Paths of Righteousness
By J. I. Packer
It is generally felt that guidance is a tricky subject, and most of us have had first-hand experience of what we would call guidance problems, either our own or those of others whom we have tried to help. Why do so many such problems arise? Where do the difficulties come from? Alas, most of them are of our own making. In our quest for God’s guidance we became our own worst enemies, and our mistakes attest to our nuttiness in this area.
What happens? Regularly we go into a twofold tailspin. On the one hand, we lose theological control, so that erratic superstitions take us over. To start with, we isolate and narrow the guidance issues as if it related to major decisions that involve sizable risks for the future, like the choice of a life partner, or a vocational and an employment, or of a place to live and work in one’s calling. That isolation is a fruit of bad theology in itself, and opens the door to further mistakes of supposing that guidance regularly comes “out of the blue,” as well as say, like an oracle reflecting facts about the future that we ourselves do not and cannot know. Those who look for guidance through a prophecy, inner voice, “fleece,” or a random selection of Bible verses are clearly under the spell of this misconception.
Then, on the other hand, we embrace the romantic fancy that all true guidance experience can be reported in terms of the formula, “the Lord told me” thus and so; in other words, that they are all experiences producing absolute confidence about the rightness of one specific line of action. In the absence of such experience we say that we have not received guidance as yet; if however, after prayer we find ourselves with a pressing urge in our mind, we hail it as “my guidance” and defy anyone to argue us out of it. Are we right? Probably not, either time. Yet this idea of guidance is so well established in our thinking that a recent book could call it the “traditional” view.
What shall we say of it? The first thing to say is that this idea of guidance is actually a novelty among orthodox evangelicals, not going back further than the last century (Of its pre-history among Anabaptists, Quakers, and various sects it would not be much kind to speak). Then, second, it has led good people to so much foolish actions on the one hand, and so much foolish inaction on the other, and so much puzzlement and heartbreak when the “hotline” to God seems to go silent, that it must by now be regarded as somewhat discredited. Third, it has been said that Scripture gives us no more warrant to expect “hotline,” “voice-from-the-control-tower” experiences of personal guidance than to expect new authoritative relations to come to us for the guidance of the whole church.
Certainly God's guidance is promised to every believed and certainly some individuals in the Scripture stories (Gideon, Manoah and his wife, and Philip, for instance) received guidance in “hotline” fashion—just as some individuals in these stories received revelations of universally authoritative truth, and just as Gideon’s “hotline guidance given by theophany, was later confirmed to him by remarkable things that happened to a sheepskin on two successive nights. But we must learn to distinguish between the ordinary and the extraordinary, the constant and the occasional, the rule and the exception. God may reveal Himself and give guidance to His servants any way He pleases, and it is not for us to set limits to Him. But one question is, whether or not we are entitles to expect “hotline” disclosures on a regular basis. To this question, so I urge, the correct answer is “no.” All the biblical narratives of God’s direct communications with men are on the face of it exceptional, and the biblical model of personal guidance is something quite different.
Scripture presents guidance as a covenantal blessing promised to each of God’s people in the form of instruction on how to live, both in broad policy terms and in making particular decisions. “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you" (Ps. 32:8). “Good and upright is the Lord; therefore He instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble to what is right and teaches the humble His way” (Ps. 25:8f.). How does God guides? By instructing. How does he instruct. Partly by His shaping of our circumstances, and partly by His gift of wisdom to understand and digest the teaching of His Word and to apply it to ourselves in our circumstances. So God’s regular method of guidance is a combination of providential and instructional action. What more He may do in prompting or redirecting decision in a particular case cannot be anticipated in advance nor made subject of generalization in retrospect. But wisdom will always be given if we are humble and docile enough to receive it.
This is to say that God's guidance is more like the marriage guidance, child guidance, or career guidance that is received from counselors than it is like being “talked down” by the airport controller as one flies blind through the clouds. It is to say that seeking God’s guidance, is not like practicing divination or consulting oracles, astrologers, and clairvoyants for information about the future, but rather is comparable with our everyday thinking through of alternative options in given situations to determine the best course open to us. It is to say that the inward experience of being divinely guided is not ordinarily one of seeing signs or hearing voices, but rather one of being enabled to work out the best thing to do.
The classic Bible presentation of the guided life, and of the reality of the guidance that produces it, is surely Psalm 23, that beloved shepherd psalm. Christians should read it as a declaration of it means to be a believer led through life by the God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The picture is of the saint as a divinely shepherded sheep. Silly and apt to stray as I a am (“prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love”), my covenant God will not leave me bereft of either security or sustenance. He provides rest (“besides still waters”), refreshment (“he restores my soul”), protection (“through the valley of the shadow of death”), enrichment (“thou prepares! a table”), and enjoyment (“goodness and mercy shall follow . . . "). Guidance is one facet of that total covenant care whereby the King of Love draws me to the destiny of deliverance and delight that He planned out for me before the world was.
