As every Christian man knows there is nothing worse to hear from the lips of beautiful Christian lady than: "I'm sorry, God is telling me not to go out with you." Rejection, not just from the girl but from the Almighty as well. "Oh yeah, then why didn't he tell me too?" seems a suitably bitter reply.
Let's face it though, the issue of God's guidance over our lives is a complicated one to say the least. Graduating from university last year and facing the question of what to do next year then it is an issue I've had to wrestle with. What follows is some advice I'd like to pass on. I remain indebted to Peter Masters' book: Steps for Guidance - it's very wise and surprisingly nuanced to boot.
Ask for guidance when appropriate
"Show me your ways, Lord, teach me your paths. Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Saviour, and my hope is in you all day long... Who, then, are those who fear the Lord? He will instruct them in the ways they should choose." Psalm 25 v 5, 12.
At a training session we were reading a job application that said: "I seek God's guidance in every decision." Needless to say, alarm bells starting ringing in my head. It sounds so wonderfully spiritual, in practise it's really not. If I was his manager and I told him to do something (ordinary) I would expect prompt action not fifteen minutes of seeking the divine stamp of approval. God made us with minds to think and make decisions and as responsible individuals we are to exercise this gift. We've all heard the horror stories of people who pray for guidance over the clothes they wear in the morning (or even worse, whether to wear clothes or not!)
Yet the above Psalm shows an example of a godly man seeking guidance and counsel from God. Peter Masters strikes the right balance when he says that he should seek guidance at the crossroad decisions of life. The big ones: job, church, marriage, moving, etc. Most decisions we can make on our own (always of course seeking to be wise and obedient) but the big decisions require special intercession.
I guess the other thing I have discovered to be true is that if you don't ask for guidance you are unlikely to get it. To be guided by God requires the humility to see the need to be guided and ask. Often when we say we want to be guided we mean that we want God to rubber stamp our own decisions. Peter Masters records his experience as a pastor of seeing this happen again and again. And he observes that God lets people chose their own way and they make a mess of it.
After some experience of this my prayer for leaving university was "Father, what would you like me to do?" My answer after 14 job rejections was Christians Against Poverty, an unexpected turn of affairs but one which I am very thankful for.
Waiting, disappointment and surprise
We ask for guidance and expect an answer tomorrow, if not today. We ask for guidance and expect an easy path. We ask for guidance and expect God to conform to our own thoughts. These are unrealistic expectations. A firm commitment to being guided can involve disappointment (maybe even heartbreak), waiting for answers and surprise when the answers come. All of these things are for our good, keeping us humble, keeping us praying, testing our commitment to following God. Just remember that there are many examples in the Bible of people who were impatient and decided to do things their way rather than God's - think of Abraham sleeping with his wife's servant to gain a son. Such stories do not end well.
Obey the Bible
Another way of saying this would be: God does not guide contrary to his Word. Some easy examples: a man feels called to the ministry but clearly does not possess the qualifications laid out in the Bible. Such a call is not genuine. Or a Christian wants to ask a non-Christian out because he feels it's "God's will". Whereas in Corinthians we are told not to be united with non-believers in marriage if we can avoid it. The objective truth of God's Word overrules any subjective feelings that we have. This is particularly true in areas of romance where our hearts are easily engaged in unwise affection.
If we face a choice which involves breaking a command from God the answer is always a "no". There are situations where such black and white decisions are obvious. However, for the most part our decisions aren't black and white, they are every shade of grey. We face different paths, all of them moral and we don't know which one to pick.
Don't expect to have an easy decision
Here is a truth I have only recently realised. I thought (and hoped) that guidance would make a hard decision easy to make. This was not true. I believe that I was guided to move down to Bradford and work for Christians Against Poverty (mainly through a combination of providence and many answers to prayer). But the decision was still not an easy one to make. It was hard to decide to leave friends and family behind. It was hard to weigh up the pros and cons of both options, to sort out right from wrong motive and to choose to leave Edinburgh.
Hard decisions are hard. Guidance does not relieve us of the task of carefully thinking through our life decisions. I suppose a similar truth would be that following the guidance of God does not equal an easy life. How many missionaries were guided to their deaths on the mission field? The price of obedience is high.
Question: what is more likely to be God's guidance: a subjective feeling of rightness or the advice of an older and wiser Christian? Logic and experience would suggest the latter. Our hearts and natural inclinations usually decide on the former. I'm not saying to treat other's advice as though it were directly from God. I am saying to esteem highly a wise Christian's more objective observations and longer life experience.
Pray for God to overrule your decision, if he wills it
I came across this prayer in Peter Masters' book and I like it a lot. Coming before God and saying "Father, I have decided on this path but I might have got it wrong so please overrule me in your providence if that is so." It's a lovely expression of our fallibility and primary desire to walk the path God has for us. Course, the difficult part is when God does answer this pray and divert us from a decision we made.
Your gut feeling is your gut feeling
Your gut feeling is not an infallible guide to God's will. It might be worth paying attention too (especially if you are an intuitive person) but keep it in perspective. Who can say what makes up any gut feeling? You could just be hungry and feeling grumpy as a result. You might just have had a hot shower and feeling happy. Our feelings are shaky foundations for any important decision.
Don't ever use the phrase "God told me" to validate any decision, ever.
Unless you can quote a directly applicable Scripture (and I mean very directly applicable) this line remains a refuge for those seeking to clothe their own decision in language that makes it hard for other people to criticise.
I believe God only speaks through his Word. But even if you don't believe that then please do not use this phrase. Give others the opportunity to criticise your decision. Don't climb onto a fake and shaky spiritual horse. Even if you think it real, stay quiet, let your decision stand or fall by its own merit rather than your perceived idea of God's will. Remember that Christians have done terrible things in the name of God and be less inclined to bandy such strong language around. We are never as right as we think.
If the phrase must be used then try: "I think that God might be guiding me down this path." This includes the possibility of error whereas "God has told me..." doesn't.
One more thing, it is never appropriate, loving, caring, nice, wise or right to use any phrase, variation or adaption of the phrase "God told me to say no," in any romantic matter. Don't use God to reject; have the courage to reject someone personally. They deserve that much at least.