We have learned from the Scriptures that God has a plan for our lives, that it includes every detail of daily living, and that we can know exactly what it is. Why is it, then, that so many Christians have so many questions about God’s will? Why do they find it difficult to discern God’s will and why do they lack the assurance that they are in his will?
As a pastor, I probably have more people come to me with questions about this subject than any other. I have come to the conclusion that some people may not yet have discovered God’s plan because they are looking for the wrong thing. They may be expecting God to show them his blueprint for their whole life’s building when he is trying to show them only the next board to hammer into place. They may be looking for a continent-wide road map when God simply wants to tell them which turn to take next.
If they have their minds set on seeing the whole picture, they are likely to overlook the next small detail of direction that God is trying to give them.
The first basic principle of divine guidance is this: God leads us one step at a time. The Psalmist said, “The steps of a man are established by the Lord.”72 It is no accident that he used the word steps when he revealed the existence of God’s plan for our lives. While God has the whole journey mapped out ahead of time, he conceives of that journey as a successive series of small steps, and that is the way he makes it known to us.
This foundational principle of guidance is graphically illustrated in another Psalm: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”73 When an ancient traveler journeyed at night he carried an oil lamp with him. As he walked along, swinging the lamp out in front of him, he could see the rocks and ruts directly ahead of him in the road, and he could avoid them. Sometimes he actually strapped a small clay lamp to his ankle and it illuminated the path before him, one step at a time, as he walked. That is how God uses his Word to guide us. He does not promise a brilliant blaze of light to illuminate the road for miles ahead. He promises a lamp to our feet, enough light for the next step.
Maybe the illustration would be more meaningful in our mechanized society if we put it in terms of driving a car at night. The headlights on our automobiles do not expose the dangers a mile or so ahead. They merely divulge the next bend in the road. God knows that it may not be best for us to see too far down the highway of our lives. If he showed us the whole plan at the outset, we might decide that we do not want to follow it. It might involve more sacrifices than we are willing to make at this stage of our spiritual maturity, or it might look too difficult for us to handle at this point in our spiritual growth.
If God had told me when I was a student in college that I would someday pastor a large church and preach to thousands of people every Sunday, I probably would have laughed and said, “You’d better find somebody else for that plan, Lord. Make me a new one that is better suited to my personality and temperament.” I would shake all over when I had to talk in front of a speech class of twenty students. Yet today there is nothing I would rather be doing than ministering the Word of God to hungry hearts.
If God had told me that his plan to move me from a church in Texas to one in Alabama would eventually include an unpleasant church split and the beginning of a new local assembly, I probably would have said, “No thanks, Lord. I don’t believe I’m up to that. I’ll just stay where I am for a while and wait for another opportunity.” But now as I look back on that experience from this vantage point, I would not trade it for anything. It did more to strengthen my faith in God’s sovereign control of all things than any other episode in my life. Yet I can say with absolute certainty that I am glad I did not know where the road was leading when I took that step to Alabama.
Some steps are giant strides. One decision can commit us to a certain course for years to come, possibly for a lifetime. But however big it may be, it is still one single step. And it will be followed by many other single steps as we walk with the divine Shepherd day by day. If we run ahead of the light to see what lies beyond the next step, we shall find ourselves in the dark again.
The children of Israel were led through the wilderness on this day-by-day basis. They followed God’s guiding cloud wherever it went. When it moved, they moved. When it stopped, they set up camp. If it remained one day, they stayed one day. If it remained a year, they stayed a year. But then when it lifted, they broke camp and followed.74 They never knew for sure where it was taking them, but they trusted their faithful Shepherd to lead them in the right way. And their trust was never misplaced. He brought them safely to their promised land.
This is the way God led the Apostle Paul as well. The day he met Christ, he asked, “What shall I do, Lord?” And the answer came back, “Arise and go on into Damascus; and there you will be told of all that has been appointed for you to do.”75 So he obeyed that command and took that one step to Damascus, and there God told him the general direction his life would take. He would be Christ’s witness to all men of what he had seen and heard.76
But after that broad overview of God’s plan for his future, the details came one step at a time. For example, three years after his conversion he went up to Jerusalem to meet the apostles and to witness to the Grecian Jews about Christ.77 While he was there, he went into the Temple to pray and God spoke to him again: “Leave Jerusalem immediately, because they will not accept your testimony about me.”78
Leaving made no sense at all to Paul. Everyone here knew how he had previously persecuted the Christians. Certainly they would believe that something supernatural had happened in his life and would accept his testimony. He tried to reason with God, but to no avail. The word came again: “Go, I will send you far away to the Gentiles.”79 So Paul took the next step in God’s plan without any specific knowledge of where it would lead him, except that it would be to the Gentile world.
First God led him into Syria and Cilicia, where for several years he preached the gospel from his home town headquarters in Tarsus.80 That’s where Barnabas found him when he brought him to Antioch to assist in the ministry there.81 That was to be the next place of service in the gradual revelation of God’s plan.
