10. Charting the Course
The job of a navigator is to move his ship successfully from one point to another. His fundamental tool through the centuries has been the chart, a representation of the earth’s surface with notations that help him carry out his task. With the assistance of a chart he can establish the course that will bring his ship to its destination.
The navigational chart for the Christian’s life journey is the Word of God. That Word contains the facts he needs in order to establish the right course for his life. We have considered some of the Word’s plain statements of God’s will. Now we want to determine how the commands and principles of the Word relate to finding God’s will.
This is Your Captain Speaking
When God says to do something or not to do something, that is obviously his will for us whether the phrase “will of God” occurs in the passage or not. When he speaks clearly about a particular issue, we need no other guidance. We need only to obey. And there are hundreds of imperatives in the Bible that have direct application to our lives. We need to read the Scriptures with our minds open to these positive and negative commands.
Someone may object that occupying our minds with rules will make us legalistic. True. But the biblical concept is not that we must occupy our minds with rules. Rather, it is that we occupy our minds with the Lord, and the more we get to know him and love him, the more we will want to please him. Since he tells us plainly what pleases him, it would be foolish to ignore it. He himself said, “If you love me, you will do what I command.”201
We obviously cannot look at all his commands here but we can illustrate how some of them may affect our decisions. Then we can begin to look for other commands as we study the Word ourselves. Here are some examples.
People have asked me on occasion what they should do when another believer has wronged them. Often they have some ideas of their own, such as telling their pastor, or telling someone close to the offender who might get him to see the wrong he has done. But the human approach usually compounds the problem. Why settle for human reason when we have a divine directive? Jesus said clearly, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.”202
Did you notice with whom God says you are to speak about the problem? With the person who has offended you. Just you and him alone. Nobody else! To tell anyone else is to speak against the offender, and that violates another biblical command: “Do not speak against one another, brethren.”203 To tell someone else is also to give a poor report of the one who has offended us, and such reporting disregards the exhortation to think only about good reports.204
If we go to the offending brother in a meek and gentle spirit205 and he responds to us favorably, the problem has been solved and harmony restored. If he refuses to respond to our efforts, then we can take one or two others along to witness our genuine effort at reconciliation and to witness his response.206 If he refuses to listen to their encouragement, then we can tell it to the church. If the church agrees that he has transgressed, but he still refuses to listen and to acknowledge his wrong, then Christ says he is to be treated as a gentile or a tax collector, which seems to mean that he is to be separated from fellowship until he is willing to work it out.207 This divinely prescribed procedure will help eliminate gossip from the church, destroy factions and strife, and reduce hard feelings among Christians.
Here is another example. Women have told me about outrageous things their husbands have done to them, then have asked, “Don’t you think I should divorce him?” The Bible has the answer to that question. “To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband.”208
To “separate from” means literally “to divide.” That it refers here to divorce is clear from the next verse, which insists that she remain unmarried if she does separate. God hates divorce.209 It is never his perfect will. He clearly commands that a wife is not to divorce her husband, and likewise, that a husband is not to divorce his wife.210 God would always be pleased for a couple to stay together, to seek counsel, and to work unselfishly to make their marriage succeed.
Why then does Paul even mention the wife separating? (He says, “But if she does leave, let her remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband.”211) Paul mentions separation because he recognizes that some may disobey Christ’s command for one reason or another. If they do, then it is God’s will for them to remain unmarried or else to be reconciled to their former mates.
Paul makes no mention of fornication, which may be the Lord’s one exception to this rule.212 Nor does he say what to do if you are already divorced and your former mate has remarried, thus making reconciliation impossible. But he leaves no doubt about the right decision if you are presently married and your mate has not had extramarital sexual relations. Stay married! That is God’s plan for you as you chart your future course.
