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Guidance
--M. Joseph Young
This material is expanded in the author's book,
What Does God Expect?  A Gospel-based Approach to Christian Conduct.
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  One of the most confounding problems in the life of the ordinary Christian is the question of divine guidance.  If you are one of those who wrestles with the difficulty of knowing where God is leading you, don't be embarrassed:  this is often one of the most confounding problems in the life of the extraordinary Christian as well.  I certainly cannot say that I have discovered all of the secrets to knowing God's will for my own life, let alone for anyone else; however, I have seen a few things about divine guidance which have helped me find the path in the past, and which I expect will help me again in the future.  They may be of some help to you, so I offer them here for your consideration.

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  Christians often speak of doors being opened or closed; they also speak of obstacles which must be overcome.  This is all quite Biblical--the Apostle Paul spoke in the same terms in his epistles.  At the same time, many Christians will speak of "feeling led" to do one thing or another, or even of "not feeling led"--an extremely subjective conception of guidance, but not contrary to scripture either.  God often "led" his servants to places or into circumstances for his own purposes.  But this creates the difficulty.  How can you tell if you are being led, or if you have feelings of your own about the matter?  At the same time, how can you tell an obstacle from a closed door?  Obviously, if God has closed a door, it would be folly to attempt to force it open; on the other hand, God never promised that the path would always be smooth and easy.  We have been told to expect suffering, persecution, and hardship--these are an essential part of the growth process of God's children, as we learn to persevere and press on for the prize.

  Now, no one can give you a magic key which will always sort this out for you.  In fact, part of growth is learning to hear the "still small voice of God" above the storms of life, to recognize what is of God and what is not.  But I believe that there are a few tools which can focus you to the right questions.  Once you have the right questions, you are on your way to finding the right answers.

  I want to begin by pointing out that we have already mentioned two distinct forms of guidance.  The one form is "subjective" guidance, the guidance which is best described as the witness of the Holy Spirit with our spirit which tells us that we are on the right path, or that the path before us is the wrong path.  The other form we should call "objective" guidance.  This is the type of guidance which we divine from our circumstances, from the events which surround us and the life we've been given.  As one of my fellow students once said, if I believed it possible that I might be called by God to be a Roman Catholic priest, one of the first things I would check is whether I was born a man.  I will not say myself (especially as I am neither a woman nor a Roman Catholic) that God is not calling women to be Roman Catholic priests (nor that I believe he is); but I will say that if I were a woman, I would consider that strong evidence that God did not intend the priesthood for my life, and would require something else to convince me that He did.  Similarly, if I had very little money and could barely feed my family, I would not be easily convinced that God wished for me to pledge ten thousand dollars to support the ministry of another, however worthy or needful.  Circumstance, objective reality, is very much a part of our decisions concerning that which God intends for us.

  I believe that once we understand this balance between objective and subjective guidance, we are much further along the road to understanding God's plan for our lives.  I also believe that subjective guidance--the internal leading of the Spirit--extends beyond mere feelings which we have individually.  We have been made part of the larger body of Christ for many reasons; one of these is to confirm us in the path we take, to help us see more clearly what God intends for us.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Let us first take a look at objective guidance.

  Every day we face choices.  We choose big things and little things.  It is a mistake to believe that our choices in the larger questions are more important than our choices in the smaller ones.  I recall on one occasion not long ago, I was home working when a friend stopped by, hoping for some company on a trip to a bookstore.  This required a choice.  A door had opened for me to do something else, but the door was still open for me to continue that which I was doing.  After all, I was working, and my work was not unimportant; on the other hand, my friendship also certainly was important, especially since this particular friend was avowedly not Christian.  I did not wish to leave what I was doing, and could easily have told him that I regrettably was very busy; nor did I wish to blow him off, or to discourage him from considering me in the future.  I chose to go with him.

  The choice would have been much simpler had there been no other reasonable alternative.  Were I working against an imminent deadline, I would have apologized for my inability to come with him.  Conversely, had I no work to do at home, and no other pressing matters, the invitation to go out with a friend would be welcome, and not reasonable to refuse.  It is often the case in life that one door closes and another opens; we move from one thing to another because there is only one clear path.  It is also often the case that we choose our direction not because there are no other choices, but because the other choices before us appear foolish.  Any one of us could choose to quit our jobs, withdraw our meager savings, and travel to the holy land to await the return of Christ at the Mount of Olives, living on the street, hungry and cold, but expectant.  We do not do this because our view of the circumstances convinces us that it is an unreasonable course of action to take; that we need to continue in the jobs we have, supporting ourselves, possibly our families.  It is for similar reasons that most of us do not quit our jobs to sell soap or vitamins door-to-door in a multi-level marketing corporation.  Not to disparage those who have found success at such alternative businesses, but for most of us this is not a reasonable path to take.  Thus, looking at the realities of our lives through the filter of the rational logic of our God-given minds, we take paths which appear objectively correct.

