How Do You Discern God’s Guidance?
As I prepare this article, another minister, a colleague, is considering whether or not he should accept the call presented to him from another congregation. He must, in all earnestness, be able to say that what he decides is the will of God. God calls ministers to their tasks. At the same time, there is not a single place in the Bible where he can find a text that helps him in this dilemma. When he presents and tries to explain his decision, he will notice that most people cannot follow his reasoning.
This is only one of the many examples you can use when you discuss the topic “God’s guidance.” Your choice of whom you will marry is another one. One of the most powerful texts regarding fidelity in marriage is Matthew 19:6b: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” But how do you know that it is God who has joined you together? Once you begin to think about it, myriads of examples of similar moments come to mind: the choice of a career, the choice whether or not to emigrate. Those are the moments when we make choices about the most important decision points in our lives. Does God abandon us at those moments?
A Book of Oracles?
There are Christians who use the Bible as a sort of horoscope. They begin with prayer, naturally, then open the Bible at random and use the text found in this manner as the revelation of the will of God. Often, a generous dose of fantasy is required to connect this text with the problem or decision that needs to be made. The actual meaning and context of the Bible text is ignored.
We do not want to go in that direction. To say it a bit disrespectfully, in this manner the Bible becomes our ventriloquist. Once you are a bit familiar with the Bible, you can cause it to open at exactly the right page to suit your desires. So, the question remains: how can you know God’s guidance and leadership? Does the Lord make anything clear for us with respect to our everyday lives?
Points of Departure
We will begin with several points of departure.
- The Bible includes everything that we need to know in order to live our lives in a godly manner. We confess this together in Article 7 of the Belgic Confession:
We believe that this Holy Scripture fully contains the will of God and that all that man must believe in order to be saved is sufficiently taught therein. The whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in it at length … Since it is forbidden to add to or take away anything from the Word of God (Deut. 12:32), it is evident that the doctrine thereof is most perfect and complete in all respects.
- People were created to do God’s will. Christ declared this in the prayer “Your will be done.” The addition “on earth as it is in heaven” succinctly covers the whole history of salvation. In heaven this has been accomplished. Now it remains for the earth to follow. As we learn to forsake our own will to do God’s will, which alone is good, without gainsaying to be obedient, we come to our destination as people. This, although sounding contradictory, is the way to our real self.
- This does not happen automatically. Therefore, the life of a Christian is often referred to as an offering. This is clearly stated in Romans 12:1, 2:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
You only begin to discern the will of God for your life when you are prepared to take the difficult road. It is good to begin with this realization. Far too easily, we as Christians choose the shortcut and interpret the sometimes scarce verses on a topic in scripture as we would prefer.
- God brings us to maturity as adults through faith in Jesus Christ. Under the covenant of the Old Testament, God would lead people by the hand through very detailed proscriptions, whereas in the New Testament covenant he declares us to be adults and leaves much to our discernment. We are responsible for our own lives, and exactly here it is evident how complete our salvation through Christ is. God points us in a direction – the way of the New Jerusalem – but He does not give us details of our particular routes.
Intermezzo: Your Will Be Done
Previously, I mentioned the prayer which the Lord Jesus himself taught us, the “Our Father.”
The New Bible translation (Dutch translation) reads, “May your will be done.” We are used to saying, “Your will be done.” Because of this we readily connect this petition with the prayer of Christ in Gethsemane: “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39). It sounds the same; we also pray that, for example during sickness, where we submit ourselves to the will of God, which perhaps does not mean recovery. Also in the well known hymns concerning the will of God, it focuses on this definition, God’s eternal counsel. This is sometimes referred to as the hidden will of God.
This New Bible translation follows the old catechism, laying the focus on God’s revealed will for our lives. This is the “will” of God’s command. In the history of Gethsemane, it is not revealed in any other way: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39).
According to our emotional response, there is a tension between the two translations. The Lord can very well say that you may not marry someone who does not believe, but when you believe he has put this unbelieving girl on your path … Or think about a totally different topic: the way in which the Roman Catholic Church, at least internationally, pleaded for natural birth control rather than chemical via the “pill.”
A few remarks on these kinds of issues:
- In the whole Bible, you will never read that the current state of affairs reflects God’s will. On the contrary, that which God created good has been warped by man and has been spoiled. In the past, by taking things as they are as the standard, even slavery has been defended, or the inferior position of women. When God, for reasons which we do not know, allows these conditions to continue, this does not mean that that is his divine will. Moses states: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut. 29:29).
- In the garden of Gethsemane, something unique happened. The life of Christ was a fulfillment of the revealed will of God. Christ lived without the conflict in his being that we experience. We can compare our lives to a partially constructed house, where, with regularity, something breaks or caves in.
Christ knew God’s plan to free people from the bondage of sin over their lives. He learned obedience through suffering. In the way of perfect obedience, he reveals to us God’s plan of salvation. What was hidden for centuries is now revealed: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time” (1 Tim. 2:5, 6). (See also Lord’s Day 12, Heidelberg Catechism, about Christ as our highest prophet and teacher.) In Christ you thus see the unity of God’s revealed and hidden will. Briefly, the curtain that hangs over God’s purpose with this world is swept aside and we see that he seeks the wellbeing of people. For this purpose, he did not spare His only Son. In summary, because we know through Christ that God is a holy God, we can totally trust the direction given by God.
