(I was blessed to speak to a great group of campers and adults at Yosemite Bible Camp. This is some of the material collected from a variety of sources that did not make it into my talk with them)
We have seen that the whole matter of God’s will centers around a relationship rather than a program or a technique. The character and quality of this relationship, then, is the key to how sensitive and responsive we will be to His guidance. The five C’s of conversion, commitment, confession, concern, and compliance are prerequisites to guidance, because they are facets of our relationship with God.
CONVERSION Our relationship with God begins when we become His children by trusting in Jesus. “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God even to those who believe in His name, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13). Until this happens, we do not know God, we cannot please Him (Romans 8:8), and we cannot understand or do His will.
COMMITMENT After becoming a child of God, each Christian must come to the point where he places himself on the altar before God in an act of total commitment. “I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship” (Romans 12:1).
Without this declaration of God’s complete ownership, our relationship with Him will be compromising and mediocre. Since a living sacrifice tends to crawl off the altar, this initial act of commitment can only be worked out in our lives as it becomes an ongoing process of daily submission to His will. This involves a gradual movement from a worldly to a biblical mind-set as our relationship with God continues to deepen: “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
This all-out commitment and humble dependence upon God is the basis for what the wisdom literature of the Old Testament calls “the fear of the Lord.” When a person pursues this kind of relationship with Him, discernment and direction are natural byproducts. “Who is the man who fears the Lord? He will instruct him in the way he should choose” (Psalm 25:12). “The secret of the Lord is for those who fear Him, and He will make them know His covenant” (Psalm 25:14).
CONFESSION Our fellowship with God is hindered by unconfessed sin. Before the Lord we must openly acknowledge any known sins in our lives (1 John 1:9) and ask Him to illuminate areas we have overlooked (Psalm 139:23-24) so that we will continue to walk in the light. “If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:6-7).
CONCERN An obvious yet sometimes overlooked prerequisite to guidance is a genuine concern on our part to know God’s desires for our lives. We must decidedly want to know His will (John 7:17). At the time of His greatest trial, our Lord cried out, “yet not as I will, but as You will,” and again, “Your will be done” (Matthew 26:39, 42). An attitude of indifference will inhibit our knowledge of God’s will. “So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesians 5:17). Are we merely curious, or do we really want to know what God wants for us?
COMPLIANCE There is little point in pursuing God’s will if we are not willing to comply with it. This begins with obedience in the things He has already made known to us. How can we expect more light if we have not responded to the light we have been given? God’s guidance ceases when it is unaccompanied by our acceptance. Therefore, if we are serious about knowing and doing the will of the Lord, we should examine our lives to see if we are disobeying in areas He has already made clear. Second, we must be willing to comply not only with what God has already shown us, but also with whatever He will show us. An attitude of availability in advance is crucial, because it is the true measure of the degree to which we really trust God as a person.
God’s will for us is “good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2), but just as the serpent deceived the woman in the garden into thinking otherwise, we too will be tempted to think otherwise. Our natural tendency is to believe that our own plans are in our best interest, and that anything else is a threat to our happiness. This is why so many people limit their availability to God through multiple choice prayers. Instead of giving Him the whole deck, they offer up a small hand of cards (with one or two sticking out prominently) and tell Him, “Pick a card–any card.” This is like the woman who threw a stick in the air to tell her which way to go when she reached a crossroads. After throwing it several times, she was asked why. She quickly replied, “Every time I throw it, the stick points to the road to the left, and I want to take the road to the right–it looks smoother.” So she kept throwing it until it pointed in the desired direction.
When we hold back from giving God an unqualified yes to whatever He may choose for us in the future, we are really questioning whether His character is loving and good. We somehow get the idea that we must make a choice between the misery of God’s will or the happiness of our own. As Paul Little wrote, “So many of us see God as a kind of celestial Scrooge who peers over the balcony of heaven trying to find anybody who is enjoying life. And when he spots a happy person, he yells, ‘Now cut that out!’ That concept of God should make us shudder because it’s blasphemous!”
God is not some cosmic kill-joy who delights in taking advantage of people who are foolish enough to submit their wills to His. The one who loved us enough to sacrifice His Son to save us when we were His enemies (Romans 5:8-10) is certainly worthy of our trust now that we are His children. “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:32).
