that lasted well into the night. That conversation turned into a weekly Bible study, as Matt and I studied the Gospels to find out about Jesus. When we finished, Matt wasn’t ready to give his life to Christ. But he was closer than he had been on that strange night when we met on the sidewalk outside of Dunster House. End of story.
Now I suppose a skeptic could always say that my meeting with Matt was just an accident. But it seems to me much more likely that God used the rather strange circumstances of that evening to guide me–and to guide Matt –so that God’s work would be done in our lives. I could tell a dozen more stories like this, hundreds if I drew from the experiences of people I have known during my years as a pastor. There is no doubt in my mind that the guidance of the Holy Spirit often comes through the circumstances of our lives.
But there is a downside to this kind of guidance. How can we be sure that our interpretation of our circumstances is correct? Suppose I had been so convinced that God wanted me to share my faith with the two young women on their way to the party that I managed to worm my way into the festivities, spending the whole night beating my head against the rock of their disinterest, and thereby missing that providential meeting with Matt. Spiritual guidance through circumstances is great, but it’s usually ambiguous. What will help us sort out the circumstances of our lives so as to discern God’s guidance with confidence?
I’ll tackle this question in the next post in this series.
Divine Guidance Through Scripture
In my last two posts I explained that God can guide us through shaping the circumstances of our lives. But I admitted that this sort of guidance is often ambiguous. Circumstances may appear to point in more than one direction at the same time. Or different circumstances might seem to contradict each other. So we need to be able to weigh the events of our lives to determine with greater precision how God may be guiding us.
I would suggest that Scripture often provides the scales for this kind of discernment. Now before I go further, I should mention that I am a Christian who swims in the Reformed evangelical stream of the Protestant tradition. Knowing this about me, you’d expect me to uphold the authority of Scripture. I believe that the Bible is God’s Word given to us in human words that are, like Christ Himself, both divine and human in a mysterious way. I don’t have time here to explain in detail what I mean by this or even to defend it. But I should fess up so as to make sense of what I’m about to say about Scripture.
There are people, including some Christians, who look to the Bible for guidance even though they don’t believe it’s inspired by God in an unusual way. They view Christian Scripture as a source of wisdom similar to other sources, like the plays of Shakespeare or Gandhi’s The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Without denigrating the wisdom found in such writings, I believe that the Bible is uniquely inspired and, therefore, uniquely authoritative, and, therefore, uniquely able to guide us in life.
How Does the Bible Guide Us?
The Bible provides a reliable yardstick by which to measure our claims to be guided by the Holy Spirit through circumstances or feelings. If, for example, you think that the Spirit is leading you to do something the Bible prohibits, you can be sure that your spiritual lenses have become foggy. Throughout history, people have committed blatant sins under the claim God’s guidance. But since the Spirit inspired the writers of Scripture, that same Spirit can be guaranteed not to lead us to contradict the plain direction of Scripture.
Earlier in this series, I referred to a friend of mine, I’ll call him Bill, who claimed that God had brought him and a married woman together to deliver her from a terrible marriage. I think Bill actually believed this. Unfortunately, Bill’s claim to be led by the Spirit to commit adultery contradicted the clear teaching of Scripture in many places, including such “minor” passages as the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. No matter how much circumstances seemed to weigh in Bill’s favor, and no matter how much his feelings led him toward a intimate relationship with a married woman, he was misconstruing God’s guidance. According to Scripture, adultery is wrong, plain and simple.
There is a positive side to scriptural discernment of circumstantial guidance. If events in your life seem to point you in a certain direction, you can be more confident about that direction if it leads you to do that which Scripture affirms. This isn’t foolproof, of course. For example, if someone loses a plane ticket to Indonesia and you find it, you shouldn’t interpret that as proof that God wants you to evangelize in that country, even though sharing the gospel is consistent with God’s Word. It’s much more likely that God wants you to turn in the ticket so the rightful owner can use it. But if, on the other hand, events in your life give you an opportunity to share your faith with your neighbor, the fact that Scripture teaches you to do this very thing makes the probability of divine guidance in that direction more likely.
The Bible gives us much more than the ability to evaluate the spiritual significance of circumstances. It is the primary source for divine guidance in our life. The Spirit who inspired the biblical writers also works in our hearts to help us understand what God wants to say to us through the Bible. One of the chief functions of Scripture is to reveal God’s will for our lives. (Of course I realize that some Christians today do not recognize the unique authority of Scripture. They believe that their experience can trump biblical teaching. But this opens a Pandora’s box of confusion. What if your experience and my experience lead to inconsistent conclusions about divine guidance? How can experience be the ultimate arbiter of God’s guidance?)
Often, when folks say “I am seeking God’s will for my life,” they are referring to God’s specific will, whether to marry a certain individual, or to take a job offer, or to go on a mission trip. But the Bible usually refers to God’s will in a more general sense, as that which we all should do with our lives. For example, Paul writes: “For this is God’s will, that you be fully set apart from this world to live for him, that you keep away from sexual immorality” (1 Thessalonians 4:3, my translation). If you are tempted with sexual sin, you really don’t have to spend too much time wondering which partner God wants you to fornicate with. Scripture has made God’s will abundantly clear: don’t do it!
In another place Paul writes, “No matter what happens, always be thankful, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Through this verse, the Spirit of God is guiding all of us to be thankful in prayer. Given the fact that there are thousands of imperatives in the Bible–thousands of actions God wants us to do–we can’t read too far without encountering divine guidance for our lives.
If we take Scripture seriously, therefore, we can know that it’s God’s will for us to worship him, praise his name, give thanks for his gifts, pray for his help, love God and our neighbors and our enemies, feed the poor, seek justice for the oppressed, invite the homeless into our homes, be faithful to our spouses, tell others about Jesus, gather with other Christians on a regular basis for fellowship, and so on and so on.
I realize that what I’ve just said may not satisfy the person who is asking: “But is it God’s will for me to do this particular thing?” I do in fact believe that sometimes we receive more specific guidance through Scripture, and I’ll say more about this in my next post. But I also believe that if we do the things that are clearly commended in Scripture, our minds and hearts will be shaped by the Spirit so that we are more apt to correctly discern God’s specific will in specific situations.
Next time I’ll explain further how God can guide us in such situations through Scripture.
Divine Guidance Through Scripture (Part 2)
In my last post, I began to discuss different ways God guides us through Scripture. I focused especially on the sort of general guidance for our lives that is present throughout the Bible. From Scripture we know that we should love God, love our neighbors, love our enemies, etc. etc. etc.
But what about when we’re facing decisions in which general biblical teaching doesn’t seem to make an obvious difference? The clear call to love my neighbor, for example, doesn’t tall me exactly how to do this, or exactly which neighbors of the hundreds in my life deserve the bulk of my time and attention.
The Holy Spirit can also give quite specific direction as we encounter the text of the Scripture, taking that which is true for all Christians and applying it to our particular lives and situations. This sort of thing happens all the time in personal Bible study, in group studies, and when God’s Word is preached. This is one major reason, by the way, that I am a preacher. I’ve seen God change lives through the power of his proclaimed Word.
For example, several years ago in a sermon I mentioned an Old Testament passage in which the Lord says, “I hate divorce” (Malachi 2:16). I connected this passage to the teaching of Jesus on marriage, calling my congregation to a new commitment to marriage. As I greeted folks after service, I heard the usual collection of “Nice sermon, pastor” comments.
The next morning I received an altogether different kind of response. A man I’ll call Jeff called me at church. He had been in worship the day before and had a desperate need to speak with me. He didn’t want to elaborate on the phone, but said it had to do with my sermon. I rearranged my schedule so I could visit with him over his lunch hour.
