True Guidance

By J. I. Packer

In two previous articles I urged that God ordinarily guides His children in their decision-making through Bible-based wisdom. I dismissed the idea that guidance is essentially an inner voice telling us facts otherwise unknown and prescribing action in light of them, and I criticized the way some Christians wait passively for guidance and “put out a fleece” when perplexed, rather than prayerfully following wisdom's lead. By now, I am sure, there are mutterings: readers are feeling that I have played down, and thereby dishonored, the guiding ministry of the Holy Spirit. One cannot say what I have said in the steamy Christian atmosphere of 1986 without provoking that reaction. So there is need now to discuss the Holy Spirit's part in guidance in a direct way.
 
The last thing I want to do is to dishonor, or lead others to dishonor, the Holy Spirit. I hope I shall be believed when I say that. But the fact must be faced that not all notions that seek to honor the Holy Spirit succeed in their purpose. There is such a thing as fanatical delusion, just as there is such a thing as barren intellectualism, and overheated views of life in the Spirit can be as damaging as “flat-tire” versions of Christianity that understress the Spirit's ministry. That is specially true in relation to guidance.
 
What does it mean to be “led by the Spirit,” a phrase of the Apostle Paul's, in personal decision-making? That phrase, found in Romans 8:1 4 and Galatians 5:18, speaks only of resisting sinful impulses, not decision-making as such: however, the question of what it means to be Spirit-led in choosing courses of action remains a proper and important one. What I have said so far in this series suggests the following answer to it.
 
The Spirit leads, first, by giving us understanding of the biblical guidelines within which we must keep, the biblical goals at which e must aim, and the biblical models that we should imitate, plus the bad examples from which we are mean to take warning.
 
He leads, second, by giving us wisdom through prayerful thought and taking advice to see how we can best follow this biblical teaching.
 
He leads, third, by making us want God's glory and growth in grace with the result that our vision of spiritual priorities becomes constantly clearer, and our resources of wisdom and experiences for making each next decision  when the time comes are constantly increased,                           
 
He leads, finally, by making us delight in God's will as we discern it, so that we find ourselves wanting to do it because we know that it is the good way for us to walk in. It is promised that wisdom's paths will be “ways of pleasantness” (Prov. 3:17) and that means, among other things, that if at first we find ourselves disliking what we see to be God's will for us, God will change us at that point if we let Him. God is no sadist, directing us to do what we do not want to do so that He can see us suffer; rather, He has joy in store for us in every course of action to which He leads us, even those from which we shrink at first and which do in fact involve outward unpleasantness.
 
No one, I hope, would dispute any of this, but some would certainly say that it is only half the story. Part of what being Spirit-led means, they would tell us, is that one receives instructions from the Spirit through prophecies and inward revelations, as repeatedly happened to godly folk in Bible times (see, for instance, Gen. 22; II Chr. 7:12-22; Jer. 32:19; Acts 8:29, 11:28, 13:4, 21:11; I Cor. 14:30). They would urge that communications of this kind are a fulfillment of God’s promise that “your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it, when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left” (Is. 30:21)  They would link up some at least of these impressions with the Spirit-given “word of knowledge” of which Paul speaks in I Cor. 12:8.  They would insist that this is divine guidance in its highest and purest form, and that Christians should therefore seek it constantly, and that those who play it down thereby show that they have too limited a view of what life in the Spirit really is.
 
Here I must come clean.  I know that this line of though is set forth in good faith by good folk, many of them, I am sure, better Christians than I am: yet I think it is simply wrong, and harmful into the bargain, and I shall now argue against it.  Yet I choose my ground with care, for it seems to me that some of the arguments made against this view are as bad and damaging as is the view itself.  Here, as elsewhere, the way of wisdom is like walking a tightrope, from which one can fall through overbalancing either to the left or to the right.  As, in Richard Baxter’s sharp-sighted phrase, overdoing is undoing, so overreacting is undermining.  The following paragraph keeps to seek to keep this in mind.
 
First to clear the ground: the issue here is not whether a person’s life in the Spirit is shallow or deep, as if it were certain that the further one advances spiritually the more one will seek and find guidance of the sort described.  Nor is the issue whether God has so limited Himself that He will never communicate directly with any present-day Christian as He did from time to time with one another in the Bible story.  In my view there is a biblical warrant either for correlating spiritual maturity with dependence on direct divine guidance, or for denying that God may still indicate His will to His servants in a direct way on specific matters. The real issue here is twofold: what we should we expect from God in the way of direct impressions, and what should we do with any invading impressions that actually come our way.
 
Take the latter question first. What should Christians do when they find themselves suspecting that God has told them directly to say or do something? Surely they should face up to the follow facts:
 
1. If anyone today receives a direct disclosure from God on any matter at all, it will have no canonical significance: that is, it will not be meant to become part of the church's rule of faith and life, nor will the church as such be under any obligation to acknowledge the disclosure as revelation: nor will anyone merit blame for suspecting that the disclosure was not from God at all. If the alleged disclosure is a prediction (as when, for instance, Rees Howells, founder of the Bible College of South Wales, Predicted in the 30s. in his book God Challenges the Dictators, that there would be no second World War), Moses assures us that there is not even a prima facie case for treating it as genuinely from God until it is seen to have come true (Deut. 18:21 f.). If the alleged disclosure is a directive (as when, for instance, a leader claims that God told him to found a hospital or university or mission or crusade of some kind), any who associate themselves with his project should do so because wisdom tells them, that it is needed, realistic, and God honoring, not because the leader tells them that God directly commanded him (and by implication them) to attempt it.
 
