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General Bible Courses > Living by the Book > Guidance by the Book

Chapter 1: Guidance A Critical Concern


IN THIS CHAPTER, you will discover:  

·    That guidance is a primary concern of Christians today.  

·    The difference between moral and personal decisions.  

·    The importance of self‑esteem in making choices.    

AS A RESULT, you will be able to:  

·         Decide which forms of guidance are biblical.  

·         Find help in making moral and personal decisions.  

·         Reach high goals, knowing your self‑esteem is from God.      

My Choice  

Fully and freely the choice I have made,

I will follow Jesus;

AIl on the altar for Him I have laid,

I will follow Him.  

- Mrs. C. H. Morris

First Considerations

Key Scripture: "Teach me your way, O LORD, and I will walk in your truth" (Ps. 86:11).  

"What shall I do, Lord?" was Paul's question when he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 22:10). Today believers are asking that same question. Every Christian - from the newest to the most mature - ­struggles with questions concerning guidance. Even pastors and theolo­gians are searching for keys to God's will. But it matters little how long you have known the Lord or how vast your knowledge of Scripture is. For if you have not personally studied the principles of guidance, then you are undoubtedly struggling with this issue like everyone else.  

Some of the more confusing questions that Christians wrestle with are:  

Personal initiative versus God's divine guidance. Should we pursue an opportunity without special prompting from the Lord?  

How our desires relate to God's will. Does He really grant us the desires of our heart?  

Integrating past inspirations with new insights. Should I remain in this ministry where I was originally called?  

A rational approach versus an intuitive one. Do I find God's will with my mind or heart?  

The method of specific guidance. Should I expect an inner impression or an outward sign?  

Believers are often frustrated because they have not received a direct command as Paul did. Perhaps they have not had clear direction for a vocation or a marriage partner. Moreover, they may have had "leading" about God's will, which in time did not happen as envisioned. Thus they are left wondering: "Did I read too much into it?"  

Natural curiosity and a need for direction initiate a believer's search for divine guidance. Another motivation for seeking God's will is a longing to be accountable to Christ. Most Christians want to live a significant life - one that counts for eternity. At the end of their life they want to hear the Lord say, "Well done, good and faithful servant!" (Matt. 25:21).   Several other factors contribute to a greater need for guidance. Modern life offers such a variety of choices that it is impossible to know which path to take without help. Until recently, people were usually limited in their vocations, either by family tradition or geographical restrictions. A man from an agrarian background usually had just the one option of farming. Moreover, because of the infrequency and inconvenience of travel, geo­graphy also determined one\'s vocation to a great extent. Those living near the sea often became fishermen, while men living near coal mines became miners.  

Today's mobile society offers limitless options for career opportunities­ often hundreds or thousands of miles away from a person's birthplace. The limitations and restrictions of the past have been lifted. In addition, modern technology has created a diversity of occupations unheard of even fifty years ago. From a Christian perspective, the dual advantages of easy travel and high‑tech communication expand the possibilities for serving Christ. Reaching the world with the gospel has now become a distinct possibility.  

However, there is a great disadvantage to having so many choices. The wide range of options not only affects vocational choices but relational ones as well. One case in point is the decision regarding marriage. Multiple problems have arisen, especially through the influence of the media. Its presentation of unreasonable ideals for the perfect mate raises false expectations in those interested in marriage. Some may miss a good marriage opportunity because of a comparison based on fantasy. And the ease of mobility poses other questions: "Have I dated enough? Is the one I am supposed to marry living elsewhere?"

Perhaps the most devastating result of mobility is the removal of a support base for young people. Cut off from the counsel and support of family, friends, and church, young adults are often left floundering in a sea of indecision. When believers have no clear sense of direction, they feel frustrated. Furthermore, because they are never quite sure of their call, many Christians find their work mundane and their marriages unfulfilling. Especially sobering is the thought: "Perhaps I missed God."  

