June 15, 1998
 Past Guidance and
Present Decisions

Not Locking God In--But Letting His Plan for Our Life Unfold Over Time
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Jennifer is considering a job offer which seems good from every angle except one: she's uncertain how to reconcile it with a past experience of guidance.

When Jennifer was offered her current job as a legal secretary in Sacramento, she was living in Tallahassee. She was a new Christian then, and anxious to be certain about God's will.

On a balmy May afternoon she spent several hours walking a Gulf beach, praying for God's guidance. After praying for about an hour, she felt a surge of conviction that God wanted her to accept the offer. This wonderful feeling of assurance stayed with her for another hour or so, as she continued to walk and pray. That period of inspiration was the deciding point for Jennifer, and she resolved to make the move and take the job. She has thought back to that time often while in Sacramento, and taken reassurance from it that she is where God wants her to be.

Now Jennifer has been offered a new job with a law firm in Denver. She would like to accept the offer. It's a better match for her talents than her present position, and provides a salary boost as well. Jennifer likes the attorney who wants to hire her, and believes she would work comfortably with him.

Yet Jennifer fears she would be disobeying God by leaving Sacramento. Although she has prayed much about it, she hasn't had an experience of inspiration similar to the one she had in Tallahassee. She has seen many practical reasons why she should make this move. She wonders if God may be guiding her through them, and if it's okay to base her decision on these factors alone. But the lack of a definite sense of call to take this step is unsettling to her. Is she obliged to stay in Sacramento until God clearly tells her to leave?

A Common Predicament

Many Christians experience a dilemma like Jennifer's. They struggle with how to integrate past guidance they believe they've received from God with new insights they've gained into their potential, their interests, and their emerging opportunities. Are they locked into their past understanding of God's will? Does it present it a binding call upon them? Or are they free to consider a new direction for their life?

Some, like Jennifer, have had an episode of past guidance dramatic enough that they wonder if they must stay committed to it until God clearly tells them to change course. Many others, who cannot recall a specific experience of guidance, still have lived with an understanding of God's will for their life for so long that they feel uneasy considering any other alternatives.

I've known more than a few Christians who, when they were young--in junior or senior high school, or even earlier--grew convinced that God wanted them to devote their life to a certain career, yet in college found that this option didn't match their potential very well. Discovering that there is a disparity between what they believe God wills for them, and what is realistic for them educationally, is shattering to the idealism of some Christian students. Even harder for some is finding that their own interests have changed, and they are now attracted to a different vocational dream than the one they've long assumed was God's will.

I have personally gone through two periods of career reassessment where I had some difficulty letting go of a past understanding of God's will. For over a year I grappled with whether to shift from a career in music to one in pastoring and teaching. I did decide to make that change, but then, several years later, wrestled with whether to leave a pastoral position on a church staff to begin Nehemiah Ministries. In both cases I had grown so accustomed to a particular identity--first as a musical performer, then as a pastor--that I worried I'd be going against God's will by making the change.

One thing that complicated my decision to leave church ministry was that a pastor friend had told me sincerely that he was convinced God had created me to be a preacher. I esteemed this man so highly, that his advice seemed almost like a divine revelation to me. While I know he simply meant to encourage me, and not lock me in, by sharing his conviction with me, it still became a hurdle I had to jump in deciding to shift from church work to resource ministry.

Binding Calls and Unfolding Calls

Christians who find it hard to reconcile a new direction that seems right for their life with past guidance, usually respond in one of several ways. Some feel compelled to wait for God to give them further guidance so convincing that they'll have no doubt he wants them to make the change.

Others move ahead without such guidance, but experience plenty of guilt in the process.

Still others are spurred to re-examine their basic assumptions about guidance to see whether these have been realistic. Some discover that they've been operating with unreasonable ideas about how God guides--which have led them to read too much into past experiences of guidance, and to expect too much guidance for present decisions. This reassessment is liberating for them, for they realize that God is giving them greater freedom to take a new direction than they had assumed.

