Reading the Road Signs
“I was reminded by conversations with some of you during the break that I should announce that we will follow my presentation with an opportunity for questions and answers. You might want to jot down your questions as we go along.” The stragglers hurried to find their seats as Bill Thompson prepared to continue his seminar.
“There is great joy in knowing that as believers we do not have to fumble through life trying to find our own way. We have seen that God has a blueprint for each of our lives, an ideal life-plan for each individual. Outside of knowing God as our Savior and knowing God as our Sanctifier, knowing God as our Guide is the most important knowledge in life.
Discovering God’s Individual Will
“The third question we are now ready to answer is: What is the correct process for discovering the individual will of God?
“God’s individual will has been likened to a blueprint or a road map for a believer’s life. Before such a blueprint or map can be useful it must be clearly understood. I recall an incident from my college days when a carload of us students were trying vainly to locate the home assigned for our evening lodging when someone [questions/chart] figured out that our homemade map was upside down. We hadn’t appreciated how lost we were until we realized that all of our lefts should have been rights, and all our rights should have been lefts!
“Similarly, Christians have misconceptions about God’s individual road map for their lives. Some of these misconceptions are very common [Figure 7], and I think it would be helpful to correct them before we construct a proper approach to seeking God’s guidance.
“Misconception number one is what I call the Syllabus Search. In college classes each teacher hands out a syllabus which outlines all of the required work for the whole semester. God’s will, however, is not usually revealed like a complete syllabus. It is more like a scroll that is unrolled little by little. Normally, God will reveal your life-plan slowly and progressively. Just as God, by the pillar of cloud, led the children of Israel step by step and day by day, so He will lead you one step at a time. So don’t pray for a syllabus, but rather ask God to unroll your scroll enough for you to see the next step that He wants you to take.
“The second misconception perceives God as a Celestial Killjoy. Some believers are not wholehearted in their search for God’s will because they are afraid of what they might find! They unconsciously think of God as a Cosmic Scrooge who delights in sending people as missionaries to obscure African jungles where the heat is unbearable, the language unspeakable, the food indigestible, and the snakes inhospitable.
“This is a gross caricature of God. He is a loving Heavenly Father who delights in bringing joy to HIs children. There is no place in the world where you can find as much happiness, security, and fulfillment as in the very center of God’s will.
“Misconception number three concerns the Bionic Missionary. The idea is that missionaries are a unique breed of superhuman Christians. People speak only of ‘the call to the missionary,’ or ‘the call to the minister’ as though these are the only believers that God calls.
“Now God does call missionaries and pastors. But He also calls printers, nurses, mechanics, carpenters, and housewives to their life-work as well. One’s vocation is just one part of God’s overall blueprint. Such an important aspect of your life could scarcely be omitted by the Master Designer. God’s vocational call is for saints only–not for missionaries and pastors only. [Figure 7]
“The fourth misconception concerns the requirement for White Hair Only. Maturity will certainly help in discerning God’s will, but the newest Christian who is properly taught can discover God’s will. Indeed, new believers must make decisions just like older believers. An open, willing heart is needed to know God’s will – not white hair. God guided young Joseph, young Daniel, and young Jesus before they had a single grey hair.
“Misconception number five is that of the Lightning Flash. Now lightning did flash and a voice was heard when Saul of Tarsus received guidance on that Damascus road. But such a manifestation is neither normal nor necessary. The Holy Spirit dwells personally in your heart. It is more normal for God to speak through a still small voice, as He did with Elijah, rather than through fire, lightning, or earthquakes (1 Kings 19:12). If lightning flashes, you will not miss it. But do not think you have missed God’s individual will because you saw no lightning.
