Bible Reading Today’s scripture reading comes from Proverbs chapter three, verses 5 to 6; and James chapter 1, verses 5 to 7.
Proverbs 3:5-6: 5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. 6 Seek his will in all you do,
and he will show you which path to take.
James 1:5-7: 5 If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking.
6 But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind.
7 Such people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord.
For most of us, particularly those of us who by personality like to keep our options open, having to make decisions about the big decisions of life is one of the hardest things to do. For Christians, the problem is compounded by our desire to know and do God's will. We worry that if we make the wrong decision, we may not only be letting ourselves down, but God too.
That’s why these two readings from the Book of Proverbs and the Epistle of James that we read this morning have always spoken powerfully to God’s people wanting to know God’s will: ‘Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; 6in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.’
And: ‘If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking.’
The basic message here is that God does guide us providing we approach the decision-making process with the right attitude - one of faith, humility and a genuine openness to what God wants.
There are three ways in which God's guidance normally comes to us. The first is through the things He has already made known. In the teachings of Christ and his Apostles there are certain clear and unmistakable principles that God has laid down - especially in matters of morality and ethics. When we come up against a situation where one of these clear, unmistakable principles applies, we don't have to agonize in indecision, wondering which way we should go. We follow the principle that God has laid down - even if it seems unpalatable to us, and even if it seems likely to disadvantage us.
I saw a powerful example of this when I was a young minister and starting to get involved in the wider work of the denomination I belonged to. One of our congregations got taken over by a group of primarily new members, who’s energy was fired up by a new minister who came from a rather fundamentalist background.
At first, the older members had been delighted at this influx of new, enthusiastic people, and welcomed them into positions of shared leadership. However, it all changed when the new minister and his supporters, who now had a majority on the Church Board, announced unilaterally that the congregation was to leave the denomination. A congregational meeting was called, and the long-term members arrived to register their protest, only to find their names had been removed from the list of members eligible to vote.
Well, things went from bad to worse, including an altercation outside the church which resulted in an ambulance being called. When the local media got hold of the story, that congregation’s reputation in the community got trashed and the church ridiculed. So, the former leaders, now disenfranchised, appealed to the State Conference to mediate a solution. But the minister refused to participate, claiming that possession was 90% of the law. This left the State Conference with no choice except to take the matter to the Equity Court so that the buildings and assets could remain with the body that had built and paid for them.
It was then that I had my first great lesson in the importance of discerning God’s will through principles clearly enunciated in the New Testament, even when it means suffering loss. One of the wise old men on Conference Executive spoke of Paul’s words in 1st Corinthians about the scandal of Christians settling disputes amongst themselves by taking fellow believers to court. He drew attention especially to Paul’s words that say: ‘These court cases are an ugly blot on your community. Wouldn’t it be far better to just take it, to let yourselves be wronged and forget it?’
So that’s what they did. The Conference decided to let the hi-jackers have the stolen property, and to help the others establish a new congregation elsewhere. Some people said it was a bad decision. But I was proud of them. They believed there was a clear Biblical mandate for what they had to do. There was therefore no need to pray for guidance. They also believed that being seen to be true to the spirit of Christ’s teaching was more important than an unholy fight over money and property. And this illustrates my point that the first way in which we receive God’s guidance is through those principles that are clearly and unambiguously revealed in the New Testament scriptures.
The book of Proverbs tells us to ‘Trust in the Lord with all our heart; and not depend on our own understanding. But to seek his will in all we do, and he will show us which path to take.’ In other words, it says that if we want to know what God wants us to do, we need to approach the problem with the right attitude; one of faith, humility and honestly wanting to do God's will. And one of the chief ways in which God does guide is through what that great Bible teacher, Dr. Sidlow Baxter, called: ‘sanctified common sense.’ He used to say: ‘God never gives special guidance as a substitute for sanctified common sense.’ In other words, God has given us brains so that we should use them.
But it’s not just common sense; it’s 'sanctified' common sense. ‘Don’t depend on your own understanding,’ the Bible says. But seek his will in all you do, and he’ll show you which path to take.’ In other words, we apply our own common sense to the situation, but we do so prayerfully, asking God to help us to use our intelligence to understand the path we should take.
