So what to do? The question of guidance…

Posted by on Dec 1, 2015 in Blog | 7 comments

I once vowed that I would never preach a sermon on guidance. It was an understandable  promise at that time, as my own life seemed complicated and I felt that I had made one poor decision after another. But time marches along, and I realise that while there are no easy answers, it is important to think about the way in which God guides and leads us. So I preached a sermon on guidance a few years ago… nothing earth shattering – just a simple exploration of some tried and trusted principles that have helped guide God’s people over the centuries. This is what I said at Carey that Sunday. I hope you find it helpful.

Part of the journey away from childhood to maturity is having to make decisions for your life. Some people love doing so – others face each decision with dread. I can remember driving with a man who was going through a serious personal crisis. He had been told he had 6 months to find himself another job, his health was poor and he really wasn’t coping. All his confidence had been taken from him and he was only just able to keep functioning. When we arrived at our destination there was a large and virtually empty parking lot in front of us.

“Where should I park?” he asked.

“I guess anywhere,” I replied. “There is no shortage of space.”

“But where would you like me to park?” he persisted.

“It really doesn’t matter,” I said. “Anywhere you like.”

“Just tell me where to park. I want to know where I must park,” he snapped.

Because I could tell he wasn’t holding it together very well I said: “This one over here seems good.” And he parked there. It was such a tiny decision, but at that vulnerable stage in his life it was one too many. Having made what he felt were so many wrong decisions, now even the smallest one was viewed as a potential threat and disaster.

While most of us don’t struggle to make decisions at that kind of level, we all face key periods in our life when we are not sure what we should do or what decision we should make. We might realise that there is more than just good decision making at stake. We want to know what God would like us to do. Indeed there are some times in our lives when we know that the decision we make will radically shape the future direction of our life. We wonder if it will be followed by years of saying, “I am so glad that…” or “If only I had…”

WHEN THERE IS NO FLASH OF LIGHTENING…

Rather than being ulcer producing, can the quest for guidance be a time of quiet confidence, excitement and spiritual growth? 1 Pet 5:7 invites us to cast all our anxiety on God, secure in the knowledge that he cares for us. The writer of Proverbs promises: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight.” What would it mean to live in the light of that gentle assurance?

Don’t assume that the implication is that before we make a major decision we will get some dramatic guidance to direct our decision. Actually, even if we do, it might still not be enough. Certainly it wasn’t for the Israelites. Do you remember the account recorded in Exodus 13:21-22. The Hebrews when leaving Egypt were guided by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. They needed the clear guidance, because v17 tells us that God did not lead them by the most direct route – as it would have involved conflict with the Philistines that they could not handle at that stage. It was one of those times when a very exact path had to be mapped out. For all that, they doubted and complained for most of the 40 years of their journey – a reminder that following takes faith regardless of if the instructions are bellowed or more subtle.

Furthermore, while incidents like that do occasionally happen, they are the exception rather than the rule. So how do we make decisions when there are no flashes of lightening?

A BROAD PRINCIPLE: ASK WHAT IS THE SONG OF MY LIFE?

While most of us want to rush in and get answers, we usually need to start by asking a more fundamental question. Although it may not be immediately obvious, for most of us there is a fairly clear tune to our life. We should learn to recognise it, for when we do, decision making becomes a lot easier.

A simple example. I remember a man saying he had turned down a fairly significant promotion at work because it largely involved sitting behind a computer screen and having only fleeting contact with people. He said that he knew that the calling on his life was to be a person available to others. All his God given gifts pointed in that direction. No matter how much extra pay he would get, he realised he could not go against the song of his life. What he was talking about was having a general sense of direction and knowledge of who he was and what God was wanting from him. While that didn’t answer every specific question he might have, it gave him a framework against which to evaluate his options.

Step one in making decisions is to answer some keys question: “Who am I, what spiritual gifts do I have and what kinds of things does God want me to be involved in?” Now of course God often has some wonderful surprises for us, but at the end of the day he has made us who we are because he wants to use us as we are. We might need some refining (and sin does indeed make us a pale shadow of who we are meant to be), but we are unlikely to morph into someone completely different. That would imply that there was something radically wrong with God’s first creation, and there wasn’t.