“The final misunderstanding that we will correct this morning is one I have entitled the Presidential Problem. Some believers have inadvertently assumed that God’s individual will is only concerned with earthshaking choices in our lives. God, however, is aware of the fact that most of our biggest decisions are preceded and brought into being by many smaller events and decisions. The date that seems so insignificant now could turn out to be a date with the woman you will later marry. That is one reason why God cares about the small things in your life and why His individual will for you is detailed. It is detailed so we can cast every decision upon Him – even the non-presidential ones.
“Having cleared out some potential stumbling blocks, we may now move on to consider that process by which we may properly discern God’s will. As we have noted, the individual will of God has been compared to a road map that shows the one road we should take through life. God does not show us our whole journey all at once. It might be more accurate to say that we are given our directions by means of road signs along the way.
“Now literal road signs guide us in different ways. A huge sign over an expressway may guide us miles in advance: `Highway 67/Exit 4 miles.’ A small street sign on a corner pole may guide us moments before we must turn onto a side street: `Lexington Ave’. God gives us ample road signs pointing to His individual will for us. In fact, there are seven such signs that He graciously provides to assure that we arrive safely [Figure 8].
“The first road sign is the Word of God. We noted earlier that the Bible does not reveal God’s individual will, but only His moral will. However, since God’s individual will (the “dot” is always within His moral will (the circle), [Figure 8] the Bible is indispensable as a road sign. The individual will is always in the general direction to which the Bible points. It is like a sign that says: `Divided Highway/Keep Right.’ Anything to the left contradicts the Bible’s commands, and God’s will is never to be found in that direction.
“In choosing a mate, once again, God declares that all un- believers are to the left-prohibited. The correct mate is always found among believers, so stay to the right. Further signs will have to be followed in addition to God’s Word to find the specific person, but the road sign of the Bible is absolutely essential. If you miss this sign, you will not even remain on the right road to see the others.
“The Bible is filled with guidance that touches upon countless decisions. The committed Christian will read it, study it, and meditate upon it in order to find direct commands or principles that relate to specific decisions. Don’t forget that the Old Testament is filled with hundreds of accounts of men and women of God making decisions. The book of Acts in the New Testament shows how the early church and its leaders were guided by God. Treat your Bible as if it were overflowing with God’s guidance – for it is.
“I should add one word of caution concerning the use of the Bible in seeking guidance. The Bible must be understood according to the original intent of the author when he wrote to the original readers. In other words, it must be interpreted historically and grammatically as it was originally intended to be understood. To twist the original meaning of the text in an attempt to discover God’s individual will for me is a misuse of Scripture and will prove to be misleading.
“For instance, if I read in my Bible that God instructed a Prophet to go to Jerusalem, does that mean that God wants me to sign up for a Holy Land tour? No. Or suppose that on the day before a national election I read that David was chosen to be king over his taller brothers. Does that mean I should vote for the shortest candidate? No. That is not the point of the author. The words of the Bible should not be applied in a manner contrary to the original intent.
“Having said that, I must also acknowledge that there are godly men who disagree with me on this issue. They testify in principle and in practice that God does sometimes give specific guidance through the Bible. An effective modern-day missionary to China testifies that God used words directed to Moses to confirm his own leading to China. He had been concerned that he would not be able to learn the language of the people. But God said, `Now then go, and I, even I, will be with your mouth, and teach you what you are to say.’ He took the words personally and wrote `China’ over Exodus 4:12. Still, I do not suggest that you use the Bible in this way. Even these men, who do not agree with me, would tell you that such guidance from the Bible is uncommon and should be sought only with great caution.
“The second road sign is circumstances. The believer knows that no circumstance develops by chance. God is the sovereign Ruler over all things including the circumstances which surround the decisions you must make. You read your Bible because God wrote it. You should also read providence because God controls it. Through His control of circumstances God can reveal His in-ividual will to you.
“Open and closed doors are two of the most obvious ways that God uses to reveal His will for you. If you apply to several medical schools, and they all turn you down, you should probably conclude that God is closing doors and saying, `No’. This is not God’s will for you, but He has something better behind another door. God also leads by opening doors that you never expected. This is often God’s way of indicating, `Yes, this is My will for you.’ Paul was directed to stay in Ephesus by an open door (1 Corinthians 16:8-9), and he regularly prayed that God would open other doors for him (Colossians 4:3).
