Wisdom along the Way

By J. I. Packer

One way in which evangelicals differ from most Roman Catholics and liberals is that they are constantly uptight about guidance. Does any concern command more interest or arouse more anxiety among modern Bible-believers than discovering the will of God for one's life? I do not think so.

It was of evangelicals that Joseph Bayly wrote in 1968: "If there is a serious concern among Christian students today, it is for guidance. Holiness may have been the passion of another generation's Christian young men and women. Or soul winning. Or evangelizing the world...But not today. Today the theme is getting to know the will of God."

Again, it was of evangelicals that Russ Johnston declared in 1971: "I've spoken at many conferences where part of the afternoons are [sic] set aside for workshops...If you make one of the workshops ‘Knowing the Will of  God,’ half the people sign up for it even if there are 20 other choices."

And it was of evangelicals that Carry Friesen reported in 1981: “Interest in the subject of guidance is consistently high...The demand for magazine articles and books on the subject continues unabated. People continue to seek guidance on guidance.”

My own experience confirms this: so, I am sure, does yours. I find that the more earnest and sensitive a believer is, the more likely he or she is to be hung up somewhere about guidance. And if I am any judge, the evangelical anxiety level on the subject continues to rise.

Why is this? we ask. The answer does not seem to be far to seek. The source of anxiety is a desire for guidance linked with uncertainty about how to get it and fear of the consequences of not getting it. Such anxiety has an unhappy way of escalating. Anxious people get allured by any and every form of certainty that offers itself, no matter how irrational: they become vulnerable to strange influences and do zany things, the sight of which makes the guidance issue more perplexing for the rest of us than it was before. Over the past 150 years there has been a most unhelpful buildup of tension, to a point where it muddles minds, darkens counsel, and obstructs maturity in a way that is Spirit-quenching and scandalous.

If God uses the following paragraphs to relax some of the painful anxieties about guidance that Christians currently feel, I shall be overjoyed. When muscles are hurting, relaxation is the first step towards a cure, and the same is true of guidance worries.

First, then, let it be said that the desire to know God's guidance is a sign of spiritual health.  Healthy believers want to please God. Through the great change of heart that we call regeneration they have come to love obedience and to find joy in doing God's will, and the very thought of offending him grieves them deeply. To live in a way that shows gratitude to God for His grace is their purpose, indeed their passion, and as they grow spiritually so this desire becomes stronger. Naturally, therefore, they want as clear indications of the will of God as they can get, so that they may do it.

Reinforcing this desire is the feeling of bewilderment that swamps most modern Westerners at the vast range of choices in every field that our civilization opens to us. A wish for help in decision-making is an understandable reaction. Some would rely for this on gurus, palmists, astrologers, clairvoyants, Ann Landers, and specialist counselors. Healthy Christians, however, while valuing human advice, look to God also. There are, after all, in Scripture many promises of divine direction, and many testimonies to its reality in the lives of biblical saints, in light of which it would be positively wrong for a Christian not to seek God's help in making choices, commitments, and other decisions.

But now, second, let it be said that the fear of spiritual ruin through mistaking God's guidance is a sign of unthinking unbelief.

In saying this I have a particular fear in mind, one that I have met many times in my ministry. Other pastors meet it too: it is  very widespread. It does not seem to be the product of any one school of thought, but to be the kind of twisting of truth that our fallen minds, with their legalistic bias and their inclination to view God as an ogre, naturally fall into. Satan, who loves to misrepresent God and make Him seem ugly naturally sponsors it!

It may be stated as follows: God's plan for your life is like an itinerary drawn up for you as if by a travel agent. As long as you are in the right place at the right time to board each plane or train or bus or boat, all is well. But the moment you miss one of these preplanned connections, the itinerary is ruined. A new one may then be devised, but it can only ever be second-best compared with the original perfect plan.

The assumption is that God lacks either the will or the wisdom or both to get you back on track: therefore a substandard spiritual life is all that is open to you now, and though you may not actually be on the scrap-heap, losing your soul, you are certainly on the shelf, having forfeited much of your usefulness. Your one mistake thus sentences you to live and serve God as a second rate Christian forever.

Many Christians run scared all their lives, fearing such disaster at every point of a major decision, while others trudge along with heavy hearts, believing that this fate is already upon them by reason of some imprudence long ago. In either case, the fruit that fearful fancy bears is bitter.

