For a variety of reasons I seem to be encountering more people these days who openly proclaim that God speaks to them personally, audibly, and even regularly. Since I’m finally blogging on this subject I may have to actually give my opinion about this phenomena, but until then, I’ll quote John Stott on this subject from his book Your Mind Matters, which I’ve mentioned before on this blog. This particular section of the book is titled, “The Christian’s guidance.”
That God is willing and able to guide his people is a fact. We know this from Scripture, from its promises (for example, Prov. 3:6, “he will make straight your paths”), from its commands (for example, Eph. 5:17, “do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is”) and from its prayers (for example, Col 4:12, “that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God”).
But how do we discover the will of God? Some Christians claim rather glibly “the Lord told me to do this” or “the Lord called me to do that,” as if they had a hot line to heaven and were in direct and continuous telephonic communication with God. I find it hard to believe them. Others think they get detailed guidance from God through the most fanciful interpretations of Scripture passages which murder the natural sense, violate the context and have no basis in either sound exegesis or common sense.
If we are to discern God’s will for us, we should begin by drawing an important distinction between his “general” will and his “particular” will. The “general” will of God may be so called because it is his will for all his people in general at all times, whereas the “particular” will of God may be so called because it is his will for particular people at particular times. God’s general will for us is that we become conformed to the image of his Son. God’s particular will, on the other hand, concerns such questions as the choice of a life work and a life partner, and the use of our time, our money and our vacations.
Once this distinction has been made, we are in a position to repeat and answer our question about how we may discover God’s will. For God’s general will has been revealed in Scripture. Not that it is always easy to discern his will in complex modern ethical situations. We need to have sound principles of biblical interpretation. We need to study, to discuss and to pray. Nevertheless, it remains true, regarding God’s general will, that the will of God for the people of God is in the Word of God.
God’s particular will, on the other hand, is not to be sought in Scripture, for Scripture does not contradict itself, and it is of the essence of God’s particular will that it may be different for different members of his family. Certainly we shall find in Scripture some general principles to guide us in our particular choices. And I do not deny that some of God’s people down the ages have claimed to receive very detailed guidance from Scripture. Yet I must repeat that this is not God’s usual way.
Take, as an example, the question of a man and his marriage. (The illustration is, of course, equally applicable to a girl.) Scripture will guide you in general terms. It can tell you that marriage is God’s good purpose for mankind, and that a single life is the exception, not the rule; that one of the primary purposes of marriage is companionship and that this is one of the qualities to look for in the girl you hope to marry; that as a Christian man you are at liberty to marry only a Christian girl; and that marriage (the full and permanent commitment of one man to one woman) is the God-ordained context in which sexual love and union are to be enjoyed. These and other vital truths about God’s general will regarding marriage Scripture will tell you. But Scripture will not tell you whether your wife is to be Jane or June or Joan or Janet!
How then are you to decide this major question? There is only one possible answer, namely by using the mind and the common sense which God has given you. Certainly you will pray for God’s guidance. And if you are wise, you will ask the advice of your parents and of other mature people who know you well. But ultimately you must make up your mind, trusting that God will guide you through your own mental processes.
There is good Scriptural warrant for this use of the mind in Psalm 32:8-9. These two verses need to be read together and supply a fine example of the balance of the Bible. Verse 8 contains a pledge of divine guidance: “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.” It is, in fact, a three-fold promise: “I will instruct you, I will teach you, I will guide you.” But verse 9 immediately adds: “Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not keep with you.” In other words, although God promises to guide us, we must not expect him to do so in the way in which we guide horses and mules. He will not use a bit and bridle with us. For we are not horses or mules; we are human beings. We have understanding, which horses and mules have not. It is, then, through the use of our own understanding, enlightened by Scripture and prayer and the counsel of friends, that God will lead us into a knowledge of his particular will for us.
It is urgent to heed this warning of Scripture. I have known several young Christians make serious and foolish mistakes through acting on some irrational impulse or “hunch,” instead of using their God-given mind. Many could echo the confession of Bernard Baruch: “Whatever failures I have known, whatever errors I have committed, whatever follies I have witnessed in private and public life have been the consequence of action without thought.”