In earlier articles we have seen that God guides his children primarily by his Word. There may be times when he leads us in mysterious ways, but we are always to seek guidance from Scripture. It is likely that some will point to situations in their own lives when they have sought guidance by special means, and the Lord has graciously answered them. Gideon sought and obtained such ‘special’ guidance when he put out his famous fleeces, as we shall see presently. This we would never dispute, but we believe there are dangers in relying on such means.
A common view of guidance is that God guides us by three things – by circumstances, by the Bible, and by an inward sense of peace. When these three agree, they claim, we can be sure of God’s will. Some seem to be happy if two of the three come together. Now it may well be that these three ‘indications’ often come together, but not always. Take circumstances. People often speak of ‘open doors’ or ‘closed doors’. What they mean by an ‘open door’ is some situation that occurs, allowing us to do what we are seeking. For example, in seeking a job, a job offer will be an ‘open door’, while a refusal will be a ‘closed door’.
Circumstances no guide
Starting with the ‘closed door’, does the refusal mean that the situation we are seeking is not God’s will? If we applied that idea consistently, a failed driving test would mean it was not God’s will for us to drive. However, common sense will generally dictate that we try again, unless for some reason we are quite unfit to drive. A failure to secure a job does not necessarily mean that we should not apply for a similar job again. The situation may need evaluating. Is it a suitable position? Would our talents be put to good use? Are we aiming too high? Or were we simply unprepared for the interview?
A pastor friend of mine in Canada was travelling to a preaching engagement nearly a thousand miles away. On the two-day journey he had several punctures, two at the same time; the rear windscreen blew out and his power steering failed – ‘It was like driving a tank,’ he said. Should he have taken these incidents as a ‘closed door’ and concluded that God did not want him to preach on that occasion? Or should he, as in fact he did, see that Satan was attempting to prevent him getting to his destination? Evaluating the situation in the light of Scripture, and considering how much the devil seeks to hinder the preaching of God’s Word, I believe my friend was right to keep going.
Evaluating ‘open doors’ can be even more hazardous. Does a job offer mean that this is the job the Lord is providing? Suppose the job, though wellpaid, involves doing things a Christian should not do? Clearly job offers and, before that, job applications, need to be evaluated in the light of biblical principles as well as our own gifts and qualifications. Circum-stances alone can be very misleading.
Some people seek to know God’s will by asking for certain circumstances to come about. These requests are often referred to as ‘putting out fleeces’. Perhaps it will be helpful to look at the biblical passage on which the concept is based.
‘Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised – look, I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand as you said.” And that is what happened. Gideon rose early next day; he squeezed the fleece and wrung out the dew – a bowlful of water. Then Gideon said to God, “Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request. Allow me one more test with the fleece. This time make the fleece dry and the ground covered with dew.” That night God did so. Only the fleece was dry; all the ground was covered with dew’ (Judges 6:36-40).
Gideon asked for two signs. First a wet fleece on dry ground, and then a dry fleece on wet ground. An equivalent today might be someone buying a house praying, ‘Lord, if this is the house for us to buy, make the estate agent call before noon.’ Such an approach could result in some disastrous decisions.
Someone is probably thinking, ‘Whatever you say, God did honour Gideon’s requests.’ True; but is that normative? Consider some things about the original incident. First, the fleeces, wet and dry, were supernatural signs. Should we expect that? Second, Gideon had already been given his directions and the assurance that he would save Israel from the Midianite captivity (Judges 6:14). The fleeces were an extra sign and a gracious confirmation of what the Lord had already said. Gideon’s request was, in fact, an indication of unbelief, or at best, of little faith. Should we imitate him? Third, the incident was unique; using fleeces was not a method regularly employed by God’s people. As we have already said, while God may indicate his will by unusual means, we are not to seek the unusual, and we have no warrant to ask for unusual or specific signs.
There are Christians who rely heavily on impressions or a sense of inward peace for their guidance. They will never act unless they have this peace. They usually equate such impressions with the leading of the Spirit. It is common to hear people say, ‘God told me’ or ‘I felt led of the Lord.’
No one will deny that there are times when we feel an inner compulsion to do or say something. But how do we know whether it is the Lord who is giving this feeling? Sometimes we may respond to these impressions with wonderful results. At other times it may lead to disaster. I heard of a person being ‘led’ to stop taking vital medication, with fatal results. Any feelings must be evaluated in the light of Scripture. I read one case of a married man telling a woman, who was not his wife, that he believed God was leading them to go away together. It would not take a very thorough search of the Bible to learn that it was not God leading him but his own depraved lusts. ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ says the Scripture. Even as believers, we are still too infected with indwelling sin to rely on our feelings. Do we always need a sense of peace to carry out God’s will? Sometimes as a pastor I have had to visit someone to deal with a problem of sin. On the way to their house, my mind has been in turmoil, my mouth has been dry and my stomach in knots. Were those symptoms an indication that I was not doing the will of God? No. They were simply medical responses to an unpleasant situation. My course was clear. It was my duty to make the visit despite having no sense of peace.
It is comforting when we see circumstances come nicely together: when the biblical course is clear, and when we have an inward sense of peace. But it doesn’t always happen. We must depend heavily on God’s Word for our guidance.
Supernatural guidance in the Bible
What about biblical examples of supernatural guidance? We could cite the case of Israel in the desert, where God led them by a pillar of cloud and fire. Or the apostle Paul in Acts 16:6-10 being led by the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit. There are many more cases we could give. Undoubtedly God did lead his people by such means. But is our situation parallel to theirs? These were God’s covenant people being led to a new land. They had no Bible to guide them in that journey, and no mistake could be permitted in the destination. These were the days of many miracles because God was doing a new thing. In a sense these were the days of immaturity for Israel. Just as a parent must spoon-feed a young child so Israel needed to be spoon-fed as they came to grips with new revelation. Now God’s people have come to maturity and have the Bible so that they can seek wisdom to live according to his revealed will.
So it was also in the early church. God was doing a new thing, establishing his new covenant people. There were many miracles, but as the new apostolic revelation was reduced to writing, and the churches were given the New Testament Scriptures, so the need for miracles and supernatural guidance diminished.
Once again we stress that God may at times lead us by circumstances, by feelings and even by supernatural means. But we are not to seek guidance by these means. The Bible is enough. It is not the Bible plus, but the Bible by itself that, as a general rule, will provide all the guidance we may need. How thankful we should be that we can know the will of God. But let us go beyond that – let us do it!