  Objective guidance goes beyond this.  It reaches the application of the moral and ethical principles which we embrace.  As an example of this, there are times in our daily lives when the opportunity to acquire something which is not ours presents itself.  Yet we recognize that this is morally wrong--sin, if you prefer.  Whether we perceive it in a simplistic legalistic manner, that the scripture says, "Thou shalt not steal", or whether we have risen above that to understand the concept that we must do to others as we would have done to us, or even if we have achieved an understanding of morality which perceives that such sins are destructive of our own personality, the fact is that we have something of an objective standard on which to base our conduct.  We choose not to steal, not because at this moment we have the feeling that to do so would be wrong, but because we have the knowledge that it is in some sense always wrong, and we can objectively perceive that it is therefore wrong to do so now.  And so with all of our moral structure, we can articulate things which are wrong, and make choices based on that.  It is part of the objective form of guidance:  using reason to determine our course through circumstances.

  However, there are many choices which we make which are not considered at all.  Several times a week I find myself in any one of several grocery stores.  It is entirely possible that God has work for me at one of these stores, someone who needs to talk to me, something I have to do for someone.  Yet I don't usually give much thought to where I should be.  I might stop at whichever store is closest to me, or least out of the way, or will avoid the most traffic, or will have the best price on whatever it is I need.  I might go to one store, and decide when I get there that it's too crowded, and go to another instead.  It might even be that I will be out on another errand, see the grocery store, and stop to get something I suddenly remembered needing.  When I go to the grocery store, I don't often consider how it might fit into God's vast eternal plan, even though when I reflect upon the question I realize that it may well matter where I am.  But I don't worry about it, because I know, as Malcolm Smith put it many years ago, if God has some important plan for me at a particular store, I'll find myself wanting to go there.  And this brings us to the subjective side of guidance.

  As Christians, we know that God has come to dwell in us.  He works in us to make us new creatures, and guides our lives from within.  I doubt there are many who bear the name Christian who have not at some time felt that God wanted them to do something in particular--even if it was no more than repent and believe the gospel!  So we all have experienced the inner "leading" of the spirit.

  Yet most of us have also learned that it is not always easy to distinguish the voice of God from those of the world, the flesh, and the devil.  We learn to listen, to move, but to be ready to check our movement if anything isn't right.  And many are the times when we start in a particular direction, and find "the door closed"--and say, "I guess that wasn't what God wanted after all".

  But was it?  Have we confused an obstacle to overcome with a closed door?  How hard are we to push when things don't immediately fall into place?  What tells us to give up?  All of this is about balancing objective and subjective guidance--and that is the basic answer to the problem of guidance.

  Let's face it:  when there is only one path open, guidance is simple:  either we go that way, or we stay where we are.  The objective guidance says that the way is open and there are no other paths to take; the objective guidance says that it is much easier to steer a vehicle which is in motion; the objective guidance says that if this is the only way, then this is the way.  Thus we proceed along the only open path.  However, it is possible for the subjective guidance to stop us.  Some have referred to this as feeling a "check" in the spirit, or a warning or red light.  It may be that we see only one path open, but that God tells us not to take it.  This feeling that a particular path is the "wrong" thing is an important part of guidance.

  But God will not leave us standing still forever.  If this is the wrong path, and we follow the subjective guidance to stop, we must expect that something will change.  It may be that the path is the right path, but it is too soon to begin it.  Or it may be that another path is about to open, and we must wait for it.  If objectively we don't see another path soon (which subjectively feels right), then it is likely that the "check" was not from God, but was from ourselves.

  It is especially likely that the check comes from ourselves if the only path we see is something we personally don't want.  It has wisely been said that God often will not tell us what He wants us to do as long as we have anything we are not willing to do.  If you are saying to God, "I'll do anything you want, as long as you don't send me as a missionary to Africa", it's very likely that God will wait for you to drop the condition.  As long as there is something you will not do, God may leave only the path which appears to lead there.  (The foolishness of such a position is obvious.  If God wants to send you to Africa, you will not be happy anywhere else anyway, because his perfect plan must be what is best for Him, for you, and for the entire world.  Besides, very few people are missionaries to foreign lands.  God's plan probably begins right where you are.  If you end up in Africa, you will know that there was nowhere else on earth you would rather have been.)  But when you see the path that leads to that which you fear, or to that which you will not accept, your own emotions will cloud your feelings.  It is important to understand that the check which tells you not to do what you don't want to do anyway is likely to be only your own reaction.  Expect a clearer revelation of God's plan in that case.