“Your sermon really upset me,” Jeff began.
Oh no, not a great start to this conversation, I thought quietly as I steeled myself for his criticism.
“What you said about marriage and divorce has completely messed me up,” he continued. He then told me his story. A couple years ago, he had begun an affair with a coworker. When his wife discovered his unfaithfulness, Jeff left her and their two small children, and moved in with his girlfriend. Shortly thereafter, he began divorce proceedings. At the time of our lunch meeting, everything was final, except one last signature. With the sweep of a pen, Jeff’s marriage would be completely over.
Until the day before when I mentioned that God hates divorce, Jeff had never really questioned the morality of his actions. He was sorry to hurt his wife’s feelings and especially those of his children. But he was tired of his marriage and in love with his coworker. Then, owing to a number of “coincidences,” Jeff had visited our church the day before, only to hear my sermon on marriage and divorce. (This, by the way, illustrates quite wonderfully how the Spirit can use both circumstances and Scripture to guide us.)
“For the first time I’m wondering what God thinks about what I’ve done,” Jeff continued. “Maybe I shouldn’t get divorced. Maybe I should try to get back with my wife, though by now she hates my guts. I don’t know what to do. What do you think I should do?”
I tried in a gracious way to explain to Jeff what God intended for marriage and God’s consequent hatred of divorce (even though it is something God has allowed in some circumstances and which God forgives even when it is completely wrong). I agreed that Jeff’s wife might very well have no interest in reconciliation, but encouraged him to talk with her. She was a Christian, I discovered, as was Jeff, though he had not been living in fellowship with God for many years. As Jeff and I prayed together, I pleaded with God for help. Neither of us felt a lightening bolt from heaven that promised healing for his marriage, but we sensed God’s support for an effort to reconcile.
Ten months later, I found myself praying with Jeff once again. But the context was very different. The intervening months had been an emotional roller coaster for him and his wife. At first she laughed off his offer to reconcile. But, after a while, she sensed a genuine change in Jeff’s heart, especially when he terminated his extra-marital relationship. Lots of counseling, prayer, and support from other Christians slowly brought healing to their broken marriage. Ten months after my first meeting with Jeff I was praying with him . . . and with his wife, as they stood at the altar to renew their marital vows. God had brought them both through an astounding process of reconciliation. Before family and friends they testified to the power of the Scripture to change our lives for the better, by helping us to confront what is wrong and by teaching us to do what is right.
Jeff’s case marvelously illustrates the guidance of the Spirit through Scripture. But, I’ll freely admit, things don’t always happen this way or end this happily. In my next post I’ll include some warnings about the potential for misconstruing God’s will through the misuse of Scripture.
Divine Guidance Through Scripture (Part 3)
In my last two posts I’ve been arguing that God guides us through Scripture. For the most part, I’m referring to the way the Bible provides basic truths by which to order one’s life. For example, in many passages Scripture tells us to forgive people, and therefore when we have been wronged by someone, we can know that it’s good to forgive that person.
Unfortunately, people can indulge in silly and self-serving interpretations of biblical texts, such as one I heard from a man teaching on Matthew 6:33: “Seek first [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt 6:33, NIV). “Do you want an expensive car? A large home? A financially prosperous life?” he asked, “Jesus promises to give you ‘all these things’!” Of course he took “all these things” completely out of context, turning Jesus’ promise of basic necessities into a guarantee of opulent living.
It seems so obvious that this man’s values were far too worldly, yet we all read the Bible from our own worldly perspectives to one extent or another. No Christian is immune from this disease, including me and you. This means that we will tend to mold both the meaning of Scripture and the guidance of the Spirit to fit our preconceived expectations. You can see this in all sorts of situations. Republicans tend to find their political views upheld in Scripture, while Democrats find their convictions in the Bible. The same is true for Libertarians, Greens, and those who don’t vote for religious reasons. People who oppose the ordination of women see Scripture as lined up on their side, while those who support it believe that their view is biblical. And so it goes.
One basic rule of thumb to remember is this: If your reading of the Bible completely confirms your pre-existing beliefs, you may well have projected those beliefs into Scripture. On the contrary, if you find that Scripture is challenging your assumptions and commitments, then you may well be in touch with its genuine meaning.
If we seek to discern God’s guidance correctly, our very way of seeing and thinking needs to be changed, and Scripture plays a leading role in this process. This is exactly what Paul urges upon us in Romans 12:
Don’t be conformed to this world, but keep on being transformed through the renewing of your minds, so that you might discern what the will of God is, that which is good and pleasing and complete (Rom 12:2; my translation).
As our minds are made new through the work of the Spirit, we will be better equipped to determine God’s will for our lives. Notice that this transformation is an ongoing process, something Paul accentuates with his choice of Greek verb form: “keep on being transformed.” Such transformation begins in conversion and continues throughout our lives. The Bible is one of the chief tools employed by the Spirit in this work of mental remodeling. The more we internalize God’s Word, the more we will be able to determine God’s will because our powers of discernment will be formed and energized by the Holy Spirit.
By the combination of Word and Spirit God guides us. But too often Protestant evangelicals like me envision this guidance individualistically. By so doing, we misunderstand God’s intentions for us and often misconstrue his guidance for our lives. I’ll explain more of what I mean in my next post.
Divine Guidance Through Reason
So far I’ve shown that God guides us through circumstances, Scripture, and community. In my last post, I added that we can be guided through careful reasoning. I want to explain what I mean in this post.
Because the Spirit’s guidance can be so marvelously miraculous at times, we can overlook or even disparage so-called “normal” processes of reasoning. Sometimes, we even sit around like spiritual couch potatoes, waiting for some special gift of guidance while failing to use the gift of our minds, one of God’s most amazing endowments to human beings.
God has given us powers of reason to be used for his purposes. Whether we utilize these powers to make medical discoveries, teach Sunday school, or discern God’s will, God is honored when we use his good gifts for his glory. Moreover, the Spirit of God works in and through what can seem to us so natural and normal.
Some Christians think in terms of a false dichotomy between natural and supernatural activities, believing that God’s hand can be seen only in the supernatural or the extraordinary. But this distinction underestimates God’s presence throughout the natural world. The Son of God, through whom God created the world, “sustains the universe by the mighty power of his command” (Heb 1:3). The Lord is present and active in the “normal” affairs of the universe, in that which seems ordinary to us, even as he is present and active in that which is spectacularly unusual. So, when we use our ordinary human reasoning for the purpose of seeking God’s will, the Spirit can and does guide us.
The problem with this facet of spiritual guidance lies in the sin-induced corruption of our natural reason. Before we knew Christ, we were “alienated from God and enemies of God in our thinking” (Col 1:21, my translation). When we were reconciled with God through Christ, our sin was forgiven and our minds began to be renewed. But that renewal is an ongoing process that continues throughout our lives as we learn to think in new ways. No longer are we stuck in futile, human ways of thinking (Eph 4:17, Col 2:18). We can begin to think in godly ways because we have been given the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16). When we allow the Spirit of God to be active in every facet of our lives, then our thinking will also be guided by the Spirit (Rom 8:5-6). But, none of this guarantees the rightness of our intellect. Reason, though a gift of God in creation and touched by the new creation, is not infallible.