Books, tapes, and sermons on guidance are prolific today. Yet their per­spective is not always well‑integrated, and the solutions they propose frequently contradict each other. Instruction on knowing God's will often confuses believers more than it enlightens them. In spite of this, such teaching often contains an element of truth. Some well‑meaning teachers even elevate these ideas to a guaranteed formula. When biblical teaching is reduced to a simple formula, believers come to the wrong conclusion or no conclusion at all. This oversimplified approach is found in two popular formulas at opposite ends of the spectrum: "Love God and do as you wish" (If you love God, then any decision you make will be in His will), and "Deny your natural inclinations and do the opposite" (Whatever you really enjoy must not be in God's will).

Christians who are desperate for God's guidance may look for shortcuts. Some are merely signs of immaturity while others are outright sin. They may put out a fleece; search for supernatural guidance through signs, visions, and prophecy; obey chain‑of‑command relationships; or use occultist guidance through astrology, Ouija boards, seances, and palm reading. Seeking signs may even become an obsession. To counteract this tendency, a broad understanding of biblical teaching on guidance is needed.  

This teaching stresses what we can normally expect in guidance. As responsible individuals, we are expected to take the initiative and to think things through in most personal decisions. Although there are exceptions, the fundamental truth is that God calls us to take responsibility for our decisions.  

A Light Unto My Path  

"He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way" (Ps. 25:9).  

"For you have delivered me from death and my feet from stum­bling, that I may walk before God in the light of life" (Ps. 56:13).  

"I have sought your face with all my heart; be gracious to me according to your promise" (Ps. 119:58).    

Life Application: List three current personal decisions to be made and several questions which you hope to resolve in this course. 

Types of Decisions

Key Scripture: "In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps" (Prov. 16:9).  

Christians face a variety of decisions, each requiring a different approach to knowing God's will. For that reason, discerning God's will first involves clarifying the type of decision to be made. Two types of questions­ - overriding and secondary - must be addressed before any major decision can be made. The overriding question really determines the type of decision to be made. Therefore, it must be clarified before any secondary questions can be considered. Once the type of decision has been deter­mined, you will know where to look for guidance.  

Understanding God's will for individual decisions differs from the study of moral principles or ethics. God has clearly declared His universal moral will in the Bible; it is the same for all people. Scripture has numerous moral principles concerned with a believer\'s personal life, marriage, and voca­tion. A straightforward moral decision can be determined by a single biblical principle. God's moral will therefore becomes simply a matter of application.  

Jeb, a committed Christian, worked as a salesman for a large insurance company on the East Coast. For the past few months his sales had dropped considerably. Since he was paid on commission, Jeb and his family had to cut back on expenses. Moreover, the outlook for the current month looked very bleak. Seeing Jeb\'s dilemma, a co‑worker offered him several "helpful" suggestions:  

"Get your friends to agree to let you write several big policies using their names. You can pay them the first few months' premiums with a postdated check The money from your com­mission will cover the premiums and give you plenty left over. If anything happens, they are insured; if not, you let the policy lapse. Everybody wins!"  

Jeb considered it for a moment, wondering if perhaps this was God\'s way of helping him out. But then several verses popped into his mind: "The unfaithful are destroyed by their duplicity" (Prov. 11:3) and "The wicked man earns deceptive wages, but he who sows righteousness reaps a sure reward" (Prov. 11:18). Jeb recognized that this was a moral decision already made in Scripture. He knew that his answer had to be "“No."”  

When Christians speak of receiving guidance from God, they are usually referring to significant, complex decisions in issues such as vocation, education, or marriage. These personal decisions are unique to the individual and are usually nonmoral, although moral choices may be involved. The Bible also gives principles of guidance for this type of decision.  

  • Moral and nonmoral decisions are usually categorized as follows:  
  • Clear‑cut moral decisions (Shall I return this overpayment?)
  • Complicated moral decisions (Should I continue life support for a relative?
  • Gray‑area nonmoral decisions (Is it okay for me to drink wine?)
  • Significant nonmoral decisions (Whom should I marry?)
  • Mundane nonmoral decisions (What color shirt do I wear?)  

Even after determining the type of decision to be made, Christians may still be confused. They are often unclear about how much information to expect from God. Usually this expectation seeks too much insight. Some, in a diligent search for answers, mistakenly use the Bible with a crystal ball approach. They look in the Bible for easy answers to every question, use irrelevant words or passages for guidance, or open the Bible and randomly place a finger on a specific verse, fully expecting a word from the Lord. A major problem arises when a believer fails to differentiate between moral decisions - made through reading Scripture - and nonmoral decisions - made through careful thought with all factors considered.  

