The Word of God is primary in divine guidance. And the witness of the Spirit, clarified through prayer and confirmed through circumstances, will invariably contribute to our understanding of God’s plan. But some other factors also affect the decisions we weigh. Some of these fit in the category of “the obvious.” What is it you think God wants you to do? Ask yourself some self-evident questions about it.
I know that the most famous passage in all the Bible on God’s direction forbids us from leaning on our own understanding.70 But Solomon did not mean that we should shift our brain cells into neutral before we make a decision. That would be contrary to a great body of biblical truth. On a number of occasions, New Testament writers used the verb sophroneo, which means “to be of sound mind, to be reasonable, sensible.” Peter used it when he said, “The end of all things is at hand; therefore be of sound judgment.”71 In other words, use good common sense.
Paul used the adjective form of the same word when he said that elders should be “sensible,”72 or literally, “of sound mind.” He used the adverb form when he declared that the grace of God teaches us “to live sensibly.”73 We can be expected to live sensibly because “God did not give us a spirit of timidity . . . but . . . of power and of love and of calm and well-balanced mind.”74 That well-balanced mind is the human mind enlightened and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. We must not lean upon human wisdom alone, and that is the impact of what Solomon was saying. But when we are yielded to the Spirit of God, he helps us think clearly and sensibly, and that is exactly what we ought to do.
God gave us our brains, the apparatus we need for making sound judgments, and he doesn’t want them standing idle. He expects us to use them. Certain decisions are right simply because they make good sense. For example, if you’re trying to decide whether or not to go on a picnic, it would make sense to get a weather forecast and to stay home if rain is due. If you have to get up early for work tomorrow, it would make good sense to go to bed at a reasonable hour tonight, not stay up to watch a late show on television.
Suppose your child has a rare disease and there is only one place in the country where you can get proper treatment. It would make good sense to go there and get the help that is available. If a lack of money stands in your way, talk to the Lord about it and solicit the prayer support of other Christians.
God will remove every obstacle that prevents us from doing his will. He does the things we cannot do, but he expects us to use the good sense he has given us. When God delivered Peter from prison, the angel supernaturally removed the chains and led him past two guards, then miraculously opened an iron gate before him. But once they were out in the street, the angel departed and left Peter to use his head.75 God isn’t going to do for us what he has endowed us to do for ourselves.
He may want us to gather facts on which we can base a sound judgment, or list the advantages and disadvantages of the various alternatives. For instance, if you are trying to decide what college to attend, you will need to compile some data. How much money do you have available? Which colleges fit your budget? What are your major areas of interest? What schools offer strong programs in those fields? We must trust God to guide us, but we must also take the responsibility for making an intelligent choice on the basis of the information we have. Insist on good reasons for the decisions you make.
When we moved to California, my oldest son, who would have been a senior in high school at the time, was offered early admission to a college in Tennessee. Both his high school record and his college entrance exams had demonstrated his ability to handle the work in spite of his young age. It was a most attractive offer for him since it permitted him to remain in the general vicinity where he grew up and to avoid the inconvenience of entering a new high school for his senior year. But I was reluctant to let him go. I wanted him to be with our family during the first year of our new ministry.
I asked him to spend some time alone with the Lord and prayerfully compile a list of the reasons why he felt God wanted him to accept that college offer. About an hour and a half later he came to me with the list. It included the human reasons which I had suspected, but along with them were some wise, spiritually sound thoughts. Those thoughts, as well as the promise of financial help which came unexpectedly that very day, convinced me that he was being led of God to enter college, and we granted our permission. Subsequent events substantiated his decision as being the right one, but it was a decision based primarily on sound reasoning and common sense.
Remember, however, that human reason is fallible. We can never be sure that we have obtained all the relevant facts, nor that we are interpreting them correctly. Beside that, God may want us to do something totally opposed to unsanctified human reason. He asked Abraham to leave his home, his business, and his friends without any knowledge of where he was going. It made no sense, humanly speaking; yet it was the will of God.76
It makes no sense to unbelieving parents that their son should turn down the family business to enter some low-paying Christian profession. But it may be God’s will. It makes no sense to some people for a brilliant linguist to spend a lifetime working with one small primitive tribe of jungle Indians. But it may be God’s will. If decisions are made in accord with the principles of God’s Word, they take precedence over the dictates of human wisdom. All common sense must be subject to the scrutiny of God’s Word.
The Scripture teaches that basic moral values are inscribed on the soul of every human being. Those values may differ from person to person or from culture to culture, but there is in every person a sense of “ought,” called conscience, which evaluates his behavior and either accuses or defends him.77 God can use that conscience to lead us.
