September 1, 1999

The Exceptions
And the Rules
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A friend of mine, while in college, once attended a youth revival meeting. The event was held in a picturesque oceanside setting, in view of a lighthouse some distance out in the water.

Though my friend wasn't a Christian at the time, he was warming to the possibility. Yet he felt the need for proof of Christ's reality. When the speaker urged those present to give their lives to Christ, my friend bowed his head and prayed, "Lord, if you are real and what I'm hearing about you is true, please pick that lighthouse up and move it ten yards to the right." For some time he waited, believing that his request might actually be granted.

Well . . . the lighthouse never budged (sorry to disappoint you). And, thankfully, my friend eventually concluded that his request was presumptuous. He finally decided to commit himself to Christ on the basis of faith alone, without the need for supernatural proof.

Yet his example brings to mind how instinctive it is to want God to communicate with us supernaturally. Because God himself is pure supernatural, it's only natural to think he would bend the rules of nature in his effort to make contact with us. Most people, Christian or not, long to see supernatural demonstrations of the existence of God. Like my friend, they may imagine that a single convincing preternatural act would be enough to push them over the threshold of faith.

We long for the supernatural not only to persuade us of God's existence, but also to convince us of what he wants us to do. For the serious Christian it's in the area of guidance that the desire for supernatural evidence is often most strongly felt. We long for God to break through the void and communicate with us in a direct, unmistakable way, removing all doubt about what he wills for us to do.

As I once heard a speaker aptly put it, we wish we could wake up one morning, look out the second-story window and see twenty--foot letters carved in the grass of our back yard saying, "Move to China and become a missionary."

Or, "Apply to med school and become a doctor."

Or, "Sell all you have and move to the inner city."

Or, "Marry Frank."

This desire for supernatural guidance is easy to understand. We are painfully aware that we have only one life to live and that our time is terribly limited; we dreadfully fear taking a wrong direction in any major life choice. Supernatural guidance, it seems, would give us the clarity we need for our life's direction and quench our fears over making a wrong decision.

Our desire to avoid responsibility, too, makes us susceptible to wanting supernatural guidance. While it's wonderfully freeing on the one hand to know that God wants us to take responsibility for our choices, still that means making efforts and taking risk. It would be so much easier if God would just intervene and guide us in a way that would remove the need for personal initiative and absolve us of all need to think!

Can It Happen Today?

Then there are reasons to think that perhaps we should receive supernatural guidance. For one thing, we find extensive examples of it in Scripture. Not a few Christians who read them conclude that they must be illustrating the normative pattern of guidance for believers today. On the surface that conclusion is only too logical. If people of faith in Scripture were guided in a direct manner, and if we are now saints on like footing with them through the work of Christ, shouldn't we also expect direct guidance from God?

There are those Christians, too, who claim to have received supernatural guidance. They may be our friends or others we esteem as spiritual role models. In reality, many who make this claim are only referring to a one-time or very occasional experience. Yet we may infer more than this from what they say. We may assume they're talking about their usual experience of guidance or implying it should be normative for us as well.

Christians do sometimes have significant and genuine experiences of supernatural guidance. Though these seem to be most common in the early stages of one's Christian walk, they can occur at other times as well.

I'm intrigued with how sometimes the most rational Christian will admit to having had a spiritual experience which defied the rational. A pastor I know who is far from mystical in his leanings, speaks openly about a cherished mystical experience he once had unexpectedly while driving. Or one thinks of John Calvin's decision to return to govern Geneva a second time. Though this great proponent of rational faith wanted to decline the offer, he claimed to suddenly feel the hand of Christ on his shoulder prodding him forward. This left him with little choice about what to do.

Many of us, though, have never had such experiences, even though we may be many years into our Christian walk. We may naturally wonder if we're less mature spiritually, or if there's something fundamentally lacking in our approach to knowing God's will. For each of us the critical need is to have clear perspective on the area of supernatural guidance. We need to understand when--if ever--it might be reasonable to expect it, and why--if never--we are not privileged to experience it.

The Biblical Norm

Many Christians wonder if they shouldn't at least occasionally experience direct supernatural guidance. Some pastors and teachers will answer that, yes, you should expect this sort of guidance as a regular experience. The result is some believers end up frustrated with the lack of such experiences, if not deluded with imagined theophanies. Most pastors and teachers, however, will say that such guidance should not often be expected. The stock reason given is that, unlike the saints of the Bible, we now possess the full canon of Holy Scripture and are now indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

But this answer, when considered carefully, is really beside the point. The early Christians in the book of Acts had received the Holy Spirit, yet they still experienced supernatural guidance at times. In addition, the guidance was not a revelation of moral or doctrinal truths such as comprise the cannon of Scripture but directives for personal decisions which couldn't have been found in Scripture anyway. Thus, even though they were filled with the Spirit, they still needed occasional direct guidance, and this would have been necessary even if they had possessed the entire New Testament.