When I’m facing important decisions and am unsure which way to go, there are four things I usually try to do. Firstly, I try to get all the facts, so that I understand clearly what is at stake and what options are open to me. Secondly, I talk to people whose judgement I respect and I seek their advice. I usually try to make sure that I talk to at least one person whose perspective may be different to mine. Then thirdly I pay careful attention to circumstances, because God, I believe, most often guides us through circumstances – the opening and closing of doors, as it were. When I find myself coming up against barriers that I just don't seem able to get round. It causes me to ask myself if God may be trying to tell me something through this. So, I back off, and take a different course and frequently find new doors opening to me. Because God, I believe, often guides us through such circumstances.
Finally, if I’m still perplexed, I hold back on making a final decision until it’s due to be made. So, if the decision is due in a month's time that's when I make it. I’ve learned that hasty decisions are often bad decisions, made when our judgement is clouded by emotional factors we may not be aware of at the time. So, when I find myself still unsure what to do, even after thorough consideration, I find it helpful to deliberately stop thinking about the matter until it’s time for the decision to be made. I allow my subconscious to work on it. And invariably, when the time comes for the decision to be made, I find the confusion has gone and the way ahead for me is now quite clear in my mind.
It’s the application of sanctified common sense; and God’s guidance, in my experience, most frequently comes through this.
I believe that God does guide us in the important decisions we have to make. Sometimes guidance comes through clear, unmistakable principles of scripture. When we don’t have such clear guidelines available, I believe God requires us to use our own sanctified common sense, looking at the facts, getting advice, paying attention to circumstances. But there are times when something more is needed; times when we are not able or willing to discern God’s will through the normal processes of sanctified common sense. These are the occasions when special guidance may occur. We often read about such things in the Bible.
The Apostle Paul is a good example of this. There were times when God guided him through dreams, visions and prophecies. We tend to assume that people like Paul constantly received such things. But it’s possible they only happened rarely – no more than the few instances we read of in the book of Acts. But they do illustrate the point that God does sometimes guide us in special ways. Sometimes we call it 'The Inner Light'; sometimes 'the still small voice', or maybe we just refer to it as a hunch.
Whatever name you give it, the universal Christian experience is that such things do happen when God wants to move us in directions we are unable to perceive through rational processes. It’s happened to me occasionally. I remember once having the strangest feeling that I ought to make a call on a certain home. I kept putting the thought out of my mind, but it wouldn't go away. Finally, I gave in and I drove to that home, knocked on the door but there was no answer. I was about to go away when the thought came to me to go and look through the kitchen window. And there was the mother, sitting at the table with a bottle of whiskey and a container of sleeping tablets. She’d been sitting there trying to pluck up courage to kill herself. Now there was no way that God could have shown that to me through the normal means of guidance. But call it hunch, inner light, or the still small voice, that's how He guided me at that time.
Many Christians find that in times of quietness and contemplation as they try not only to talk to God, but also to listen to Him, certain thoughts and insights become clear. If they keep a journal or notebook in which they record these thoughts, they may find certain things keep reappearing, and through this they become aware of God's special guidance. There are times when intellect alone is not enough. In those times God may speak to us inwardly, and experience has shown that special guidance is real – rare perhaps, but real.
And so, when we face the problem of making decisions about important things, God doesn’t leave us to flounder. God does guide. But we have to learn to discern that guidance. The Book of Proverbs tells us not to ‘lean not on our own understanding…but in all our ways to submit to him, and he will make our paths straight.’ And the Book of James tells us that ‘if we lack wisdom, we should ask God to give it to us…but we must ask in faith, believing that God will give it.
This is not just an attribute of spiritual giants. It’s something God wills for us all. The secret – if you can call it that – is in our attitude: honesty and humbly wanting to do God’s will. Then stepping out in faith and doing what our innermost being tells us we have to do – even if we find it disconcerting to do so. In all your ways submit to Him, ask trustingly for wisdom, and he will direct your paths