How does God guide us? This question is often a source of struggle and disappointment for Christians who want to follow God but feel paralyzed by the plethora of possible life choices they could make. Should I marry this person? Is there one person out there for me? Where does God want me to serve? How do I know if it’s God speaking or just my own subjective feelings? Which job should I take? Where ought I go to church? Have I been called to be a missionary in a foreign land? What does it mean to say God has called me to do something? Does He “call me” on the phone?
These are important questions. They become more burdensome and complex, however, when we throw into the mix different theologies about how God guides us.
Some Christians believe that they need specific, daily confirmation from a divine source about most of their everyday choices, because God has a preference for each of their choices. God has likes and dislikes about the very minute details in their lives so they should try to discern what those are. Unfortunately, when clarity from on high is not forthcoming, they are left to wonder if God is speaking to them in less conventional ways, such as nudges, internal impressions, coincidences, or even bibles falling open to random pages. Nevertheless, they are assured that God has a perfect, step-by-step, individual plan which he wants them to walk in. [I call this view the “tight rope” perspective on God’s guidance since it encourages Christians to walk a very thin line to stay with the bounds of God’s individual will for them.]
As you may have guessed, I think the tight rope view is mistaken. It’s also and ironic view because the bulk of Scripture tells us that divine guidance is supposed to be a source of comfort, not anxiety! Guidance is something God promises to provide to his children as they surrender to him; it is not a series of steps which we are commanded to figure out. In other words, Scripture teaches us that the onus is on God to guide us even when we are not aware of it. Our responsibility is to obey his moral will and remain faithful to the guidance he has already provided in His Word and in other sources.
Don’t get me wrong. God does provide specific guidance to certain characters in the Bible, and there is no reason to expect that God can’t do the same today. But even in the Bible (e.g. when God redirects Paul in a dream to preach the gospel in Macedonia – Acts 16:9) these are exceptional cases in which God specially reveals and secures his purposes for salvation history. In hindsight, we now have a written record of God’s special acts in biblical history, but we must not forget that the Bible compresses decades (indeed, centuries!) of time into just a few pages. This gives the modern-day reader mistaken impression that God must have been speaking to his people all the time! But in actual fact, most of the time God’s covenant people were simply obeying His laws during the long intervals of divine silence when prophets were not speaking. They availed themselves of the guidance God had already provided and remained faithful to it in the meantime. In a nutshell, they were not walking a “tight rope.” They had enough trouble obeying what God had already commanded!
Thus, I would recommend that Christians replace the “tight rope” analogy with the image of an “open field.” The field represents a space of possibilities, all of which are open to a Christian to pursue because they align with God’s moral will; and God does not necessarily have a preference for any of them. Of course, this field is bound by “fences” which, if we cross them, get us into sinful and foolhardy behaviour. These fences represent the bounds of God’s moral will for us and we should respect that. But within these moral parameters there is a lot of freedom! We are not burdened with the impossible task of divining the secrets of God’s mind; rather, we rest in the assurance that God has promised to guide us (even when we are oblivious to his influence) and that the onus is on Him to direct us along a more specific path, if or when he chooses to do so. Our job is to remain prayerfully open to Him.
Nevertheless, the “open field” view still leaves us with the question we started with: how should Christians go about making decisions? On trivial issues (like the color of my toothbrush) I think Christians are free to choose what they want. On issues of morality (like whether to permit some forms of physician assisted suicide) we should seriously consider the voices of God’s word, inner conscience, and (among other things) the best medical knowledge we currently have. On issues of importance and wisdom, we can draw upon all the sources of revelatory and non-revelatory guidance God has already provided: including Scripture, the Church, the Holy Spirit, prayer, experience, history, other people, self-knowledge, spiritual gifting, situational need, etc, and then make the best decision we can, without insisting that all these sources point perfectly in the same direction.
But what if after much deliberation the way forward is still unclear? What is the Christian to do? In these cases, I truly believe that God wants us to take prayerful risks. Yes, there will be times of waiting, patience, and reflection; but at some point we need to take action in the absence of perfect information. That’s life. And God wants us to grow up and take responsibility for ourselves. Sometimes we will make mistakes; sometimes we will stumble miserably; sometimes our selfish motives will be revealed in hindsight (for which we must repent and make amends); but sometimes we will meet with great success! The bottom line is that Christians can trust in God’s providence – not to make life more predictable but to assure us of a redeemed future.
One final thought: when it comes to divine guidance, God’s overarching aim is that we be conformed to the likeness of Christ. That means that decisions about marriage, family, careers, and ministry are all subservient to that aim. But if character is paramount to God, we should also expect that our lives will be touched by suffering, risk, pain and disappointment. Why? Because such was the pattern of the Crucified One whom Christians follow; a pattern from which new life, joy, hope, and character arises. Pain does not always mean we have made a wrong decision. Quite the contrary.
For more information about the topic of God’s guidance, I’d recommend a book by Gordon T. Smith entitled, Courage and Calling (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 2011). I’d also direct you to a helpful audio lecture by Barry Seagren entitled, “Guidance and the Will of God” which can be listened to here.