As we devote ourselves to the key relationships of the Christian life, spending time in fellowship with God and God’s people, we will start to think more like God and less like a captive of our corrupt culture. As God’s written Word permeates our minds and hearts, we will treasure the things of God and think the thoughts of God. As we prayerfully ask the Lord to inspire our thinking, the Holy Spirit will lead us. Then we can have even greater confidence that our human reasoning, transformed by the Spirit to be more like what God intended it to be, will guide us in God’s paths.
When our reasoning receives input from Scripture, and when it is something done in the context of Christian community, then the possibility of correctly discerning God’s will is greatly increased. Reason often allows us to make connections among key factors, taking in the various kinds of input that God is supplying. I would never suggest that reason alone is adequate for spiritual discernment, but it does supply a crucial link in the chain of divine guidance.
Divine Guidance Through Dreams and Visions
So far in this series I’ve shown that God guides us through circumstances, Scripture, community, and reason. Those who especially liked my last post on divine guidance through reason might find themselves a bit uncomfortable with today’s post.
I must admit that the subject of guidance through dreams and visions does not reflect my personal experience to any great extent. In fact, I feel most comfortable among Christians who are guided by thinking, not by visions and dreams. But as a biblically-committed Christian, I must not truncate my understanding of God’s activity by my own limited experience, no matter how tempting that may be. Rather, I must let the Bible speak. For this reason, I recognize the possibility of spiritual guidance through dreams and visions. Whether we are sleeping or awake, the Holy Spirit can reveal God’s will to us through inspired visual images.
Throughout the Bible, God communicates with his people through visionary experiences. In Genesis 15, the Lord speaks to Abraham in a vision (Gen 15:1). A few chapters later, God speaks to the gentile king Abimelech in a dream (Gen 20:3). So it goes throughout the Old Testament stories. The New Testament begins on a similar note, with an angel appearing in a dream to Joseph, telling him that his fiancée is pregnant by the Holy Spirit (Matt 1:20). Not long afterwards, Joseph receives direction to go to Egypt as, once again, an angel speaks to him in a dream (Matt 2:13).
If we were to think that things like this happened only for biblical characters, the promise of Joel corrects that misconception. Several centuries before Christ, the Lord spoke through this Jewish prophet:
Then after I have poured out my rains again, I will pour out my Spirit upon all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your old men will dream dreams. Your young men will see visions. In those days, I will pour out my Spirit even on servants, men and women alike (Joel 2:28-29).
Seven weeks after Jesus’ resurrection, God poured out his Spirit as promised by Joel. Peter, preaching the first Christian sermon on the Jewish festival of Pentecost, quotes from Joel’s prophecy to explain what has happened to the followers of Jesus who have just received the filling of the Spirit (Acts 2:16-21). The fulfillment of this prophecy at this time implies that Christians, both old and young, will experience divine guidance through dreams and visions.
The rest of the book of Acts illustrates this implication as the Holy Spirit guides the early Christians through extraordinary visual experiences. In Acts 16, for example, the Spirit at first spoke to Paul and Silas, telling them not to evangelize in the Roman provinces of Asia and Bithynia. Then Paul had a vision in the night, in which a man from northern Greece asked him, “Come over here and help us.” The evangelists quickly left for that region, believing that God had called them to preach there (Acts 19:6-10). Later on, when Paul’s ministry in Corinth brought on Jewish wrath, God inspired and affirmed Paul through another vision:
One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision and told him, “Don’t be afraid! Speak out! Don’t be silent! For I am with you, and no one will harm you because many people here in this city belong to me.” So Paul stayed there for the next year and a half, teaching the word of God (Acts 18:9-11)
Of course, as we have noted with respect to other forms of guidance, that which we derive from dreams and visions must also be tested by Scripture in the context of prayerful, reasonable Christian community. Throughout history, heretical theologies have often originated in the visions of their founders, visions inspired by something other than the Holy Spirit. The New Testament letter from Jude refers to false teachers as “dreamers” (Jude 1:8). But, for those of us inclined to exalt rationality far above visions, I daresay that most modern heresy stems from thinking, not dreaming.
I know a woman named Sandy who, years ago, had a dream in which she and her husband were missionaries in a city she had never heard of, in a country on the other side of the globe from where they were presently living. As she shared this dream with her husband and with her church, they all began to believe that Sandy had indeed heard from the Holy Spirit, even though she and her husband were not missionaries and the city revealed was in a country that prohibited the entrance of all missionaries. Years of patient discernment followed, as this couple sought to follow God’s leading. He confirmed what Sandy had dreamed in hundreds of ways. Many, many years later, through a most amazing series of divine interventions, the dream was fulfilled, as they began to minister in the very city whose name had once revealed in a dream. A skeptic would scoffingly say that this was a self-fulfilling prophecy. But, knowing the journey of Sandy and her husband, I stand amazed at the grace of God who still speaks to us, as promised, through dreams and visions. (For the safety of Sandy and her husband, I have not used her real name and I cannot divulge the country in which she serves.)
Divine Guidance Through “Whispering”
The Old Testament book of 1 Kings contains one of the most dramatic stories in all of Scripture (1 Kgs 18-19). Israel was languishing under the corrupt leadership of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. The royal couple had led the nation into the worship of the pagan gods, Baal and Asherah. The king and queen had killed the prophets of God, replacing them with hundreds of pagan psychics. Only Elijah remained faithful and alive as a spokesman of the true God.
Empowered by the Lord, Elijah confronted King Ahab and his multitude of prophets, challenging them to a “my God is bigger than your god” kind of duel. Both sides would build altars on Mt. Carmel and prepare sacrifices on the altars. But they would not set fire to the sacrifices in the usual manner. Instead, they would wait for fire from heaven. Whichever deity consumed the sacrifice would be the winner. That god would be recognized as the true God.
The prophets of Baal went first, preparing a bull, placing it on their altar and calling out to their god. When Baal failed to answer, they began dancing wildly around the altar, crying out for a miracle. As Elijah taunted them, they even engaged in ritual self-mutilation in an attempt to motivate Baal’s response. But the fire didn’t fall. Baal was still and silent.
Then Elijah repaired the altar of the Lord that had been torn down by the pagans. He prepared his sacrifice and then, just to make things a lot more difficult for God, Elijah drenched everything with buckets of water until the ditch around the altar was filled to the brim. When all the preparations were completed, Elijah prayed a simple prayer, asking the Lord to demonstrate his sovereignty. God’s response was stunning:
Immediately the fire of the Lord flashed down from heaven and burned up the young bull, the wood, the stones, and the dust. It even licked up all the water in the ditch! And when the people saw it, they fell on their faces and cried out, “The Lord is God! The Lord is God!” (1 Kgs 18:38-39).
In the wake of victory, Elijah zealously killed the vanquished prophets of Baal. But when Queen Jezebel heard what had happened, she sought Elijah’s life, forcing him to flee to wilderness.
Several weeks later, he found himself cowering in a cave in the desert, crying out to God for help. Then God instructed Elijah to stand outside of the cave and watch.
And as Elijah stood there, the Lord passed by, and a mighty windstorm hit the mountain. It was such a terrible blast that the rocks were torn loose, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire there was the sound of a “gentle whisper” (1 Kgs 19:11-12).
The God who had done such wonders on Mt. Carmel, the same God who controls the awesome power of wind, earthquake and fire, chose to speak to Elijah through the “sound of a gentle whisper,” what the King James Version of the Bible calls “a still, small voice.” The contrast between God’s mighty power and his quiet voice couldn’t be more stark. Though we might expect or even prefer dramatic demonstrations of divine guidance that knock us off our feet, the Holy Spirit sometimes speaks in a gentle whisper that brushes our hearts like a soft spring breeze.
