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5. Knowing the Shepherd

Do you believe that God has a plan for your life, a plan which includes every detail of daily living? Do you believe that his plan is best for you, far superior to any plan you could design for yourself? Do you believe that God will show you that plan, step by step? If you want to know God’s will in the decisions you face, then you must believe these things.

That was the first condition Solomon laid down in his magnificent promise of divine guidance: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart . . . and he will direct your paths.”94 Trust—faith—is essential. Without it there can be no guidance. And trust is our responsibility. In the first four chapters we have been discussing God’s part, his plan for our lives, and his willingness to guide us. But there is some personal preparation which we must make before we shall be able to discern his guidance. That preparation will occupy our attention next.

Foremost in all the preparation is a believing heart. Most of us say that we want to do God’s will and that we want to please him in every respect. We cannot do so without faith. “Without faith it is impossible to please him,”95 said the writer to the Hebrews. We must believe that God is there, that he is interested in leading us as individuals, and that we can safely entrust our lives to him. We must have implicit faith in our heavenly Father’s wisdom, faithfulness, kindness, and love. Without such faith we would not even consider committing ourselves to his direction.

But trust demands knowledge. Some people seem to think faith is merely accepting what we cannot know. They think of faith as a shabby substitute for certain knowledge. “If you can’t really know it,” they say, “then take a blind leap in the dark and believe it anyway.” That’s not the way it is at all. True faith is built on accurate knowledge. If we do not know someone, we will find it very difficult to trust him.

Let me illustrate. My father was one of the first white men to visit the Auca Indians after Rachel Saint and Betty Elliot had settled in that tribe’s territory and had begun working with them. While Dad was there, Kimo, one of the tribesmen who had participated in the murder of the five missionary men, offered to take him out into the jungle to show him how the Indians hunt monkeys with blow guns. Off they went, just the two of them.

Suddenly Dad realized that Kimo had disappeared. He called to him but there was no answer, only strange monkey sounds. Every time he called, the monkey sounds came from a different direction. Do you get the picture? My father was standing alone in the dense Ecuadorian jungle, while somewhere out of sight lurked a man who had been taught from his youngest days to kill foreigners. Would he revert to his old ways?

Dad admits to being a little afraid on that occasion—actually terrified might have been a better word than afraid. He and Kimo had not yet become bosom pals. Frankly, Dad didn’t trust him. As it turned out, Kimo was playing games with him just to prove how helpless the white man was alone in the jungle. But it does exemplify the point. We cannot fully trust someone we do not fully know.

In this book we are talking about something far more serious than merely our physical well-being. The issue before us is our willingness to commit our entire future, for time and eternity, to One who offers to lead us only one step at a time, who does not show us his plan beforehand, nor tell us exactly where he is taking us. There is no way we can be expected to make such a commitment unless we get to know him intimately.

How Well Do You Know Him?

There is a sense in which every Christian knows the Lord. We often use the phrase knows the Lord synonymously with being born-again, with being a true Christian. Jesus said, “Now this is eternal life: that men may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”96 Only by knowing God can we have eternal life. But there are degrees of knowledge. I am often asked to fill out a recommendation form for someone who is entering school or seeking a job. The form usually asks, “How well do you know the applicant?” Sometimes I must write, “casually”; and once in a while I must admit that I hardly know the person at all. I wonder where we would rate ourselves if we had to indicate on a questionnaire how well we know the Lord. Some of us would have to admit that it is only a very casual acquaintance. And some may hardly know him at all. That could be one reason we hesitate to trust him with our futures.

The children of Israel at Kadesh were a prime example of folks who did not trust God because they did not really know him. They refused to enter the land because of giants there, beside whom they said they looked like grasshoppers.97 What a gross exaggeration! And God was on their side. What glaring ignorance of his greatness and power! But Joshua and Caleb knew God well. “The Lord loves us,” they said. “He will bring us safely into the land and give it to us. . . . The Lord is with us and he has removed his protection from them! Don’t be afraid of them.”98 But the people refused to listen, and failed to follow God’s directive. The result was that they wandered aimlessly in the wilderness for forty years. Think of it. Forty years of misery simply because they had not taken the time to get to know their God.