Marcy really loved Hal. She enjoyed his companionship, his sense of humor, and his apparent concern for her welfare. Just recently they had talked of marriage. The relationship was going smoothly until Marcy was called out of town suddenly because of her mother's illness. When Marcy arrived at her mother's, she tried to call Hal but could never reach him. Although she was very busy, Marcy managed to drop him two short notes. When Hal failed to respond, she was terribly hurt.  

Wondering whether she should continue her relationship with Hal, Marcy opened her Bible for guidance. Her eyes fell on this verse: "Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow" (2 Cor. 2:7). It seemed like such good advice that she tried again. This time Marcy read: 'But, brothers, when we were torn away from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you" (1 Thess. 2:17).  

Marcy felt certain that God had spoken to her concerning Hal, and she returned home reassured. Hal was eager to resume the relationship, and she agreed - never inquiring why he had been negligent nor admitting that her feelings had been hurt. They married soon afterward, but it was a stormy relationship. A lot of pain could have been averted if Marcy had looked for moral principles (1 Cor. 13:7; 1 Peter 3:8; 1 John 3:18) rather than for specific guidance.  

Marcy should have assessed her relationship with Hal using a number of criteria. Note some of the guidelines Marcy might have used:  

  • Do we share a variety of common interests?  
  • How well do we support each other at our points of strength?  
  • How comfortable are we accepting the other's weaknesses?  
  • How often do we laugh together?  
  • Do we build each other up in Christ?  
  • Will we enjoy carrying out marriage responsibilities together?  
  • Do we have a physical attraction for each other?  
  • Do we have unreasonable ideals?  

Even more important, she should have clarified her spiritual compatibility with Hal. Each should have had:  

  • A common commitment to Christ as Lord and Savior.  
  • A similar view of biblical authority.  
  • A similar understanding of biblical family values.  
  • A desire to grow continually in Christ.  

If Marcy and Hal had used these criteria, they might have decided not to marry, thereby avoiding the strife that arose in their relationship.  

A Light Unto My Path  

"The LORD confides in those who fear him; he makes his cov­enant known to them" (Ps. 25:14).  

"Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight" (Ps. 119:35).  

"The integrity of the upright guides them" (Prov. 11:3).      

Life Application: Read Romans 12:12 and Colossians 1:9-14. Determine the lessons you can learn from Paul's wisdom concerning God's will for personal decisions.

God's Personal Will

Key Scripture: "All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be" (Ps. 139:16).  

Distinctive, Not Exclusive  

The apostle John often referred to himself as the disciple "whom Jesus loved" - a phrase which has troubled readers throughout the ages (John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7; 21:20). Although the remark may sound egotis­tical at first, it was not John\'s intention to say that Jesus loved him more than anyone else. He acknowledged that Jesus also loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus (11:5, 36) and all his disciples as well (13:1). But the apostle had received a revelation of the mystery of God\'s love. John discovered that Jesus loved him distinctively, not exclusively - a fact to be embraced by Christians as a vital aspect of our self‑image.  

Maryanne confided in her counselor, "For a long time I had no doubt that God loved me, yet it made no difference to me. Since God loves everyone, what's so great about the fact that He loves me? But now I have come to realize that God does love me differently from any other person. I don't mean that He loves me any more than anyone else, only distinctively. There is a portion of His love that is meant for me and for me alone."  

Maryanne went on to say that this thought had been the turning point that allowed her to come into a meaningful relationship with Christ. This was quite a revelation for a young Christian. To our finite minds it seems inconceivable that God could love each of us equally, yet distinctively.  

Although we cannot begin to comprehend God's deep love for us, we can realize two of its implications:  

  • God's love gives us a basis for accepting our own distinctiveness. Psalm 139 demonstrates His personal care for us as He creates and sustains us.  
  • We have a basis for seeking an intimate personal relationship with Christ, knowing that the relationship will have a distinctive quality both here and in eternity. Revelation 2:17 states that each of us will receive a new name - a secret between God and the individual.  