Divine Guidance Through “Whispering” (Part 2)
In my last post, I related the Old Testament story of Elijah who, after confronting the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, retreats to the wilderness where he hears the “gentle whisper” or “still, small voice” of God. I suggested that we too can hear that quiet voice as the Spirit of God speaks even today.
Unfortunately, a multitude of contemporary Christians have trivialized this ministry of the Spirit. “God spoke to me” has become a virtual replacement for “I thought,” except that by saying “God spoke to me” a person avoids having to take responsibility for his or her actions. After all, if God told me to buy a new computer that I really don’t need, who are you and who am I to question God’s command? Claiming God’s authority for my own thoughts not only appears to protect me from being corrected, but it also gives an added punch to my own preferences.
While recognizing that the Spirit will speak to us, we must also acknowledge our tendency to misinterpret what we hear, or to mistake our own inner voice for the voice of God. My friend Dave was a pastor to young adults in a large church. Energetic, handsome, godly, and obviously single, Dave found that many of the women in his group were interested in more than just his Bible teaching. Every now and then, one of them would approach him with exciting news, “God has told me that we’re going to get married,” she’d announced happily. At first Dave didn’t know quite what to say to this unwelcome and unlikely bit of divine direction. But over time he developed an appropriate response: “Well, that could be great news. Thanks for sharing it with me. Now, just as soon as God tells me that we’re going to get married, then we’ll do something about it.” Oddly enough, God never told Dave what his young fans had purported to hear from the Spirit. He ended up marrying a wonderful woman who, ironically enough, hadn’t heard God whisper Dave’s name in her ear.
Stories like this make it easy for those of us who are more intellectually oriented to discount hearing from God altogether. I’ve known a few Christians even deny that the Spirit still speaks to our hearts in any direct way. But this extreme view opposes both the biblical record and the testimony of thousands of wise, balanced Christians who are not inclined to conjure up divine voices.
I have another pastor friend whose experience of the Spirit’s guidance for his marriage was quite unlike Dave’s. Greg, a scholarly Presbyterian minister, was teaching an adult Sunday school class one day. In the midst of his lecture, a woman entered and sat in the back of the class. Greg, who had never seen her before, barely took notice of her entrance until he heard an inner voice say distinctly: “You are going to marry that woman.” Not one to have such experiences, Greg just about fell over on the spot. Somehow he managed to finish his lesson. Many months later he did in fact marry that woman, but not because he clobbered her with a claim to spiritual guidance. First, he introduced himself to her. As a friendship developed, they both began to sense what Greg suspected from the beginning. Along with their Christian community, they discerned God’s guidance with all the tools available to them. Indeed, they did marry. Once again, a skeptic could chock up Greg’s experience to overactive libido or simply good luck. But as one who knows his spiritual integrity, I believe that the Holy Spirit spoke to Greg’s heart in order to accomplish God’s will in his life.
Developing an Ear to Hear the Holy Spirit, Part 1
Occasionally, the Holy Spirit almost shouts at us. Indeed, “The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters” (Psalm 29:3). But most of the time, the Spirit deals with us as God did with Elijah, through what we might metaphorically call “whispering.” This presents a irksome problem for us: How can we hear the Spirit’s voice when our hearts are so overwhelmed by the cacophony of our busy lives and hearts?
When my children were young, I would often study in a McDonald’s Playplace. I’d read or tap away at my laptop computer while my kids would race through a maze of giant plastic tubes and slides. Invasive and syrupy Musak filled our favorite Playplace, though I could hardly hear it because of the competing racket from nearby video games. Babies were crying; toddlers were squealing; parents were shouting as they tried to get their children to come out of the play structure. It was noisy chaos.
Does your heart ever sound just like this McDonald’s Playplace? Have you ever sat down for a moment of quiet, only to notice that your mind keeps racing at breakneck speed? Do you ever try to hear the voice of God, only to be overwhelmed with dozens of other voices, including your own, and those of your parents, friends, colleagues, not to mention the culture? It’s no wonder that we find it hard to hear the Spirit’s voice, or that we mistakenly attribute some random thought to God. If we are going to be ready to hear the gentle whisper of the Holy Spirit, then somehow we have to quiet our hearts and learn to focus upon God. For most of us, this is much easier said than done.
Several years ago I participated in my first silent retreat. My wife and I, along with some Christian friends, planned to spend a weekend in silence at a secluded retreat center in the hills above Santa Barbara, California. When we arrived on Friday evening, our bedroom was stifling because the temperature had climbed into the 90s and the window had been shut. Cranking it open for some ventilation, we left for the start of the retreat. The leader explained the importance of keeping silent for two days, though warning us how difficult it might be when we first started. He had no idea how prophetic his words would be for me!
When Linda and I returned to our room, the temperature had dropped considerably, but in its place we found about a hundred ravenous mosquitoes. Following the rules of silence, we quietly divided our efforts at bug swatting until most of the little vampires had perished. In the process, I received a dozen little red bites. For most people this would be an inconvenience, but for me it was a nightmare because I am allergic to bug bites. Soon my body was covered with quarter-sized welts that itched worse than anything I could remember. For hours, I sat in agonizing, sleepless silence, trying not to scratch my bites, while occasionally jumping up to swat a remaining mosquito. I couldn’t remember a more miserable, night. Finally, at about five in the morning, Linda awoke and took pity on me enough to break silence.
“Are you OK,” she asked. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
“No,” I replied. “I’m miserable. I itch like mad. I haven’t slept one bit. And I can’t even complain about it because of this crazy silence! But there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Finally, exhaustion got the better of me and I was able to sleep a bit. By late morning I had recovered enough from my ordeal to take a walk into the woods–with plenty of insect repellent applied liberally to my body. Finding a tranquil spot by a stream, I sat down to be quiet before God. Yet, as I tried to be quiet, I still heard a hundred buzzing “mosquitoes,” not real ones this time, but those that lived inside my head: the obnoxious buzzing of the things that filled my life, the demands, needs, ideas, hopes, fears, memories, disappointments, and dreams that controlled my life. These bugs couldn’t be swatted. They began to quiet down only after many hours of solitude and prayer, during which I surrendered to God everything that buzzed within my heart. In retrospect, I think God stirred up those inner mosquitoes so I could relinquish them to him. In some small way I began to obey the command of God found in Habakkuk: “The Lord is in his holy temple. Let all the earth be silent before him” (Hab 2:20).
Although my initial attempt at disciplined silence began with such great frustration, it turned out to be an exceptionally quiet moment in my otherwise noisy life. I began to discover why so many spiritually mature Christians set aside regular times for extended silence and solitude, and resolved to do so more myself.
As you read this, you may be thinking: “Well, that sounds great. But you’re a pastor. You can make time for this sort of thing. I can’t imagine getting away for a weekend of silence, or even for a half-day. What would you suggest for somebody like me?”
I’ll respond to this question in my next post in this series.
Developing an Ear to Hear the Holy Spirit, Part 2
In my last post, I talked about how important it is to quiet our hearts if we’re to receive guidance through the Holy Spirit. I suggested that literal silence, such as what we might experience on a silent retreat, helps promote internal silence. But how is this helpful to ordinary folks, to people who can’t easily make time to get away for a silent retreat?
First, in my experience I am able to make time for that which I value. Whether it’s a favorite TV show, exercise, or hanging out with my family, I am disciplined enough in the use of my calendar to make sure I do the important things, in addition to my work. I think this is true for most people, even extraordinary busy ones. Indeed, there may be short seasons of life when it’s almost impossible for you to get alone with God for a while–like when you’re a new mom with a tiny baby–but most of us can set aside at least an hour for quiet if we truly want to. The question is: Do we truly want to do this?
