October 8, 2000
SEEKING GUIDANCE FROM GOD
Robert B. Ives, Ph.D., Pastor
The Grantham Church
They have them in public schools and call them guidance counselors. In most colleges there is a whole counseling office. I guess when people graduate from college society assumes they don't need guidance counselors any more. Of course, people do whether they admit it or not. There are always those choices where people are uncertain of the way forward. Robert Frost wrote about how he chose the road less traveled and that has made all the difference. But the road less traveled is not for everyone. It may not even be the best way. Where does guidance come from in life? For us in the church, the question is how does God guide his people?
One of the men who thought about God's will was Jim Eliot, a Wheaton College student when he wrote in his diary,
The Lord is teaching me to say with the Psalmist, 'I delight to do thy will,' instead of the usual, 'well, I suppose it's the Lord's will so we'll just have to put up with it.' Oh the delirium of consciously being in the will of the Master.... This brings a knowledge of His presence and this affords rest."
In 1956 on an island on the Curaray
river in Ecuador, Jim Eliot was killed as he and some friends
sought to make contact with the Auca Indians. They had believed
that it was God's will for their lives to fly to that island in
that river in Ecuador. They had spent months trying to contact
the Auca tribe. Had they run ahead of God's will? Or are their
deaths a question of how do we ever really know God's will? In
this age so far removed from New Testament times is it ever possible
to know God's will?
Of course that is not a new question. It was asked in the 6th century BC of Jeremiah by the rag tag remnant of people who remained in Palestine after the Babylonian army had conquered and destroyed Jerusalem.
Fearful that the Babylonians would retaliate for the assassination of the ruler Babylon had appointed in Palestine, the majority of the remnant had decided to emigrate to Egypt. In 42:1-3 we see that something in their proposed action gives them pause and they approach Jeremiah who was the nation's prophet. They ask him to pray and seek God's guidance for them and in verse 5, they promise to act in accordance with what God tells them to do. Their situation and Jeremiah's prayer give us some clues about how we may seek guidance from God.
1. The first principle of being guided by God is to pray and ask God for help. It is possible that God will intervene in a person's life without being asked in prayer, but when we pray, it is easier to recognize that what happens is from God. In this sense the remnant in Judah do the right thing in verse 3, "Pray that the Lord your God will tell us where we should go and what we should do?" And then in verses 5 and 6, they make a commitment to do what God says when he answers Jeremiah's prayer, whether it is what they have been planning to do or not.
Now up to this point what the people do seems like the sort of thing any believer in God or any Christian might do to get guidance from God in his life. It is true that they had already set out toward Egypt. They were packed and moving. (41:17) But then they stop and ask for prayer, though again notice the language of 42 verse 3, "Pray that the Lord your God will tell us...." So they don't feel any closeness to God. And further, in verses 5 and 6, they say we will act in accordance with what God says, "whether it is favorable or unfavorable." This sounds right, but when God's answer to the prayer is unfavorable, they make excuses about why this can't be from God.
Standing on the fringe of both of these settings, the remnant of Israel in the 6th century BC and Jim Eliot in the 20th century AD, it looks like they both have the same problem. They either misunderstand or choose to ignore God's guidance.
My own experience with prayer has been that it is hard to sort out what I want from what God's will is. But I'll tell you this, I don't start down the trail to Egypt before I pray.
Now prayer isn't magic. It is a real act of a person based upon the reality of God who can answer prayer. I have sought God for guidance about dozens of things. I don't pray about getting up each day, nor about whether I ought work today or not. I pray at various crisis or decisions points in my life, and I pray for such times in others' lives. My own experience is that God answers those prayers in a variety of ways.
The answers to prayer don't come immediately, nor did they for Jeremiah whom God did not answer for ten days, according to verse 7. When a person has been high tailing it out of the country, it must have been frustrating to wait for ten days. The Jews probably didn't want to wait. And then they spoil the whole thing by not wanting to do what God tells them to do after that ten day wait.
I was reading The Double Helix last
year. That is James
Watson's account of the discovery of the double helix, the shape of the human chromosome. Crick and Watson consulted with a lot of people, some of whom had done good work that might have led to the double helix conclusion, but they didn't see the implicat
ions of their observations. Francis Crick was a genius who kept asking questions about what was happening. And it was that openness which led to the discovery. Prayer is like that. It is one of the helpful tools for getting guidance for our lives.
2. Let us consider secondly, the sovereignty of God as a principle for God's guidance. The sovereignty of God is not a philosophical doctrine, but it is a doctrine which gives substance and meaning to other doctrines. How does God's sovereignty help us as we seek guidance from God? The Bible says many times that God has authority over the world. We see that clearly when Jesus calms storms on the sea and heals sick and diseased people. But God's authority is demonstrated in our own lives, sometimes in ways we don't observe.