  The opposite problem occurs when objective guidance leads to a brick wall.  Suddenly the clear path becomes cloudy, the easy way becomes difficult, the open road seems to close.  Many will say, "this must not be the way"; but others will say, "there are obstacles to overcome".  How do you determine which it is?  The answer is simple:  objective guidance is tempered by subjective guidance.  If you're on a path because it seemed the best choice of the ways which were open, but it appears to be a dead end, of course your objective guidance will tell you that the true path lies elsewhere.  But if you are on the path that you know is the right path because God has spoken to your heart and revealed it to you, then you will see such blocks as obstacles, and begin working to move them aside.

  Once again, our understanding of the subjective guidance must be tempered.  Especially when that which you perceive as God's intent is also that which you desire, the possibility of confusing His guidance with your desires is higher.  In such cases you should look for confirmation beyond the feelings you have.  This will often take the form of objective guidance--the obstacle will be removed, the path will open, or a way around it will appear.  But it may also take the form of an increased level of subjective guidance.

  This is a touchy subject in the church.  I can easily say that objective guidance may be clarified.  Everyone will agree that if a door is open, that is a good indication that it is the right direction.  All will accept the idea that if the path appears reasonable, that is better, and that if alternative paths close, there is even more reason to follow that which remains open.  And no one will argue that if a clear moral issue is involved, this reinforces our belief that we are on the right course.  Objective guidance may become stronger.  Yet when I say that subjective guidance also may be stronger, I risk being misunderstood; and when I try to clarify what I mean, I run the risk of offending the beliefs of some Christians.  Therefore, I must clarify with care.

  I do not mean that your feelings in the matter will be stronger.  This is possible, and may be an indication of God's leading in this direction.  Many times we encounter obstacles which make us pause and consider, only to say, "No, I know this is what God would have me do".  But stronger feelings are often created by our own indignation, anger, or resentment at the possibility that what we want is not what God wants.  I would never advise that stronger feelings themselves are a clearer or stronger sign from God that we are on the right path.  If your feelings may have been wrong or confused in the first place, why should you assume that the same feelings stronger would be right?  No, stronger subjective guidance goes beyond your own feelings, because subjective guidance is not really about what you feel, but about what God is trying to tell you by supernatural means.  If your "feelings" are a valid direction from God, then they represent the Holy Spirit communicating directly with your spirit.  Thus any direct communication from the Spirit of God is subjective guidance, even if to you it is not directly subjective.

  The most common form of stronger subjective guidance comes from others.  Even without broaching the issue of whether there are prophets or prophetic gifts in the church today, we all realize that sometimes God gives a word of encouragement to us through a friend or pastor.  This is not objective; it is still as subjective as before, but it is someone else's subjectivity.  Thus, when someone we know--or even someone we don't really know--tells us that they perceive that God wants us to continue in the direction we've been going, this is subjective confirmation of a higher level.  This may well be God reinforcing our own feelings with the feelings of others.

  This aspect of reinforcement is very important.  I believe that God does tell others what he wants us to hear.  But, as I've heard the Reverend Jim Bracken say, don't believe any prophecy about what God wants for you that you haven't already heard from God.  I would say that if someone surprises you with something they claim is God's will for you, you should stop and reflect as to whether God has been trying to tell you this but you've not been listening.  But in the end, God will not send someone else to tell you something He has not Himself spoken to your spirit.

  I would next suggest that this reinforcement may go beyond the encouragement of other Christians into the realm of supernatural reinforcement.  There may be prophetic messages; you or others may receive dreams or visions; words of wisdom or knowledge may be delivered.  All of this is subjective guidance--and none of it means anything if it is not reinforcing something God is saying to you directly.  God may go so far as to speak in an audible voice to you, or to someone else who may speak to you.  These wonders increase the strength of subjective guidance.  It is not objective guidance to receive a prophecy from another.  It is a reinforcement of what God is saying by his Spirit.

  Christians often ask why, if God is able to provide such direct and powerful subjective guidance, does He not always do so?  The answer to this becomes obvious first if we remember the many choices we constantly make.  Why should God speak to you in an audible voice to tell you where to shop today?  You will go where you feel you should go.  Why should God tell you in a vision that you should not steal the candy from the convenience store?  You have the moral sense to know this quite without such intervention.  But the other side of the question must also be asked:  if God can guide us without these extreme subjective measures, why would he ever need them?  For this I will have to relate a story.

