All of us have to make decisions about what we do with our lives—our life work, our life partners, children, use of time, where we live, money; as well as the kind of day-to-day decisions we all face. And discerning the will of God in the midst of all the conflicting worldly noise can be quite a tricky business.
But the wonderful news of the Christian faith is that we are not on our own in this life. God promises to help us make the right choices.
John 10:27 “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”
Paul says that God’s purpose for our lives is good and pleasing and perfect. And in order to find out what it is, we need to consult him and we need to listen.
So how does God guide us? How does this relationship work? We’ve got five main ways we’re going to look at today—they’re the five CS’s. And in some cases it might be one of these; in major decisions it might be all five.
1. COMMANDING SCRIPTURE
In the Bible the general will of God for all of us is revealed. And there we see what all of us are called to. Our primary calling is not to do something, but to be someone. Our primary calling is to live in a relationship with God, to know Jesus. Our primary calling is to become like Jesus—to become free, to become loving, to become peaceful.
And then we’re called to make a difference to the world, to change the world around us.
In the Bible God has spoken on a whole range of issues. So there’s some things where we really don’t need specific guidance, because it’s absolutely clear from this book what his will is. He’s spoken about marriage and family life and work and money and children and all kinds of things.
We know, for example, that marriage is for life.
We know that we must pay your taxes.
We know about telling the truth. When I first started working I shared a secretary with the Company Secretary. One time there was a call for him and he asked her to tell the person that he was out. So she handed the phone to him and said, `You tell him you’re out!’ The other bloke was furious but she said to him, `Look, if I can lie for you, I can lie to you. And I never will.’
That stuck in my mind and that woman was to play a significant role in my decision to follow Jesus – she was worthy of her word.
So God’s general will is revealed in this book. But it won’t tell us which job we should do, or who we should marry. But sometimes as we read the Bible it will bring to light a particular verse which will give us direction.
Some people have been guided by kind of opening the Bible at random and pointing to a particular verse. But it wouldn’t be good to make a habit of it, because it could expose us sooner or later to unhappy consequences.
I heard of one man who tried this. He said, `Lord, what shall I do?’ And he opened his Bible at random, and he happened to land on Matthew 27:5, which says: Then Judas went and hanged himself. So he thought, `Oh dear, I’d better try this again,’ and he went to Luke 10:37: Go and do thou likewise. He thought, `Oh dear!’ So he went to John 13:27, which says: What you’re about to do, do quickly.
So that’s not really a great idea in the long term. But if we have a regular, methodical reading of the Bible each day, it’s always amazing to me how appropriate each day’s reading is. God feeds us, and he also speaks to us and guides us.
So that’s the first thing: Commanding Scripture—in other words, the Bible.
2. COMPELLING SPIRIT
Paul speaking says this: “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I’m going to Jerusalem…”
For the apostle Paul to be led by the Spirit was almost a definition of a Christian.
The writer of the book of Acts is of course Luke who also wrote Luke’s Gospel. And in his Gospel you see that Jesus is, throughout His life, led by the Holy Spirit. And it’s almost as if he writes the book of Acts to show that the same Holy Spirit who led Jesus through His life now leads the church, and thus every person who’s invited him to come and be part of their lives.
And as Jesus said in John, chapter 10, which we looked at earlier, my sheep recognise my voice. We recognise the voice of the Holy Spirit; at least we begin to—it takes time. It’s like any relationship. If we know somebody well, we recognise their voice, for example on the telephone.
I rang a minister in Wagin this week, and I got through I said, `Hi Alan, this is David, David de Kock.’ And he said, `Oh, I would recognise that voice anywhere.’ When we know someone well, we begin to recognise their voice. The same is true of the Holy Spirit. As we develop this relationship, we begin to recognise the voice of the Holy Spirit.
And the Holy Spirit leads us in a number of different ways. First of all, God speaks to us when we pray.
God also sometimes speaks through giving us a strong desire to do something. In Philippians 2:13 Paul says that God works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. In other words, if God calls you to do something, he will also give you the desire to do that if you yield yourself to him.
Sometimes he guides us in more unusual ways—through a prophecy, or visions, or pictures, or angels, some people hear an audible voice, or even dreams. Now, obviously, in this whole area of being led by the Spirit we can make mistakes because it’s not as simple as that. Guidance is a very difficult thing and sometimes we get it right, and sometimes we get it wrong.
John says: Test the spirits to see whether they’re from God. Is it in line with the Bible? Does it promote love? If it’s not a loving idea, then it won’t come from God.
According to 1 Corinthians 14 we might test it by saying: is it strengthening, encouraging, comforting? Another test is: do we sense God’s peace about the decision? Paul writes: Let the peace of Christ rule in your heart.
So the Bible is one way—Commanding Scripture; also the Holy Spirit—Compelling Spirit.
3. COMMON SENSE
God has given us minds, to think and to reason. And God’s promises of guidance are not given to save us the problem of thinking. In fact, thinking and God guiding us often go together.