When Christians like Jennifer find that a step which seems best for their life now seems to conflict with past guidance from God, they often are thinking of guidance as a static process. They're assuming that God reveals his will for some area of our life once and for all, and that's it; we're then locked into that understanding for a long time, perhaps permanently.

Scripture, though, pictures God's guidance as a dynamic reality. It shows that he seldom reveals very much about his will for our future, but lets us discover it step by step as we move along. And purely practical insights we gain into ourselves and our opportunities are often as important in understanding his will as more dramatic experiences of guidance we may have. While he can give us a call to do something which is binding and non-negotiable, his calls--to vocations especially--are often unfolding, and best understood only as we are in motion. Appreciating this aspect of how God guides can help us greatly in understanding the relationship of past guidance to present decisions.

Paul's Apostolic Call--The Exception or the Rule?

Scripture does give examples of God's mandating someone to follow a vocation permanently as a life commitment. The one that comes to mind most quickly, for most of us, is his calling of Paul to be an Apostle. Paul begins most of his letters with a reference to this call, declaring that he is "called to be an apostle" or "an apostle by the will of God" (Rom 1:1, 5; 1 Cor 1:1; 2 Cor 1:1; Gal 1:1; Eph 1:1; Col 1:1; 1 Tim 1:1; 2 Tim 1:1; Tit 1:1-3). He clearly understood this role as an indelible stamp from God upon his life. Most likely he received this commission by direct revelation from God during his Damascus Road experience.

Many Christians assume that Paul's apostolic call is a model for how they should expect to personally receive God's guidance. They assume that if they're spiritually mature enough, and sufficiently alert to God, he will give them a call to follow a certain career that's as clear and distinct as the one he gave to Paul. He will then expect them to stay on this course until further notice, even for life. This same assumption leads many to believe that they've actually received such a call if, like Jennifer, they've experienced a dramatic or unusual episode of guidance.

Paul, however, never claimed that his experience of calling was normative for other Christians. Nowhere in his writings does he teach that anyone should expect such guidance in vocational decisions, nor do we find him anywhere counseling someone to seek this level of guidance. Rather, he encouraged Christians, in determining God's will for their lives, to consider practical factors--such as their gifts, the opportunities open to them and the counsel of other people.

Paul's Typical Experience with Guidance

But how would Paul counsel someone like Jennifer, who believes she has been called by God to be where she is, but now sees compelling reasons to take a new direction with her life? I believe we find an important clue in an episode from Paul's life described in Acts 16:8-40. It begins with Paul's receiving guidance from God dramatic enough that he perceives it as a call. Yet at several points he responds to this call differently than he did to the one to be an apostle, even revising his understanding of it as he moves ahead.

Luke, the author of Acts, who is traveling with Paul, describes a vision Paul has while they are visiting Troas: "During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, 'Come over to Macedonia and help us.' After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them" (vv. 9-10).

We're told that Paul has a vision at night--possibly a dream--of a man in Macedonia pleading for his help. Paul and his companions conclude from this that they are called by God to go to Macedonia and evangelize. This, interestingly, is the only occasion in the New Testament, outside of references to Paul's apostolic commission, where he is described as "called" by God to do something.

We would logically assume that since Paul received such exceptional guidance to go to Macedonia, his experience will parallel his vision exactly once he arrives: he'll find a man ministering there who is desperate for his aid, and devote himself to helping this man evangelize the Macedonians. We look in vain, however, throughout the detailed description of Paul's visit to Macedonia in Acts 16 for any reference to this man.

Instead, soon after arriving in Macedonia, Paul and his party encounter a group of women praying by a river, and one remarkable woman, Lydia, who is leading them. Paul persuades Lydia to become a Christian. She then convinces Paul and his team to stay at her home. The fact that they accept Lydia's offer is good evidence that Paul has concluded he isn't going to find the man of his vision, for otherwise he probably would be holding out for the opportunity to lodge with him.