  I have a lot of love and respect for a man I know whose ministry reaches far beyond my own.  He has established a string of missions, now spreading around the world, which reach out to the lost who have destroyed their lives, especially with alcohol and drugs, but in many other ways as well.  I receive his newsletter.  One month it told of their efforts to open a mission in another country.  It told how God had directed them to do this.  There were several prophetic words delivered in their meetings, and numerous other supernatural communications supporting this.  All of them felt that God wanted them to do this.  Here we had subjective guidance of the highest order.  They had begun the process, when suddenly all of the doors slammed shut, and the government of that country staunchly opposed any further movement in this direction.  The newsletter expressed some confusion that this should have happened--but I knew what happened.  They should have expected trouble of this order.  After all, if God wanted this man to open a mission in this country, he could have encouraged his spirit quietly in that direction, and the matter would have been settled very quickly.  God knew that the road was long and hard, and there would be many obstacles.  Before they put their first foot on that road, he made it absolutely clear to them--subjectively, supernaturally--that this was the direction they were to take.  Now they would know, when the problems came, that these were obstacles to overcome, and not God telling them not to go this way.

  I've written quite a bit, and laid the foundation for this matter; but I've not referred so much to scripture as many would like.  I will remedy that at this point.  I will refer you to the Acts of the Apostles--and let you read it for yourself.  You will find that after the last recorded missionary journey of Paul, he was headed back to Jerusalem with the money collected for the church there.  Staying at the home of Phillip the Evangelist, he was met by the prophet Agabus.  It is an interesting aside related to the role of the prophet that Phillip had four daughters, all prophets, but God sent someone else to deliver the message.  Agabus, in dramatic form, announces that Paul would be bound and imprisoned in Jerusalem, and all of the saints beg him not to go.  But Paul tells them that he knew this, that God had been telling him that he would have trouble in Jerusalem.  He was ready to die there, despite the fact that he also hoped to preach in Rome--and had already written the Roman epistle telling them to expect him!  But why did Paul go to Jerusalem, if God told him he would be imprisoned?  Are we to think that Paul disobeyed God by going to Jerusalem?  I think not.  I think if we look at subsequent events, we will begin to understand.  You see, Paul did go to Jerusalem, and was falsely accused and imprisoned.  He remained in prison in Jerusalem for a short time, and was then moved to Caesarea when his life was threatened.  He was kept in prison for three years.

  Had I been kept in prison for three years, by the end of the first year, I'm sure I would have been asking myself, "Where did I miss it?  Why has God forsaken me?  How did I go wrong?"  For over a thousand days, Paul awoke each morning in a prison, and lived a life in which he had little contact with anyone.  Certainly he made the best of it, preaching the gospel to secular governors who were less likely to believe than the rocks themselves.  But he might have despaired.  He did not.  One reason he did not despair is because before it all went wrong, before this obstacle landed in his God-given path to Rome and stopped him in his tracks for three years, Agabus had come to him and told him it was going to happen.  "Don't worry," God said.  "There's going to be a lot of trouble on this path, but it's the right road, so keep going."  And in the end, this road took him not merely to Rome, but right into the court of the emperor.

  Thus I conclude that for most of our lives, the simple objective guidance is sufficient--that we follow the path before us to wherever it leads; but when the objective guidance will be misleading, the subjective--sometimes dramatically supernatural--guidance comes to direct us beyond this.

  Although that is a sufficient conclusion, I feel it necessary to add an important footnote, a denouement, as it were.  I have said that our moral and ethical principles are a part of our objective guidance.  I have also said that our subjective guidance steps in when our objective guidance might mislead us.  It is a logical conclusion that God could direct us to do something which we perceive as morally wrong.  And I would be misleading you if I suggested that God has never asked anyone to do anything which that individual believed was morally wrong.  Although it might not seem a moral issue to you, let me assure you that when God asked Ezekiel to eat food cooked over burning dung, to that prophet it was a moral issue, a direct violation of the law of God--and the law of God was no less violated when God softened it from burning human dung to burning cow's dung.  I will not tell you that God will never direct you to violate your own conscience or moral principles.  However, I will tell you this:  any time in scripture when God commanded anyone to do anything which they perceived as against the law of God, the individual so commanded found it morally repugnant, and was not willing to do it.  I would expect that the same would be the case for us.  God will not command you to do something which you believe is wrong and which you wanted to do anyway.  If He commands you to do something you believe is wrong, it will also be something you find personally difficult and offensive.  The only exception I will brook to this would be when God is trying to teach you that your laws are not His--much as the vision given to Peter, when that Apostle needed to understand that gentiles were not unclean, that you have made rules for yourself which He did not give--and in that case, it will still be something you did not wish to do.  God will not command you to commit the sin to which you are sorely tempted.

  I hope this has helped you perceive a bit better how God leads us.  As ever, I will be glad to respond to questions or comments, so feel free to write to me.

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