Silence can be scary, especially for those of us who aren’t used to it. We can be afraid that silence will be boring. Or we may be afraid that in silence we’ll have to deal with hard things in our life that we’d rather avoid. For example, when I spend quiet time with God, I’m sometimes reminded of things I have done wrong. God brings these to mind so that I may confess them and be forgiven, and so that I may talk with him about how I can do better in the future. But the experience of remembering forgotten sins isn’t particularly pleasant. Many of us fill our lives with noise because we don’t want to face our fears, our hurts, or our disappointments, in addition to our sins.
If you find yourself resistant to the whole notion of being quiet with God, I’d encourage you to talk about this with a trusted Christian brother or sister. Perhaps your first efforts at silence can be shared with this person, who will be there to support you in prayer and other ways.
Second, I think many of us don’t take time to be alone with God because we set the bar too high at first. We might read about saints who spends days in silence and decided to imitate them. But when we try, our efforts quickly fail. Most of us need to begin more humbly and realistically, not with days of solitude and silence, but with minutes or hours.
Some years ago, I encouraged members of my congregation at Irvine Presbyterian Church to set aside one hour once a month for solitude. More was fine. But one hour once a month was a great start. I recommended that folks go to a place that fosters silence, perhaps a secluded park or beach, or maybe a quiet retreat center. Personally, I find it difficult to be quiet and alone when I’m at home or work. Others might have more discipline and focus than I do, but it seems that most people are helped when they’re in a place that fosters quiet fellowship with God.
Moreover, I’d urge you to work with your natural inclinations, not against them. For example, I know people who can pray for long periods of time when sitting or kneeling. I’m not one of these people. Yet if I’m walking, and especially if I’m walking in a place where I can pray out loud, then I can go for longer stretches. Similarly, some people are helped to pray by going to a church sanctuary. I, on the other hand, find nature to be my best “sanctuary.” The beauty of the natural world reminds my of the beauty of God, and helps me to sense God’s presence.
For most of my life, I prayed either out loud or silently. Then, about eight years ago, I began to write out my prayers in a journal. I discovered that the practice of journaling helped me to focus, both on what I wanted to say to the Lord and on what he wanted to say to me. Of course I don’t journal when I’m walking! But many of my non-ambulatory prayer sessions now involve writing. This may or may not be helpful to you. If you haven’t tried journaling before, you may want to give it a shot.
To sum up, here’s what I’m saying in this blog post:
1. If you value solitude and silence, you’ll find a way to get it into your calendar.
2. If the whole idea of silence is scary, find a partner with whom to share your hesitations and your experiences.
3. Be realistic in your expectations. Commit to spending one hour in solitude once a month. More is fine, but start with what you can manage.
4. Work with your natural inclinations, not against them.
5. Try writing out your prayers in a journal.
As with every facet of the Christian life, learning to discern the voice of the Spirit is something we should do as a committed member of Christian community. Certainly, times of solitude are essential, but not a lifetime of separation from our spiritual family. A healthy Christian community will help you listen to the whisper of the Spirit, discern which voices are really from God, and speak in a way that doesn’t trivialize spiritual guidance by turning everything into a word from the Lord.
Divine Guidance and Spiritual Direction
In my opinion, spiritual direction can be a valuable means through which God can guide us. Allow me to explain what I mean and why I think this way.
For most Protestant and/or evangelical Christians, the phrase “spiritual direction” is an unfamiliar one. The title of “spiritual director” conveys very little and can in fact be misleading. Those who lack understanding of what a spiritual director does might be apt to misunderstand the role because of what the term “director” conveys. We might picture a spiritual director as somebody who “directs” our spiritual lives, giving orders, telling us what to do, and so on. We might even envision the kind of authoritarian discipleship that was popular while I was in college, but has been rejected by most Christians as unbiblical and unhealthy. This is not what spiritual direction is all about.
Folks in the Catholic and higher-church Anglican traditions, as well as a growing number of Protestants, would be much more familiar with the notion of spiritual direction, whether or not they have personally experienced it. I first became familiar with the whole idea of spiritual direction through the novels of Susan Howatch. In her Church of England Series, sometimes called the Starbridge Series, her characters, who are Anglican Christians in some sort of crisis, are “in spiritual direction,” that is, they are regularly seeing a spiritual director. The chief task of the director is to help them discern God’s presence and guidance, both of which they need quite desperately. (Who doesn’t?)
Howatch’s portrayal of spiritual direction is sometimes more animated than reality, but she basically hits the nail on the head. The spiritual director’s job is not to give directions so much as to help someone pay attention to God’s directions. Thus, spiritual direction is a process that helps people to discern and follow the direction of the Holy Spirit.
In general, spiritual directors are wise, experienced, spiritually-sensitive Christians. They may or may not be ordained ministers, though most spiritual directors have been specifically trained and credentialed. Their training may include reading lots of spiritual classics, taking extended time for personal spiritual growth, seeing a spiritual director, being in a group with fellow trainees, and doing spiritual direction as a supervised intern.
In the last thirty years or so, Christians outside of the Catholic (or Anglo-Catholic) tradition have become more familiar with spiritual directions. This may be a result of the lowering of the wall between the Protestant and Catholic traditions. It may also be the result, in particular, of the popularity of the writings of Henri Nouwen (a Roman Catholic priest) and Susan Howatch (an Anglican novelist). For basic information on Catholic spiritual direction, visit Catholic Spiritual Direction. For a Protestant/Reformed perspective, see this informative discussion by the Rev. Kenton Smith.
I began seeing a spiritual director in 2006. I did so because it seemed like a good way for me to grow in my relationship with God. My expectations were more than realized, as I had the privilege of a wise companion in my spiritual pilgrimage. It was good to have a place to sort out my joys and frustrations as a Christian, and to have help in discovering God’s presence in my life. Though I did not begin spiritual direction with the thought that I’d be changing jobs, my spiritual director was invaluable when I was trying to figure out if God was guiding me to leave Irvine Presbyterian Church and join the team at Laity Lodge in Texas.
My experience confirms the fact that spiritual direction is not the same as counseling or therapy, even if both counselor and counselee are Christians. Though some of the methods are the same, honest sharing and sensitive listening, a counselor focuses on the individual and his or her needs, experiences, hurts, etc. In most counseling, there is quite a bit of emphasis on discovering historical and psychological causes for current feelings and behaviors. So, if I’m feeling lots of anger towards a colleague at work, for example, a counselor might help me see that this colleague reminds me of my father, and therefore my anger may be more about my relationship with my father than my relationship with my colleague. A good counselor would take me a step further, helping me to see my colleague more clearly and relate to him more fairly. A spiritual director might also be interested in the roots of my anger. But his or her focus wouldn’t be in the past, or even in my feelings and behaviors. Rather, a spiritual director would help me to discover God’s presence in my current experience. This might include finding God’s power to be less angry, or to communicate my anger more appropriately. But a spiritual director would want me to consider what God might be saying to me in my anger, and how I might experience God’s peace in a way that helps me deal with my anger in a healthy, even a godly way.
Given what I have experienced in spiritual direction, and given what I’m seeing in the Protestant/evangelical/Reformed world in which I spend most of my time as a Christian, I expect that the popularity of spiritual direction will greatly increase among folks in my tradition. There is a longing in people for spiritual growth and spiritual guidance. Spiritual direction can help satisfy this longing, and it is surely one way in which God can direct us through the Spirit. Moreover, though you can’t find the title of “spiritual director” in Scripture, the notion of discerning God’s guidance in relationship with other Christians is central to the New Testament understanding of the Christian life. The best spiritual directors both reflect this biblical understand and use Scripture in the direction process.