It is true that a conscience can be seared or branded by the effects of sin.78 That happens when we regularly ignore its voice and neglect to heed its warnings. A conscience may also become overly sensitive and restrictive, prohibiting things which God permits.79 That is usually the result of excessive criticism during childhood. There is also the danger of a conscience being defiled, that is, common or unclean.80 A lack of discipline through one’s early years of life may distort his conscience so that it allows things which God forbids. Each person’s conscience is conditioned by knowledge, experience, and training, so it too must always be measured by the Word of God.
But there is still that innate compulsion or restraint which must be reckoned with. “I ought to help that blind man cross the street.” “I ought not to eat so much at the dinner table. My body doesn’t need it.” “I ought to be spending more time with my children.” Prayerfully heed the voice of conscience. It may express the will of God.
Closely linked to conscience is the plain sense of duty. Certain things are obviously God’s will simply because they are rightfully expected of us. As the Apostle James said, “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.”81 If you have an exam tomorrow for which you have not studied, you need not struggle over whether you should go out with the gang or hit the books. You have a moral obligation to the people who made it possible for you to attend school to do the best you can. You don’t even need to pray about it. Just start studying.
According to a book by J. Sidlow Baxter, praying for “guidance” when duty is clear can lead to grave sins, deep delusions, and pathetic regrets.82 Balaam was the classic example of that. God had told him he was not to go and curse Israel, but he just couldn’t get his mind off that money. So we find him right back in God’s presence asking again what he should do.83 God finally let him go even though it was contrary to his will, but Balaam consequently lost both the money and his life. If you know what God wants you to do, do it! Apologize to that person you wronged. Share Christ with that friend whose heart is open. Fix that leaky faucet your wife has been after you about. Pay back that money you borrowed. You don’t need to pray about it. It’s your duty.
Doing our duty has another application as well. When you face a difficult choice and honestly cannot decide what to do, just faithfully perform the next thing that is expected of you as part of your daily responsibilities. Guidance may come and greater opportunities may open to you while you are carrying out those obligations.
In his parable of the talents, Jesus reminded us that faithfulness in the little things will open wider avenues of service. To those men who had faithfully invested their five talents and two talents as he wished them to, the master of the household said, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”84 The way to be used of God to our greatest capacity, and to enjoy the assurance that he will keep us in the center of his will, is to be steadfast and dependable in what he has given us to do. Keep doing what you are doing, and do it well until new guidance comes.
God never calls on us to do a job which he does not equip us to do. It is doubtful, for example, that he will call you to minister in music if you cannot carry a tune. He may actually lead you to the job he wants you to do through a careful evaluation of your special interests, gifts, abilities, education, or training. Each one of us is a unique combination of skills and personal characteristics, the sum total of all our past experiences, singularly fitted for the role God wants us to fill. We each have particular God-given potential, and we need to discover what it is.
We may want to find a counselor who can administer a vocational guidance inventory to see what our unique interests are. Then we should be willing to try different things as new opportunities arise. I am not referring to a person jumping from one thing to another in an irresponsible search for the “perfect” job. God is not honored when we try to avoid our routine responsibilities just because they are monotonous. I am talking about a prayerful consideration of any opportunity for service that is offered to us.
By attempting to do different things, we may discover where our greatest talents lie and where we can most effectively be used of God. But by all means do something! God’s call comes to the active, not to the idle. As many others have pointed out, it is easier to steer a moving vehicle than a stationary one. Trace the history of God’s dealings with men in his Word and you will find that he nearly always laid his hand on those who were already engaged in some kind of meaningful activity.
But it is interesting to note that he did not always call them to the same kind of service in which they were involved at that moment. Some were called to new and different tasks for which they did not feel qualified. Moses argued with God about leading Israel out of Egyptian bondage. “Please, Lord, I have never been eloquent, . . . for I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”85 Listen to God’s answer: “Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes him dumb or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now then go, and I, even I, will be with your mouth, and teach you what you are to say.”86 He can help us do what we do not feel capable of doing.
In the final analysis, it really doesn’t matter a great deal what we can or cannot do. What matters most is what God wants us to do with our lives and how he wants us to minister to others. He can provide additional training if we need it, and he can impart new gifts and abilities if he thinks we need them. He can take what we are and transform us into whatever he wants us to be, if we are willing. We are not capable of accomplishing anything eternally profitable through our own gifts and abilities anyway. They must be energized and operated by his power. “Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God.”87
God may use our past training if he so chooses. But he may also lead us in a direction that seems totally foreign to our past training. Survey any seminary classroom and see the diverse backgrounds of the people preparing for Christian service. There may be accountants, chemists, engineers, athletes, doctors, salesmen, and a host of other professions represented. God is more interested in our present submission to him than in our past education or experience.
