The prize for the most popular method of attempting to discern divine direction among Christians today would probably go to the use of circumstances. I know many Christians who try to figure out what God may be telling them through the events around them or through the situations in their lives. No study of the will of God could be complete, then, without considering what the Scriptures say about circumstances.
The Bible teaches that God is sovereign. That means he is superior in position, supreme in power, and unlimited by any other. He does what he pleases. Isaiah said that his purposes will stand and that he will do all his pleasure.34 David said that he rules over everything.35 Paul said that he works all things after the counsel of his own will.36 That’s sovereignty.
A sovereign God can obviously affect our circumstances if he so chooses, and the Scripture indicates that he does. He may actively cause things to happen that have direct bearing on our lives. It may seem as though an event is purely accidental, or that other people have caused a particular situation, when all the time God is at work directing our paths.
For example, Joseph’s jealous brothers sold him into Egyptian slavery. He may have thought at first that he had been the victim of their capricious actions, but years later he understood how it all happened. He said to his brothers, “And now do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.”37 God was directly responsible for that circumstance.
One day a Benjamite named Kish realized that his donkeys were missing, so he sent his son, Saul, to find them. Saul probably thought it was just one of those irritating events of daily living as he wandered unknowingly toward the place where the prophet Samuel was ministering. But the day before he arrived, God had told Samuel, “About this time tomorrow I will send you a man from the land of Benjamin, and you shall anoint him to be prince over My people Israel; and he shall deliver My people from the hand of the Philistines. For I have regarded My people, because their cry has come to Me.”38 God was superintending those circumstances.
In the early days of the church, fierce persecution broke out against believers in Jerusalem, driving them from their homes and scattering them throughout Judea and Samaria.39 But everywhere they went they announced the good news of salvation through Christ,40 and so began to fulfill the commission which Jesus had given shortly before he ascended into heaven.41 We must conclude that God was directing those circumstances for the accomplishment of his own purposes.
And he can do the same for us. The circumstances in our lives may be more than coincidental. Suppose, for example, that a man has an excellent job opportunity in another city but feels rather negatively about the transfer. Then, quite unexpectedly, he meets a believer from that city who tells him about an excellent local church there with a particular need that he can fill perfectly. That experience could be God’s way of opening his mind to the possibility of moving.
On the other hand, suppose his boss tells him they must close down his branch and it will be necessary for him to relocate in another city. He resigns himself to the unpleasant news without much thought. But the next day a friend calls to tell him about a job opening for which he is eminently qualified right in his own city. That could be God’s way of opening his mind to the possibility of changing companies rather than relocating. God sometimes does things like that for us.
We often refer to God’s leading through circumstances as consisting of open or closed doors. That is a biblical concept. John saw Jesus as the one who holds the key to every door of opportunity and service. “What he opens, no one can shut; and what he shuts, no one can open.”42 Paul spoke about open doors of ministry twice in his epistles.43 Once he asked the Colossians to pray that God would open a door for his message.44
It is reasonable to assume that God will open doors for us to proceed in the direction he has determined. And it is obvious that he can close doors if he so chooses. He closed several for Paul and his companions. As we have seen, they tried to preach in Asia, but the Holy Spirit prohibited them. Then they tried to enter Bithynia, and the Holy Spirit would not permit that either.45 The reason finally became evident. God was opening another door to a much wider ministry, and the gospel was about to penetrate the continent of Europe for the first time.
God can do similar things for you. By a rejection of an application he may show you which school to eliminate from consideration. By having a visa request granted or denied, he may show you what country he wants you to enter for missionary service. When my wife was a teenager she thought God wanted her to be a missionary to China, but the Communist takeover in that country made it plain that he did not. That circumstance was one of the factors that helped her decide to marry me. Our sovereign God works in mysterious ways to perform his wonders. And circumstances often play a vital role.
Having said all that, however, I must quickly point out that circumstances are an uncertain guide. While God is in control of every event in our lives, most events can be interpreted in different ways.
You may have heard the story of two new missionary appointees who were on board ship with all their belongings, ready to set sail for a mission field. Before the ship left the harbor, it caught fire and all their baggage and equipment were destroyed. One missionary interpreted it as God telling him to stay home and teach in a Bible college—an alternative he had considered before deciding on missionary service. The other interpreted it as a Satanic hindrance, and so raised additional money for new equipment and left for the field several months later.
Which one was right? Both were greatly used of God in the years that followed. Maybe both were right. But there had to be other factors involved in their respective decisions. The circumstance alone was not determinative, because it was subject to varying interpretations.
Many different issues can affect the way we view our circumstances. The pressures of the world, the desire for the material things we think we need, selfish preferences about climate or locale, subconscious compulsions, false pity, or any number of other things may make us prone to interpret the circumstances to suit ourselves, and then try to use them to prove we are following God’s leading.