2 Timothy 2:7 says, effectively, this: Think over what I’m saying, and the Lord will give you understanding.
John Wesley said that the most common way God guided him was by presenting to his mind reasons for acting in a particular way.
And I would say that’s the main way God guides us in the ordinary sort of day-to-day aspects of life.
But also in the big decisions, our common sense is very important. For example, the Bible tells us that marriage is the norm. But what this book won’t tell you is whom you should marry.
I heard of one Cockney from the East End of London, who was not a churchgoer. And he had a real dilemma because he was in love with two very beautiful women. And he couldn’t decide. One was called Sharon, and she was blonde and very beautiful, and the other was called Maria, and she was a brunette and also very beautiful. He wasn’t a churchgoer, but not knowing whether it was Sharon or Maria, Sharon or Maria, he thought, `Well, I’ll go into a church and pray.’
So he went into a local Catholic church and he knelt down by the altar and he said to the Lord—’oom shall I ‘ave?’ And he looked up, and he looked at the stained-glass window and he saw in gold letters: Ave Maria!
That’s not the best way to go about it! But common sense tells us we should ask these questions: are we spiritually compatible? Paul warns us of the danger of marrying somebody who’s not a Christian, for example, because inevitably we’re going in different directions spiritually, and that can cause tension. So that if we’re a Christian we should look to marry someone whose faith we respect.
Secondly, are we personally compatible? Are we good friends? Then are we physically compatible? Does the chemistry work? God is not going to ask you to marry someone to whom you are not physically attracted. That may come as a relief to some of you!
And then our jobs and careers. Again, it’s common sense. Sometimes people say, `Look, I’ve become a Christian. Should I leave my job?’ The answer is given by 1 Corinthians 7. Each of you should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to you and to which God has called you. Each of you should remain in the situation which you were in when you were called.
In other words, don’t just automatically leave your job, unless of course what you’re doing is immoral or illegal—assuming it’s not, we should stay where we are until God calls us into something different. God doesn’t call us out of things, he calls us into things.
And if we’re asking the question `Well, what is God calling us into?’ the questions to ask are: `Well, what’s my temperament, what’s my personality, what’s my education, what are my skills, what am I good at, what do I like doing, what are my gifts?’ God hasn’t given us gifts in order that they should be wasted but, as John Stott writes, `to be discerned, cultivated and exercised, so that rather than being frustrated we should be fulfilled.’
And it’s never too late. I read recently of a woman in her nineties who now runs ten-kilometre races. She didn’t discover that she enjoyed running until she was 78. So it’s never too late!
4. COUNSEL OF SAINTS
The word `saints’ is used in the New Testament to mean `all Christians’—in other words, the church. The Holy Spirit, for example in Revelation 2, we read of the Holy Spirit speaking to the churches. God has been speaking to His people for hundreds of years.
So, for example, there’s no point in sort of thinking, `Well, I wonder what the doctrine of the Trinity is. Shall I try and work it out for myself?’ without looking at the fact that the early Christians spent 400 years working out the doctrine of the Trinity. And the creeds have come to the church out of that work.
The same with anything, any kind of decision we’re making, we make it in a community. And that’s one of the wonderful things, to be part of a community of other Christians, where we can help one another, we can seek advice from fellow Christians. Proverbs 12:15 says The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice.
And Proverbs 15:22 says: Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed
Proverbs 20, verse 18: Make plans by seeking advice.
5. CIRCUMSTANTIAL SIGNS
Proverbs 16:9 says `In his heart a person plans their course, but the Lord determines their steps.
Psalm 37:5. Commit your way to the Lord. Trust in him, and he will act—
If we’re faced with a difficult decision, as all of us are from time to time, or sometimes very often, we can go to the Lord and say, `Lord, I don’t know which direction to go. I don’t know whether this is right or whether that’s right. I don’t know whether this relationship is right or whether it’s not. I don’t know whether this job is right or whether it’s not. I don’t know whether this decision is right or whether it’s not.’
Commit your way to the Lord —that’s the first thing. Secondly, trust in him, and then his promise is this: he will act. And God can shut doors or he can open doors.
But we have to be willing to say, `I trust you with this.’
We need to watch the circumstances of our lives, how is God directing us through the present situation.
Each of these way of discerning the guidance of God can stand alone, but they work best when they work together. In ancient times, when a ship was coming into a harbour, they would set up three fires – the captain had to ensure that all three fires were lined up and then he knew that it was the right way in. So also with these five ways … line up at least three of them and you will have a good idea of what the Lord wants you to do.
Finally, in conclusion: don’t be in a hurry to make a decision about anything. The writer of Hebrews says that after waiting patiently, Abraham received what was promised. He spent most of his life waiting for God to fulfil a promise he’d given him when he was a young man and wasn’t fulfilled until he was an old man.
And we all make mistakes, all of us do.
There are many things in my life that I wish that I’d done, and as I get older I’m wondering if its now too late, but then I remember the words of Oscar Wilde: `Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.’