We don’t need to “surrender to God’s will” as though we were resigning ourselves to a somber and joyless existence. Instead, we can say with David, “I delight to do Your will, O my God” (Psalm 40:8), knowing that He loves us enough to desire a destiny for us that is beyond our highest hopes. God is causing “all things to work together for good” (Romans 8:28) in the lives of His children, even though the things that happen sometimes do not seem best at the moment (e.g., Joseph and Job).
C. S. Lewis used the illustration of a dog whose leash got hopelessly wrapped around a pole. As the dog pulled to get free, the owner found it necessary to move it in precisely the opposite direction to liberate it from the pole. We are often like that dog, but our heavenly Master loves us and knows what is best for us. The path of our ultimate liberation will sometimes be painful, but we can delight in His will, knowing the glorious destiny that lies ahead of us. Principles for Guidance The set of principles that follows can assist us in the process of making tough decisions, but remember that they are not step-by-step formulas.
COMMUNICATION: WHAT DO THE SCRIPTURES SAY? If we want to know and experience God’s direction, we must communicate with Him through prayer and Scripture. Many Christians are concerned about knowing the will of God, but how many spend even five minutes a day asking God for His wisdom and direction? Prayer should envelop the whole process of guidance. Communication with God also involves a regular time of reading the Bible with an open heart and mind to hear God’s Word for our lives. The Bible is the central revelation for all believers, and its precepts and principles clearly give us the answers to most questions about the will of God in decision-making situations. The Scriptures were provided not only to teach us the way of salvation, but also to guide us in the way we should live after becoming God’s children. “Thy word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105).
God designed His Word to equip us to accomplish “every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17), that is, to fulfill His purposes for our lives. God clearly reveals His moral will in the positive and negative commands of the Bible, and these precepts by themselves can guide us through the majority of the decisions we will ever make. In addition, the Bible offers a multitude of general principles that can be effectively applied to very specific circumstances. There is no need for us to seek guidance in areas that have been expressly commanded or forbidden in Scripture. A believer does not need to wrestle, for example, over whether to marry an unbeliever, since the answer is already in the Bible. We can be sure that God will never lead us to do anything that is contrary to His Word.
Since the Bible is our primary source of guidance, we owe it to ourselves to become so familiar with its contents that its precepts and principles become ingrained in our patterns of thought. This process of renewing our minds with the Word takes time and effort, but there is no other way to “prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). If we do not program our minds on a daily basis with Scripture, we will find our minds programmed by default with the temporal value system of the world, and our lives will soon reflect those values. Inner renewal is the prerequisite to outer transformation.
As we seek to renew our minds with the commandments and counsel of God’s revealed Word, we must approach it with a resolve to do whatever it says, even if it goes against our wishes. Content without conviction will do us little good, because it is always possible to distort the Scriptures to match the shape of selfish desires. We will avoid self-deception only to the extent that we are willing and open to respond to God’s light. While the Bible is our primary guide to what God wants us to be and to do, our Lord has providentially seen fit to supplement the Scriptures in a number of personal ways. There are several secondary factors that can be useful in discerning God’s direction in specific situations, and the first of these is conscience.
CONSCIENCE: HOW DOES THIS DECISION AFFECT MY LOVE FOR GOD AND OTHERS? This is the ethical dimension of decision making; an option may appear to be sound on the intellectual level, but it may be unsound on the moral level. We cannot avoid the matrix of personal relationships in the decisions we make. Paul stressed the importance of living with a clear conscience: “I also do my best to maintain always a blameless conscience both before God and before men (Acts 24:16; also see Acts 23:1; 1 Timothy 1:5; 2 Timothy 1:3). God has implanted within us an intuitive sense of right and wrong. As we grow in Him, our conscience becomes more sensitive, more attuned to His desires. When we reject the input of our conscience, the proper response is to confess it (1 John 1:9), not to cover it. A failure to respond in this way will place us under a burden of guilt and take the joy out of our lives. Even worse, we can sear our conscience (1 Timothy 4:2) and become callused by repeatedly rejecting its warnings.