Some of us, too, may be enduring the unhappiness which Christians usually experience when they go their own way, and the reason could relate to this basic issue. We may never have taken the time to get to know God, and that’s why we have not been willing to trust him with our lives.

It isn’t God’s fault that we fail to know him. He is making himself knowable to us in a myriad of ways. The only question is our response to his overtures. Put it in terms of a human relationship for a moment. Maybe you can remember someone trying to establish a friendship with you. He kept coming around, sharing more and more of his thoughts and feelings, hoping you would respond and share yourself with him. It made you ask yourself some questions and come to a decision. “Is this a person I really want to be close to? Do I care to expose my inner self to him? Am I willing to invest the time and effort which this friendship will demand?”

Most Christians face that same decision with God, particularly if they’ve gone to church routinely, read their Bibles a little, prayed some, but have engaged in no more meaningful communication with God than just that. The confrontation comes at different stages of growth in the lives of different believers, and it happens in different places and under different circumstances, but it is bound to occur.

One day we realize that God is trying to speak directly to us through his Word. He is telling us what he is like and what he wants to do for us. He may also be telling us what we are really like and what he expects from us. At that point we face a crucial decision: “Am I going to continue this mediocre level of Christian life, or am I going to cultivate and nurture my personal relationship with God and get to know him intimately?” We cannot take this decision lightly. Our whole future depends on it. Our willingness to entrust our lives to his guidance is inextricably bound up in how well we know him.

Sometimes God backs us against the wall in order to reveal himself to us. He did that to the children of Israel at the Red Sea. With no place to turn, and with the Egyptians bearing down on them from behind, they began to grumble and complain. “But Moses said to the people, ‘Do not fear! Stand by and see the salvation of the Lord which He will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you have seen today, you will never see them again forever.’”99 And God kept his promise. The Egyptians were defeated. God’s people were delivered.

But even after their miraculous deliverance, they failed to believe God. Time after time they doubted him, and time after time he brought them to the end of their human resources so he could show himself strong on their behalf and prove to them his faithfulness. There is no better way for God to make known his power, his love, and his faithfulness, than in the trying situations of life.

One reason he allows us to experience problems like sickness, suffering, and sorrow, is so that he can reveal himself to us in the thick of the problem and we can come to know him in all of his fullness. He calls out to us lovingly and longingly in the middle of the crisis, “Be still, and know that I am God.”100 Only when we come to know him shall we be able to trust him with our lives. Every effort to discern the guidance of God must begin with knowing the guide.

But He’s So Far Away

How can we get to know a God who lives in the heavens, who has no physical body that we can see or touch, and who does not speak to us in audible tones? There are two primary means—the Word and prayer. God tells us about himself in the Word. We can meditate on that truth and respond to him in prayer and praise. The purpose of this interpersonal communion, as J. I. Packer puts it, is “to clear one’s mental and spiritual vision of God, and to let His truth make its full and proper impact on one’s mind and heart.”101 Through it we come to know him.

If we want to get to know God, then we must begin by reading our Bibles with our spiritual ears tuned to everything God says about himself. A good place to begin is in the Psalms. “The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer.”102 “The Lord is my light and my salvation.”103 “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”104 Knowing things like these about him will help us trust him. And trusting him will prove him true, causing our faith to grow even more.

Meditate on the attributes of God as they are revealed in the Word. God is everywhere.105 Wherever he leads us, he will go along with us. God is all-knowing.106 He even declares the end from the beginning.107 It isn’t hard to trust someone who knows how everything is going to turn out. God is all-powerful.108 He is able to solve every problem we face as we live in the center of his will. God is love.109 We can be assured that whatever he asks us to do or wherever he directs us to go, the experiences we find there will be an expression of his love for us. God is good.110 The way that he leads has to be best for us. God is faithful.111 He will never fail us as we follow his guidance. There is no end to God’s revelation of himself in the Word. It is an inexhaustible mine of truth. Dig out more and more, and get to know him better and better.

