September 15, 2010
 The Quest for Certainty
 How Much Guidance
Should We Expect
From God?
    
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R ita was in a dead-end relationship and very confused about Godís will. She phoned me one evening, anxious for my advice.

She had been through two previous dating relationships where her hopes had been seriously disappointed, she explained. Finally, she had taken a step to keep the pattern from repeating. She told the Lord that she wouldnít date another man unless her mom was confident he was the one she should marry, and she prayed that her momís approval would be the indication that she had found Godís choice. She was bound and determined not to make a mistake about Godís will again.

After making her resolution, Tom asked Rita out. Her mom felt that Tom would make an excellent husband for her, so Rita accepted, eagerly hoping she had finally found the man God wanted her to marry. The time with Tom was enjoyable and only intensified her hope. Yet unfortunately six months had now passed, and she hadnít heard from him again.

Rita not only felt rejected, but perplexed about Godís will. How could her mother have been so confident that Tom was right for her, yet Tom not be following through? Should she simply assume that Tom was Godís choice and continue to wait?

I told Rita that I admired her respect for her motherís opinion. Our parentsí counsel can be so beneficial in our big decisions. Yet to expect her mom to know the mind of God unerringly in this matter was to lay a burden on her too great for any human to bear. Rita would ultimately need to make her own decision, weighing her momís advice along with other factors.

Rita didnít dispute what I said, but in frustration replied, ďHow, then can I know for certain?Ē If her momís advice were not an infallible sign of Godís will, in other words, what would be? Here we came to the heart of her dilemma. Rita assumed she could have certainty about Godís will for her marriage choice in advance -- apart from discovering it in the step-by-step process of building a relationship. Rather than seeing Godís will as something to be discerned through her experience, she assumed it could be found in some external way beforehand.

Waiting for Unmistakable Guidance

The belief that God will give advance certainty of his will is held by many Christians, not only regarding the marriage choice, but about other major decisions as well. Itís assumed that if youíre spiritually mature enough and properly alert to God, heíll give you a ďcallĒ to do something--even before youíve made any effort to move in that direction. And this call may be independent of what your experience or logical judgment would otherwise indicate you should do. This notion is often held with the most reverent intentions, to be sure, and I believed it strongly myself as a young Christian.

One unfortunate result of this assumption is immobility. You can wait indefinitely for a clear signal from God and fail to take the very steps that will broaden your experience and give you a basis for understanding what he wants you to do. Or you can get locked into an unfruitful situation. Although Ritaís relationship with Tom was going nowhere, she thought in all sincerity that God may have laid a mandate on her to wait for Tom to come to his senses. This made it difficult for her to let go of her hope and take steps toward building other relationships.

No Crystal Ball

Our desire for advance certainty of Godís will is only too understandable, and on one level itís commendable. Our greatest concern should be to know Godís will and do it. There was much about Ritaís attitude to be respected.

Scripture, though, gives us little reason to expect that we will find Godís will for our personal choices apart from going through the normal and often challenging process of decision making. This isnít to say that God doesnít guide us or doesnít have a will for our personal decisions--he most certainly does! Yet his guidance typically comes in a subtle, not dramatic fashion. He guides our thinking, as we prayerfully take responsibility to work through decisions. From our standpoint, we may not feel that anything mystical or supernatural is occurring, and it may just seem that weíre going through a normal decision-making process. Yet if we have sincerely asked God for direction and want his will, then he is influencing our decision process, and in time his guiding hand in our life often becomes evident.

God can give us unbending certainty of his will in advance, or a dramatic call to do something, to be sure, and on rare occasions he may guide in this way. Scripture, though, never teaches that we should expect this sort of guidance from God or seek it. Rather, we should give our attention to prayerfully making responsible decisions.

Guidance in Paulís Life

Consider the experience of Paul, around whom so much of the New Testament centers. In spite of his remarkable spiritual maturity, his experiences of direct supernatural guidance were very few. Most of his major decisions were made in a practical, step-by-step manner. He rarely had certainty of Godís will for his future, but only enough insight for the steps right in front of him.

In 1 Corinthians 16, for example, he tells the Corinthians that he longs to enjoy an extended visit with them. ďFor I do not want to see you now just in passing; I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permitsĒ (v 7 RSV). He goes on to explain, however, that he cannot come to see them right now but is obliged to stay in Ephesus: ďBut I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversariesĒ (vv 8-9 RSV).