Look more closely at verse 3. “Paths of righteousness” are ways of behaving that are right, and please God, because they correspond to His command and match His moral nature. Vocational decisions that are perceptive and prudent are certainly included, but the basic idea is of being holy as our holy God calls us all to be, and this is where biblical guidance always centers. “For His name’s sake” means: for the furthering of His glory (i.e., responsive praise for revealed praiseworthiness) through his demonstration of covenant faithfulness. The Lord is my shepherd: He is pledged to watch over me, order my travels, stay with me, and bring me safe home, and he will not fail in His commitment. Finally, "He leads me" means that by His instruction within the frame of His providence He gives me wisdom to see the right thing—the best thing, the most fruitful thing, the purest and noblest thing, the most Christ-like and God-honoring thing—that I can do in each situation, and stirs me up to attempt it.
How does God give this discernment? We say it is a matter of wisdom: well, where does this wisdom come from? That question may be answered in two ways. Formally and theologically, the answer is: from God’s Word and Spirit. Personally and experientially, the answer is: from being transformed by God’s grace. Each answer is part of the other: both go together, as follows.
On the one hand, God’s teaching in Scripture is our basic guide for living. Bible history and biography illustrate and enforce, both positively and negatively, the divine demand for faith and faithfulness which so many didactic passages spell out. The Holy Spirit who inspired the Scriptures both authenticates them to us as the Word of God, making us unable to doubt their authority, and also interprets them to us as we read and meditate on them and hear and read others’ expositions of them. Interpretation means precisely: seeing how they apply. Commentaries can tell us what the text meant as an expression of the writer’s mind to those to whom he first addressed himself, but only the Holy Spirit can show us what it means as God's Word of direction for our life today. Only through the Spirit is guidance from Scripture a reality.
Here two points that are often overlooked need to be underlined. First: there are many situations in which the general principles of Scripture are all the guidance we either need or get. In military operations the general will give the field commander his orders of the day in the form of objectives (capture this strong point, defend that position, move troops to such-and-such a place), and leave it to him to devise the ways and means. God often guides us in the same fashion, leaving it to us to use the intelligence He gave us in working out the best way to implement biblical principles and priorities. It is part of the process whereby He matures us in Christ.
Second: the moral law of Scripture, which is the family code for all God’s children, leaves us free to make our own choices as to how we use created things—what interests we pursue, what hobbies we have, and so forth. No guidance is to be expected in these areas beyond the maxims of not letting the good displace the best, not hurting others by the ways in which we enjoy ourselves and not hurting ourselves by any excessive indulgence that diverts our hearts from heaven to earth and from the Giver to His gifts: in other words, the rules of using liberty responsibly.
On the other hand, inward discernment of the best and holiest thing to do is always a fruit of faith, repentance, consecration, and transformation by the Holy Spirit. Familiar indeed are the opening words of Romans 12: “I appeal to you therefore, brethren by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind..." Less often, however is stress, laid on what comes next: "... that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” “Prove” means “discern by examining alternatives,” and Paul s point is that there is a moral and spiritual precondition of being able in each situation to see what God wants done. Those whose minds God is currently transforming may still err about specific aspects of God’s will in areas of life where their residual unwisdom still holds sway, but where no work of inward renewal is progress no adequate discernment of God’s will is to be expected at all. Guidance is God's gift to those who are looking to Him—that means precisely, looking to Jesus Christ—to save them from sin. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble His way (Ps. 25:9, emphasis added).
In this connection we should note the importance of models. The apostles called for imitation of Christ, and also of themselves. What this imitation amounts to is catching the spirit of lowly, costly, self-giving love: love that in its desire to make other persons great spends and is spent up to the limit. Part of the discerning of God's will to which Spirit-taught minds are led is an awareness of the needs to maintain this attitude in all relationships, and of the evil of the ego trips that negate it.
Here, too, the importance of corporateness in our quest to know the will of God needs stressing. We were neither made nor redeemed for self-sufficient aloneness, and it is not to be expected that our private stock of wisdom and discernment will suffice without supplement from outside sources. “In an abundance of counselors there is safety.” We must never be too proud to take advice from persons wiser and godlier than ourselves, and any personal guidance that we think we have received by inner nudge from the Lord ought to be checked with believers who are capable of recognizing unrealism, delusion, and folly when they see it. In these two ways the Spirit regularly uses the fellowship of the body of Christ to deepen each Christian's discernment of God's will, and it is part of the discipline of divine guidance to be ready for the Spirit to speak to us through other believers to confirm His will for our lives.
Such is divine guidance according to the Scriptures. It may be more than this (we have not yet raised the issue of inner nudges, which the final article in this series will take up); what is certain, however, is that it will never be less than this, and any supposed guidance that gets away from the Bible, the limits of possibility set by providence, and the discernment of the regenerate heart as to what most honors and best pleases our savior God must be judged phoney and delusive.
In this age of shallow secularized self-confidence pitfalls here abound, and we need to suspect ourselves and search our hearts time and gain lest we be found fooling ourselves and others by imagining that we have received God’s guidance when really our own fancy leads us astray. Yet God remains faithful, and it may still become every Christian’s honest and true testimony that “He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” Praise His holy name!
This article was originally published in Eternity Magazine.