Something will happen to us as we get to know God better. The more clearly we see him in all his glory, the more clearly we shall see ourselves in our true condition—weak, lowly, sinful, blind, and helpless; and consequently, the more intensely we shall sense our need for him. When we recognize how inadequate we are in and of ourselves, and how sufficient and strong he is, we shall be more willing to trust him with our lives.

There is yet another reason for getting into the Scriptures as we seek to know the Lord and to do his will. Listening to him speak to us through the Word will familiarize us with the sound of his voice.

Many voices will clamor to be heard in the perplexity of a difficult decision. How shall we recognize the voice of God? There is only one way—by the familiarity which comes through repeated exposure and experience. A child knows his parent’s voice because he hears it every day. I particularly remember a distinctive whistle my father developed. It was not loud or shrill, yet I could find him in a crowd of a thousand people if I could hear that familiar whistle.

A sheep knows his shepherd’s voice because he hears it every day. Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”112 How do we gain that kind of familiarity with our shepherd? Jesus gave us the answer while he was talking to a group of unbelieving Jews one day. “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me . . . ”113 God reveals himself through the Scriptures, his own inspired Word. That Word originates in the breath of his mouth.114 We will learn to recognize his voice as we spend time in his Word.

Talking Back

But there is at least one additional important step to knowing God. After hearing what he has said to us in the Word, we must prayerfully meditate on it, mull it over in our minds, think through its ramifications, then apply it to the various details of personal living. As we see its implications, we praise God for the truth he has shown us, we share with him our innermost thoughts and feelings about it, and we seek his strength to put it into practice. The real measure of our knowledge of God is not how many facts we know about him or how much activity we carry on for him. It is, as Packer aptly puts it, “how we pray and what goes on in our hearts.”115

Some Christians spend very little time in God’s presence, but they certainly run to him for guidance when a crisis strikes. “Uh, haven’t been here much lately, Lord, but I gotta make this decision by noon today. Think you could tell me what to do just this once? I promise I’ll get started with my quiet time again next week.” But guidance doesn’t come that way. There is something more important to God than that we know his will; it is that we know him. And the only way we shall be prepared to discern his will when decisions confront us is to begin spending time in his presence now.

When two people love one another and live in each other’s company, they grow to understand each other’s wishes. As their relationship grows more intimate, their knowledge of one another’s desires becomes more complete. My wife and I are far more sensitive to each other’s needs today than we were the day we got married. Our intimate fellowship over the years has resulted in an expanding knowledge. I’m beginning to know her wants and wishes before she ever expresses them, and she is beginning to know mine.

Would you like to know what God wants you to do? Then begin by getting to know him. Spend time in his Word. Share your soul with him in prayer. As the prophet Hosea put it, “Oh, that we might know the Lord! Let us press on to know him, and he will respond to us as surely as the coming of dawn or the rain of early spring.”116

94 Proverbs 3:5, 6 (Berk.)

95 Hebrews 11:6

96 John 17:3 (NIV)

97 Numbers 13:33

98 Numbers 14:8, 9 (TLB)

99 Exodus 14:13 (NASB)

100 Psalm 46:10 (KJV)

101 J. I. Packer, Knowing God, (InterVarsity Press, 1973), p. 19

102 Psalm 18:2 (KJV)

103 Psalm 27:1 (KJV)

104 Psalm 46:1 (KJV)

105 Psalm 139:7-12

106 Psalm 147:5

107 Isaiah 46:10

108 Jeremiah 32:17

109 John 4:16

110 Psalm 119:68

111 Lamentations 3:23

112 John 10:27 (KJV)

113 John 5:39, 40 (NIV)

114 Matthew 4:4; 2 Timothy 3:16

115 Packer, op. cit., p. 27

116 Hosea 6:3 (TLB)

Related Topics: Basics for Christians

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