If Paul had received a direct revelation from God to stay in Ephesus , he surely would have mentioned it here, for he wanted to give the Corinthians all the evidence he could that he was following Godís will by not coming immediately to visit them. He says nothing about receiving dramatic guidance, however, but simply notes two practical factors that influenced his decision: he has an exceptional opportunity to minister (ďa wide door for effective work has opened to meĒ), and he has significant challenges to meet (ďthere are many adversariesĒ).

It is also interesting that while Paul seems to feel strong conviction about Godís will for the present--that he should stay in Ephesus --he is tentative about Godís will for his future. He expresses earnest desire to visit the Corinthians, but adds that heíll do so only ďif the Lord permits.Ē He stops short of saying that he knows God wants him to go to Corinth or that God has assured him this will happen.

When we carefully study Paulís life, we find that in most situations his conviction about Godís will was similar to what it is in this passage. He often had strong confidence about what God wanted him to do in the present. His understanding of Godís plan for his future, though, was usually tentative at best. He discovered Godís will one step at a time, and many times found himself revising his plans as he moved forward (Acts 16:6-40). This pattern of finding Godís will step-by-step was so common in Paulís life, that we may assume it reflects what our own experience with guidance will likely be.

Too Much Guidance Could Hurt Us

When we stop and think about it, there are many reasons why it wouldnít normally be healthy for us to have prior certainty of Godís plans for our life. For one thing, we would miss the growth that comes from taking responsibility to work through decisions. Knowing Godís long-range intentions for us would sap our incentive to develop our ability to think and make responsible decisions.

In addition, we would be deprived of the sense of adventure that only comes when there is, from the human angle at least, a sense of risk in what weíre doing. We shouldnít underestimate the importance of adventure to our health and well-being. God has created us with a significant need for adventure. I am certain that when Jesus promised us abundant life in John 10:10, he was speaking not of a life free from challenge but of one laden with adventure. We shouldnít expect that God will guide us in a way that removes the element of adventure from our decision process.

Furthermore, knowing Godís will for our future could be frightening, especially if we had reason to fear what is coming up.

But most important, advance certainty of Godís will would diminish our need for trusting Christ. Feeling as though we had him locked in, we would loose our incentive for obedience and for depending on him continually for fresh guidance. We would be inclined to put our faith in our vision, rather than in Christ himself.

Indeed, itís by taking steps with our life when our sight is less than perfect, that we put ourselves in the best position to develop unshakable faith in Christ.

Free to Take Initiative

While we may find it frustrating to face the limits of our knowledge about Godís will, thereís a liberating side to what weíre saying. Itís the fact that itís okay to make a major personal decision in the face of less than perfect certainty. We donít have to wait indefinitely for an unmistakable sign from God before going ahead.

Of course we should never be foolhardy in making decisions. We should take care to get the best information we can and to work through a major decision carefully. We should approach it with plenty of prayer and with the highest desire for Godís will. Yet when weíve made a reasonable effort to pray and think things through, we should feel free to go ahead and make our best choice, even though some doubts and questions remain.

To say it more emphatically, it will be necessary at times for us to move ahead in the face of some uncertainty if weíre to realize our potential for Christ. We may even need to do so in what for many of us is the most challenging decision we face in life--the marriage choice. While a decision for marriage should never be rushed, and while we should make every effort to approach it wisely, if we wait for unbending certainty, weíre likely to wait forever and never decide. Our goal should be to have reasonable certainty, but not perfect certainty.

We will need to take similar initiative in other major decision areas as well, such as career, job choice and church involvement. Yes, it might seem easier if God would first give us perfect certainty of his will before we would be expected to commit ourselves. But the good news is that we donít have to wait for this level of certainty. We are free to take responsible steps to improve our life, to solve problems, and to realize the potential God has given us!

Enough Light to Step Forward

If you are facing a major decision, yet are uncertain what God wants you to do, donít assume that he has abandoned you or is unconcerned with guiding you. He may have already given you more guidance than you realize. If you are a child of his, he has been guiding your whole thought process and bringing critical information to your attention, through all of the practical steps that youíve taken to resolve your decision. You may be closer to resolving your decision than you realize. 

Pray earnestly that Christ will direct your thinking and give you a heart that is open to his will. Make a reasonable effort to work through your decision, and get the most informed counsel you can. Then weigh the facts as you have them and make your best decision, knowing that God will throw further light on your path as you move ahead.

Then enjoy the remarkable adventure of taking a step of faith with your life!

Just remember, that faith always involves trusting Christ and moving forward--even though all the facts are not yet in.
   

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