Someone has suggested that if you are the only one who thinks a particular course of action is right, you’d better stop and pray about it some more. That isn’t to say that one person is always wrong when the majority disagrees with him. But it does reinforce the great truth of Christian community, that God has brought us together into one body so that we can minister to one another.
The book of Proverbs makes a strong case for seeking the counsel of others. “Where no counsel is, the people fall; but in the multitude of counselors there is safety.”88 “A fool thinks he needs no advice, but a wise man listens to others.”89 “Without consultation, plans are frustrated, but with many counselors they succeed.”90 “Get all the advice you can and be wise the rest of your life.”91
New Testament writers agree. Paul exhorts us to admonish one another.92 The word means literally “to put in the mind,” therefore, “to instruct or to warn one another.” The writer to the Hebrews said we are to exhort one another. That word means “to comfort, encourage or urge.”93
Other people who are not involved in our situation may be able to look at it more objectively than we can. They may have wider experience than we have had, or they may be able to see things we have overlooked. They may have a greater grasp of the Scriptures or a deeper insight into human nature. So seek the advice of mature Christian friends—pastors, elders, teachers, and in the case of young people, youth sponsors, moms, and dads. God put certain people in places of responsibility to help you, and it would be foolish to disregard their advice.
And be careful not to make Ahab’s mistake, seeking counsel only from those who will tell you what you want to hear. When trying to decide whether or not to go to battle with the Syrians, Jehoshaphat asked Ahab if there were a true prophet of the Lord whom they might consult other than just Ahab’s favorite 400 “yes” men. That’s when he admitted, “Well, there’s one . . . but I hate him, for he never prophesies anything good.”94 We may be tempted to avoid counselors who disagree with us, but if they are spiritually minded people who know the Word, we do well to hear them out.
Some folks avoid seeking counsel because they think it indicates weakness or immaturity, or possibly a lack of spirituality or intelligence. They want to prove that they can handle their problems by themselves without any help from anybody else. But that is basically pride. To admit that we have a problem which we cannot solve, and then to seek help, is far more mature and intelligent.
Just talking to someone else may help us clarify the issues in our own minds. But in addition to that, God may use the counselor to bring new insight to the situation or to point out some biblical truth that has direct bearing on our decision. God can also advise us through the writings of great saints from past years. Read how God dealt with them. It may help you understand how he is dealing with you.
That is not to say that the advice of others is infallible. Nobody knows everything, and everybody has areas of bias and subjectivity. Weigh all the advice you receive carefully in the light of God’s Word. Do not become overly dependent on the counsel of others. Ultimately we are responsible for our own choices, and we must answer to God for what we decide to do.
In some instances we are obligated to take advice from others. I am referring to those who are in authority over us. God has established an order of authority in many realms of life. Regarding the local church, for instance, he says, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority.”95 The New Testament identifies the rulers of the local church as elders.96 God does not lead us to minister in the framework of the local church in any way that is contrary to the wishes of its elders. We are to be in submission to them. They are in a position to evaluate us and they may be able to recognize our limitations better than we can. On the contrary, if the elders want us to exercise our spiritual gifts in a particular kind of ministry, we should give it serious and prayerful consideration.
The same principle seems to apply to a missionary who has placed himself under the authority of a particular mission board. As long as he is part of that organization, he is responsible to do what his superiors ask him to do. He can reason with them graciously if he feels that they are making a mistake. And if they ask him to do something that compromises his biblical convictions, he may have to resign and find some other missionary organization with which he can agree. But as long as he is under their authority, he has an obligation to submit to them.
God has placed a wife under her husband’s authority.97 God’s will for her is to be with him as his helper. A loving husband will consult her, consider her opinions, and act unselfishly for her best interest. But she will find her greatest joy and satisfaction in submitting to him.
When God led me to accept the pastorate in California, it was difficult for my wife to adjust to the idea at first. She had felt all along that we would not be moving, and when I shared with her the reasons I believed God was directing us to go, she was quiet and noncommittal. The next day, as she went about her regular duties, she was praying continuously in her heart, “Lord, show me your will.”
Suddenly she realized that her prayer was different from what it had been previously. During the weeks prior to the decision she had been praying, “Lord, show Richard your will.” At that moment it dawned on her that God had shown me his will, and that his will for her was to be with me. From that moment on we both had perfect peace about the move, and a beautiful harmony of spirit united us.
When a husband asks his wife to do something contrary to God’s Word, she has the right to decline respectfully.98 Otherwise, God wants her to believe that he will work through her husband to do what is best for her. It makes good sense to live as God has ordained.
74 2 Timothy 1:7 (Amp.)
75 Acts 12:5-19
76 Genesis 12:1
80 Titus 1:15
89 Proverbs 12:15 (TLB)
91 Proverbs 19:20 (TLB)
94 1 Kings 22:8 (TLB)
98 Cf. Acts 5:29