is considering a job offer that seems good from every angle
except one: sheís uncertain how to reconcile it with a past
experience of guidance.
When Jennifer was offered
her current job as a legal secretary in Sacramento, she was
living in Tallahassee. She was a new Christian then, and anxious
to be certain about Godís will.
On a balmy May afternoon,
she spent several hours walking on a Gulf beach, praying for
Godís guidance. After praying for about an hour, she felt a
surge of conviction that God wanted her to accept the offer.
This wonderful feeling of assurance stayed with her for another
hour or so, as she continued to walk and pray. That period of
inspiration was the deciding point for Jennifer, and she
resolved to make the move and take the job. She has thought back
to that time often while in Sacramento, and taken reassurance
that she is where God wants her to be.
Now Jennifer has been
offered a new job with a law firm in Denver. She would like to
accept the offer. Itís a better match for her talents than her
present position, and provides a salary boost as well. Jennifer
likes the attorney who wants to hire her, and believes she would
work comfortably with him.
Yet Jennifer fears she would
be disobeying God by leaving Sacramento. Although she has prayed
much about it, she hasnít had an experience of inspiration
similar to the one in Tallahassee. She has seen many
practical reasons why she should make this move. She wonders if
God may be guiding her through them, and if itís okay to base
her decision on these factors alone. But the lack of a definite
sense of call to take this step is unsettling to her. Is she
obliged to stay in Sacramento until God clearly tells her to
A Common Predicament
Many Christians experience a
dilemma like Jenniferís. They struggle with how to integrate
past guidance that God has given them with new insights theyíve
gained into their potential, interests, and emerging
opportunities. Are they locked into their past understanding of
Godís will? Does it present it a binding call upon them? Or are
they free to consider a new direction for their life?
Some, like Jennifer, have
had an episode of past guidance dramatic enough that they wonder
if they must stay committed to it until God clearly tells them
to change course. Many others, who cannot recall a specific
experience of guidance, still have lived with an understanding
of Godís will for their life for so long that they feel uneasy
considering any other alternatives.
Iíve known more than a few
Christians who, when they were young--in junior or senior high
school, or even earlier--grew convinced that God wanted them to
devote their life to a certain career, yet in college found that
this option was not a good match for their potential.
Discovering that there is a disparity between what they believe
God wills for them, and what is realistic for them
educationally, is shattering to the idealism of some Christian
students. Even harder for some is finding that their own
interests have changed, and that they are now attracted to a
different vocational dream than the one theyíve long assumed was
I have personally gone
through two periods of career reassessment where I had some
difficulty letting go of a past understanding of Godís will. For
over a year I grappled with whether to shift from a career in
music to one in pastoring and teaching. I did decide to make
this change, but then, several years later, wrestled with
whether to leave a pastoral position on a church staff to begin
Nehemiah Ministries. In both cases I had grown so accustomed to
a particular identity--first as a musical performer, then as a
pastor--that I worried I might be going against Godís will by
making the change.
One thing that complicated
my decision to leave church ministry was that a pastor friend
had told me sincerely that he believed God had created me to be
a preacher. I esteemed this man so highly that his advice seemed
almost like a divine revelation to me. While I know he simply
meant to encourage me, and not lock me in, by sharing this
conviction, it still became a hurdle I had to jump in deciding
to shift from church work to resource ministry.
Binding Calls and Unfolding
Christians who find it hard
to reconcile past guidance with a new direction that seems right
for their life usually respond in one of several ways. Some feel
compelled to wait for God to give them further guidance so
convincing that theyíll have no doubt he wants them to make the
change. Others move ahead without such guidance, but experience
plenty of guilt in the process.
Still others are spurred to
re-examine their basic assumptions about guidance, to see
whether these have been realistic. Some discover that theyíve
been operating with unreasonable ideas about how God
guides--which have led them to read too much into past
experiences of guidance, and to expect too much guidance for
present decisions. This reassessment is liberating for them, for
they realize that God is giving them greater freedom to take new
directions than they had assumed.
