A young lady came for advice some years ago. She was not sure that she really loved the young man she had been dating, yet in many ways she was growing more and more fond of him. After much thought and prayer, she decided to ask God to reveal His will through a sign. It was near Christmas-time, and so she told God that if He wanted her to continue dating the young man—then He should direct the boyfriend to give her a pair of gloves and a scarf as a Christmas gift. If God wanted her to stop their courtship, then He should direct the young man to give her anything except the scarf and the gloves. She awaited the outcome with a pounding heart. Her plan was unknown to anyone else. On Christmas eve she came home from work, and sure enough there was a gift waiting for her. The family said her boyfriend had brought it. She rushed to her room, opened it to see what it was. There it was—gloves and a scarf.
The young lady was very happy. However, her joy soon ended when her brother confessed that they were teasing her, and that really, he (the brother) had bought the gift and said (as a joke—or was it not a lie?) that the boyfriend had brought it. The girl’s heart sank. Christmas came, and a gift from the boyfriend also came—but it was not gloves and a scarf. “Now,” she said, “what about this method of seeking God’s leading?”
How does God lead us today? How does God (who is an almighty invisible Spirit) make known His mind to human beings who are made of flesh and bones? Should we ask God for signs, as the young lady did? Should we spin a coin, and pray for God to lead us in that way? Or, should we just make the most intelligent decision we know how to make, and call that God’s will?
In Bible times, God led His people in various ways. Joseph was led by adverse circumstances. Moses was led by God’s voice from a burning bush. The Israelites were led by a cloud and a pillar of fire. Joshua was guided by the Lord’s response to his prayer (Joshua 7:7-15). Philip the evangelist was led by an angel. Cornelius received directions from the Lord through a vision. God uses various methods for leading His people. Divine guidance does not ordinarily come by unusual means, such as a flash from the sky, a voice from outer space, a vision in the night, or a strange freak of circumstance. The normal ways by which the Lord guides us are much less dramatic. Most of God’s saints in Bible times were guided, not through supernatural means (voices, visions, angels), but by natural means. Most of God’s people were guided while simply doing what they were supposed to be doing—taking care of sheep, mending a net, or walking behind a plow.
Probably the most difficult thing we have to do in life is to make decisions. We must decide to go or not to go, to buy or not to buy, to accept or not to accept. Life is one long succession of choices between the right and wrong, between the true and the false, and between the better and the best. And the Lord surely wants to lead us in decision making processes—not only in the larger matters of whom we should marry or where we should live or what kind of job we should choose—but also in the smaller details about which we are often concerned.
Finding the will of God is really related (most of all) to becoming the kind of person God wants us to become. If we concentrate on the task of becoming more and more Christlike in character, then God will more quickly lead us in these other matters. We are told in Proverbs 3:6, “In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.” Yet even those who seek to obey the Lord carefully and are committed to serving Him faithfully—agree that it is not always absolutely clear what God’s will is in every particular situation. There are some practical rules for discovering the will of God. We want to look at some of them.
1. The Teaching of the Word
Where the Bible speaks, God has given us undebatable guidance. Remember that God uses principles as well as specific statements. Take for example the general principle of thanksgiving. 1 Thessalonians 5:18 says, “In every thing give thanks, for this is the will of God … concerning you.” Many church members seem to have the gift of griping (complaining). Nothing pleases them. Their parents don’t understand; the church is dead; the preacher doesn’t preach right; etc. Such attitudes are not the will of God. We can know they are not the will of God because they are not attitudes of thanksgiving. They violate a general principle of the Bible.
Then too, the Bible speaks about specific things, such as obeying the laws of the land. But—it is a four-lane highway; it is late at night; there is hardly any traffic; so why not drive 70 miles per hour instead of 55 miles per hour? But the Bible says, “Submit . . . to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether it be to the king as supreme, or unto governors” (1 Peter 2:13). Any proposed action—any inner prompting—which runs contrary to the word or principles of Scripture, cannot be the will of God.
When we take the Bible and read it humbly and prayerfully, we can say quite truthfully, “God has spoken to me; I have heard His voice through His Word.” There is a rich statement about the Bible (written by an unknown author), that has often been reprinted: “The Bible contains comfort to cheer you, food to nourish you, and light to direct you. It is the traveler’s map, the pilgrim’s staff, and the pilot’s compass.” How true it is!
2. The Avenue of Prayer
We should never step out on ground over which we have not first prayed. James says, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God” (James 1:5). When we are confronted with a decision that requires an unusual amount of wisdom, the words of that promise take on a new and beautiful meaning: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God”—let him pray.
