|August 15, 2000|
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Once in seminary I was assigned lengthy papers in two courses. The first took much longer than I expected, and I became increasingly anxious that there wouldn't be enough time to produce the second. But almost as soon as I finished the first paper, I realized that it might also be adequate for the second course. The professor agreed. The amazing thing is that I didn't realize the relation of the two projects until I had finished the first. If I'd plowed into both at the same time, I might have ended up doing a lot of extra work.
A business executive once asked a time-management consultant to help him become more organized and productive. The consultant responded that he would give the businessman a single piece of advice. He should experiment with this idea and see how it works. The consultant added that he wouldn't charge a stated fee for his counsel. Rather, the businessman should judge from experience just how helpful was, then send the consultant a check for what he felt it was worth.
Though it seemed absurdly simplistic to the businessman, he agreed to give it a try. He was so pleased with the results that he sent the consultant a check for $10,000.*
One Insight Leads to Another
There seems to be a law in human life that major steps are best taken one at a time. It's the cardinal principle we hear espoused so often in architecture and home decorating: Tackle one project, finish one room at a time. The satisfaction and insight that comes from completing one task clears the mind to think creatively about the next. If I try to remodel my kitchen, bathroom and bedroom all at once, I'll probably find my concentration spread too thin.
Of course, we don't always have the luxury of tackling big projects one at a time. But when we do, our minds seem to function better. The human brain can only hold so much information at once; we do better when we can focus.
Understanding this fact helps us to appreciate one of the most fundamental dynamics of God's guidance shown in Scripture. And it undoubtedly helps to explain some of the reason for it as well. Consistently Scripture shows that God guides his people not through elaborate revelations of the future but only step-by-step. His guidance comes incrementally, one insight at a time.
On the positive side, God does give us all the information we need to know his will for a decision. He provides all the insight we need to take the next step in front of us.
But no more than that.
The God who created our minds gives us only as much information about his will as he knows we can handle at a given time. It's essential that we move forward in light of that insight to be in a position to understand his guidance for the step beyond.
Just Enough Light
This thought is expressed in a marvelous analogy in Psalm 119. Speaking of God's instruction to us, the Psalmist declares, "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, a light unto my path" (v. 105 KJV). The statement is especially interesting for what it doesn't say. God's Word is not depicted as a massive light, such as the raging fire Moses encountered in the burning bush, or the pillar of light the Israelites experienced in the dessert. Rather it's said to be a subtle light--illumination for our feet, for the path right in front of us.
The metaphor is remarkable for its practical implications. Think of yourself walking through the woods on a very dark evening with a light in your hand (a torch or lantern when the Psalm was written, a flashlight today; the effect is the same). Just how much illumination does that light give you? Merely enough to take the next step or two in front of you. Only as you walk into that light are you then in position to cast the beam out further to see clearly for the next few feet ahead.
This is precisely the way God's guidance is pictured in Scripture. He's shown as one who gives light for the decisions his people face--indeed critical light--yet there's a limitation to it as well. It's generally just enough for the path right ahead. The mystery of the future remains intact. And illumination for the next jump in the trail only comes as one stays in motion.
Expecting too Much Guidance
As basic as this point is, it's usually missed by young Christians, who assume God will guide them in a more dramatic fashion than this. It's often overlooked by older believers as well, who continue to expect that God should give them more guidance than what they need to take just the next step of faith.
It's widely assumed--and often taught in popular Christianity--that when God guides us, he provides a window on our personal future. He gives us a perception of what's coming up, of what's "out there." Or if he doesn't furnish a revelation of our future per se, he at least imparts a mandate for our future--a distinct directive that locks us into a course of action for a considerable time, perhaps the rest of our life.
This assumption is implied in the vocabulary we use to speak about God's guidance--especially the word "call." When someone speaks of having a call, or needing a call to do something, they are so often implying an expectation of dramatic, far-reaching guidance.
This belief that God gives insight into the future when he guides us is often held with the most sincere and reverent intentions, to be sure. Yet it just as often leads to frustration and disappointment for those who bank on it.
For one thing, it leaves many Christians ambivalent about taking major steps. Even when they have convincing evidence that they should make a decision, they hesitates for fear that God's guidance hasn't been clear enough. Bill is a typical example.