Confirming the Spirit’s Guidance, Part 1
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.
Confirming the Spirit’s Guidance, Part 2
A couple of days ago, I suggested that we can confirm (or disconfirm) the Spirit’s guidance in a variety of ways, but principally through stepping out in faith. I also acknowledged that this can be scary, since it may require us to do something that is potentially awkward, difficult, or embarrassing. The following story illustrates this possibility.
A woman I’ll call Eva was a grandmother, a gentle woman, and one of the most mature Christians I had ever known. For many years she had served within her church by calling recent visitors on the telephone. Usually she’d say how much their visit was appreciated and offer to answer any questions they might have. Most phone calls were short, pleasant, and appropriately superficial.
But every now and then Eva would “hear from the Lord,” as she described it. One time, she called a visitor and began her usual friendly spiel. In the middle of her script, however, she sensed the Holy Spirit “whispering” in her heart. For no apparent reason, she felt that this woman was in a great deal of pain over a difficult marriage. She heard no audible voice and had no reason to know whether this was true or not. Yet she sensed that God had revealed something to her so she could care for the woman on the phone.
Now Eva faced a challenge: to go with what she thought God was saying to her and risk offending the woman on the phone, or to avoid embarrassment by not bringing up the issue of her marriage but thereby missing the opportunity to help her. Eva chose to risk the embarrassment of following what she believed to be the Spirit’s guidance.
“Can I share something a little odd with you?” she asked the woman on the phone.
“I guess so,” was the answer.
“Well, as we have been speaking, I keep having this feeling that you’re going through a tough time in your marriage. You probably think I’m crazy, but I felt like I had to say something.”
The woman on the other end of the line was silent for several seconds. Finally she choked out, “How, how did you know? That’s really why I went to your church.”
“I think the Lord told me,” Eva answered, “so I can pray for you and help you.”
Thus, a friendly phone call turned into the beginning of a healing encounter. Eva’s sensitivity to the Spirit, her boldness combined with gentle love, opened up an opportunity for ministry that might not have otherwise presented itself.
I have just related one of the more spectacular of Eva’s stories. Things didn’t always flow so smoothly and with obvious supernatural blessing. But even when she appeared to strike out, Eva kept on trying to listen for the Spirit and to obey what she heard. When nothing unusual impressed her heart, she didn’t make it up. She simply did her job graciously, welcoming visitors and sharing a bit of Christ’s love with them. When she believed that the Spirit had given her special guidance to care for a visitor, she stepped out in faith, knowing that God would confirm that which is truly his guidance.
As I finish telling Eva’s story, I can imagine the responses of some of my friends who are skittish about supernatural guidance of the sort I just described. “This opens the door to all sorts of nonsense,” they’d complain, “even heresy. How are we going to know if somebody’s claim to divine inspiration is true?”
This is a fine question. Actually, it’s one that Jesus himself anticipated and answered. In the Gospel of Matthew He said:
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits. (Matthew 7:15-20)
Those who are truly inspired by God, who truly hear the whispering of the Spirit, who are truly in touch with genuine divine guidance, will bear good fruit. That fruit will be evident in their personal lives. And it will also be evident in the lives of those who have been touched by them. What sort of fruit am I talking about? We could start with the fruit of the Spirit, which is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22). To this list we could add such things as: people drawn to the Lord, works of justice and mercy, the building up of the body of Christ, and so on. One who claims to be guided by God will, if the claim is true, live a life that reflects the character and ministry of Christ.
Spiritual Guidance: For Whose Benefit?
In my last post in this series, I told the story of a woman named Eva who tested what she believed to be the Spirit’s guidance by stepping out in faith. Through doing this, she was able to bring God’s grace to a woman who was in a difficult place in her marriage.
Eva’s example illustrates another vital truth about spiritual guidance: it often comes, not for our own benefit, but for the benefit of others. Of course, as the Spirit enabled Eva to care profoundly for the woman on the phone, Eva herself felt gratitude well up in her heart. To be used by God is one of life’s greatest joys! But the guidance Eva received was not primarily for her own blessing. Rather, it was for the healing of another person who deeply needed to know God’s love in a time of personal crisis.
Without a doubt, the Holy Spirit guides us through the maze of our lives if we seek his direction. But sometimes we become so absorbed in seeking guidance for ourselves that we overlook one of the Spirit’s main reasons for speaking to us: so that we might minister to others. When we are prepared to hear God’s voice, we will often be led to care on a deep level for the people God places in our lives. Sometimes the Spirit will lead us by placing a burden on our hearts for a certain person or area of need. Sometimes we will receive even more specific guidance, as Eva did during her phone call. But no matter the precise quality of God’s direction, if we make ourselves available to him, he will lead us into his ministry and empower us for his purposes.
Notice that spiritual guidance both flourishes in the context of true fellowship among God’s people and also contributes to that fellowship. As you are led by the Spirit to care for others with compassion and insight, your relationships will become deeper and sweeter. The Lord will help you penetrate the guardedness that keeps us at a “safe” but superficial distance from each other.
Notice also something that has remained implicit throughout this conversation of spiritual guidance. Spiritual guidance comes, not only for our good and for the good of others, but ultimately for the good of God. The Spirit guides us so that we might “do the good things [God] planned for us long ago” (Eph 2:10), and these things are all part of his plan for the cosmos. As we walk in God’s will, we derive personal benefit. The people around us are blessed. But, even more significantly, God’s purposes are being fulfilled through us. As my friend Buddy says, “Guidance from God is also guidance for God.”
When you pray, “O Lord, please show me your will,” you are acknowledging that God has the right to direct your life. God is sovereign, not only over all creation, not only over all history, but over you. The King of kings and Lord of Lords has every right to govern you, and you ought to follow his guidance because of who he is.
But we seek and abide by God’s direction, not only because he is our Master and we are his servants, but also because God’s ways are the very best, both for him and for us. Even when God seems to guide us along treacherous paths, even when walking in his ways denies our thirst for instant gratification, even when obedience to his call requires sacrifice and suffering, we follow him because “we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them” (Rom 8:28). As we discover God’s purpose for our lives and as we walk in that purpose, he works in every part of our lives for our own good.
In my next post in this series I want to expand on this theme a bit further and offer an illustration.
Spiritual Guidance: For Whose Benefit? Part 2
In my last post, I suggested that God’s guidance is not only for our personal benefit, though we are surely helped when God guides us. But divine guidance is often for the sake of others, and ultimately for the sake of God and His purposes.
This truth about God reminds me of a wonderful scene from The Sound of Music. Maria had set her heart upon becoming a nun and was in the midst of her candidacy to join a religious order. But her ability to accept the disciplines of convent life was in question. So, the leader of the abbey, who exercised complete authority over Maria’s life, sent her away to serve as the governess for the incorrigible Von Trapp children. To Maria’s surprise and horror, she unintentionally fell in love with their father, Captain Von Trapp. Fleeing back to the safety of the abbey, Maria tried to bury her love for the captain, a love which would surely compromise her commitment to becoming a nun.
When the abbess finally gets Maria to talk about what happened at the Von Trapp home, the confused girl confesses her love for Captain Von Trapp. She begs the Reverend Mother for the opportunity to make her religious vows immediately, thereby removing forever the possibility of marrying the captain. But the abbess does a most surprising thing. Rather than accepting Maria into the holy order and protecting her from a marriage that would preclude her becoming a nun, the Reverend Mother orders Maria to return to the Von Trapp home. Disregarding Maria’s urgent pleas for admission to holy orders, she insists that Maria must test her love for the captain and thereby discover God’s will for her life.