A beautiful example is given in the first book of the Bible, Genesis, beginning at chapter 12. Abram had lived for some time in Haran with his family. That was not his place of birth; he came from Ur, located quite a distance further south. Then God came to him and told him to leave and go to the land which the Lord would point out to him. He left without knowing his destination, going in the direction of Canaan.
Abram sets out because God revealed that, to him personally. In those days there was only the oral tradition. That’s how the Lord worked back then. Abram chooses the path of his journey by way of the knowledge of routes which existed in the family. They were emigrating from Ur to Canaan, but quit halfway. When Abram reaches Canaan, God tells him that this is his destination. He also reveals to him how he, the Lord, was already working on his plan in Ur. Genesis 15:7: “And he said to him, ‘I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.’”
Abram trusted God and acknowledged in his own life the revealed will of God (leave your family) and the will of God up to that moment in his life. This trust the Lord reckoned to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6). This is the beginning of an important period during which the Lord reveals himself more and more. Even so, you can see in Abram’s attitude the foundation for the Christian today: trust.
Another Example: Jonah
Jonah is an example of someone who blatantly refuses to carry out the revealed will of God. When God says, , he heads off in the opposite direction. A tempestuous storm intervenes and Jonah allows himself to be thrown overboard. A fish swallows him and spews him out on dry land. We will disregard all kinds of questions that can be addressed with this topic and will focus on the thoughts of Jonah while in the belly of the fish. These thoughts are given to us in the form of verse. Noteworthy in this song is the awareness that he was banished from the sight of God, and the confidence that he will again behold the holy temple of God (Jonah2:6).Imagine how claustrophobic the experience of being inside a fish would be! Yet, Jonah trusts God, knowing God is trustworthy.
We will highlight a few items here: Jonah combines his knowledge of God’s revealed will for him (go to Nineveh) with the acknowledgment of God’s leading hand in sending a tempestuous storm. When he combines these, he becomes prepared to walk a difficult path: Throw me into the sea. In the depths of his being, he trusts God.
New Testament: Paul
Paul lived in an era when prophets sometimes received detailed messages from God in order to pass them on. He has already been on a mission journey for some time when he expresses the desire to return to Jerusalem. His intent is to participate in the Passover Feast and to speak with James.
The Holy Spirit reveals to him in every city he passes what the end result will be; namely, shackles and imprisonment. In spite of this, Paul knows himself driven by the Spirit to continue his journey, just as he was driven to continue in all his mission work. In one situation, he is prevented by the Spirit from preaching the Word; in another place, he finds an open door for the gospel message. The Spirit clearly reveals his future to him.
He is not the only one who receives this message. On his journey, in Tyre, he meets other prophets, who also received the message that persecution and imprisonment await Paul. They urge him to stay away from Jerusalem. He persists. He has almost arrived when Agabus takes the girdle or belt worn by Paul and says, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles’” (Acts 21:11). Paul continues on, knowing that this is his mandate. This is puzzling for us, because it appears as if the Spirit contradicts himself. Paul is pressed by the Holy Spirit to continue his proposed journey; the prophets in Tyre, inspired by the Spirit, urge him to discontinue, and Agabus states what will happen if he persists. This brings to mind the conflict that we sometimes experience ourselves: what is God actually asking from us? Paul made his decision based on what he had seen in the life of the Lord, and was prepared to follow the way that could lead to his death.
How is that possible? Who voluntarily chooses the difficult way?
Life through the Spirit
One of the most beautiful, and also most difficult, passages in the New Testament undergirds Paul’s attitude. You have recited this passage, or have sung it in a beautiful hymn, but is it a real part of your life? We are speaking of Romans 8. Here, briefly, are the main ideas:
The chapter begins with a comparison between the old and new covenant. The law could not save man; God himself saves us in Christ, through His Spirit. Therefore, our lives are no longer ruled by the things of the flesh, but we live according to the things of the Spirit (Acts 8:4,5).
Paul desires to impress on the minds of his readers, in a very clear fashion, that while it appears attractive to follow your own desires, it is the way that leads to death. Following God’s will leads to life and peace.
This happens through the work of the Holy Spirit, who teaches us to say that we are sons of God.
God does hold everything in his hand; you see much misery all around you and in your own life, but in and through all of this God carries out his eternal counsel. His plan is one of renewal.
Therefore, through the Spirit Paul knows that nothing can separate him from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Not imprisonment. Not even death.
A Christian life is a life of self-denial. It is a life wherein, with complete trust, you face an unknown future. You do this, trusting that the Holy Spirit is working in you.
With complete trust, as a child of God, you follow the indicators that your Father gives you for your life. For those major decisions in your life, for which God has not given a precise, detailed instruction, you trust in the guiding of the Holy Spirit who uses God’s Word to give you insight, so that you will come to a good decision. God does not contradict himself; therefore, your choice may and can never go against the revealed will of God. As a Christian, you will grow in the ability to discern the real issues. In this way, you will experience the freedom of a New Testament believer.
- “Peacefully trusting in his applied counsel” is more easily said than done. Have you experienced that this quiet trusting is a good way?
- What would your answer be to the young man who wishes to pursue courtship with the unbelieving girl placed on his path?
- In order to know and discern God’s will for your life, you must know yourself. What is required in order to know yourself, and what is the impediment that keeps you from this?
- The important crossroads of our lives happen in our youth: career, partner, confession of faith or not – all these happen around our twentieth year. How does this knowledge apply to our understanding of child rearing?
- God asks for an offering, Romans 12:1, “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” How do we apply this as a Christian living in this world today?