Since graduating from college four years ago, Bill has directed the singles ministry of his large suburban church on a volunteer basis. He has found considerably more satisfaction in this role than in his job in retail sales. Many have affirmed his potential as a pastor, as well, and his spiritual gifts in this area are obvious. In short, Bill would like to go to seminary and enter the pastoral ministry in his denomination.
All the practical factors seem to line up, and his church has even agreed to help with financing. The one missing factor is a clear sense of call from God to enter the ministry. So Bill waits . . . and waits. Even officials in his denomination tell him not to go ahead until he's certain of God's call.
Or take the case of Linda. She has dated Harry for over three years. Both are mature Christians in their late twenties, who are ready for marriage and want to marry each other. But while Harry is eager to go ahead, Linda feels she must wait for a clear confirmation from God that the marriage is from him and will be blessed by him. "I need certainty that this marriage is in God's plan," Linda insists.
The tragedy is that both Bill and Linda have abundant evidence that the choices they would like to make should be made. Unfortunately, their belief that they must wait for a call or revelation of some sort leaves them unreasonably cautious.
While this perspective on guidance leads to hesitation in the face of major decisions, it also tends to rob confidence once decisions are made. Many Christians lack assurance about where they are right now--even though they may be exactly where God wants them--because they haven't had a call or dramatic guidance to be there. They may be too hasty to bail out of their present situation as a result. If not, their experience of Christ's joy in the situation is still much less than it should be, and their fruitfulness usually suffers as well.
Reading too Much Into Guidance
I believe the most serious problem with this perspective, though, is that it can make Christians prone to read too much into the guidance from the Lord which they do receive. Those who believe they should receive a revelation of the future when God guides them may be too quick to think that this is actually occurring through feelings or impressions they experience, or through unique factors in their circumstances.
As a young believer I was once convinced God had given me a revelation that I would marry a particular woman, and I lived with that conviction for over six months. That assumption finally came to a screeching halt one evening when I had the audacity to share my "vision" with her, and she responded that God had not guided her in any such way. Even for some time after that I continued to assume I was right, and that she would eventually come to understand God's will as I did. It was a classic case of reading guidance that just wasn't there into the feelings of attraction I felt for her and jumping to unjustified conclusions about God's will. I made matters difficult for both her and myself by my assumption.
If we're honest, many of us will admit that we've had similar experiences--times when we thought God was promising things would work out in a way that didn't occur. Understanding the step-by-step nature of God's leading helps us to come to terms with such disappointments with guidance. We can know that these experiences don't indicate God is no longer interested in guiding us or has turned against us, and we don't have to draw dire conclusions from them. We can accept that we simply jumped the gun and read more into his guidance than we should have. We can learn from these experiences and move on.
Help for Finding God's Best
The best news is that understanding that God guides us step by step helps us find the courage to take bold steps of faith with our life. We are better able to make choices that from our standpoint seem like risks--to move ahead even though "all the facts are not in" (all the facts are never in!)--for we know that God can best guide our life when we're in motion. And when we've made a reasonable effort to seek his will, we can feel confident that we're where God wants us, even if the guidance that has brought us there hasn't been particularly dramatic.
We are better able to be flexible, too, and to change direction when new information suggests we should, without browbeating ourselves that we must have missed God's will in the first place. It's axiomatic that God guides our life as much by information that he withholds from us as by information that he gives. Simply because we gain some new insight into what God wants us to do, doesn't necessarily mean that we've been out of his will to this point. He may have withheld this understanding from us purposely, to allow us to grow through experiences we wouldn't have otherwise chosen to go through.
For each of us, the vital need is to have a regular time alone with Christ, where we seek his guidance and ask him to help us be open to his will. It's especially helpful to have a daily time when we are simply quiet before him and give him an unhindered opportunity to influence our thinking. This sort of dynamic, growing encounter with Christ is the best step we can take toward seeing his will dynamically, and toward finding the courage to move forward as he throws fresh light on our path.
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This article is adapted and condensed from chapter three of Blaine's Knowing God's Will: Finding Guidance for Personal Decisions (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1991), pp. 31-40. Please see our copyright page for permission to reprint. Copyright 1994 M. Blaine Smith.
This article was also featured previously on this site, on August 1, 1997.
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