One of the sweet promises of Scripture is God’s guidance.
Psalm 23 captures the heart of this hope: a good shepherd leading us beside quiet waters, guiding us along right paths. God’s guidance provides rich comfort to people prone to wander and get lost.
Yet, while a great promise, divine guidance proves a troublesome reality to live out. It’s filled with important questions, and on either side lie two dangers: we can either quench the Spirit, being quick to explain away any supernatural reality of God; or we can fall into an uncritical credulity, quick to accept far-fetched claims or sketchy signs as God’s leadings.
So how do we receive this promise of God’s guidance for our lives? It often involves asking the right questions. And the big question on everyone’s mind is usually this one: how can I find God’s will for my life?
Lurking behind this question is a big assumption—that divine guidance is hard to find and mostly inaccessible.
Ancient legends are filled with heroic figures who embark on quests to uncover secret knowledge or discover oracles of wisdom. These legends have shaped our understanding of God’s guidance so that we seek a secret divine will by trying to crack a cryptic code of signs.
The view implied here is that we serve a secretive God who holds his cards close to the vest, allowing a peek only to those who are heroic or spiritual enough. Is that the God we meet in the Bible? Hardly!
But let’s go further into the idea of finding God’s will, since it’s so dominant in our understanding of God’s guidance.
A Nuanced View
The Bible presents a nuanced view of God’s will. On the one hand, “God’s will” is God’s unchanging decree—God’s eternal purpose clearly revealed in Jesus Christ (Eph. 3, Col. 1:26).
This is ground zero for our “divine guidance anxiety.” If there is only one unchanging will of God, then one wrong choice outside God’s will becomes our own personal “butterfly effect” of ruined life consequences. So many Christians who hold to this notion of God’s will live cautiously, afraid of making a wrong decision. But remember, God’s plan or decree is firmly set—do we really think that our choices could somehow undermine or sidetrack God’s decreed will?
But then, aren’t we more than puppets on God’s stage? Isn’t there some plan for each of our lives?
The Bible does speak of another “will of God”—God’s desire. This will of God is not sovereignly predetermined but rather something we can either embrace and obey or disregard and disobey. Jesus refers to it when he says, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35). Some call this God’s “moral will,” which is no mystery but clearly taught and understood, like in Micah 6:8 or the Sermon on the Mount.
So the question to ask is not “How can I find the will of God?” That only paralyzes us with worry and leads to worrying ways in seeking God’s will—often forms of pagan divination practices dressed up in Christian garb. Many other religions are filled with divination practices (choosing sticks; reading tea leaves, palms, or stars; rune stones) and for good reason—their gods were far off and you had to work hard to get them to show their cards.
But the gospel tells us that God has come near to us in Jesus.
I can almost hear some of you saying, “What about Gideon’s fleece? Or the Urim and Thummim? And didn’t the disciples cast lots?”
True, all were at one time part of seeking God’s guidance. But have you ever noticed that after Pentecost there is not one reference in Scripture to any of those practices? Because God’s Spirit has come, the presence of God lives with his people. We live in the context of revelation, not groping in the dark.
GPS vs. Guide
This revelation is not merely a tool for us to use. It’s the difference between God giving us a GPS device or a guide.
In seeking guidance, let’s be honest—many of us simply want information from God to make our life work better. But God is relational and gives us himself, inviting us into a relationship of trust.
Jesus speaks of this dynamic of trust, referring to a shepherd and sheep—his followers know him and listen to his voice (John 10). Receiving guidance is a process of listening to the God who guides, discerning from the clamor of voices that of the Good Shepherd’s.
But we’re unschooled in listening for God’s voice, much like the crowd in John 12, where a voice comes from heaven, but most of the crowd hears only thunder. That begs the big question in guidance: how do we discern and hear God’s voice?
Discerning God’s Voice
For starters, ask yourself if you’re at all open or receptive to God’s guidance. Are you open to the reality of a God who addresses you? Do you honestly believe in a loving God who is present and desires to guide your life? If not, you’re not likely to receive guidance.
Once you work through your ideas of God, move to your own heart. What is it your heart desires? Ask yourself, “What do I want from God?” Are you open to the unexpected, to the reality that God may lead you into something difficult? An honest heart check helps uncover whether you want actual guidance or just for God to make your life easier.
You’re going to groan at what comes next if you were hoping for a shiny, new way to hear God’s voice. But the core practice of listening to God is to immerse yourself in Scripture.
Unless we listen to this Word from God, we’ll never know God or learn to trust God. And don’t read your Bible to acquire information or crack some code—read it personally, letting God speak to your life through it.
Here’s my challenge for you: do this, if not daily, at least three to four times a week for about 30 minutes, and for no less than six months. Spend time quietly, leisurely listening to God address you through Scripture, and you’ll begin to pick up the capacity to spot God’s voice from among all the others.
If you’re facing a decision, remember that discerning God’s voice is the skill of deciding between the good and the best, not between what’s in or out of God’s will. There are many decisions that may be good and part of God’s spacious will—say, deciding between a career as an entrepreneur or health-care giver or campus chaplain, yet your personal circumstances and the opportunities of life will help you decide which is best.
And don’t do this alone. I often say, “The Holy Spirit speaks to me all the time, and mostly he sounds like my wife.” It’s a reminder to me and others that God’s voice is heard clearest and best in community.
Finally, as much as you can, rid yourself of any anxiety about making a wrong choice that will put you outside of God’s will and ruin your life. Fix in your mind the image of the Good Shepherd; recall the good news that even when sheep wander they are never fully lost because the Shepherd goes out to find them and bring them back.FOR DISCUSSION:
- What is your experience in seeking God’s guidance in your life?
- What fears do you have as you seek God’s will? What assurances?
- Rev. Reinders says that “receiving guidance is a process of listening to the God who guides, discerning from the clamor of voices that of the Good Shepherd’s.” What helps you to discern and hear God’s voice?
- What part does your life play in discernment? How can you read the Bible personally, “letting God speak to your life through it”?
- What is the most helpful message you received from this article?
Enjoyed this article?
Don’t miss this week’s must-read articles:
- Tell A Better Story
- ‘Rebirth’ for a Wisconsin Church
- Book review: A Church Called Tov, by Laura Barringer and Scot McKnight