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.
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
Or, "Apply to med school and become a
Or, "Sell all you have and move to the
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
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
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
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.