Paul, then, makes a significant revision of his "call." What's most interesting is that, while Paul's initial guidance to go to Macedonia came through a supernatural vision, his change of direction resulted from practical insight--his discovery that Lydia and her friends were available for ministry, and that the man of his vision, apparently, wasn't to be found. Paul seemed to place as much weight on such practical factors in understanding God's will as he did upon direct revelation.

One other logical assumption we might make is that, because Paul was prompted to go to Macedonia by a vision which he regarded as a special call, he would be obliged to stay there for a long period of time--at least until God gave him equally dramatic guidance to leave. Yet after a tumultuous episode with some Macedonian businessmen, who fear Paul's ministry is hurting them economically, the town officials ask Paul to leave--and he agrees. In all, Paul stayed in Macedonia probably only several months. And his decision to move on was based not on further dramatic guidance, but on purely practical considerations.

God's Guidance Through Our Filters

From Paul's Macedonian call, then, we learn several vital lessons about guidance. First, the fact that we might receive dramatic or supernatural guidance doesn't necessarily mean we will fully understand the content of that guidance. Nor does it mean that God has necessarily spoken his final word to us on a matter. Some revising of our understanding may be needed as we move ahead. We interpret God's guidance, like anything else, through our own filters; we may grasp some parts of it correctly, but misunderstand others, and need to rethink our conclusions as he enlightens us further.

I suspect, too, that Paul's Macedonian vision--as is typical with dreams--was at least partly symbolic. God may have intended it more as inspiration to get him moving in the right direction, than as a revelation of exact events that would take place. We shouldn't discount the possibility that an inspiration or epiphany we experience is more symbolic than factual. It may be God's means of moving us forward, yet not a precise revelation of what will take place, or what will be required of us. Our future will still take many twists and turns which aren't apparent yet, and we will need to look to God often for fresh guidance about what to do.

Paul's experience also teaches us an important lesson about the role of practical thinking in guidance, and its interplay with more dramatic experiences of guidance we might have. While God may direct us on occasion through supernatural guidance, he more typically reveals the details of his will for our lives through practical information. He has given us a mind, and he expects us to use it! Logical conclusions we arrive at, through observing the circumstances of life, can be at least as important in understanding God's will as the insight that comes through exceptional guidance. And while God may lead us to take an important step with our life through a special call, he may also expect us to modify our understanding of it through practical insight as we move forward.

Paul's experience also demonstrates that God's calls can have their time limits. In the case of Paul's visit to Macedonia, the time limit was fairly brief. This suggests that even if God gives us a dramatic call to do something, the point may come when he expects us to make a practical decision to change directions. While he can give us a special call to move on, it's just as likely he will expect us simply to use good judgment in making this choice.

Reaching the Right Conclusions

Paul's call to go to Macedonia, then, differed significantly from his apostolic call. When God called Paul to become an Apostle, it appears he told him once and for all that he was to fulfill this role for life. This call conveyed a permanent status to him. Paul's Macedonian call, on the other hand, was less precise, and served mainly to propel him to go to Macedonia. Only as he moved forward did the nature of his responsibility in Macedonia become clear, and the time commitment involved.

Scripture, then, gives us pictures of two types of calls God bestows on Christians--the one clear and binding, the other unfolding.

But how should we determine if guidance we receive is meant to place a binding call on our life, or is part of an unfolding one? The answer, I believe, has to do with the clarity and intensity of the guidance. Paul's call to apostleship likely came through his Damascus Road experience. On Damascus Road, and in the days following, Paul heard God's audible voice clearly and distinctly. He had no question who was speaking to him, or about the details of what God was instructing him to do. Moreover, the event was remarkably intense, leaving Paul blinded for several days. God also provided confirmation of his guidance, and further instruction, through Ananias, whom he commissioned to heal Paul of his blindness and counsel him.

