Christians, as J.I. Packer reminds us, believe in divine guidance. We believe that God has a plan for us, and we believe that God is able to communicate that plan to us.
We fall into error, however, when we think of guidance as inward prompting of the Holy Spirit apart from God’s written Word.
It is a mistake to narrow the focus of guidance exclusively to vocational guidance (Whom should I marry? Which church should I join? Where should I live? What job shall I apply for? Should we have another child?). God guides us into certain habits and attitudes of mind as much as (or more than) he guides us into specific decisions.
Even when we do turn to Scripture for help and support we often use in an extremely unscriptural way. We cannot resolve our vocational questions by direct appeal to the Bible. There is no biblical text that tells the answers to the kinds of vocational questions just mentioned. What Scripture does, however, is set out the parameters within which those decisions must be made (Will it bring glory to God? Does it violate an explicit command of God? Is it consistent with biblical responsibilities of manhood, womandhood, and so on?)
Only within the limits of this guidance does God prompt us inwardly in matters of ‘vocational’ decision. So never expect to be guided to marry an unbeliever, or elope with a married person, as long as 1 Corinthians 7:39 and the seventh command stand!
Here, then, are six common pitfalls concerning divine guidance:-
First, unwillingness to think. It is false piety, super-supernaturalism of an unhealthy and pernicious sort, that demands inward impressions that have no rational base, and declines to heed the constant biblical summons to “consider.” God made us thinking beings, and he guides our minds as in his presence we think things out-not otherwise. “O that they were wise . . . that they would consider” (Deut 32:29 KJV).
Second, unwillingness to think ahead and weigh the long-term consequences of alternative courses of action. “Think ahead” is part of the divine rule of life no less than of the human rule of the road. Often we can see what is wise and right (and what is foolish and wrong) only as we dwell on its long-term issues. “O that they were wise . . . that they would consider their latter end!” (Deut 32:29 KJV).
Third, unwillingness to take advice. Scripture is emphatic on the need for this. “The way of a fool seems right to him, but a wise man listens to advice” (Prov 12:15). It is a sign of conceit and immaturity to dispense with taking advice in major decisions. There are always people who know the Bible, human nature and our own gifts and limitations better than we do, and even if we cannot finally accept their advice, nothing but good will come to us from carefully weighing what they say.
Fourth, unwillingness to suspect oneself. We dislike being realistic with ourselves, and we do not know ourselves at all well; we can recognize rationalizations in others and quite overlook them in ourselves. “Feelings” with an ego-boosting, or escapist, or self-indulging, or self-aggrandizing base must be detected and discredited, not mistaken for guidance. This is particularly true of sexual or sexually conditioned feelings. As a biologist-theologian has written:
The joy and general sense of well-being that often (but not always) goes with being “in love” can easily silence conscience and inhibit critical thinking. How often people say that they “feel led” to get married (and probably they will say “the Lord has so clearly guided”), when all they are really describing is a particularly novel state of endocrine balance which makes them feel extremely sanguine and happy. (O. R. Barclay, Guidance, pp. 29-30)
We need to ask ourselves why we “feel” a particular course to be right, and to make ourselves give reasons-and we shall be wise to lay the case before someone else whose judgment we trust, to give a verdict on our reasons. We need also to keep praying, “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps 139:23-24 KJV). We can never distrust ourselves too much.
Fifth, unwillingness to discount personal magnetism. Those who have not been made deeply aware of pride and self-deception in themselves cannot always detect these things in others, and this has from time to time made it possible for well-meaning but deluded people with a flair for self-dramatization to gain an alarming domination over the minds and consciences of others, who fall under their spell and decline to judge them by ordinary standards. And even when a gifted and magnetic person is aware of the danger and tries to avoid it, he is not always able to stop Christian people from treating him as an angel, or a prophet, construing his words as guidance for themselves and blindly following his lead. But this is not the way to be led by God. Outstanding people are not, indeed, necessarily wrong, but they are not necessarily right, either! They, and their views, must be respected, but may not be idolized. “Test everything. Hold on to the good” (1 Thess 5:21).
Sixth, unwillingness to wait. “Wait on the Lord” is a constant refrain in the Psalms, and it is a necessary word, for God often keeps us waiting. He is not in such a hurry as we are, and it is not his way to give more light on the future than we need for action in the present, or to guide us more than one step at a time. When in doubt, do nothing, but continue to wait on God. When action is needed, light will come.
Knowing God, 258-268