The following is adapted from a letter I sent to a young man who described the confusion and distress he was experiencing over the question of guidance. I have his full permission to put the letter on the website, as long as the names etc are changed. I do hope it might be helpful to one or two other folk.
Thank you for your very well written and interesting letter. You say you are worried that you may be nuts. Well, if you are nuts you are certainly my kind of nuts. I understand all that you say about getting into a neurotic state about going with or against God’s will because I used to be almost as bad myself. I seem to have settled down a bit nowadays. I think a major break-through was the realisation that there is quite enough very clear guidance in the bible without me getting myself into a state about all the stuff that isn’t. By that I mean that I don’t actually need any specific guidance to inform me that I should not steal from the local shops, or that I should be nice to my children, or that I should do my best to forgive people who hurt or annoy me, or that I should avoid committing adultery or any of the rest of the long list that can be assembled from all the teaching we find in the New Testament. You mention the fact that you and your charming and long-suffering fiancé have problems with your physical desires. It would be very worrying if you didn’t, but, tough as it might be, you are clearly well aware of what is right and wrong in that respect, so there is no confusion over guidance as far as things like that are concerned.
That is one point.
The second point is about Paul the apostle. This extraordinary man tells us that he prayed constantly and had a serious desire to be in the centre of God’s will. You may recall that he and his fellow-travellers made an attempt to enter a place called Bithynia, but the Spirit prevented them. Paul had made a good, common-sense decision about going to this place, and it was not an enraged thunderbolt that stopped him, but a practical, helpful instruction from the Holy Spirit.
Jesus himself clearly operated on a need-to-know basis when it came to guidance. The Bible says that there were times when he was amazed and surprised, and obliged to take a different direction from the perfectly reasonable one that he had embarked on. The point is this. Most of the time we are not going to be given direct, specific guidance from God. As long as we are staying close to him in prayer and in obedience to the things that we do understand, then we can get on with our lives, confidently making intelligent decisions in the knowledge that if he wants us to stop, or change our direction, or go back to where we started, then he will make it clear. And that brings me to my third point.
As far as I can see, neither Jesus nor Paul ever operated or changed their plans on the basis of a feeling that the Lord might possibly be saying that they might be right to do something or other. This is modern-church speak, and I think it is nonsense. Why in the name of thingamabob would God deal out wafty little half thoughts like tricky exam questions in order to resolve issues that are so important to the individuals concerned. He wouldn’t and he doesn’t. No, you get on with it, and remember that the initiative for guidance is God’s, not yours. Better to do a thing faithfully without any particular leading than to be drawn aside by mental and emotional vagaries that have no spiritual authenticity. I know there are people who talk as though they are in the habit of having a meticulously detailed chat with God over coffee every morning, but the vast majority of us most of us do not.
Aslan will turn up from time to time, either silhouetted against the sky on a distant hillside, or just behind your right shoulder when you least expect him, or suddenly walking quietly beside you when you feared that you were alone. Value these times and store them in your heart, but don’t see lions where there are none.
In the meantime, here is a little dialogue that comes from my book, Bacon Sandwiches and Salvation. It directly addresses the fact that if God wants us to do or know something important he will make it crystal clear. Perhaps we should be asking for and expecting the kind of clear guidance that was given to Joseph two thousand years ago. Remember the thirteenth and fourteenth verses of the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel?
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt.
Pretty clear, direct and specific, don’t you think? No wonder Joseph collected everybody together and upped and offed with such speed and alacrity in the middle of the night. No room for argument or debate. Horrid Herod was coming and that precious baby had to be kept safe. But suppose the message had not been as crystal clear as this. Suppose Joseph had gone to Bernard, his house-group leader (well, he might have had one, and they’re all called Bernard anyway) for advice, after having a sort of feeling that maybe God was saying that Egypt might possibly be the place to go. How might the conversation have developed?
BERNARD: Okay, Joe, mate, just take the weight off your feet and relax. Super to see you. Wife okay?
JOSEPH: Fine, yes.
B: Baby doing well?
J: Oh, smashing, thanks. Yes, both doing fine. Got some nice presents from some visitors the other day. Bit odd. The presents, I mean - well, the visitors as well, actually. But nice. Visitors and presents, all very nice.