You and I should remind ourselves often of the distinctive love God has for us. Furthermore, we should meditate on what this means for the particular life He has called us to live. Without an appreciation for this intimate and creative relationship, we lack the security for getting beyond ourselves and concentrating on the needs of other people. As a result, they might miss something of the distinctive love that God wishes to channel through us to them.  

If God has a distinctive love for each of us, then we must conclude that He has a both a general and a specific will for each life (1 Cor. 12:4‑6). Recognizing your individuality is a key to understanding God's will for you. No one else has your particular combination of abilities, gifts, motivations, and personality. These individual traits, which denote your personal poten­tial, are actually indicators of God's guidance in your life. Using your gifts for the glory of God promotes an intimate relationship with Him providing the added bonus of a healthy self‑image.  

Before embarking on a study concerning God's guidance, Christians need to carefully consider the biblical account of two builders - one who built on rock and one who built on sand. This parable is especially graphic today, since erosion of our coastlines is an immediate threat. Perhaps you have seen homes that were built too close to the water. As the sand eroded, luxurious homes have been abandoned to the forces of nature. Jesus' words ring true today: "But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it col­lapsed and its destruction was complete" (Luke 6:49).  

Our Lord's warning applies to all areas of our lives. Therefore, any perspectives we develop about guidance should be securely anchored to the Rock. Our assumptions should be made only after careful study of God's Word. What does God have to say about guidance? What can we infer from Scripture? Is there any evidence that God has a personal will for our lives?  

Authors Garry Friesen and Blaine Smith have some uniquely different thoughts on God's guidance. In his book Decision Making and the Will of God, Friesen states that God has an ultimate sovereign will, which we cannot know - and a moral will, which is clearly stated in the Bible. But he concludes that God has given humanity the capacity (and the freedom) to make sound rational choices. Therefore, God's guidance comes through a process of logical decisions. Friesen makes an outstanding contribution to the understanding of a Christian's relationship to God and guidance­ - especially emphasizing the importance of taking responsibility for one's own decisions. However, Friesen negates the whole idea of God's per­sonal will for individual Christians as he sets forth the following theses:  

  • God does not have an individual will for your life.  
  • You can only know His will as events unfold.  
  • God has a detailed moral will fully revealed in Scripture.  
  • God does not have a preference for unique individual choices.  
  • The traditional view of God\'s will fosters confusion and delusion.  
  • The traditional view promotes an immature approach to decision ­making.  

Friesen bases his views on two premises:  

1. Scripture never directly states that God has a personal will for indi­viduals.  

2. People in the New Testament did not normally wait for extraordinary guidance before making important life choices. Instead they followed a rational process.  

Smith, in the book Knowing God's Will (p. 230), points out that God's personal will and an individual taking responsibility for personal decisions are not mutually exclusive. Smith refutes Friesen's theses as follows:  

  • The fact that God has a personal will is foundational to an intimate relationship with Him.  
  • There is a distinct connection between a Christian's devotional life and a belief in God\'s personal will.  
  • Low self‑esteem is buoyed by the conviction that God is leading.  
  • God's personal will gives significance to work.  
  • There are no equal values in decisions.  
  • God will guide your thinking so your choices are the best ones.  

Smith bases his views on the following premises:  

  • Important New Testament passages such as Romans 12:2 show the idea of God's personal will.  
  • God, who creates and attends to the minutest details, will certainly have a detailed will for our lives.  
  • Our spiritual gifts prove that God has both a personal will and a moral will.  

Negligible attention is paid by Friesen to areas of personal distinctiveness, and he says little about the believer's particular niche in life. On the other hand, Smith notes that God endows us in three distinct ways - gifts, service, and works. He concludes that God, who has given these unique gifts and tasks to individuals, most certainly has a personal will for their lives. Moreover, Smith believes there is a definite correlation between God‑ordained personal distinctiveness and self‑esteem. Furthermore, a close connection exists between our general self‑esteem and the level of energy we put into what we do. We are greatly influenced by specific convictions of what we can or cannot do.  