The next move was revealed when the Spirit of God spoke to the prophets and teachers at Antioch and instructed them to set Paul and Barnabas apart for special missionary service. There is no indication that they knew exactly where God wanted them to go, but he led them as they went. And when they returned to Antioch, “they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.”82 It was exciting to review how God had directed them step by step to the people who were ready to receive the message. Their experience was much like that of the old servant of Abraham looking for a bride for Isaac. He did not know exactly where he was going, but after he got there he could say confidently, “The Lord has guided me in the way.”83
Another indication of God’s step-by-step guidance in Paul’s life occurred on his second missionary journey. Being commended to God’s grace again by the leaders at Antioch, he traveled with Silas through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches there. Then he revisited the churches which he had established in Galatia on his first journey.84 After that we read, “Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas.”85
Do you see how they seemed to be feeling their way along, looking for opportunities, pushing on doors, backing off when the Spirit of God blocked their way? They wanted to do God’s will and he was not going to let them make a mistake. He would not let them preach in Asia, and he would not even let them enter Bithynia. And at that point they did not know why. Maybe they thought that hearts there were not yet prepared for the message, or that some serious danger awaited them. But it is comforting to know that when we desire God’s will above all else, he will see that we walk in it step by step, whether or not we know the reasons for our course.
Christians sometimes worry about the possibility of missing God’s will. That cannot happen to anyone who truly wants to do his will. We can miss it by insisting on our own way, but not when we want only his way.
Isaiah assures us that even if we take a step in the wrong direction, he will call us back. “And if you leave God’s paths and go astray, you will hear a Voice behind you say, ‘No, this is the way; walk here.’”86 The Psalmist agreed: “The Lord is good and glad to teach the proper path to all who go astray; he will teach the ways that are right and best to those who humbly turn to him.”87 Paul, too, certainly found this principle to be true. He greatly desired to preach the gospel in Bithynia, but he desired to do the will of God even more. So God kept him from making a costly mistake.
This disturbs and confuses some people in our day of goals and plans and management by objective. “How can we plan ahead if God leads us only one step at a time and sometimes blocks our way and sends us off in a different direction?”
Solomon gave us the answer to that one. “The mind of man plans his way, But the Lord directs his steps.”88 We can make plans, seeking God’s wisdom as we do so. But we must recognize that the plans we make are tentative at best. God may not give us clear direction about the specific details until we reach the crossroads and need to know which way to turn. Paul had a tentative strategy in mind when he left Antioch on that second missionary journey. But his plan was subject to the step-by-step revelation of God’s plan.
Sometimes the disclosure of the next step may be more spectacular than it is on other occasions. That was the case with Paul’s next move. “During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’”89 We shall discuss dreams and visions at greater length in a later chapter, but we mention this event here to show that God’s direction into Europe was unmistakable. Paul needed to have that assurance, for he would be tempted to doubt God’s leading after being severely beaten and clamped in stocks in a Philippian jail cell.
God never promised us that life in the center of his will would be like a vacation on a South Pacific island. There will be problems. But along with the problems there will be peace, praise, and power. Paul and Silas sang God’s praises in that prison and people came to know Christ.
Whenever Paul needed direction, God was right there to provide it. He was never late. Opposition began to build against the gospel in Corinth on that second journey, and Paul was forced to leave the synagogue. He probably wondered whether he ought to stop preaching there and leave the city. He didn’t have to wonder for long. “One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.’ So Paul stayed for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God.”90 When the questions arose, the answers came—just when they were needed.
God did protect Paul from persecution during that extended ministry in Corinth. But it would not always be so. Near the end of his third missionary journey he had an opportunity to share some memorable truths with elders of the church at Ephesus. In the course of his message he said, “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me.”91 Persecution was awaiting him, yet he had an unwavering confidence that the Holy Spirit was still directing him, step by step.
He was arrested in Jerusalem just as he had anticipated, and when he gave his defense before the Jewish Sanhedrin, they became so violent that the officer in charge thought they would tear him apart. But God was still guiding him. “The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, ‘Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.’”92
That promise sustained him through a dangerous conspiracy against his life, more than two years of imprisonment at Caesarea, repeated trials and interrogations before a succession of public officials, and a treacherous journey by sea that included a death-defying shipwreck. But he finally arrived in Rome and boldly testified about Jesus Christ, just as God promised he would.93 The individual steps were sometimes surprising and sometimes painful, but the outcome was always satisfying because those steps were established by the Lord.
As I look back over my own life I see the same evidence of God’s graduated guidance. As a high schooler I told God I wanted to do his will, but I had no idea of what it might be. I felt a strong inclination to attend Wheaton College, and God made it possible against considerable human odds. After my first year, I chose to major in Bible, believing that God might lead me into some kind of Christian service career, but I had no knowledge at that time of what it might be.
During those years at Wheaton, God put Dallas Theological Seminary strongly on my mind, even though my teachers were recommending other seminaries and most of my friends were going elsewhere. But I felt an inner confidence and a settled peace about it. I knew it was the will of God. My aim at Dallas was to prepare myself more fully to serve the Lord, but I still did not know in what capacity that might be.
As graduation neared, some of my professors encouraged me to enter graduate school. I had no peace about further study without a regular ministry of some kind along with it, so my wife and I began to pray for God’s decisive direction. Within weeks, a church in Fort Worth, which had been looking for an older and more experienced pastor for more than a year, finally decided to consider a recent seminary graduate and was given my name along with two others.
For no apparent reason, they began the candidating process with me, and after I had preached for them on two successive Sundays they voted to call me (by a fraction of a percentage point above what was required in their constitution and by-laws). So I found myself pastoring a church and working on a doctorate simultaneously. The doctoral work has long since been finished, but the pastoring has continued in the different locations of God’s choosing, as he has directed one step at a time. Some instances of his guidance have been rather ordinary, others quite dramatic. I have seldom been able to see far ahead, but God has never failed to illuminate the next step because that is the way he leads.
Your experience may be similar. It certainly can be. Wherever you are at this moment in your Christian experience, God is ready to show you the next step in his plan for your life.