Unhappily, Maria submits to the Reverend Mother’s command because she has no other choice. As a candidate for the abbey, Maria has submitted her life to the authority of the abbess. But we can see that this wise woman exercises her authority, not only for the good for her order, but for Maria’s good as well. Her guidance, however authoritative, is supremely wise and gracious, even though Maria cannot see it at the time.
So it with God’s guidance and our response. We obey God’s directions because we should. It’s the only right thing to do. But even when we can’t see how God’s ways are the best for us, they always are. Like the Reverend Mother, the Lord deserves our complete obedience. And, like the Reverend Mother, our gracious Heavenly Father guides us into the life of greatest fulfillment. When God directs us for his own purposes, we discover that his purposes include our blessing and joy.
This illustration from The Sound of Music helps us to see how obeying God can lead, not only to God’s good, but to our good as well. What it doesn’t capture is the miraculous and peculiar way God actually worked in the real life of the real Maria von Trapp. I’ll explain what I mean in my next post.
Spiritual Guidance: For Whose Benefit? Part 3
In my last post, I used an example from the movie The Sound of Music to illustrate how God’s directions for us are best, even when we can see this in the moment. Like the Reverend Mother who sent Maria back to the von Trapp family, God oftens “sends” us to places that don’t seem best to us. But, in fact, they are the best.
We can see this illustrated in the fictional version of the life of Maria von Trapp. But, in fact, her real life contained some striking examples of God’s unexpected guidance. Here’s an excerpt from the family history on the von Trapp website:
The movie strongly portrays Maria as the epitome of religious devotion in and out of convent life. Most people are unaware that she was raised as a socialist and atheist and became actively cynical towards all religions. Those beliefs quickly and dramatically changed by the chance meeting of a visiting Jesuit priest to Maria’s college.
Maria had entered a crowded church assuming she was about to enjoy a concert by Bach. Instead, a well known priest, Father Kronseder had just begun preaching. Caught in the middle of a standing-room-only crowd, Maria soon found herself caught up in the words of this preacher.
In Maria’s words, “Now I had heard from my uncle that all of these Bible stories were inventions and old legends, and that there wasn’t a word of truth in them. But the way this man talked just swept me off my feet. I was completely overwhelmed by it . . . .” When he finished his sermon and came down the pulpit stairs Maria grabbed his elbow and loudly asked, “Do you believe all this?”
A meeting between the priest and Maria changed her beliefs and the course of her life.
Though Maria was intensely devoted to her convent, she was taken away from the outdoor activities she once thrived on. Her doctor was concerned her health was failing due to a lack of fresh air and exercise. This was when the decision was made to send Maria to the home of retired naval captain Georg von Trapp. Her position was not governess to all the children, as the movie portrayed, but specifically to the captain’s daughter who was bedridden with rheumatic fever. The rest is truly history. Maria never returned to the convent and married the Captain on November 26, 1927. This is the story that has been made immortalized by The Sound of Music.
The von Trapp family began singing publicly, not because it was part of their escape from Austria to Switzerland, as in the movie, but as a result of what must have seemed like terrible misfortune to the von Trapps. When the family lost its wealth in the worldwide depression of the 1930s, they considered singing as a way of making money. At first the father was reticent, but according to one of his daughters, in the end he “accepted it as God’s will that they sing for others.” The family did indeed win first place at the Salzburg Music Festival in 1936, as depicted in the movie. And their singing was part of what helped them leave Austria, though without hiking over the mountains to Switzerland.
In the story of the real Maria von Trapp, we see how God uses circumstances, even apparently negative ones, to guide and bless and use his people. First, God led her to faith through her attendance at an evangelistic event that she mistakenly thought was going to be a concert. Second, her poor health in the convent was what led to her being assigned to the von Trapp family. And that which ended up bringing her family much acclaim, namely their professional singing, was something they did out of necessity when they lost their fortune.
Maria, by the way, remained a faithful Christian all of her life. In the 1950s she, along with her own children, Johannes and Rosmarie, and her stepdaughter Maria, went to New Guinea to do mission work there. Although Maria (senior) contracted malaria and didn’t remain in New Guinea for a long time, her children stayed on for several years, with Maria (junior) doing mission work in New Guinea for thirty years.
So the story of the real Maria von Trapp reminds us that God’s ways are not our ways, and that God’s guidance often comes packaged in unexpected forms. Yet he can use even the unexpected and the apparently negative both for our good and for his purposes.
How Does God Guide Us? Some Final Thoughts
In this series I’ve tried to show some of the ways that God guides us. I’ve explained that God guides us through:
• Dreams and Visions
• Divine Whispering
• Spiritual Direction
I suggested that we can confirm God’s guidance in various ways, especially through taking the risk of stepping out in faith. In my last posts, I showed that God’s guidance is not only for our benefit, but also for the sake of others, and especially for the sake of God’s own kingdom and glory.
I’ll finish up this series by responding to a couple of very practical questions that often hear as a pastor:
How can I learn to be guided by the Holy Spirit?
My life is so busy, how can I find time to quiet my heart enough to hear the Spirit’s gentle whisper?
How can I learn to be guided by the Holy Spirit?
I have found that many people simply need to be aware of the different ways that the Holy Spirit can guide them. Some who have studied the Bible for years to gain theological knowledge never expected the Spirit to speak to them personally through the Scripture. Once they have this expectation, they realize that the Spirit had been whispering in their ears in the past, but they had dismissed this internal voice as nothing of significance. Now they are ready to be guided by the Spirit in a more personal way.
Let me emphasize again that spiritual guidance must be evaluated for its consistency with Scripture. Moreover, we all need to be in close fellowship with other Christians who can help us to discern God’s directions for our lives. If you want to be guided by the Spirit and not simply to claim divine status for your own inclinations, commit yourself to Bible study and to active involvement in Christian community.
Remember that spiritual guidance often comes, not primarily for our sake, but for the sake of others. As you seek God’s will, ask him to show you how to serve those around you. Make yourself available to do God’s will, to participate in his work in the world. Submission to the Lord is a crucial ingredient of your readiness to hear his voice.
Finally, the practice of spiritual disciplines helps to tune our ears to the voice of the Spirit. As you spend time reading and meditating upon the Scripture, praying, journaling, taking time to be alone with God, being silent for extended times, worshiping publicly and privately, and fasting, your heart will be prepared for hearing God’s voice. If these disciplines — or even the word “discipline” — are unfamiliar to you, let me recommend a couple of marvelous books: The Spirit of the Disciplines, by Dallas Willard (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988) and A Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, 3rd edition (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1998).
My life is so busy, how can I find time to quiet my heart enough to hear the Spirit’s gentle whisper?
I imagine that this question has been on the lips of many readers ever since I first mentioned our need to take time for quiet. Most of us live hopelessly busy lives, and even if we have moments of potential quiet, we tend to fill those with lots of unnecessary noises. I always marvel at folks who walk along the beach, preferring the artificial noise of their iPod to the soothing and inspiring sound of the waves.
For most of us, quiet won’t just happen. We need to plan for it. It needs to become a top priority in our calendars, or we’ll be sure to find lots of reasons to spend time on other things. I find that if I can schedule times like this into my calendar well in advance, them I’m apt to take them. Otherwise the busyness of life overwhelms my good intentions.
What If the Lord Does Not Speak?