COMMON SENSE: DOES THIS DECISION REFLECT GOOD JUDGMENT? A Christian may be committed to the Lord, willing to comply with wherever God leads him, communicating with Him in prayer and in the Word, and enjoying a clear conscience. Even so, he still may not know which option to choose in a specific situation. It is within this framework that common sense should play an important role in the choices we make (outside this framework, common sense may simply feed the me-first mentality). God was not erratic or capricious in the way He designed the universe, and He is not haphazard in His design for the lives of His children. He gave us minds and He wants us to use them to evaluate the consequences of our actions. The Scriptures tell us to “think so as to have sound judgment” (Romans 8:3). We should be level-headed and not rash in the way we evaluate our gifts and opportunities. Paul, for example, stayed where there were open doors (Ephesus) and left when his life was threatened. However, common sense has its limitations and it should never be our only criterion for discerning God’s guidance. There are times when He leads people do things that are contrary to our concept of good judgment. We are often too nearsighted to see the goal He has in mind. Because we see such a small part of the puzzle, we should always be willing to submit our thoughts and plans to His. “The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9).
CIRCUMSTANCES: HOW DOES MY STATE OF AFFAIRS RELATE TO THIS DECISION? God, who “works all things after the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11), is in sovereign control of the circumstances of our lives. He causes “all things to work together for good” to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). Notice the word “together.” In isolation, some of the things that happen to us may not seem so beneficial, but God uses them in combination for our good. Similarly, He does not allow our circumstances and temptations to overwhelm us without offering us the grace to endure (2 Corinthians 10:13). Because of His providential care and involvement in the details of our lives, we should be sensitive to the situations in which we find ourselves. Factors like finances, aptitude, education, experience, family, spiritual gifts, and occupation all play a part in God’s direction. For instance, if a Christian who is considering a job possibility realizes that her ability, education, and experience do not at all match the qualifications, she should be very hesitant to take another step even if the job opens up. God often works by opening and closing doors as we come to them, but we should be careful not to make this our primary means of guidance. Just because a door is open does not mean that we should go through it. The “throwing out the fleece” approach is rarely valid. It is easy to misread circumstances and interpret them in ways that flatter our preconceived plans. This is like the farmer who wanted to be an evangelist. When he saw a cloud formation that looked like “PC,” he took it to mean “Preach Christ” and left his farm, never thinking that it could also have been interpreted as “Plant Corn.”
COUNSEL: WHAT DO WISE AND GODLY FRIENDS SAY ABOUT THIS DECISION? “Where there is no guidance, the people fall, but in abundance of counselors there is victory” (Proverbs 11:14). “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man is he who listens to counsel” (Proverbs 12:15). “Without consultation, plans are frustrated, but with many counselors they succeed” (Proverbs 15:22). The Bible is full of examples of people who profited by heeding wise counsel and of people who suffered by ignoring it. We are called to exercise wisdom in “teaching and admonishing one another” (Colossians 3:16), and wise counsel involves both. If a decision has significant implications, we should not limit ourselves to our own judgment, but we should also seek the perspective of mature and godly people who have wisdom and experience. Good counsel is both instructive and corrective, and requires frankness, not flattery. Remember, however, that the counsel available in the precepts and principles of Scripture must always be the first and foremost influence in the choices we make. Even the wisest of people are finite and biased, and we must avoid the pitfall of uncritically accepting the advice we receive as if it were a word from the Lord. Ultimately, we alone are responsible for the decisions we make.
COMPULSION: WHAT ARE MY OWN DESIRES? In Romans 8:14 Paul wrote that “all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.” In Philippians 2:13, he said that “it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to workfor His good pleasure.” One of the ways God works in us is to give us the desire to do the things that are pleasing to Him. A compelling desire to move in a specific direction or a burden to minister to certain people may be coming directly from God as a means of guidance. But we should bear in mind that God never gives us desires that are contrary to the commandments and counsel of His Word. Burdens and desires can be a significant input in our decisions as long as they are evaluated in the larger context of communication (prayer and Scripture), conscience, common sense, circumstances, and counsel. Otherwise, we may become victims of desires and inclinations that are not from God.
CONTENTMENT AND CONFIRMATION: DO I HAVE A SENSE OF PEACE AND ASSURANCE ABOUT THIS DECISION? Philippians 4:6-7 tells us that we are to turn our anxieties into peace by offering our problems and needs up to the Lord. God wants us to let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts (Colossians 3:15). If a decision gives us a sense of doubt, distress, or confusion, something is wrong because it is not accompanied by the peace of God. Paul, for example, had an open door for ministry in Troas, but because he had no rest in his spirit, he went instead to Macedonia (2 Corinthians 2:12-13). By itself, peace is a supplemental, not a sufficient principle of guidance. But if a particular option passes the test of the other principles and fails to provide peace, the wisest course of action is to wait on the Lord (if the decision can be deferred) and allow Him to provide further input. The option may be right, but the timing may be wrong.