We must also reckon with the possibility that Satan could be manipulating the circumstances. God does allow Satan some latitude to do that. For instance, Paul believed God wanted him to visit the Thessalonians on several occasions, but he indicated by inspiration of the Holy Spirit that Satan hindered him.46 Satan can evidently deter us from doing God’s will. He may be responsible for some of the impediments on our pathway, and we may not know for some time whether a specific circumstance is a divine door-closing or a Satanic hindrance.
If God is leading, he will ultimately open all the doors and remove all the obstacles. Every circumstance must eventually fall into place when we are following his plan. We will not need to break doors down or walk over people to do his bidding. When we struggle to remove obstacles by the energy of the flesh, we can be certain that we are setting our own course rather than following God’s. He wants us to remember patiently that he will clear the way before us in his own time if we walk on his pathway. If doors remain closed, God may want us either to change our course entirely, or to go as far as we can and then keep knocking gently and waiting patiently on him. The circumstances alone do not tell us clearly.
Sometimes the confusion comes from having too many open doors. If you have acceptances from three different schools, or you have three different job offers, you obviously cannot take all of them. And there is no guarantee that any one of them is necessarily God’s will. Every open door cannot possibly be the will of God for our lives.
The same thing is true of needs—another kind of circumstance. Some have said that the need constitutes the call to a specific service. But there are many more needs than we can personally meet, needs of a vastly different nature in every part of the world. If each awareness of a need were the revelation of God’s will, we might feel led to change direction every time a new need came to our attention, and that would result in hopeless confusion. We cannot do everything that needs to be done, and God doesn’t expect us to. He may lead you by burdening your heart with a particular need, but he does not want you to dissipate your energy by trying to attend to every urgent circumstance that clamors for your time. His plan for each of us includes the proper use of every minute, and our obligation is to use our minutes as he directs, to do what he wants done, not always what others demand. To find out what his priorities are for us as individuals, we may need to get alone with him, away from the commotion and pressure of people and circumstances.
Some Christians feel that God’s blessing or lack of it is a significant element in guidance. But being used of the Lord does not necessarily mean he wants us to stay where we are or to keep doing what we are doing indefinitely. It didn’t for Philip. He was engaged in a successful evangelistic campaign in Samaria47 when God told him to go down to the desert and deal with one Ethiopian eunuch.48 Although God has called us to one kind of vocation or to one field of labor, he may not want us to remain in it for life. In Bible times he often moved people from one place to another and from one calling to another, and he often does the same today.
Conversely, the lack of apparent blessing or the unpleasantness of a task does not necessarily mean that God wants us to move on. Pastors often feel that God is leading them elsewhere when a few people begin to disagree with them. But even persecution did not move the apostles in the early years of the church.49 While others fled from Jerusalem, the apostles stayed.50 And some faithful servants of God since then have been led to labor tirelessly for many years against overwhelming odds without any evident fruit. This encouraging promise from God has sustained them: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”51 And God has been faithful to his Word.
God’s leading in one circumstance may not necessarily mean that he wants us to do the same thing in a similar circumstance, either. Moses assumed that because God told him the first time to strike the rock to get water for his people, it would be permissible for him to strike it again on a later occasion. But he failed to enter the promised land because of his false assumption.52 We need to seek the mind of the Lord in every situation of life and not take any circumstance for granted.
Circumstances alone will seldom determine conclusively what God wants us to do. They may open our minds to possibilities we have not considered. They may establish a general direction to pursue. They may eventually confirm a decision as being right or wrong. But every circumstance must be considered in the light of God’s Word, in an attitude of prayer, with sensitivity to the inner witness of God’s Spirit, and in full commitment to follow his plan rather than our own.
God does not expect us to understand the meaning of every circumstance. “Man’s goings are of the Lord; how can a man then understand his own way?”53 Some of God’s ways are unfathomable, unsearchable, “beyond tracing out.”54 While we should be alert to what he is endeavoring to do in our lives, we need not be constantly asking, “Why did this happen?” or “What is God trying to tell me by that?” We need simply to trust him.
The mention of trust brings us to another facet of this subject—the seeking of signs from God. Some Christians are looking for God to lead them through supernatural phenomena—a bolt of lightning, a voice from heaven, a miraculous omen, a dream, or a vision. God did some spectacular things in Scripture. The children of Israel followed a cloud by day and fire by night.55 The high priest got answers from God in some tangible manner by using the stones in his breastplate called the Urim and the Thummim.56 Young Samuel heard a voice giving him instructions.57 Joseph had a dream in which he was told to marry Mary.58 God led the leaders of the early church through casting lots.59 Saul of Tarsus saw a great light.60 Peter had a vision.61 Does God do things like that today?