B: Good! So, what’s on your mind?
J: Right. Well, Bernard, it’s just that I’ve been having this sort of feeling that - well, that maybe the Lord’s trying to tell me that I ought to move to Egypt for a while.
B: (STARING INSIGHTFULLY, AND AFTER A SHORT, NODDING PAUSE) Uh-huh. Go on.
J: Well, that’s more or less it, really. I’ve just got this kind of idea that God could be wanting the baby out of the way because of - of Herod and all that. As you can imagine, it’s not an easy decision to make, and I wondered what you might think about it all.
B: (SLOWLY AND THOUGHTFULLY) First of all, Joe, I think what you’re saying does make an awful lot of sense. Herod might come after the baby. Egypt’s a long way away. Escape while you can and come back when it’s safe. That’s good logic. I can see exactly where you’re coming from. (PAUSE FOR SILENT ARROW PRAYER) Look, would it be all right if I were to ask you a few simple questions?
J: Yes, of course, fire away.
B: Well, first of all - Egypt.
B: (NODDING MEANINGFULLY) Yes, Egypt. (LEANING FORWARD) Joe, in which part of the world were our people enslaved before Moses thwarted Pharaoh and led us on a forty year trek through the wilderness into the Promised Land?
J: Er - well, that would be Egypt.
B: Exactly - Egypt! Joe, are you seriously trying to tell me that God supports the idea of that precious little boy and his family scuttling off back to Egypt just because there’s a spot of trouble brewing in this part of his world, the Promised Land that was set apart for Abraham and his descendents all those centuries ago? Is the idea of doing that in any way honouring to God? (LEANING BACK WITH AN IMPARTIAL AIR) But never mind what I think. You tell me how you see it.
J: (SHAKING HIS HEAD) You know, I never thought of it like that. I guess you’re right. No, it certainly wouldn’t be Egypt, would it. I’ve obviously got that wrong. Thank you, Bernard. A very good point. Well, somewhere else, perhaps?
B: Hold on a moment. Another question. It’s this, Joe. Your desire to escape – is it really about the baby, or is it more about you?
J: Well - I suppose it could be both really, if I’m honest. I’m not very keen on being murdered by Herod.
B: Okay, and if you clear off to some safe place with Mary and the baby, what is Herod going to do? Take your time. Think about it. What is this so-called king of ours likely to do?
J: Well, those Magi people aren’t going to tell him where we are. They said so. They’re going straight home without seeing Herod because they had a sort of feeling that the Lord might possibly be telling them that it wouldn’t be a very good idea.
B: Right! And how is that going to make Herod feel?
J: Very cross?
J: Very angry indeed?
B: Mmmmm! Extremely angry, yes. Furious. And I think you know as well as I do, Joe, that the next item on his agenda will be the murder of just about every male child in Bethlehem, or at any rate, all those under the age of two. He’s like that. That’s his way of doing things. Am I right or am I wrong?
J: (SIGHING) You’re right. You are so right.
B: Joe, do you honestly believe that God is going to allow all those innocent children to be killed just so that you can run away and hide in a little safe corner somewhere. Is that the mark of the God we worship? Is it?
J: (SOLEMNLY) No, Bernard, it is not.
B: Joe, you believe that our God is a God of miracles, don’t you?
J: Oh, yes, I know he is.
B: Okay, well consider this. Maybe the answer is that you go openly to Herod with the baby and declare that he is the Son of God. Joe, do you believe that the Lord, the creator of the universe, is capable of protecting you in that situation? Have you the strength and the faith and the courage to rely on his power instead of running away and risking the lives of others?
J: (FIRED UP) Yes! Yes! That is exactly what I’m going to do! Bernard, I can’t thank you enough for helping me to see things so much more clearly. (STANDS) I’m going straight home to tell Mary what we’ve been talking about. She’s got a very level head. I’m sure she’ll agree with what I’ve decided. Thank goodness I came to see you, Bernard. (SHAKES HIS HEAD IN WONDER) Gosh! The future of the whole world may well depend on this one decision. When I think how close I came to getting it wrong…
God bless you, George. May you chill in peace, Adrian.