The kernel of truth in the above scenario is that ordinarily one has to live with the human and material consequences of the decisions one makes, and bad decisions have sad consequences from which we cannot expect to be shielded. But beyond that the fear described expresses nothing more respectable than unbelief regarding the goodness, wisdom, and power of God who so far as our fellowship with Him is concerned can and does restore the years that the locusts have eaten (see Joel 2:25). Scripture shows us a number of saints making great and grievous mistakes about the will of God for them—Jacob fooling his father, Moses murdering the Egyptian, David numbering the people, Peter boycotting Gentile believers, for example—yet none of them thereby became incurably second-class. On the contrary they were each forgiven and restored, which in fact is how all true saints live all the time.

Misconceiving God's will is surely less sinful than knowing and not doing it, and if God restored David after his adultery with Bathsheba and his eliminating of Uriah, and Peter after his threefold denial of Christ, we should not doubt that he can and will restore Christians who err only through making honest mistakes about his guidance.

The last phrase paves the way to my third point: the embracing of wrong ideas about God's way of guiding causes many wrong conclusions about the right thing to do.

The basic fault here, from which all the rest spring, is disregard of a principle that is writ large in Scripture—too large, perhaps, for some of us to see. (Yes, I mean that seriously: have you never yourself described something as too obvious to be noticed?) The principle is that the right course is always to choose the wisest means to the noblest end, namely the advancing of God's kingdom and glory. The moral law delimits the area within which the choice must be made (for sin is out of bounds: the end never justifies the means), and God-given wisdom, comparing the short—and long-term effects of alternative courses of action, will lead us within these limits to the best option. That option will always be the greatest good, or in invidious situations, where no course of action or inaction is free from regrettable aspects, the least evil.

In making our choice, one invariable rule is that that which is merely good (“good enough,” as we say) must never become the enemy of the best. It is never enough to ask, as the Pharisees did, whether such and such a course of action is free from taint of sin: the Christian's question should be, is it the best I can envisage for the glory of God and the good of souls? God enables us to discern this by prayerfully using our minds—thinking how Scripture applies, comparing alternatives, weighing advice, taking account of our heart's desire, estimating what we are capable of. Some might call this common sense, but the Bible calls it wisdom, and sees it as one of God's most precious gifts.

Is there a personal touch from God in all this? Most certainly. Those whom God wants in the pastorate, or in cross-cultural missionary work, or some other specialized ministry, are ordinarily made to realize that they will never get job-satisfaction doing anything else. When God has in mind a particular career for a person He ordinarily bestows an interest in that field of expertise. When God plans that two people should marry He ordinarily blends their hearts. But God's inclining of the heart (as distinct from our own self-generated ambitions and longings) are experienced only as meshing in with the judgments of wisdom. Thus, a passion for an unsuitable person as a life partner, or for a ministry beyond one's ability-level, should be seen as a temptation rather than a divine call.

But over the past 150 years a different approach to Christian decision-making has established itself, one which plays down the significance of thought and wisdom in the quest to know God’s will. A mode of guidance more direct and immediate than the forming of a wise judgment on the matter in hand has come to be desired. Why is this? The desire seems to reflect a mixture of things.

One is the anti-intellectual, feeling-oriented, short-term mentality of today's secular culture, invading and swamping Christian minds.

Another is an admirable humility: believers do not trust themselves to discern the ideal course of action, and hence long to have it directly revealed to them.

Another is the quite false idea that what God wants his children to do is irrational by ordinary standards, and not therefore something to which wisdom as such would direct us.

Another is the fancy that, since each Christian is a special object of God's love, special instructions from God can be expected whenever he or she has to make a significant decision—a fancy that seems to reflect as much of childish egoism as it does of childlike faith.

Another is the presence in Scripture of guidance stories involving direct revelation, stories on which latter-day narratives of guidance are verbally modeled, leaving the impression that guidance is usually given this way.

Some seek guidance by making their minds blank and receiving what then rises into consciousness as a divine directive. This was a daily devotional routine in Frank Buchman's Oxford Group (afterwards, Moral Re-Armament), and it undoubtedly kept people honest with their own consciences, often to good effect. But murky urges and self-indulgent dreams, as well as pricks from conscience, will surface at such times, and those who assume that whatever “vision” fills the blank is from God have no defense against the invasion of obsessive, grandiose, self-serving imaginations spawned by our own conceit.