It is not just individuals who should try to work out the song for their life. Is it too much to expect a family to know its song? After all, a major move is likely to impact all family members, not just the one offered the promotion. Likewise, each local church should ask about the song that guides its communal mission. What kind of ministry is it called to have? True, we sometimes need to step outside our comfort zone, but usually having a sense of a guiding tune is a huge step forward when we have to make important decisions.

WHAT ABOUT THE FOUR TRUSTED GUIDES?

When making key decisions, it is helpful to refer to the four trusted guides of scripture, prayer, the insight of trusted friends and the affirmation of open or closed doors. A brief comment on each…

SCRIPTURE

I have often heard people complain that God hasn’t guided them to do something when actually the guidance is there, crystal clear in the book he has written. I can remember house sitting for someone and being really frustrated at not being able to get the TV to work. I remember thinking: “If they’ve got such a temperamental TV they could at least have warned me.” Towards the end of my stay I thought that I better check over all the things I had been asked to do in order to keep the house as they liked. Sure enough, there on the list was a note about the TV. “Lots of people find it difficult to work” they said. “Once you’ve mastered the knack it’s easy. All you’ve got to do is hold the start button in for about 30 seconds before letting go and then it works like a dream…” AARGH… who holds a start button in for 30 seconds? But the instruction was there all the time, I just hadn’t read it.

I’ve heard people say things like: “I’ll forgive so and so when God tells me to.” The simple truth is, God already has – it is a very clear biblical instruction. Or, “I’m not sure if I should be part of a church community. It works for some people, but I don’t know about me.” Excuse me – what part of Hebrews 10:25 is unclear? “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing…” Let’s not overcomplicate things. If it is clearly instructed in scripture, we don’t need to ask whether we should do it. We should ask simply for the strength to do it, and the wisdom and compassion to do it in an appropriate way.

If you’re searching for an answer, check that you have searched the scriptures thoroughly. Of course the Bible is not primarily a set of instructions in a “do this, don’t do that” kind of way. It paints the big picture of life as it is meant to be. It often articulates very different values. For example: Family trumps career. We are image bearers, called to steward the world by naming it. Figuring out just what that means is the challenge of each generation. And truth in the Bible is deeply relational. It is Jesus’ John 14:6 claim, “I am the way, the truth and the life”… all truth and life and direction setting should somehow be linked to an ongoing journey with Jesus.

PRAYER

Given that we sometimes forget the most obvious things, let me go back to “being a disciple 101 – pray about everything”. James 1:5-6 instructs “If any of you lacks wisdom, ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt…”

The difficulty when most of us pray is that we aren’t really listening for a reply. It’s not that we don’t want one, but that we haven’t become quiet enough inside to hear the answer. Just as Elijah discovered that God didn’t answer in the earthquake, wind or fire, but in a small, still voice (1 Kings 19:11-13), so often the noise level in our life is so high that when God speaks we don’t hear.

I remember a woman who phoned me once to seek my advice about a problem. She prattled on for over an hour, constantly saying: “So what do you think? What should I do?” And whenever I tried to open my mouth to answer I was too late. She was already off on another tangent. In the end she said; “Isn’t it terrible, I’ve been doing all the talking. So how are you?” I replied I was struggling with a cold. “Oh, that’s nice” she said. “Well, do keep well. Bye!” And with that she put the phone down. Sadly, that’s often that’s how we listen to God.

It is why if we really want to hear we may need to set aside some days for prayer and fasting. We may need to spend a day in the country to become still enough to listen… But prayer is not an instant switch on button. Listening for the answer is a lifewide task. God will reply, but it probably won’t be in a thunderous roar. We might suddenly note a number of co incidences. We should ask: “are they God-incidences?” Or we might notice a subtle but real change in our heart. What we thought we could never do we might suddenly feel excited about. God could be behind that change.

THE COUNSEL OF OTHER BELIEVERS

We are not alone. Sometimes we act as though we are. But the truth is that God has given us a family. Many in the family have gifts of discernment. They have the experience of the years. While they can’t walk our journey for us, they can offer great insight and support us with their prayers.

We think individually, but the Bible thinks communally. It is interesting that in Acts 13:1-3 Barnabas and Paul are set aside for mission because the Lord tells the church that that is what they must do. Guidance was to the whole community.