But while the stock answer doesn't deal adequately with the issue, there are in fact substantial reasons why we shouldn't normally expect supernatural guidance today. First, when all the instances of decision making in the New Testament are considered, we are struck by the sparsity of such guidance in the early church. It seems that in the great majority of instances where decisions were made there was no experience of supernatural guidance. This seems true even with the apostle Paul; Acts records less than ten examples of direct guidance received by him, and the evidence is overwhelming that in the bulk of his day-to-day decisions supernatural guidance played no role.

Further, it's by no means evident that the typical Christian in the early church ever received supernatural guidance, or for that matter that many of the apostles experienced it after Pentecost. It must be concluded that supernatural guidance was a decidedly exceptional experience in the New Testament church.

Even more important, there is no statement in the Old or New Testament telling us either to seek or to expect supernatural guidance. If God had wished us to rely on such guidance as a normal approach to knowing his will, he would surely have given us a command to that effect within his Word.

Furthermore, there are several common-sense reasons for not expecting supernatural guidance. For one thing, such direct, dramatic encounters with God could be terribly frightening to us. Martin Luther states, "Our nature cannot bear even a small glimmer of God's direct speaking. . . . The dreams and visions of the saints are horrifying . . . at least after they are understood." The late James H. Miers, former pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., said that he prayed hard for a supernatural revelation from God. When it finally came, it scared him half to death! Beyond this obvious psychological hazard, we can also see that supernatural guidance could pose severe trials for our faith. We might be inclined to think of ourselves as more spiritual than others. And we wouldn't be motivated to take the sort of personal responsibility for making decisions that really develops faith.

Exceptions to the Rule

But while we must conclude that we shouldn't normally expect supernatural guidance, we should avoid going to the extreme of thinking such guidance never occurs in our present age. There might be certain occasions where direct leading would be necessary, and Scripture leaves open these possibilities. The most probable would be where one is young in the faith and not ready to take full responsibility for a major personal decision. This isn't to suggest that all or even most new Christians receive supernatural guidance. But it does explain why some young believers have special experiences of guidance which are not repeated as they grow older in Christ.

Or there might be occasions when God would wish to lead us to do something which we would never consider doing on the basis of reason alone. This situation, of course, could occur at any point in our Christian experience. In most of the examples of supernatural guidance noted in Acts, it seems that believers were led to conclusions they wouldn't have likely reached through normal decision making.

In some cases the guidance was repugnant to reason. When Philip was directed by an angel to go to a desert road (Acts 8:26), it was highly doubtful he would have decided to do so on his own. Reason would have dictated staying in Samaria, where an intensive revival was underway and his services were needed. Likewise, when Paul was struck down on the Damascus road, the guidance given could not possibly have been further from his present intentions. And the vision to venture into Macedonia (Acts 16:9-10) probably came at a time when he was perplexed and lacking logical insight into the next step to take.

In other cases, God's purpose might be to provide an unmistakable point of reference through direct leading which would serve as reassurance in the face of future challenges or trials. Most likely this divine strategy was in mind in the dramatic commissioning of Paul, as Bob Mumford observes:

"Paul had the need for a strong point of reference . . . , something he would never forget! God told Ananias in the vision, 'For I will show him (Saul) how great things he must suffer for my name's sake.' Paul was beaten, jailed, stoned, and left as dead for the sake of the gospel. But God had spoken to him in proportion to the degree of challenge he would face. . . . And he never forgot what happened to him on the road to Damascus."*

Finally, it is also certainly possible that God could guide supernaturally for reasons known only to him--perhaps to remind us that he is free to communicate in any way he chooses and is not bound by our preconceptions!

But on the basis of what Scripture demonstrates as normative, we are certainly justified in concluding that supernatural guidance is not something we should normally expect or seek as Christians. Those who do receive it will probably not experience it often, and most of us will never receive it.

We shouldn't think of ourselves as less spiritual because God hasn't intervened directly in our lives in this way. Supernatural guidance, in fact, could signify spiritual immaturity as much as anything. God might use it to jar someone into realizing that he or she is headed in the wrong direction, whereas ideally they should have reached this conclusion without dramatic aid.

Of course, experiences of supernatural guidance do not necessarily indicate spiritual immaturity, and we should refrain from judging anyone on this basis. But neither should we judge ourselves for the lack of such experiences. We should simply trust that God will provide each of us the enlightenment we need to walk within his will, and in a manner that will best contribute to our growth in faith.

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This article is excerpted from chapter 11 of Blaine's Knowing God's Will: Finding Guidance for Personal Decisions (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1991).

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