Nothing quite gets a Christian's gender appropriate knickers in a twist like the issue of guidance. Partly, this is because we all love to cloak our decisions with spirituality. I well remember being romantically rejected with the line: I feel God is saying no. There is no worse line - for rejection is bad enough without it coming from the mouth of the Almighty! Ladies, please, for the sake of men everywhere, don't use such language (God only speaks through Scripture anyway so it's not even theologically correct!)
I can't claim to have my theology of guidance sorted out in my head. Give me another fifty years and I might have something close to one. But the issue has been on my mind a lot over the last year because of having to choose what to do after university and so I figured I'd share my thoughts.
There's a book written by Kevin DeYoung called Just Do Something: How to Make a Decision Without Dreams, Visions, Fleeces, Open Doors, Random Bible Verses, Casting Lots, Liver Shivers, Writing in the Sky, etc. As the title gives away the book is a reaction against Christian mysticism. His basic point is that God made us intelligent human beings, capable of making decisions and that as long as we are immersed in God's word, seeking advice and praying faithfully about things then we are free to make the decisions that seem best. I read the book around three years and was quite struck by it. Now though, I feel it goes too far and throws the baby out with the bathwater. While Mr DeYoung rightly decrys the sort of Christian mysticism that puts great store in dreams and little in the wisdom found in the Bible he leaves little room for the guidance of God.
Just over a year ago I read Peter Masters' book: Steps to Guidance and I was struck both by his wisdom in this matter and how accurately he recorded my experience of not seeking guidance and finding sorrow because of it. God allowed me to forge my own path and then showed me where that got me! So as I faced the decision of where to work after university my main determination was that this time I would seek guidance.
It has been an interesting experience. But first let's go into some background thoughts. Mr Masters' main thrust is that in the crossroad decision of life (i.e. the ones that determine our future path) we should seek guidance. While we don't need to seek guidance for everyday decisions (i.e. what shall I do today? What shall I wear? Shall I buy cheap supermarket rice or branded?) we do need it for the big decisions: job, marriage, church, moving etc.
He bases this on Psalm 25 which reveals that it is entirely biblical to ask and expect God to guide us: "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." (Psalm 25 v 4 - 5) and again: "He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way." (v9). The Psalmist is deeply concerned to walk in the right path and this refers not just to the moral way but also the directional way. Big decisions tend to have a lot of moral grey area and competing options which are all not inherently wrong. Our task is to decide the wisest course of action and that requires divine help!
Mr Masters' then outlines six steps and I will quote from him here:
"First, we submit ourselves wholly and honestly to the Lord, and pray earnestly to be shown his way. Secondly, we clear out all preconceived aims, and all wrong desires and motives. Thirdly, we honour and use the authoritative Word of God, seeking to do justice to all the biblical principles which bear on our decision. Fourthly, we exercise personal discernment, specially weighing carefully the practical issues in decisions not directly addressed by Scripture, and praying that the Lord will help us to see matters clearly, and to judge wisely (something that has been called ‘sanctified common sense’). Fifthly, we acknowledge decisive circumstantial overrulings of the Lord. And sixthly, we desire and pray for an assurance from God about our decision, or we take very seriously any unease or disturbance of conscience we experience."
Does this sound hard? Because it is. Often we want God's guidance either as a rubber stamp for our decisions or to make hard decisions easy. It does neither of these things. The first qualification required to be guided is simply that we are willing to be guided. For if all we want is a rubber stamp of approval then we will no doubt "find it" and suffer later as our chosen path reveals its hidden (or not so hidden) pit. The other side is that God's guidance does not mean we do not have to think carefully about the issue and it does not mean that the decision is easy. We will still have to weigh all the tensions and pro and cons of a decision, the motives of our hearts and the wisdom or foolishness of each path.
How we view guidance is often very illogical. How many of us prioritise a general good feeling above the mundane but sold, sensible and wise advice of a Christian friend? This is especially true in the issue of relationships where feelings are always biased, often to the point of foolishness. When feelings say yes and wisdom says no then it is hard to chose the path of wisdom. And the growth of the charismatic church has to led to an equal growth in a theology of guidance where God can speak to us apart from his Word and a worse growth in Christian mysticism.
Over the last year I have been struck by the quietness of God's guidance. I am not saying that my experience is the only one that can be had but I didn't have some great blinding moment of clarity. Instead, my decision was made on the back of many different conversations, thoughts and answers to prayer. Slowly, gradually, a path became clearer. No dreams, no visions, no "words from above" but rather a gentle prodding onto what I hope is the right path.
One thing is sure: God will not guide us to disobedience. You will never, for example, be guided into a relationship with a non-Christian because such a thing is against the command of God and how can he guide his children into sin? You will never be guided into sin. If you find yourself thinking you are then pause to reflect on the deceitfulness of your heart.
But you might be guided somewhere unexpected - how many missionaries expected to be called to the far reaches of the world? I certainly didn't expect to find myself in Bradford for the next year. And as I face such a year doubts and fears crop up. Complete assurance is never ours, there will always be that question mark. One prayer I found helpful was that if my decision to go to Bradford was wrong God would stop it happening. Thanks be to God that he can and does overrule our decisions and bring good from any evil!
Of all things necessary to making wise decision then isn't the first a humble and contrite heart? It is only from a position of humility that our own powers of decision making appear as sinful and limited as they are and the need of God's guidance becomes as pressing as it does. Such a lesson we tend to only learn the hard way: by going our own way and receiving the due consequences for our pride. Praise be to our God who will not let us stray for long but graciously wins us ever back to him!