Those who think they have received immediate indications of what God will do, or they should do, will be wise, therefore, to refrain in all situations (worship services, board meetings, gatherings of family or friends, preparation of publications, or whatever) from asking others to agree that a genuine direct revelation has been given them. Right-minded Christians would have to greet such a request with resolute silence, however embarrassing that might be.
 
2. Guidance in this particular form is not promised: for it to occur is extraordinary, exceptional, and anomalous. No Scripture leads us either to hope for it or to look for it (Is. 30:21, which at first seems to point this way, is actually promising a supply of wise teaching, not of inward voices speaking apart from what is written). Any, therefore, who believe that a direct revelation has been given them should not on this account expect such a thing ever to occur again; and the idea that specially holy persons may expect this sort of guidance often, or that such experiences are a proof of their holiness and of their call and fitness to lead others, should be dismissed out of hand.
 
3. Any direct communications from God will take the form of impressions, and impressions can come even to the most devoted and prayerful people from murky sources, like wishful thinking, fear, obsessional neurosis, schizophrenia, hormonal imbalance, depression, side effects of medication, and satanic delusion, as well as from God.  So impressions need to be suspected before they are sanctioned, and tested before they are trusted. Mere confidence that one’s impressions are God-given is no guarantee at all that this is really so, even when, as sometimes happens when they bound up with noble purposes, they persist and grow stronger through long seasons of prayer. Bible-based wisdom must judge them—which brings us back to where this article began.
 
Two tragedies of unjudged impressions come to mind as I write this, both involving godly men who were greatly used in spiritual ministry. First, Rees Howells, of whose impression that God would not allow a second World War because it would impede evangelization I have spoken already: later, when the war was on, Rees enforced on the community of his Bible college his impression that God through him was forbidding marriage to all who wished to serve the Lord in the best and most thorough-going way. Predictably, great human havoc resulted from this unscriptural folly.  Again some years earlier, the American Frank Sandford had an impression that he with others should cruise the Atlantic in a yacht to intercede for worldwide revival: when a colleague fell sick he had an impression that they should not put in to port for treatment and hence the man died. After the prison term that Standford’s action incurred he had an impression of being called to reproduce the hidden life of Elijah prior to the contest at Carmel so he did, living entirely incognito save to a handful of friends until his death. These are examples, it seems to me, of unjudged impressions and their sad fruit. To follow impressions, however much they are bound up with the holy concerns of evangelism, intercession, piety, and revival, is not the way to be Spirit-led.
 
Cases of following unjudged impressions, particularly when they concern sex, money, and power, are, alas, two a penny these days; they make the Lord’s enemies blaspheme, and discredit the whole idea of a guided life. It is no wonder if in reaction some conclude that no specific impressions are given by the Holy Spirit at all and that any claim to them must be a delusion. But that is wrong too.  Impressions—not ordinarily revelations of information, but rather focusing of concern—belong to the authentic reality of Christian living. When we say we have a “vision” or “burden” for something, we are testifying to an impression, and when our concern is biblically proper we are right to treat our impression as a nudge from the Holy Spirit.
 
Nehemiah speaks of what “God put into my heart to do for Jerusalem” (Neh. 2:12), and, as we know, by prayer, persuasion, and push, he got it done. Paul and Silas “attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them" (Acts 16:7)—that is, an inner impression restrained them. God, as they soon discovered was leading them to Greece. Paul's "mind could not rest” while evangelizing Troas, because Titus had not come (II Cor. 2:12: “mind” is “spirit” in the Greek, meaning a mind enlightened by God's Spirit). So he left, evidently construing his restlessness as God prompting him to go in search of Titus rather than continue the Troas mission. These are three biblical examples of saints feeling pulled or pressed by God in particular directions and this is an experience which most Christians, know quite frequently.                                 :
 
My point therefore is not that the Spirit of God gives no direct impressions, but rather that all impressions must be rigorously tested by appeal to biblical wisdom—the corporate wisdom of the community, be it said, as well as any personal wisdom, one has—lest impressions that are rooted in egoism, pride, head-strong unrealism, a fancy that irrationality glorifies God, a sense that some human being is infallible, or any similar unhealthiness of soul, be allowed to masquerade as Spirit-given. Only impressions verified as biblically appropriate and practically wise should be treated as coming from God. Those who receive impressions about what they should believe and do ought therefore to suspect them, and suspect their own hearts as a possible source of them until this testing has been thoroughly done.                     -
 
The radios of my youth would crackle with atmospherics, rnaking reception impossible. All forms of self-centeredness and self-indulgence, from surface-level indiscipline and lawlessness to the subtlety of grandiose elitism or the irreverence of not obeying the guidance you have received already, will act as atmospherics in the heart, making recognition of God's will harder than it should be, and our testing of impressions less thorough and exact. But those who are being “led by the Spirit” into humble holiness (Paul's thought when he used that phrase) will also be “led by the Spirit” in judging their impressions, and so will increasingly be enabled to distinguish the Spirit’s own nudges from the posturings of impure and improper desire. “He...teaches the humble His way” (Ps.25:9). Blessed, then, we may sat, are the pure in heart; for they shall know the will of God.