We may often hear people say, ‘The Lord led me to this job’, or, ‘The Lord led me to marry this man’. In some cases, one cannot doubt the providence of God in the matter. However, there are times when people use this expression to justify sinful or unbiblical conduct.
I heard someone claim the Lord’s leading of them when marrying an unbeliever, even though the Scriptures prohibit this (2 Corinthians 6:14).
The argument was that the Lord led them to that person; they fell in love with them; and, as the partner did not openly oppose the gospel, it gave an opportunity to lead them to the Lord.
But Jonah could have reasoned that way too. The Lord told him to go to Nineveh and preach against it (Jonah 1). Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, the dominant world power at the time. Jonah didn’t like the idea at all, and felt he needed a Mediterranean cruise instead. Tarshish would be a nice destination!
He went to the harbour at Joppa and, amazingly, there was a boat bound for Tarshish. He had enough money to pay the fare and boarded the ship. Even though the voyage was stormy, Jonah was able to sleep. He obviously had a sense of peace about things. Some will reason that, if we have an open door and a sense of peace, this is a good indication of being in the will of the Lord.
Of course, when we look at the story of Jonah, he was very clearly disobeying a direct command of the Lord, but it is all too easy to justify a wrong action.
Let’s think about ‘open doors’. By this we mean circumstances that give the opportunity to move in a certain direction. For example, if someone is applying for a job and they are offered the position, they could regard that offer as an ‘open door’.
Perhaps it is, but that does not necessarily mean it is God’s will to accept it. Suppose it entails being involved in illegal activities, for example, tax evasion? Suppose it involves working every Sunday? I realise that some jobs do involve occasional Sunday work — positions in the medical field or in law enforcement, to name a couple. But a job that involves that every week can be harmful spiritually, by preventing church attendance. So-called ‘open doors’ must be evaluated in the light of Scripture, not just circumstances.
Other factors might enter into the equation too. Paul had an ‘open door’ in Troas to preach the gospel (2 Corinthians 2:12), but another thing was uppermost in his mind. He was eager for news about the situation in the church at Corinth, and was looking for Titus to bring that news.
He expected to find Titus at Troas, but he wasn’t there. So Paul did not engage in preaching the gospel on that occasion, but went on to Macedonia to find him (verse 13). The opportunity was outweighed by another consideration.
Another favourite way of trying to find God’s will is by laying out ‘fleeces’. This refers to the incident in Judges 6:36-40, where Gideon, having been commanded by God to go to war against the Midianites, asked for a sign to confirm that God would grant him victory.
He put out a fleece overnight and asked that there be dew on the fleece, but not on the surrounding surface. Then, having received that very answer next morning, he asked for dew on the ground, but for the fleece to be dry.
When people speak of ‘fleeces’ today, they usually think of setting certain conditions which, if the Lord grants, will indicate his will. For example, a couple is seeking to buy a house. They make an offer on a property and agree that if the estate agent calls by Friday they will know it is God’s will. But is that wise? Perhaps a better solution would be to have an inspection to make sure the house is in good order. Fleeces can readily degenerate into tempting God.
You may say that God did answer Gideon’s request. True, but Gideon had been promised victory, and his fleeces were more a sign of unbelief than faith. God was gracious, and sometimes he may be gracious to us if we set conditions, but it is a dangerous course.
Jonah might have reasoned, ‘If there is a ship in Joppa harbour bound for Tarshish, then I’ll know that it is God’s will to go there’, but of course he would have been completely wrong. There is no indication in Scripture that we are to make a practice of putting out ‘fleeces’.
The example of Gideon stands alone and, as I have already said, his requests were an indication of unbelief in the promises of God.
What about having a sense of peace? I have had occasion to challenge someone about an unbiblical course, and they replied, ‘Well I have peace about it’.
It seems that Jonah had a sense of peace when he boarded the ship. He was able to sleep, even in the storm. Sometimes we can lull our conscience to sleep by persisting in a course that is not right. On the other hand, we might be completely lacking in peace when we are doing what is right.
When I was a pastor, there would be occasions when I had to make a visit that I knew would be difficult, for example challenging someone about sinful conduct. On the way, my mind would be in a turmoil, my mouth would be dry and my stomach in knots. It would have been very easy to conclude that, because I didn’t have a sense of peace, that I should turn back. However, a pastor knows that not every visit is easy, and there are times when sin must be confronted.
One other thing that people sometimes rely on for guidance from God is ‘impressions’. They have an inward conviction that a certain course is right. They would even say the Lord is leading them.
We have no definite indication that Jonah felt this way, but sometimes people claim that the Lord laid something on their heart when, in fact, it was an unbiblical course. I heard of one instance where a married man approached a married woman — not his wife — and told her that the Lord had told him they should go away together.
There may be times when we do have strong convictions that a certain course is right. I remember once having a conviction that I should visit a couple who had attended our church, but moved about an hour’s drive away.
There had been a heavy snow fall and the roads were treacherous, but I went and found that the very next day they were moving 1,000 miles away. I have reason to believe the visit was helpful to them.
In that case, there was every reason to believe that a visit might be helpful, as they were unstable Christians. So there was nothing wrong with going, other than the danger on the highway. But we must always evaluate our convictions in the light of Scripture.
Guidance is not always straightforward and we should pray much about knowing God’s will. Our main source of guidance must be the Word of God. If the doors seem open and we have peace, that’s fine; if we have a conviction that we must move in a certain course, that’s alright too, providing the Scriptures support such action.
Our reliance must be on what God says in his Word, rather than in the other things. God grant that we may indeed know his will and follow it.
Roger Fellows ministers in Baptist and Orthodox Presbyterian churches in Ontario, Canada