Others, like the diviners of ancient paganism and the devotees of modern astrology, hope to be told facts about the future in the light of which they may chart a knowledgeable course in the present. This is what guidance means to their minds. But Scripture directs us to live by God's revealed will of precept, rather than by any such pryings into His hidden will of purpose as Deuteronomy 29:29 says: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God: but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”

Others, again, rather than seeking to work out by wisdom the best and most God-honoring thing to do in a situation of choice, will draw lots, or set up situations in which they ask God for signs (a practice loosely based on Gideon's action recorded in Judges 6:36-40, and therefore sometimes called “fleecing”): or else they will wait for a “prophecy” or dream or vision or a heavenly voice in their inner ear. Sometimes they succeed in inducing the experience they seek, as did covetous Balaam: there are few experiences that cannot be induced if one wants them badly enough. Many have been led in this way to embrace wildcat schemes and immoral follies, believing that God has approved or even instigated what they have found themselves longing so hard to do. 

A similar mistake is to find in Scripture private messages from God which in fact are no more than one's own reading into the text of senses that cannot be read out of it. My long-time friend and teacher Alan Stibbs would tell how, having promised to server a church in the north of England, and then been invited to an attractive post in South Wales, he read in Isaiah 43:6 the words “I will say to the north, Give up,” and got the idea that here God was. promising him providentially to terminate his prior commitment so that he might be free to do what at that moment he felt he most wanted to do. It didn't happen, and when Alan looked again at his text and saw (for the first time, as it seemed) that it goes on—" . . . and to the south, Do not withhold"—and that it concerns the gathering of God's people from all over, the scales fell from his eyes and he saw how he had been fooling himself with his original fancy.                                            

God is sovereign, and very gracious to those who humbly seek Him. No doubt He has on occasion given guidance by all the way-out means I have mentioned, and no doubt He will again. But such cases are exceptions, and to expect them to be the rule is to ask for trouble. What sort of trouble? Either delusion and misdirected zeal, or apathy and lack of motivation, as one concludes that because no guidance of this immediate sort has reached one recently there is nothing particular that God wants one to be doing just at present. Which is worse—fanatical activity, or passive idleness? Is it worse to be lunatic or to be lazy? Make up your mind; I cannot make up mine! Each extreme is very bad. But a biblical approach to guidance will save us from trouble of both types.

How may we formulate such an approach? In future articles I hope to go into that thoroughly, but for the moment I offer the following as a summary:
 1. Live with the question, what is the best I can do for my God?
 2. Note the instructions of Scripture: the summons to love God and others, the limits set and the obligations established by the law, the insistence on energetic action (Eccl. 8:10; I Cor. 15:58), the drilling in wisdom to enable one to make the best choice among behavioral options.
 3. Follow the examples of godliness in Scripture: most of all, imitate the love and humility of Jesus Himself. While that is what we are doing, we cannot go far wrong.
 4. Let wisdom judge the best course of action: not only the wisdom that God gives you personally, but the corporate wisdom of your friends and guides in the Christian community. Don't be a spiritual lone ranger: when you think you see God's will, have your perception checked. Draw on the wisdom of those who are wiser than you are: take advice.
 5. Take note of any nudges from God that come your way—any special concerns for ministry and service, and restlessness of heart which might indicate that something needs to be changed.
 6. Cherish the divine peace which, as Paul says, “garrisons” (guards, keeps safe and steady) the hearts of those who are in God's will.
 7. Observe the limits set by circumstances to what is possible, and when it is clear that those limits cannot be changed accept them as from God.
 8. Be prepared for God's guidance on a particular issue not to appear until the time comes for decision about it, and for God to guide you one step at a time: for that is how He usually does it.
 9. Be prepared to find God directing you to something you thought you would not like, and teaching you to like it!
 10. Never forget that if you make a bad decision it is not the end of everything: God forgives and restores. He is your covenant God and Savior: He will not let you go, however badly you may have slipped. “Rejoice not over me, O my enemy: when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me.”

That is a word of great comfort for all who seek to live by the guidance of God, and who sometimes find themselves uncertain whether they have grasped it, or afraid that they have missed it. The Lord is my shepherd; He leads me; I need not be uptight! What a relief it is to know that.

This article was previously published in Eternity Magazine, April 1986.

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