When Christians like
Jennifer find that a step that now seems best for their life
seems to conflict with past guidance from God, they often are
thinking of guidance as a static process. Theyíre assuming that
God reveals his will for some area of our life once and for all,
and thatís it; weíre then locked into that understanding for a
long time, perhaps permanently.
Scripture, though, pictures
Godís guidance as a dynamic process. He seldom reveals
very much about his will for our future, but lets us discover it
step by step as we move along. And purely practical insights we
gain into ourselves and our opportunities are often as important
in understanding his will as our more dramatic experiences of
guidance. While God can give us a binding, non-negotiable call
to do something, his calls--to vocations especially--are often
unfolding, and best understood only as we are in motion.
Appreciating this aspect of how God guides us helps us greatly
in understanding the relationship of past guidance to present
Paulís Apostolic Call--The
Exception or the Rule?
Scripture does give examples
of Godís mandating someone to follow a vocation permanently, as
a life commitment. The most familiar example, for most of us, is
Godís calling Paul to be an Apostle. Paul begins most of his
letters with a reference to this call, declaring that he is
ďcalled to be an apostle,Ē or is ďan apostle by the will of GodĒ
(Acts 1:1, 5; 1 Cor 1:1; 2 Cor 1:1; Gal 1:1; Eph 1:1; Col 1:1; 1
Tim 1:1; 2 Tim 1:1; Tit 1:1-3). He clearly understood this role
as an indelible stamp from God upon his life. Most likely, he
received this commission by direct revelation from God during
his Damascus Road experience.
Many Christians assume that
Paulís apostolic call is a model for how they should personally
expect to receive Godís guidance. They think that if theyíre
spiritually mature enough, and sufficiently alert to God, he
will give them a call to follow a certain career thatís as clear
and distinct as the one he gave Paul. He will then expect them
to stay on this course until further notice, even for life. This
same assumption leads many to believe that theyíve actually
received such a call if, like Jennifer, theyíve experienced a
dramatic or unusual episode of guidance.
Paul, however, never claimed
that his experience of calling was normative for other
Christians. Nowhere in his writings does he teach that anyone
should expect such guidance in career decisions, nor do we find
him anywhere counseling someone to seek this level of guidance.
Rather, he encouraged Christians, in determining Godís will for
their lives, to consider practical factors--such as their gifts,
the opportunities open to them and the counsel of other people.
Paulís Typical Experience
But how would Paul counsel
someone like Jennifer, who believes she has been called by God
to be where she is, but now sees compelling reasons to take a
new direction with her life? I believe we find an important clue
in an episode from Paulís life described in Acts 16:8-40. It
begins with Paulís receiving guidance from God dramatic enough
that he regards it as a call. Yet at several points he responds
to this call differently than he did to the one to be an
apostle, even revising his understanding of it as he moves
One night, weíre told, ďPaul
had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him,
ĎCome over to Macedonia and help us.í After Paul had seen the
vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding
that God had called us to preach the gospel to themĒ (vv. 9-10).
Paul has a vision--possibly
a dream--of a man in Macedonia pleading for his help. Paul and
his companions take this incident as a revelation, concluding
that God is calling them to go to Macedonia and evangelize.
Interestingly, this is the only occasion in the New Testament,
outside of references to Paulís apostolic commission, where he
is described as ďcalledĒ by God to do something.
We would logically assume
that, since Paul received such exceptional guidance to go to
Macedonia, his experience once he arrives will parallel his
vision exactly: heíll find a man ministering there who is
desperate for his aid, and will devote himself to helping this
man evangelize the Macedonians. We look in vain, however,
throughout the detailed description of Paulís visit to Macedonia
in Acts 16, for any reference to this man.
Instead, soon after arriving
in Macedonia, Paul and his party encounter a group of women
praying by a river, and one remarkable woman, Lydia, leading
them. Paul persuades Lydia to become a Christian. She then
convinces Paul and his team to stay at her home. The fact that
they accept Lydiaís offer is good evidence that Paul has
concluded he isnít going to find the man of his vision, for
otherwise he probably would be holding out for the opportunity
to lodge with him.
