October 15, 2007

The Exceptions
And the Rules
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A friend of mine, while in college, attended a revival meeting. It 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 his request might actually be granted.

Well . . . the lighthouse never budged (sorry to disappoint you). And, thankfully, my friend finally concluded his request was presumptuous. He 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 making 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 extraordinary evidence not only to persuade us of God’s existence, but also to convince us of what he wants us to do. It’s in relation to guidance that serious Christians most want a supernatural manifestation. We long for God to break through the void and address us in an unmistakable way--through an audible voice, a visible sign, a dream, a vision--removing all doubt about his will for us.

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 our backyard grass 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 only too easy to understand. We are painfully aware that we have only one life to live, that our time is terribly limited, and we dreadfully fear missing the mark in any major life choice. Supernatural guidance, we imagine, would give us the clarity we need and quench our fears about missing God’s will.

The desire to avoid responsibility, too, can make us susceptible to wanting supernatural guidance. While it’s wonderfully freeing to know that God wants us to take responsibility for our decisions, this means making effort and taking risk. How much easier if God would just intervene and guide us in a manner so stunningly clear that it removed our need for initiative, and absolved 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 numerous instances of it in Scripture. Some Christians conclude that these examples are meant to show the norm for us as believers today. If people of faith in the Bible were guided supernaturally, and we are now saints on equal footing with them through the work of Christ, shouldn’t we also expect such leading from God?

It’s likely, too, that we know Christians who claim to have received supernatural guidance. They may be our friends or others in the body of Christ whom we esteem. In reality, many who make this claim are referring only to a one-time or very occasional instance. Yet we may infer more than this from what they say. We assume they’re talking about their normal experience of guidance, or implying what ours personally should be.

Some Christians do have significant and genuine experiences of supernatural guidance. Sometimes the most rational Christian will admit to having had an experience of guidance that defied the rational. A pastor I know, who is far from mystical in his leanings, speaks openly about a cherished experience of God’s presence and enlightenment that took place unexpectedly while he was 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 he suddenly felt the hand of Christ on his shoulder prodding him forward. This startling incident 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 wonder if we’re less mature spiritually than those who have, or if our approach to knowing God’s will is flawed. For each of us, the critical need is to have a clear perspective on supernatural guidance. We need to understand when--if ever--it might be reasonable to expect it, and why--if never--we’re not privileged to experience it.

The Biblical Norm

Some pastors and teachers insist that we should be open to supernatural guidance as a regular experience. Most, though, caution against expecting it frequently. The stock reason they give for not counting on it is that, unlike the saints of the Bible, we now possess the full canon of Scripture and are indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

But this rationale is really beside the point. The early Christians in Acts had received the Holy Spirit yet still experienced supernatural guidance at times. And the guidance they received wasn’t a revelation of moral or doctrinal truths--such as comprise Scripture--but direction for personal decisions that they couldn’t have found in Scripture anyway. Thus, even though they were filled with the Spirit, they still needed occasional direct guidance from God, and would have even if they had possessed the entire New Testament.

But while the stock answer misses the point, there are substantial reasons why we shouldn’t normally expect supernatural guidance today. One is the scarcity of it in the early church. When we examine the many personal decisions noted in the New Testament, we find that most were made simply through practical reasoning, with no supernatural guidance involved. Even Paul rarely experienced it. Acts records less than ten incidences when he did, and the evidence is overwhelming that supernatural guidance seldom played a role in his day-to-day decisions.

Furthermore, it’s by no means evident that the typical Christian in the early church ever received such guidance, or even that most of the apostles did after Pentecost. It was clearly was a decidedly exceptional experience in the New Testament church.

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

Then there are practical reasons why God wouldn’t normally choose to guide us supernaturally. For one thing, the experience could be terribly frightening to us. Martin Luther notes, “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 Bethesda, Maryland, prayed hard for a supernatural revelation from God. When it finally came, he said, it scared him half to death!

Beyond this obvious psychological hazard, supernatural guidance could pose severe trials for our faith. We might be inclined to think of ourselves as more spiritual than others who haven’t had our experience. Supernatural guidance also could make the decision process too easy for us, robbing us of the incentive to take the sort of responsibility for our choices that truly develops faith.

Exceptions to the Rule

While we shouldn’t normally expect supernatural guidance, though, neither should we go to the other extreme of assuming it never occurs in our present age. Certain occasions might arise where God would decide to guide us supernaturally, and Scripture leaves open these possibilities. The most probable: we are young in the faith and not yet ready to take full responsibility for a major decision. God, then, might provide special guidance to get us over the hurdle. This isn’t to say that God intervenes in this way with most new Christians. But it does explain why some young believers have special experiences of guidance that are not repeated as they grow older in Christ.

God might also communicate with us supernaturally if he wished to lead us to do something we would never consider through reason alone. This possibility, of course, could occur at any point in our Christian experience. In most of the examples of supernatural guidance noted in Acts, believers were led to conclusions they wouldn’t have reached by logical thinking.

In some cases the guidance was repugnant to reason. When Philip was led by an angel to go to a desert road (Acts 8:26), it was highly unlikely he would have chosen 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 road to Damascus, the guidance God gave him--to preach the gospel!--could not have been further from his intentions. And Paul’s vision to venture into Macedonia (Acts 16:9-10) came at a time when he had hit several dead ends, and was undoubtedly perplexed about the next step to take.

Another reason God might guide us supernaturally would be to provide us with an unmistakable point of reference, to serve as reassurance in the face of future challenges or trials. This was most likely God’s strategy in commissioning Paul so dramatically. Bob Mumford observes:

“Paul had the need for a strong point of reference he would never forget! . . . 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 must be added that God could guide us supernaturally for reasons known only to him--perhaps to remind us that he is free to communicate with us in any way he chooses, and isn’t bound by our preconceptions!

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

We must be careful, too, not to think of ourselves as less spiritual, or less privileged, than those who have received supernatural guidance. Such guidance could, in fact, signify spiritual immaturity on the part of the one receiving it as much as anything. God might use it to jar someone into realizing that he is headed in the wrong direction, whereas ideally she should have reached this conclusion without dramatic aid. It wasn’t flattering to Paul that God took such extreme measures to get his attention on the Damascus road!

Of course, the fact that one has received supernatural guidance doesn’t necessarily indicate that he or she is immature spiritually, and we should refrain from judging anyone on this basis. But neither should we judge ourselves for the lack of such experience. We should simply trust that God will provide us each the enlightenment we need to walk within his will, and in a manner that best contributes to our own growth in faith.

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This article is adapted 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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