“At times God will bring unexpected, unlikely circumstances together with precise timing to reveal His will. The skeptic may claim that such remarkable combinations are merely coincidental, but the believer sees more and knows better. The believer also has the assurance that just as the Holy Spirit enlightens us to understand Scripture, so also He helps us to understand the meaning of providence. For He is the believer’s Guide (John 16:13; Romans 8:14).
“We must, however, use caution with this road sign. Experienced saints know that sometimes a door may look closed, but in reality God is using that circumstance to test and strengthen that person’s faith. You may find that God is saying, `Wait, and I will open this door later.’ Furthermore, one should not impulsively jump at every door that is not locked. A door could be open, but other road signs from God may tell you to pass it up.
“The most common question that is asked about circumstances is whether it is valid to `put out a fleece.’ This is the practice of asking God to speak directly through a providential sign agreed upon beforehand. For example, someone might pray, `Lord, if You want us to sell our home, please have someone inquire about it next week without our advertising its availability.’ An inquiry during the next week would be a `yes’ answer from God, and lack of such inquiry would amount to a negative reply.
“The term `put out a fleece’ comes from the story of Gideon in Judges 6:36-40. Gideon asked God to answer ‘yes’ or `no’ concerning his battle against the Midianites through the use of a fleece of wool. In the morning, if the fleece was wet with dew, but the threshing floor was dry, then God would be answering ‘yes.’ God granted Gideon his request for such guidance. Only the fleece was wet and Gideon did gain victory over the Midianites.
“Is such an approach valid today? Some Bible teachers do not think so. They reason, first, that this practice was used only in an age when the Holy Spirit did not indwell all believers. Furthermore, they point out that Gideon’s request was not born of faith, but of his doubts and fears (Judges 6:15-18, 36-37). Finally they warn that such a practice could be easily misused.
“While these objections have merit and deserve our careful consideration, I believe that there are persuasive reasons from Scripture for using this method. The indwelling Holy Spirit does give us additional guidance today. But that does not change the fact that God also controls circumstances and can reveal His will through them. If God was gracious enough to reveal His will through this method to a doubter like Gideon, would He not be even more willing to respond in like manner to the request of faith? Indeed, that is exactly what He did with Abraham’s servant in Genesis 24.
“Abraham sent his trusted servant to Haran to find a wife for his son Isaac. The servant obeyed Abraham and trusted God to guide him on the journey. He asked God to use a circumstantial sign to reveal the right bride for Isaac (Genesis 24:14). Even before he finished praying, Rebekah appeared and immediately fulfilled the ‘yes’ sing by providing water not only for the servant, but for his caravan of camels as well (Genesis 24:15-20)
“The experience of Abraham’s servant has been shared by other saints through the ages, confirming that God is responsive to the sincere requests for guidance from His children even today.
“To guard against improper use of this method for finding God’s individual will, I would suggest four guidelines which I see illustrated in the biblical examples: (1) put out a ‘fleece’ infrequently and only as a last resort–not as the first step in making a decision; (2) during a time of sincere prayer, agree with God on the circumstantial sign to be used; (3) select a sign that is a clear, definite, and somewhat uncommon occurrence; and (4) use this approach for more important decisions–not for trivial daily matters.
“The third road sign is the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. Since the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit has come to dwell within each one who puts his trust in Jesus Christ. The Spirit has many wonderful ministries, but one of the most exciting is His leading and guiding of believers (John 16:13; Romans 8:14; Galatians 5:18).