Paul, then, makes a
significant revision of his ďcall,Ē and decides to minister with
Lydia and develop a church based in her home. Whatís most
interesting is that, while Paulís initial guidance to go to
Macedonia came through a supernatural vision, his change of
direction resulted from practical insights--his discovery that
Lydia and her friends were available for ministry, and that the
man of his vision, apparently, wasnít to be found. Paul seemed
to place as much weight on such practical factors in
understanding Godís will as he did upon direct revelation!
One other logical assumption
we might make is that, since Paul was led to Macedonia by a
vision, he would be obliged to stay there indefinitely--at least
until God gave him equally dramatic guidance to leave. Yet after
a tumultuous episode with some Macedonian businessmen, who fear
that Paulís ministry is hurting them financially, the town
officials ask Paul to leave--and he agrees. In all, Paul stays
in Macedonia probably only several months. And his decision to
move on is based not on further dramatic guidance, but on purely
Godís Guidance Through Our
From Paulís Macedonian call,
then, we learn several vital lessons about guidance. First, the
fact that we might receive dramatic or supernatural guidance
doesnít necessarily mean we will fully understand the content of
that guidance. Nor does it mean that God has necessarily spoken
his final word to us on a matter. Some revising of our
understanding may be needed as we move ahead. We interpret Godís
guidance, like anything else, through our own filters; we may
grasp some parts of it correctly, but misunderstand others, and
need to rethink our conclusions as he enlightens us further.
I suspect, too, that Paulís
Macedonian vision--as is typical with dreams--was at least
partly symbolic. God may have intended it more as inspiration to
get him moving in the right direction, than as a revelation of
exact events that would take place. We shouldnít discount the
possibility that an inspiration or epiphany we experience is
more symbolic than factual. It may be Godís means of moving us
forward, yet not a precise revelation of what will take place,
or what will be required of us. Our future will still take many
twists and turns that arenít apparent yet, and we will need to
look to God often for fresh guidance about what to do.
Paulís experience also
teaches us an important lesson about the role of practical
thinking in guidance, and its interplay with more dramatic
experiences of guidance we might have. While God may direct us
on occasion through supernatural guidance, he more typically
reveals the details of his will for our lives through practical
information. He has given us a mind and expects us to use it!
Logical conclusions we reach, through observing the
circumstances of life, can be at least as important in
understanding Godís will as the insight that comes through
exceptional guidance. And while God may lead us to take an
important step with our life through a special call, he may also
expect us, through practical insight, to modify our
understanding of the call as we move forward.
Paulís experience also
demonstrates that Godís calls can have their time limits. In the
case of Paulís visit to Macedonia, this limit was fairly brief.
This suggests that even if God gives us a dramatic call to do
something, the time may come when he expects us to make a
practical decision to change directions. While he can then give
us a special call to move on, itís just as likely that heíll
expect us to simply use good judgment in making this choice.
Reaching the Right
Paulís call to go to
Macedonia, then, differed significantly from his apostolic call.
When God called Paul to become an apostle, it appears God told
him once and for all that he was to fulfill this role for life.
This call conferred a permanent status on Paul. Paulís
Macedonian call, on the other hand, was less precise, and served
mainly to propel him ahead. Only as he moved forward, did the
nature of his responsibility in Macedonia become clear, along
with the time commitment involved.
Scripture, then, pictures
two types of calls God bestows on Christians--the one clear and
binding, the other unfolding.
But how should we determine
whether guidance we receive is meant to place a binding call on
us, or is part of an unfolding one? The answer, I believe, has
to do with the clarity and intensity of the guidance. Paulís
call to apostleship likely came through his Damascus Road
experience. On Damascus Road, and in the days following, Paul
heard Godís audible voice clearly and distinctly. Paul
had no question about who was speaking to him, or about the
details of what God was instructing him to do. Moreover, the
event was remarkably intense, leaving Paul blinded for several
days. God also provided confirmation of his guidance, and
further instruction, through Ananias, whom he commissioned to
heal Paul of his blindness and counsel him.