Paul's Macedonian vision, on the other hand, was a much briefer, less intense experience. The guidance it conveyed was also less clear than that which came through his Damascus Road experience. Luke notes that after Paul had the vision, those in his party concluded that God had called them to preach the gospel there. The fact that they reached a conclusion about what to do indicates that they had some discussion about Paul's vision and its implications; the vision required some interpretation, in other words.

Even the most dramatic episodes of guidance which you or I receive usually are more similar to Paul's Macedonian vision than to his Damascus Road experience. If that. While we may occasionally have a dream so unusual that it seems like special guidance from God, our guidance experiences are more typically like Jennifer's on the beach. We have an inspiration--a "Eureka-I've-found-it" moment of insight into what we should do. Yet we haven't heard an audible voice, or experienced some other lucid revelation of guidance. We have merely had an impression of what God wants us to do.

God may be giving us important guidance through this impression, to be sure. Still, it's an impression, coming through our own sensors, and subject to all the human factors that can skew our understanding. It's always a safe rule of thumb in such cases to assume that our grasp of God's will is partial at best, and will need some revision as we move forward.

We should expect that if God gives us a binding call to do something, his guidance will be so distinct and emphatic that we'll have no doubt he has spoken to us, and no question about what he's telling us to do. Less intense experiences of guidance, such as a moment of inspiration or a dream, should be regarded as part of an unfolding call. They are part of the enlightenment God is using to steer us in the right direction. Yet we will still need plenty of further guidance as we put our feet in motion.

Staying Flexible and Staying Faithful

Nothing we're saying about the importance of staying flexible with guidance, to be sure, gives us a license to break commitments to others, or to be flighty in the way we live our life. Any time we decide to take a fresh direction with our life, we need to give the new situation a fair chance before considering changing course again. And we always need to look carefully at whether we've made commitments to others--explicit or implicit--which should be fulfilled before we allow ourselves permission to move on.

Some vocational roles require you to promise to serve in them for a specific period of time. Examples include many missionary and ministry positions, where others may be depending heavily upon you to keep your commitment. If you have made such a pledge of service, you should only consider leaving early under dire circumstances (a serious health problem, for instance), or if those who've employed you are willing to release you.

Yet even when we've given a situation a fair chance and wouldn't be violating commitments by moving on, we may still wonder if we must remain bound to a past understanding of God's will, and not allow ourselves to consider new options. In this case, understanding how God's calls are often unfolding can keep us from restricting ourselves unnecessarily.

Jennifer, for instance, has certainly given her job in Sacramento a reasonable investment of her time, and isn't being flighty by considering a change. I believe that Paul would counsel her to take the job in Denver. He would tell her that the guidance she received to move to Sacramento was important. Yet it wasn't meant to lock her in forever, nor was it God's final word on her professional life. It was, in fact, necessary for her to move to Sacramento to be in a position to then receive the offer from Denver, and to be able to understand why it's now the right direction for her to take.

I believe that Paul would counsel any of us who are in a situation similar to Jennifer's to be flexible and open to the possibility that God has new horizons for us. Paul himself showed remarkable flexibility in his odyssey in Acts 16.

His example demonstrates, too, that it's God's nature to bring new adventure into our lives. During our lifetime, he gives us many fresh experiences and challenges, to stimulate us to grow and to realize our potential for Christ. A certain desire for adventure is essential if we're to be alert and open to the best opportunities God makes available for us.

We can have too much wanderlust, to be sure. We can yearn for fresh experience so much that we have difficulty keeping commitments, and fail to enjoy the simple routines of life.

Yet the opposite danger is equally real--that we don't desire adventure enough, become too stuck in the inertia of life and resistant to change. Paul, I believe, shows a healthy balance in the many examples from his life in the New Testament. He longed to grow and to experience all the new vistas God had for him. Yet he was equally determined to be faithful to his commitments, and to find joy in life's ordinary pleasures.

We should pray that God gives us this same balance in our own outlook. When accompanied with an understanding of how he guides us step by step, it will keep us pliable and open to his best, as his plan for our life unfolds.

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