“It is a somewhat delicate task to describe exactly how the Spirit speaks within the heart of the believer. This inward guidance is like God’s peace which is clearly experienced, but beyond our full ability to put into words (Philippians 4:7). God is a Person and He speaks to us personally. Just as it is impossible to prove a salvation experience to an unbeliever, so it is impossible to prove the experience of the Spirit’s inward guidance to the unbeliever.
“Bible teachers have attempted to find some words and expressions that help describe this guidance. Such guidance is called `the voice of the Spirit’ since it is the Holy Spirit speaking to us. It is called the `inner voice’ because it comes from within our heart and not from outside our body. It is described as `the still small voice’ in contrast to physically audible sounds such as the wind, earthquake, and fire perceived by Elijah (1 Kings 19:12).
“‘Inner impression’ is another expression that is used to distinguish such leading from direct supernatural revelation such as that given to the prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:1-3) or the Apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 1 2:1-4). It is called `inner pressure’ or `inward urging’ because it is so insistent that it cannot be ignored. The strength of such an impression is emphasized by calling it the `inward burden’ or inward compelling’ of the Holy Spirit. Some refer to it as the guiding impulse’ because the Spirit’s direction often is unexpected and comes quickly when such immediate guidance is needed. It is also called the `inner witness’ because it is a testimony from the Spirit concerning the individual will of God (Romans 8:16).
“A most common designation for the Spirit’s work in guidance is the expression `peace of God.’ We experience His peace when we are fully obedient and in the center of God’s will. On the other hand, when we begin moving in the wrong direction, we experience restlessness and inward anxiety – in other words, lack of peace.
“Colossians 3:15 is an important verse on this subject. It says, ‘Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.’ The verb rule means ‘to act as an arbitrator, or umpire. ‘ In Paul’s day, the word described the activity of officials ruling over the Greek games, making judgments and decisions at each event. Paul is saying that when we face decisions, we should allow the peace of God to call the decision like an umpire. Through this inner peace God says, `Yes, this is My individual will for you.’
“From these descriptions, we can formulate a definition of the inward witness of the Holy Spirit. It is that ministry of the Spirit in which He guides the believer through personal impressions and inner peace within the heart to reveal God’s individual will.
The fourth road sign is mature counsel from other believers, A counselor who knows his Bible can help you to discover what the Word of God says about the decision you face. In addition to this, he may be able to share valuable insights from his own Christian experience which God can use to direct you into His individual will (Proverbs 24:6).
“As helpful as counselors are, this source of guidance does have definite limitations which makes it less reliable than some of the other signs already described. For instance, different counselors may give conflicting advice. Unfortunately, all fellow Christians are fallible, since they are human. One must remember that the Holy Spirit is our final Counselor in all leading, though He often uses human counselors along the way.
“The fifth road sign is personal desires. There are two extremes to avoid in evaluating your own desires in your search for guidance. The first extreme is what I call the `filthy rags’ complex. The Bible says that our righteousness before God is like filthy rags. It also says that the heart is `deceitfully wicked’ and not to be trusted. Some people assume from such statements that even after salvation all their personal desires are probably selfish. If such a person really wants to do something, he immediately suspects that it cannot be God’s will! He forgets that God’s salvation gives us a new heart and begins renewing our desires. As long as we live in these bodies in this world, our natural desires often will conflict with those of God. However, the more we grow in grace, the more our desires will begin to line up with God’s desires. So don’t automatically reject those options that you really want to do, for God is washing those rags a little more every day as we grow.
The second extreme is what I call the `identical twins’ theory, and is the exact opposite of the `filthy rags’ complex. Based on a possible interpretation of Psalm 37:4 and Philippians 2: 13, the idea is that if I am really dedicated to the Lord, my desires will always be identical with the Lord’s. This view looks inviting because it is always easier to determine one’s own desires than it is to discover the Lord’s will. The problem is that the `twins’ are not always identical. Even Jesus had to pray, `Not My will, but Thine be done.’ Paul experienced great inner conflict (Romans 7) and taught that Christians will always experience internal warfare as the flesh lusts against the Spirit (Galatians 5). Unfortunately, we will never be sinless in our desires until we are with Christ in heaven.