Prayer puts us into a proper attitude—an attitude by which we can more quickly discern the will of God. As we pray about a matter, God often instills in our hearts an increasing sense of rightness or wrongness about a particular course of action. In the Old Testament, the Gibeonites deceived Joshua. They wore old garments and tattered shoes, and had dry and moldy bread. They were pagan Hittites who lived nearby, but they made Joshua believe they were a God-fearing people from a far-away country. They asked to become partners with the Israelites. Joshua looked at the circumstances, and thought everything looked reasonable—and so he signed an agreement with them. Joshua 9:14 says that Joshua made a serious mistake. He failed miserably because “he asked not counsel at the mouth of the Lord.” Joshua did not pray. He trusted his own cleverness, and he made a tragic mistake. It is proper (and expected) that God’s people pray for specific directions. The Psalmist prayed, “Cause me to know the way wherein I should walk” (Psalm 143:8).
3. The Circumstances of Providence
Providential circumstances often help to reveal God’s plan for our lives. Joseph looked back over the hard experiences of his past life—the coat of many colors; his being thrown into a pit; his imprisonment by Potiphar—but many years later (when his brothers stood before him in Egypt), he said in essence, “God turned into good that which you meant for evil; for He brought me to this high position so that the lives of many people would be spared.” See Genesis 50:20.
When the providence of God led Joseph down into Egypt as a slave, he made the best of the situation by serving God faithfully in the work at hand. We must always do our best, even in our present situation. It may not be ideal, and we may be hoping for something else, but a new environment will not change us into more faithful servants of the Lord, if we are not faithful where we are.
Providential circumstances often manifest themselves in that just at the right moment—the phone may ring, a job opens up, a letter arrives, an old friend renews an acquaintance, or even what seems like an accident may happen. God has a purpose in permitting each circumstance. Providential circumstances include open doors and closed doors. The Apostle Paul one time delayed a visit to Corinth because at Ephesus he saw a great door for an effective witness had opened to him. See 1 Corinthians 16:9. Sometimes we buy, or don’t buy; we go, or don’t go; we accept, or don’t accept—simply because of the circumstances we are in.
However, circumstances need testing. For example, when Jonah was told to go to Nineveh, he determined instead to go to Tarshish, two thousand miles west instead of one thousand miles east. He went to the seaport town of Joppa, and there was a ship all set to go to Spain. Jonah may have concluded that because of this circumstance, God wanted him to go westward to Spain rather than eastward to Nineveh. The ship was all ready to go, there happened to be space on board, and Jonah had the money to pay the fare (Jonah 1:3). Sometimes it seems that Satan can make the circumstances favorable for those who want to disobey the will of God. At any rate, Jonah disobeyed. He took the ship that sailed west toward Spain, but shortly thereafter he landed in the belly of a fish. The circumstances were right, but it was not God’s will that he should go westward to Spain. Circumstances themselves do not always reveal the will of God.
4. The Counsel of Other Christians
Sometimes the Lord gives us guidance through other people. An example of this principle is found in the relationship between Moses and Jethro. Moses was almost exhausted from the burdens and problems and pressures of governing a nation of several million people. Jethro (recorded in Exodus 18) taught Moses how to delegate responsibility and authority, and how to get others to help him. Some people have criticized Moses for listening to the voice of a man, but not once does the Bible say that Jethro’s advice was wrong, nor does it say that Moses was wrong for following his counsel.
Proverbs 11:14 says that “In the multitude of counselors there is safety.” There are some people who have a God-given gift to counsel others wisely. These are not only ordained preachers, but they include humble every-day Christians who are in such close contact with God that they are able to advise others who request counsel.
Taking time to talk about your concerns with trusted friends is a good idea, and it often helps to clarify fuzzy areas. However, each of us is responsible to God and we must all ultimately decide matters for ourselves. On one occasion, the Apostle Paul had to reject the advice of well-meaning friends. They warned Paul about the sufferings that would befall him at Jerusalem, and urged him not to go (Acts 21:12). But Paul said, “What mean ye to weep and to break my heart? For I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13). And when he could not be persuaded, his friends simply said, “The will of the Lord be done.” It is proper to seek advice from trusted Christian friends, but each needs to make his own final decisions.
5. The Value of Common Sense
God has furnished human beings with something called “common sense.” He expects us to use it. In our search for the will of God, we often fail to see that in many of the decisions touching our earthly lives, God expresses no choice. He lets many decisions to our own preference.
Some people walk in a cloud of uncertainty day after day, and worry about such things as what job they should apply for, what kind of vehicle they should drive, which school they should attend, and dozens of other matters. God primarily sets us free to follow our personal bent, guided only by a love for Him and a proper concern for our fellow men. On the surface, it might appear more spiritual to seek God’s leading—and talk about some unusual signs from Heaven—than to just go ahead and do the obvious thing. But it isn’t more spiritual at all. The Lord expects us to use the compass He has given us—a sanctified mind. We are to “love the Lord our God with all our . . . mind” (Matthew 22:37). The Lord expects us to use our minds. He gave us a lot of guidance when He gave us a brain to think with.