Speaking of marriage, how can we overlook one of the clearest commands in the Bible about whom you should marry, or, more accurately, about whom you should not marry. “Be not unequally yoked together with unbelievers.”213 This injunction prohibits a believer from being matched together with an unbeliever. That yoking or matching may refer to a number of things, but it certainly includes marriage, the closest bond in all of life. It is never God’s will for a Christian knowingly and willfully to marry an unbeliever. Paul reinforced this standard when he gave permission for widows to remarry, adding, “only in the Lord.”214
This principle should also help a fellow or girl decide whom to date and whom not to date. It could be spiritually profitable to take an unbeliever to church with the prayer that he or she might come to know Christ through the public ministry of the Word, but other dating may lead to an emotional involvement, tempting the believer to rationalize God’s command concerning marriage and step outside his will.
On the positive side, there are many passages that help us know whom we should date and marry. As we read our Bibles, we find numerous qualities that a man or woman of God should possess. It might be wise to list them as we study the Word, and then evaluate our prospects by that standard rather than by human criteria.
I have been asked by counselees whether they should take a job that is open at the time, or go on welfare. The Bible has an unmistakable command relating to that decision too. “For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘If a man will not work, he shall not eat.’”215 If a job is offered and a person is able-bodied, he has a responsibility to work.
Some excuse themselves by claiming that the available jobs are not suitable to their particular skills, or that they are beneath their dignity, or that they do not pay as much as welfare pays. So they become freeloaders and eat off of other people’s labors. But work is God’s basic means for providing our needs. It is a necessary part of life, and those who avoid it usually become a problem to others around them. That’s what happened in Thessalonica. “We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies. In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command and urge such people to settle down and earn the bread they eat.”216
And while we are on the subject of work, let’s talk about changing jobs. That is a decision which almost everyone faces at some time or other during his life. The important question is, “Why do you want to change jobs?” Is it to provide for your children’s education? Is it to enable you to give more money to the Lord’s work? Or is it merely so you can buy some of the material goods you have always coveted?
The writer to the Hebrews gave us a command that might affect this decision. “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have.”217 I am convinced that some people jump from job to job because of an underlying attitude of covetousness. They are always hoping that the next job is going to provide the big opportunity to get rich. But their irresponsibility and instability can hinder them from providing continuity and security for their families. In some instances it even deprives them of basic necessities of life. God tells us to be content. Not lethargic nor lazy, but content. True contentment encourages us to be faithful to our responsibilities, and faithfulness is rewarded by God.218
The subject of jobs may bring the thought of vacations to some minds. What should we do for our vacation this year? God has a precept which affects that decision too. “Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men, but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil.”219 Vacations should be restful and relaxing, but they should also be meaningful and productive. There is no time to waste. The people of the world are lost and dying without Christ. The days we have left to win them are numbered.
Even fun-filled vacations should include time to build our spiritual strength and rejuvenate us for the work God has called us to do. And even on vacation we should be alert for every opportunity to share God’s good news of salvation in Christ. There is no such thing as a vacation from God. Christians who try to take one usually find their spiritual lives woefully weakened.
These are only a few illustrations of how biblical commands can help you make right decisions. Look for other commands as you read the Word, then think through their implications for your life. They may dispel the clouds of confusion as you chart your future course.
Just on General Principles
The general principles of Scripture are every bit as essential to determining God’s will as the precise commands. Principles are simply statements of fact, but the facts may have direct bearing on how God wants us to live.
Let me illustrate first by talking about how we spend our money. A basic principle of Scripture is that God is the source of all wealth. Moses informed his people that it was God who gave them power to get wealth.220 David agreed: “Riches and honor come from you [God] alone,” he declared. “O Lord our God, all this material that we have gathered to build a temple for your holy name comes from you! It all belongs to you!”221 Paul concurred when he said that God is the one who richly supplies everything we enjoy.222
If all wealth comes from God and it all belongs to him, then he has the right to tell us how to spend all of it, not just the small percentage we give back to his work. He even wants to help us make our purchases, to decide things such as which house or car or washing machine to buy. There is some truth to the adage, “You get what you pay for,” but the question we ought to ask when we are ready to buy is, “Do we really need all that we plan to get?” Some extra expenditures may increase the life and value of our investment, or the economy of its operation, but others are for sheer luxuries that squander God’s resources.