“The right approach is a balance between the two extremes. God is not a `Celestial Killjoy,’ as we have already said. God’s individual will for each of us will bring happiness and joy. When we are in the center of His will, we can expect that our real desires will correspond perfectly to His. So we may expect that often our desires may be an indicator pointing to the very thing God wants us to do. As a Christian, you should not think of your desires as being ‘filthy rags’ or `identical twins,’ but they will serve as a valuable road sign to God’s will.
“The sixth marker is common sense. Here is a road sign that is easy to see, but is often ignored by immature travelers in the faith. For some reason, there are many believers who think that God’s individual will must always be something uncommon, unexpected , or even a bit bizarre. One has only to look at creation, however, to see that God is a God of order. He created man with common sense and He is not disappointed if we use it! In fact, the book of Proverbs repeatedly urges us to seek wisdom and shun the folly of the naive. The first deacons were expected to be full of wisdom (Acts 6:3) and it is required of church elders that they be prudent (1 Timothy 3:2) and sensible (Titus 1:8).
“Yet, we must always recognize that our common sense does not always see things the way God’s divine wisdom does. Our thoughts are not always God’s thoughts when we lean completely on our own understanding. God’s will must never be boxed in by our common sense. For common sense would never have prompted Noah to build an ark in a land where rain had never fallen. Common sense would never have motivated Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Common sense would not have compelled Philip to leave a successful revival to speak to one lone foreigner in the desert. The strategy for the battle of Jericho could hardly be the product of common sense.
“In my own ministry I was once impressed by the Spirit to abandon a sensible work schedule to go to the hospital for no apparent reason. Upon arrival, I found opportunity to speak with a dying man who had no pastor and had asked the nurse for a chaplain. I am sure that many of you have been prompted to pray for a certain individual you had not seen for some time. Later, you learned that on the very day you prayed, your friend was undergoing severe testing.
“I would suggest that guidance which appears to go against common sense should be followed only if the Lord gives you very clear and definite leading. In most cases, common sense will point in the direction of God’s individual will. But never forget that we have a very uncommon God.
“The seventh road sign is that of special supernatural guidance through an audible voice, an angel, a vision, a trance, a dream, a prophecy, or a miracle. Has this road sign disappeared? Most saints travel the whole road of life and never receive a single supernatural message. As a matter of fact, that is true of the great majority of believers in the Bible. The book of Acts records only a handful of such experiences (Acts 8:26; 9:3-6; 10:3,10; 13:2; 16:9-10). Scripture and experience agree that such supernatural guidance is not to be normally expected. With the completed Word of God and the indwelling Holy Spirit, a strong case can be made that such further direct communication is no longer needed.
“Should we say, then, that such guidance cannot happen today? It is always risky, perhaps even presumptuous to tell God what He can or cannot do. So we must leave open the possibility that He could use such means. Do not, however, pray for such guidance, or feel that you must have it before you can make a decision. When God spoke through supernatural means in the Bible, He usually did it unexpectedly. Such revelation was usually the product of His initiative – not the long prayers of men. Thus we conclude that special supernatural guidance is neither normal nor necessary to find God’s individual will for you . . . but if an angel should tap you on the shoulder, listen real good.
“To sum up, God has graciously mapped out a specific plan for your life which we call His individual will. Because He wants you to know that will, He has provided seven road signs which point the way. These signs are the Word of God, circumstances, the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, mature counsel, personal desires, common sense, and possibly special supernatural guidance. These road signs are fully sufficient to guide you directly into the center of His will.” [“Road Sign…” chart]
Excerpted from Decision Making and the Will of God (c) 1980, 2004 by Garry Friesen. Used by permission of Multnomah Publishers, Inc. Excerpt may not be reproduced without prior written consent of Multnomah Publishers, Inc. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.