Maybe the signs we seek are not quite that spectacular. We may merely be asking God for some small visible evidence of his leading. Abraham’s servant did that when he sought a bride for Isaac. He stood by a well in Nahor and prayed. “Now may it be that the girl to whom I say, ‘Please let down your jar so that I may drink,’ and who answers, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels also’—may she be the one whom Thou hast appointed for Thy servant Isaac; and by this I shall know that Thou hast shown lovingkindness to my master.”62
Jonathan also did it when he pondered whether or not to attack the Philistines with only his armor bearer by his side. “If they say to us, ‘Wait until we come to you’; then we will stand in our place, and not go up to them. But if they say, ‘Come up to us,’ then we will go up, for the Lord has given them into our hand; and this shall be the sign to us.”63 Should we seek verifications of God’s will like that?
The story of Gideon’s fleece is most often used to justify the seeking of signs. God told Gideon that Israel would be delivered from the oppression of the Midianites through his leadership, but he would not believe it. “Then Gideon said to God, ‘If you are really going to use me to save Israel as you promised, prove it to me in this way: I’ll put some wool on the threshing floor tonight, and if, in the morning, the fleece is wet and the ground is dry, I will know you are going to help me!’”64 God condescended to grant Gideon his request, but he still would not believe. The next night he asked for the wool fleece to remain dry while the ground around it was wet.
And with that episode as a precedent, Christians are asking God for all sorts of signs. “Lord, if you want me to talk to those folks about Christ, you bring them to my house tonight.” “Lord, if you want me to give that money to the church, you give me an extra good week in my business.” “Lord, if you want me to spend time in your presence, you wake me up early tomorrow morning.” God can use events like these to help us understand his will, but the story of Gideon gives us no justification for demanding them.
May I remind you that Gideon’s fleece had nothing to do with ascertaining God’s will. He already knew what God wanted him to do, and he admitted it when he said, “If you are really going to use me to save Israel as you promised . . . ”65 His request for a sign was evidence that he did not believe God’s Word. Jesus later said, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign.”66 Christians are to walk by faith and not by sight,67 and sign seeking is in the realm of sight.
Scripture relates no instance of a believer seeking the will of God through signs after the day of Pentecost. Today we have the permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the completed revelation of Scripture. We have no need for signs. To devise specific stipulations and to demand them of God is to reduce God to our mold, to make him after our own image, to create our own God. Let God be God! He must be free to deal with us as he pleases.
I’m afraid some Christians seek signs in an effort to relieve themselves of responsibility for their actions. “God didn’t do what I asked him to do, so he must not have wanted me to . . .” But God does not always accommodate himself to our unbelief, our lack of spiritual discernment, or our carnal demands. He will not let us turn our personal relationship with him into a mechanical operation in which we punch buttons, pull levers, and get a readout of his will. He wants us to walk in fellowship with him, get to know him intimately, and then trust him implicitly to guide us by whatever means he chooses.
He may on occasion do something unusual or dramatic to confirm his will. That seems to happen most often to newer believers whose conscience is still underdeveloped, whose knowledge of the Word is still meager, and whose young and tender faith needs to be strengthened. But in any case, we are not to be pleading for special signs nor sitting around waiting for them. We are to trust God and obey his Word.
Dreams are one particular kind of sign about which many Christians have special questions. After all, we do not necessarily want them nor do we usually ask for them. They just happen. Could they not be from God? In Scripture, the Spirit of God revealed his will frequently through dreams while the subject was asleep, and through visions in a waking state. Could he not use them today?
He certainly could. Few would deny that. And he has. Some have been led to the gospel through dreams. But dreams are hardly a consistently reliable guide. The experts tell us that dreams are the expression of thoughts from our subconscious minds, usually the result of something we have seen or learned through natural processes. Dr. James Dobson writes, “From a psychological point of view, dreams appear to have two basic purposes: they reflect wish fulfillment, giving expression to the things we long for; and secondly, they ventilate anxiety and the stresses we experience during waking hours. From a strictly physiological point of view, dreams also serve to keep us asleep when we are drifting toward consciousness.”68 If dreams reflect our own wishes or our own anxieties, we certainly will not want to accept them uncritically as God’s guidance.
Even if the predictive elements in our dreams come true, that does not necessarily mean they are from God. There is still much to be learned about the mechanism of the mind. Even before the Spirit of God began his permanent indwelling ministry and before the Word of God was completed, God warned about trusting dreams alone. “Let these false prophets tell their dreams and let my true messengers faithfully proclaim my every word. There is a difference between chaff and wheat!”69 Put your confidence in the wheat of God’s Word, not the chaff of dreams.