It is worth pausing here. Part of our ministry to others can be to help them to discern what God is saying to them. Our question is often, “God what do you want me to do?” But sometimes it should be, “God, Megan isn’t sure what she should do. Is there a word you want to pass on through me? Or have you given me an insight that she might not have.” Sometimes it happens more subtly. When we remember to affirm other people for what they do well, we help them to discover the realm of their gifting, the one God is more likely to call them to work within. If we remain silent, they might assume, “ah well, no one said it was good, so obviously I suck at that.”

DOORS WHICH ARE OPENING

At its simplest, this test says: “If I’m supposed to be doing something and am willing to do it, God has to make it possible for it to happen.” For example, I have a friend who believed he was called to be a pastor. He applied to be accepted for training but was turned down. Initially he thought God was simply saying: “Wait a while” and so applied again a few years later. He was turned down again. So he applied to a different College, and was again turned down. After about 5 “no goes” he got the message. God was saying: “You’ve got it wrong. You’re not supposed to be in pastoral ministry.” He went into teaching instead and God has used him wonderfully there and what is more, he loves the work he is doing.

In his case, he had made a mistake people often make. He was so keen to serve the Lord that he assumed the way to do that best was as a pastor. God had to show him there are many ways we can serve. And indeed there are. If we are meant to be somewhere else, the right doors will open, and no, it won’t be because we kicked them down. True, we can test doors… and sometimes our first step of faith is in being willing to have a go. If it is meant to be, God will make it possible.

CONCLUSION: AND IF I TAKE A WRONG PATH…

Part of our trouble is that we often take ourselves too seriously. We act as though God will not be able to cope unless we make the right decision. I have found it liberating to realise that while God is interested in what I am doing, He is far more interested in who I am becoming.

Psychologists tell us that after making a major decision many people struggle with post cognitive dissonance – the horrible sense that another decision (any other decision) would have been better. So it is as well not to be thrown when we have a niggling sense that the grass would have been greener if we had made a different decision. It might not have been, and even if it was, who says grass should be green?

But sometimes it is not just that. Deep within we know we have made a mistake. What do you do when you start to seriously doubt the decision you have made? At times we need to face up to that… and apologise or undo what we have done. It can be hard, but there is no point in heroically carrying on in the wrong direction. Strangely enough it places us back in the place of seeking God’s guidance. We find ourselves praying, “God, I did (or did not) ask for guidance before… and I’ve landed up making the wrong decision. Please help me to find the best way out of this error I have made…”

I used to think that God had only one perfect will for our lives and that if we didn’t obey, we blew everything. Knowing God a little better now, I have come to realise that He works with us wherever we are at, and is able to bring good even from mistakes. It is the Joseph principle from Gen 50:20 – what we intended for evil God can work for good. There was nothing good about Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers… ah, but great good came from it. That’s the God factor. God can take a mess, and make it remarkably fruitful. He can even do it for you…

As always, nice chatting…

7 Comments

  1. I used to pray for Gods guidance via lightning. Then God slowly revealed through scripture and history that almost everyone who gets a lightning bolt dies a horrible death. Aged thirty. Upside down. In a country far away. Now I thank God He didn’t answer my prayer.

  2. God is a good parent. Good parents don’t play mind games with their children. I truly believe that if, in my heart, I want to serve God then he will honour that and I will serve him. If I can truly pray “your will be done” from my heart then I have done all I need to and can safely leave the rest up to him.

    What do you reckon?

    • 95% agree. But good parents also stretch and develop their children. And our motives are often muddled, and can be self deceiving. So I am not sure we really pray ‘your will be done.’ There is usually an unacknowledged ‘your will be done, provided it’s not that I must….’ We might not even be conscious of this, but it often becomes clear as time progresses. Of course as a loving God, God knows the difference between what will stretch us and what will break us.

      While I think we can be at peace about the process, I don’t think we can be passive about it.

      But there might be some other views out there.

      • Absolutely agree that we cannot be passive about it. A passive servant will be willing to obey when and if commanded. An active servant will be alert and aware and eagerly looking for direction with pricked ears and wagging tail. An active servant will also be aware of the commands that their master has given in the past and will be looking for opportunities to continue to obey those commands and will be expecting new directions that are in line with those commands.

  3. Thanks very much for sharing this Brian – very helpful. May God continue to bless you with wisdom and the ability to teach so clearly and well. Regards Tim

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