Bruce was a long‑distance runner in high school. From grade eight through grade ten he ran on school track teams with little success. He often came in last, and coaches and classmates discouraged him about his future possibilities. “But for some reason," Bruce says, "I could never shake the image of myself as a star runner. I simply saw myself winning, even when the results kept pointing in a different direction." By his senior year Bruce had become the top performer on his large, high‑school track team and one of the best long‑distance runners in the county (Smith, One of a Kind, p. 19).  

Low self‑esteem, Smith believes, also affects a believer\'s relationship with the Lord. "For one thing, if my self‑esteem is low, I may tend to blame God for things I don't like about myself. Intimacy with God may be difficult as a result, and I may find it hard to trust him to meet needs in my life, since basically I am not pleased with the work he has already done" (One of a Kind, p. 20).  

Furthermore, modern media heightens unfair comparison with others. Constantly Christians are exposed to the notable achievements of gifted individuals throughout the world. Painfully they are reminded of how insignificant their own gifts and accomplishments really are. While this awareness may initiate healthy humility, more than likely it will bring on envy or a sense of futility. Sometimes believers are totally immobilized by feelings of insignificance. Moreover, like the servant who hid his talent (Matt. 25:25‑28), they may miss opportunities for using the talents they do possess.

Insecurity may push a believer toward a compulsive striving through accomplishments to please God (and others). But the workaholism that results usually springs from a dislike for self, not from faith or natural motivation. In spite of continual assurances of forgiveness in Scripture, the insecure Christian never feels forgiven or accepted by God. As a result, they may give up. A lack of self‑respect may keep them from even caring about the benefits of God's will (One of a Kind, p. 21).  

Fortunately, Scripture gives a powerful perspective of a positive self-image. Numerous examples are given of godly people with different gifts and personality features who lived profoundly individual lives in very different circumstances. Their part in salvation history could not have been performed by anyone else.  

In the same way, your particular combination of features and opportuni­ties cannot be duplicated. These enable you to accomplish certain work and relate to people in ways that no one else can. Jesus emphasized the importance of doing assigned tasks when He said, "As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me" (John 9:4). Our Lord wants you to meditate on His distinctive plan for your life (Jer. 29:11) and to under­stand the value of your life and your potential impact on others. While overestimating your own importance is always a possibility, the greater danger is in underestimating your potential.  

A Light Unto My Path  

"You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory" (Ps. 73:24).  

"Direct my footsteps according to your word; let no sin rule over me" (Ps. 119:133).  

"The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun‑scorched land and will strengthen your frame" (Isa. 58:11).      

Life Application: Have you unfairly compared yourself with someone else in your family, on your job, or in school? Be assured that no one has exactly the same gifts and motivations as you do. Neither can anyone else fulfill the plan that God has for you. In what ways has God expressed His special individual love for you?

Take the quiz

Quiz Instructions

Test your knowledge by taking this short quiz which covers what you just read. Select the correct response based on the lessons and concepts.

1. Mature Christians need less guidance than younger Christians.



2. A desire to know the will of God comes from a natural curiosity and a need for __________.



3. Today's vocational options would have been restricted by geographi­cal boundaries a century ago.



4. Modern options expand the __________ for serving Christ.



5. We may miss a good marriage opportunity by comparing it to an ideal based on fantasy.



6. An __________ approach to guidance may be misleading.



7. Believers need a __________ understanding of biblical teaching on guidance.



8. Two questions that must be addressed in decision making are overriding and __________ questions.



9. Decisions concerning stealing or killing are straightforward __________ decisions.



10. God's will becomes a matter of application once a particular moral principle is understood.



11. The Bible gives the individual Christian no freedom of choice in the "gray" area decisions.



12. The question of priorities is a __________ decision.



13. The __________ is our prime source of moral principles.


United States Constitution

14. Scripture will directly lead us to a specific marriage partner or vocation.



15. __________ of guidance tell us how to seek God's will.



16. Foundation to an intimate relationship with Christ is the idea of God having a personal will.



17. The Greek word "thelema" refers to God's __________ will.



18. Recognizing our __________ is an important key to under­standing God's will for us.



19. God endows believers with gifts and __________.



20. Our gifts and motivational patterns are separate from God's guidance for our lives.



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