Maybe we should make our purchases as though the Lord Jesus were standing right beside us telling us what he would need if he were doing the buying. Too often we operate under the false assumption that we need bigger and better things than people who make less money than we do. Why should we assume that making more money entitles us to a higher level of living? When the owner of all the wealth in the universe walked the face of the earth, he possessed practically nothing. God may be permitting us to earn more money so that we can invest more in world evangelization, not necessarily so that we can live more comfortably. Awareness of the principle of God’s ownership of all things can help us get our needs and our wants sorted out according to his priorities.
One day a lady came to my office to ask me what she should do about her brother who had swindled her out of her share of the small family inheritance. A man asked Jesus that very same thing one day, and he established a principle that helped my friend know God’s will in her dilemma. “Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’ Jesus replied ‘Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?’ Then he said to them, ‘Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.’”223
The guiding principle is simply this—there are more important things in life than the material goods that money can buy. Learning this principle well can bring us great freedom and peace. No amount of assets could have compensated that woman for the damage she would have done to her relationship with her brother had she sued him for a little of the family inheritance.
Some folks are trying to decide which church God wants them to join. Biblical principles can guide them here too. For instance, Paul called the church “the pillar and ground of the truth.”224 Since Jesus claimed that he was the truth225 and that God’s Word is truth,226 a true New Testament church would be one which magnifies the Lord Jesus Christ and emphasizes the preaching and teaching of his Word. We can use this principle to evaluate any church we attend, and we would be ill-advised to lend our support to one which has deviated from this biblical pattern.
In an altogether different vein, a high school student was trying to decide whether or not God wanted him to go out for an organized sport. Are there principles in the Word for decisions like that? Listen to the Apostle Paul again: “For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.”227 Benefits can be gained from athletics, but there are other things to be considered as well. How will the time spent in practice affect his time with the Lord? How will it influence his walk with God? When a person begins to put sports before God, then he departs from God’s plan for his life. If he is honest in the application of the principle, God will guide him.
One of the big questions in the minds of many Christians concerns what we call doubtful things—practices which some Christians think are permissible, but other Christians think are sinful. Should we engage in them or not? A number of biblical principles can help us decide. What is it we are questioning? Will it lead a weaker Christian into sin?228 Will it become my master?229 Will it harm my body?230 Will it build me up spiritually?231 Will it glorify the Lord?232 Can I do it with a clear conscience? The principle of Scripture is that “whatever is not from faith is sin.”233 In other words, if I cannot do it as a redeemed child of God in the joy of my salvation, then it is sin, and it will surely hinder God’s work in my life.
Let me mention one more quandary Christians sometimes face. Should we share our hurts, our struggles, and our weaknesses with other believers, or should we keep them to ourselves? Some of us feel that our reputation as Christians and our influence for Christ would be destroyed if anyone ever found out what we were really like on the inside. But the biblical principle establishing the church as the Body of Christ should help us see this issue from God’s viewpoint. “The body is a unit though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body.”234 “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it.”235
How can we feel with one who is hurting if we do not know where he hurts? How can we support him before God’s throne of grace if we do not know where he needs support? How can we bear his burden with him if we do not know what his burden is?236 I am not suggesting that we broadcast all of our faults for everyone to know. But the practical outworking of this principle might demand a greater openness with one another than most of us have. The honest admission of our shortcomings to our closest Christian friends will be an encouragement to them. They will know that they are not the only ones with weaknesses. It will likewise be a blessing to us as they pray for us, encourage us, and check with us periodically on our progress. The proper application of this principle stimulates spiritual growth.
This has been just a small sampling of how to find guidance through the Word. May it be a challenge to you to search the Scriptures personally for both the commands and the principles that will help you discern the will of God for your future course.
Related Topics: Basics for Christians