In response to my recent series “How Does God Guide Us?” I received a thoughtful email from a man I’ll call EH. He asks the question: What if the Lord does not speak?
EH explains his question by noting “the famous gap between Malachi and John the Baptist for the nation of Israel,” a time when God did not speak prophetically as he had in the days of Isaiah and Jeremiah. “What if an individual experiences something similar?” EH wonders.
“This seems to be a vacant field of discussion in Christian circles,” EH notes. It is an easy target for disdain in a lot of Christendom, i.e., “If God seems far away, GUESS WHO MOVED?” Indeed, it’s not uncommon for Christians who suggest that if you don’t feel God’s presence in your life, if you aren’t receiving his guidance in an unmistakable way, then the problem is yours. You are just not listening to God.
Here is one reason for EH’s concern: “The reason I see this all as so problematic is that if God does not speak, it is easy to fall prey to ‘hearing’ something that is actually not there.” In our desperation to hear from God, we might very well invent divine guidance when it’s not there.
In this post, I’m going to begin to respond to EH. I’m grateful for EH’s question and the way he lays out the problem. (I took only a few excerpts from his much longer email.)
Throughout my series on divine guidance, I have shown that God does guide Christians in a variety of ways, through circumstances, Scripture, community, reason, dreams and visions, divine whispering, and spiritual direction. This is not a definitive list, by the way. There are surely other ways by which God guides us. But I have tried to cover many of the major means of divine guidance as revealed in Scripture.
Some of the ways God guides us are easily identified as “supernatural,” though I think this label is lacking in many ways. Nevertheless, there are times when circumstances are so utterly “coincidental” or we “hear” God’s voice so loudly that we cannot but conclude both that God is “speaking” to us in an unusual and striking way.
I did not grow up in a Christian tradition that was particular open to such “supernatural” guidance from God. For the most part, we expected God to guide us through more “ordinary” means, such as Bible study or preaching. But, in my college years and beyond, I became aware of Christians who had a much greater expectation of immediate guidance through the Spirit. Some expected God to “whisper” in their hearts. Others actually claimed to hear God’s voice audibly. Others found divine guidance in disciples of silence and prayer. Others believed that the Holy Spirit spoke through gifts of knowledge and prophecy. As I examined the claims made by those who expected God to “speak” in these ways, I found plenty of nonsense and wishful thinking, plenty of projection of selfish desire upon God. But I also found wise Christians whose experience of God’s guidance was fully consistent with what I found in Scripture. Thus, I became open to ways of divine guidance besides that which I considered ordinary. I came to believe that God can guide us in extraordinary ways, through circumstances, dreams, visions, spiritual gifts, “whispering,” and the like.
But I also became aware of some of the pitfalls associated with a heightened expectation of extraordinary divine guidance. Some Christians, it seemed to me, were so dependent on supposedly divine revelations that they stopped using the discernment God had given them. Others seemed to downplay the ways God speaks through Scripture. Others seemed to invent extraordinary guidance when it wasn’t there.
Consider, for example, the famous (or infamous) case concerned the evangelist and healer, Peter Popoff. In the 1970s and 80s, Popoff gathered a huge following (and plenty of money) because of his apparently miraculous healings gifts. Most impressive of all was his ability to receive “words of knowledge” from God. In giant gatherings, Popoff would describe in detail the ailments of people God was going to heal. Sometime he would actually mention details of their lives, such as their addresses, that demonstrated the utterly miraculous nature of knowledge. Unfortunately for Popoff, it was discovered that his “words of knowledge” were delivered to him by his wife using radio transmission and an in-ear receiver. Popoff was disgraced. He declared bankruptcy and disappeared. (Popoff’s ministry has been resurrected, focusing on persecuted Christians. The “Ministry History” page of his website says nothing about miraculous healings, though it does point to the launch of a “free medical outpatient children’s hospital [in Africa] staffed by doctors who are believers.”)
When God did not speak to Popoff, he filled in the blanks, or his wife did, at any rate. Most of us will not do this sort of thing so brazenly, but if we belief that God speaks to us in extraordinary ways, then we do have a problem when God appears not to speak. Popoff shows us one way not to deal with this problem: by pretending as if human guidance comes from God. His peculiar story highlights one of the dangers associated with expecting extraordinary guidance from God.
What should we do if the Lord doesn’t speak?
We shouldn’t speak for God ourselves, confusing our voice with the voice of the Lord.
But, you might wonder, is there biblical evidence for the claim that God doesn’t speak sometimes? Or is God always speaking and we’re just failing to hear? I’ll talk about this tomorrow.
What If the Lord Does Not Speak? Part 2
Yesterday, I began to respond to the question: What if the Lord does not speak? This question, posed by one of my blog readers in response to my series How Does God Guide Us? assumes that there are times in our relationship with God when he does not speak to us? Is this assumption correct? Or are times of apparent silence really a matter of our failure to listen attentively to the Lord?
Let me say, before I consider this question, that I am using “speak” metaphorically. Though I do believe God sometimes speaks in an audible voice, I do not believe this is the only way God “speaks” to us. My series on divine guidance suggests many different ways in which God makes his will known to us.
To be sure, there are times in the history of God’s relationship with his people when he did not speak or act in obvious ways. Christ is always at work, upholding all things “by the word of his power” (Heb 1:3). But, even so, there are times when God seems to be quite silent and distant. One of those most obvious of these times came while Israel was in Egypt. For four centuries, the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, yet God did not speak to or act to redeem his people.
The Psalms testify to times when God is silent in his relationship with us as individuals. Psalm 35, for example, reads: “You have seen, O LORD; do not be silent! O Lord, do not be far from me! Wake up! Bestir yourself for my defense, for my cause, my God and my Lord!” (35:22-23). Like us, the psalm writer is not pleased with God’s silence, but his pleading testifies to the fact that God can indeed fail to speak or act according to our agenda.
Perhaps the most moving example of God’s silence in Scripture comes when Jesus is dying on the cross. He cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). Yet there was no voice from heaven answering this question. The silence of the Father in this case is deafening.
Christian experience confirms what we see in Scripture (no surprise). Almost all believers go through times when God seems to be silent. We cry out to God for comfort, but feel no different. We beg for healing, but sickness remains. We ask for wisdom, but receive no special insight. We pray for guidance, but God appears to have gone on vacation.
To be sure, sometimes our sense of God’s silence is a matter of our own inability or unwillingness to hear what he has to say. God is not like one of those Magic 8 Balls I played with as a boy. I would ask the ball a question, shake it, and in a couple of seconds my answer would appear in a little window: “It is certain;” “You may rely on it;” “Cannot predict now;” “Don’t count on it;” etc. God does answer our prayers. God does speak to us through his Spirit. But not on our timetable. Sometimes God is silent for a season.
In yesterday’s post I suggested that one way not to respond to God’s silence is by speaking for him. As tempting as it might be, we should avoid putting words in God’s mouth.
So what should we do? Wait! Psalm 27:14 puts it succinctly:
Wait for the LORD;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the LORD!
Isaiah 8:17 speaks of this very thing:
I will wait for the LORD, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him.
Later, Isaiah offers hope to all who wait for God:
[B]ut those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint. (Isa 40:31)
I’m not suggesting that it’s easy to wait when God does not speak. I would confess that I am particularly impatient when it comes to God’s silence. But God has reasons for making us wait, so we would do well not to try and rush ahead of him.
What should we do if the Lord doesn’t speak?
We shouldn’t speak for God ourselves, confusing our voice with the voice of the Lord.
We should wait upon God with an eagerness to listen.