Except for those things which are specifically commanded or forbidden in the Scriptures, it is generally God’s will that we be free to exercise our own intelligent choice in many matters. We have the ability to think, to weigh facts, to analyze situations—and the Lord expects us to use our minds to make worthwhile decisions. We can determine the will of God by reading the Word, using the avenue of prayer, looking at the circumstances, seeking the counsel of others, and making use of the mind God has given us.
6. The Prompting of an Inner Voice
The voice of God may be audible, but it is not necessarily so. When Jezebel was on Elijah’s trail, the prophet of God needed some guidance, and he received it. It was not a mighty wind, nor an earthquake—nor did God speak from a fire—but Elijah heard a still, small voice (1 Kings 19:11-18). Elijah heard the voice of God.
Some of you know what it is to have an inner urging of an undefinable nature—an urging that you just could not shake off! Try as you would to forget it, you could not get it off your mind. Perhaps you felt that you should go visit someone, or that you should pray for another person, or confront an individual about a matter of concern. You didn’t know the reason for feeling as you did, but you were aware of an inner voice that wouldn’t let you forget. On some occasions, the Lord leads His children in this way. I don’t mean that we should haphazardly follow every quirk of feeling that comes our way, but I do believe that as we are in an attitude for listening to the Lord, we sometimes will hear Him speaking within—the still, small voice.
The Holy Spirit simply inclines us toward a particular course of action. A young man, for example, attends a missionary conference. He hears a number of missionaries from Africa speak. He begins to feel an urge, and to sense a burden, and to hear the crying of multitudes of people on that continent. The Holy Spirit sometimes guides us by a deep, inward, impelling voice.
There are two concluding observations that we should consider seriously as we try to discern the will of God:
1) Sometimes God leads people in different ways, and both ways are pleasing to Him. This does not refer to things clearly defined in Scripture. But in the Old Testament, Nehemiah accepted the king’s escort of horsemen to accompany him and his group on their journey back to Jerusalem (Nehemiah 2:9), whereas Ezra refused to accept such help (Ezra 8:22). Yet both men were clearly within the will of God, and both men were used to stir a spiritual revival among the people.
2) Sometimes the voice of God is seen through visible signs, but signs are not God’s usual method. An angel appeared to Gideon at a time when Israel was oppressed by the Midianites, and told Gideon that he was the man chosen to save Israel from their enemies. Gideon had trouble believing what the angel said, and so he put a piece of wool on the threshing floor at night. The next morning—if the wool was wet with dew and the ground dry—he would know that God had spoken. The next night he used the same sign in reverse (Judges 6:36-40).
Remember that Gideon had already clearly been told what to do before he put out the fleece. In fact, he had already sounded a trumpet and assembled an army. He knew what to do. Still he had difficulty believing that God would use him, and so he put out the fleece to verify the direction already given to him. Outward signs, such as Gideon’s fleece, are not usually evidences of superior spirituality, but instead, are really a concession to a feeble faith. Using a fleece may be an acceptable way to test God’s leading, but there are better ways to determine God’s leading in the first place.
When you are seeking the will of God in any matter, you can find it if you will apply as many as possible of the six steps outlined in the preceding paragraphs. Then make the best decision from the evidence revealed—and assume that the decision is the will of God for your life. Often this requires a simple step of faith. There have been times in my own experience, when the evidences leaned just slightly in one direction. There was no strong clear leading in a given direction. In such cases, I chose the direction toward which the evidences leaned, and all the while prayed for God to close doors along that road, if I had misunderstood His leading. I then continued on that road with perfect confidence, believing that God (who loves me) would block the way if I went wrong through human ignorance.
F. B. Meyer, a British preacher during the 1800s returned one time from a long sea voyage. The night was stormy and the entrance to the harbor looked very narrow. It was a dark night. Meyer said to the ship’s captain: “How do you know when to make the turn into the harbor?” The captain responded: “Do you see those three red lights on the shore? When they are all in a straight line, I go right on in.” And just so—if the inner voice, if the principles of Scripture, and if the trend of circumstances all concur—you can be quite certain that God is leading you in that path. The Bible from above, the burden from within, and the circumstances from without—should be in a straight line. May each of us be faithful—not only in seeking God’s direction, but also in obeying it—as He reveals it to us. First of all, however, we must be a child of God in order to receive the assurance of His direction. John 1:12 says, “To as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God.” And then in 1 John 2:17, we read, “He that doeth the will of God abideth forever.”