Paulís Macedonian vision, on
the other hand, was a much briefer, less intense experience. The
guidance it conveyed was also less clear than that in his
Damascus Road experience. Luke (the author of Acts) notes that
after Paul had the vision, those in his party concluded that God
had called them to preach the gospel in Macedonia. The fact that
they reached a conclusion about what to do indicates they
discussed Paulís vision and its implications; the vision
required some interpretation, in other words.
For most of us, even our
most dramatic episodes of guidance are usually more similar to
Paulís Macedonian vision than to his Damascus Road experience.
If that. While we may occasionally have a dream so unusual that
it seems like a revelation from God, our guidance experiences
are more typically like Jenniferís on the beach. We have an
inspiration--a ďEureka-Iíve-found-itĒ moment of insight into
what to do. Yet we havenít heard an audible voice, or
experienced some other lucid revelation of guidance. We merely
have had an impression of what God wants us to do.
God may be giving us
important guidance through this impression, to be sure. Still,
itís an impression, coming through our own sensors, and subject
to all the human factors that can skew our understanding. Itís
always a safe rule of thumb in such cases to assume that our
grasp of Godís will is partial at best, and will need some
revision as we move forward.
We should expect that if God
gives us a binding call, his guidance will be so distinct and
emphatic that weíll have no doubt he has spoken, and no question
about what heís telling us to do. Less intense experiences of
guidance, such as a moment of inspiration or a dream, should be
regarded as part of an unfolding call. They are part of the
enlightenment God is using to steer us in the right direction.
Yet we will still need plenty of further guidance as we put our
feet in motion.
Staying Flexible and Staying
Nothing weíre saying about
the importance of staying flexible with respect to guidance,
however, gives us a license to break commitments to others or to
be ďflighty.Ē Any time we choose to take a fresh direction in
our life, we need to give our new situation a fair chance before
changing course again. And we should always consider carefully
if weíve made commitments to others--explicit or implicit--that
should be fulfilled before we allow ourselves permission to move
Some vocational roles
require you to promise to serve in them for a specific period of
time. These include many missionary and ministry positions,
where others may be depending heavily upon you to keep your
commitment. If you have made such a pledge of service, you
should only consider leaving early under compelling
circumstances (a serious health problem, for instance), or if
those whoíve employed you are willing to release you.
Yet even when weíve given a
situation a fair chance, and wouldnít be violating commitments
by moving on, we may still wonder if we must remain bound to a
past understanding of Godís will. Appreciating how God gives
unfolding calls can keep us from restricting ourselves
unnecessarily in such a case.
Jennifer, for instance, has
certainly given her job in Sacramento a reasonable commitment of
time, and isnít being unfaithful in considering a change. I
believe Paul would counsel her to take the job in Denver. He
would tell her that the guidance she received to move to
Sacramento was important. Yet it wasnít meant to lock her in
forever, nor was it Godís final word on her career. Moving to
Sacramento was necessary, in fact, for her to be in a position
to then receive the offer from Denver, and to be able to
understand why this new opportunity is now right for her.
I believe that Paul would
counsel any of us who are in a situation similar to Jenniferís
to be flexible and open to the possibility that God has new
horizons for us. Paul himself showed remarkable flexibility in
his odyssey described in Acts 16.
His example demonstrates,
too, that itís Godís nature to bring new adventure into our
lives. During our lifetime, he gives us many fresh experiences
and challenges, to stimulate us to grow and to realize our
potential for Christ. A certain desire for adventure is
essential if weíre to be alert and open to the best
opportunities God presents us.
We can have too much
wanderlust, to be sure. We can yearn for fresh experience so
much that we have difficulty keeping commitments, and fail to
enjoy the simple routines of life.
Yet the opposite danger is
equally real--that we donít desire adventure enough, become too
stuck in the inertia of life, and resist change. Paul, I
believe, demonstrates a healthy balance in the extensive picture
of his life in the New Testament. He longed to grow and to
experience all the new vistas God had for him. Yet he was
equally determined to be faithful to his commitments, and to
find joy in lifeís ordinary pleasures.
We should pray that God
gives us this same balance in our own outlook. It will keep us
pliable and open to his best, as his plan for our life unfolds.