The starting assumption is that we live in God's world. The data for this comes from the Bible and it comes from that sense many people feel when they walk in the woods or observe a sunset and say to themselves, this was made by God. The world reveals something of the character of God, in spite of how sin has warped the world and made a nature "red in tooth and claw". Paul's vision of creation in Romans 1:20 remains true, "His invisible qualities - namely his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse."
The Bible's sense is that the same God who created the heavens and the earth will bring what he made to an end. Over and over in the book of Revelation we hear the timpani of God sounding the note, God shall win. The climax is the great cymbal crash of Revelation 11:15, "The sovereignty of the world has passed to our Lord and to his Christ and he shall reign forever and ever." God will win in the end because he is sovereign. This future consummation is what gives meaning to life. And it is on the basis of this meaning that we can trust God's guidance.
In Jim Eliot's diary there is an interesting reflection on this:
He hath led me, and brought me into darkness and not into light! Because I cannot see, nor even assuredly feel, His satisfaction with me, I cannot doubt the leading simply because of the dark. The leading is nonetheless real, the pathway has simply been into a place I didn't expect or ask for.
What the Jews didn't see was that God could protect them when Babylon was around and when Palestine was so unstable. It is because they had no confidence in God's sovereignty that in 43:2 they think Jeremiah must be lying when he tells them God will not bless them if they go to Egypt. They think that God can't be sovereign because He didn't protect Jerusalem from the Babylonians; when, instead, God's interpretation of what happened to Jerusalem is that the people were sinning and refusing to obey Him, as they do here, and they were worshiping idols - the Egyptian "Queen of Heaven"; so God punished them. There were two interpretations of what was happening.
This is exactly the kind of thing we see in the current presidential campaign. One event is interpreted two different ways. How can we know what is the right interpretation? Republicans tend to believe George Bush's view; Democrats, Al Gore's. Is it possible to come at the truth? Sure, but even if all the claims are sorted out and it can be demonstrated where this is wrong, and this right, that won't convince everyone. That's the way it is about God's sovereignty.
3. When you are looking for guidance from God the Bible is also helpful. Now what we need to understand about the remnant in Jeremiah 42 is that they had not been reading the Old Testament. But the answer to Jeremiah's prayer has references to God's promises and warnings that are in the Old Testament. For example, verse 10, "if you stay in the land, I will build you up and not pull you down."
In verse 12 we read, "I will show compassion on you... and restore you to your land". That promise is contained in the law, Deuteronomy 32:36, where God said, "The Lord will judge his people and have compassion on his servants when he sees their strength is gone....", a promise based on a word from Psalm 106:45, "for their sake he remembered his covenant and out of his great love he relented." This is the same compassion God is willing to show in Jeremiah's day. So the Psalms and the histories emphasize the character of God, which the Israelites, from long years of not paying attention, had forgotten.
Jesus faced the same sort of people 600 years later when He says to people who were searching the Bible, "You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life." No matter how well people know the bible, they may miss its meaning when the meaning is different from what they expect.
The reason the Bible can be helpful for guidance in our lives is that God wants us to know his ways and he has told us in general terms the boundaries of his will in the Bible. In Romans 2:18 Paul says that the Jews know God's will. How do they know God's will? Because they have God's law in the Old Testament. The Law reveals God's will. People who want God to guide them will study the Bible.
4. A fourth principle that will help us as we seek God's will is, we can get guidance from God when we are willing to serve and obey him. It is really exceptional that God will answer a prayer like the one the Jews ask Jeremiah to pray in 42:3 when they have no intention of doing what God is going to say. In Jeremiah 7:16 God complains to Jeremiah about the sin of the people and He says there, "do not pray for this people nor offer any plea or petition for them: do not plead with me, for I will not listen to you." But here Jeremiah does pray for them, and God in his compassion answers.
The consistent teaching of the Bible is "If anyone chooses to do God's will, he will know whether my teaching comes from God." (John 7:17) The willingness to do God's will precedes knowing God's will and being guided by it.
This same principle is underlined in Deuteronomy 10, "What does God ask of you, O Israel?" And then the answer comes, "to serve him with all your heart and soul." That's what God wants. God wants justice for the oppressed, so he wants us to work for justice for widows, orphans, blacks, the poor, internationals. When we serve among people like that, we know God's will.
Part of our problem is that when we ask for God to guide us, we expect Him to do something new, or to ask of us something new and exciting. What God is more likely to ask is that we do small things for people around us. He wants us to learn His will by serving in small ways.
So here are four resources we have as we seek in our lives to be guided by God: prayer, a confidence in God's sovereignty, studying the Bible and a willingness to serve people. When we practice those four things in our lives, God will be guiding us.