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

Chapter 6: Inward Guidance and Personal Desires


IN THIS CHAPTER, you will discover:  

·    The role of personal desires in decision making.  

·    Two opposite beliefs concerning personal desires.  

·    How God energizes the believer.  

·    That perception can be deceiving.    

AS A RESULT, you will be able to:  

·    Use your personal desires in determining a vocation.  

·    Maintain a healthy balance between the two opposites.  

·    Understand how God uses your desires.  

·    Determine God's prompting through six steps.        

Teach Me Thy Will, O Lord  

Teach me Thy wondrous grace; boundless and free;

Lord, let Thy blessed face shine upon me.

Heal Thou sin's every smart,

Dwell Thou within my heart;

Grant that I never part

Saviour from Thee.  

- Katherine A. Grimes

Inward Guidance

Key Scripture: "After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper" (1 Kings 19:12).  

Many Christians view inward guidance as a mystical sensation, an over­whelming sense of inspiration and intuition, a gut impression of what God wants to do in their life. Moreover, they believe that God frequently leads through such guidance - with the Holy Spirit speaking directly through their intuition. They will argue that this belief is biblically based. Careful inves­tigation, however, finds no examples in which biblical characters equated their feelings with God's voice. Even the "still small voice" (K]V) of Elijah (the Key Scripture) was probably an audible one. A logical conclusion is that human feelings are not the same as the voice of the Holy Spirit.  

This conclusion does not lessen the importance of either feelings or the mind. The mind consists of both conscious and unconscious faculties. Approximately two‑thirds of your mental processes are subconscious. The subconscious mind, a more efficient processor than the conscious mind, first wrestles internally with a problem. Finally, it pushes the answer to the surface as a conscious inspiration. As the seat of feelings and intuitive hunches, it can reveal your deepest and most significant emotions.  

Intuition is a psychological experience with strong spiritual implications. But it can be only as accurate as its input. Therefore, for maximum efficiency in decision making, get all the facts and think them through. Let your mind edit the impressions until you can trust them. Since intuition is only a perception, it is questionable. Yet most Christians put much emphasis on intuition, regarding it as a foolproof channel of guidance. Some go so far as to equate questioning intuition with questioning God. Sincerely believing that God speaks directly through feelings, they see inward guidance in two significant ways: (1) strong positive feelings that guide in a certain direction, and (2) pangs of conscience that warn to stop.  

Neither way is valid. Intuition, however, can still give crucial insight into our subconscious. It often reveals what we think we ought to do. As Paul wrote, "For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man's spirit within him?" (1 Cor. 2:11). Since God guides the subcon­scious process, our inner impressions may give us an indication of His leading. This is quite different, however, from saying that our intuition is the direct voice of God. Intuition may be mistaken for other inner impres­sions that we receive. And quite often it is difficult to determine their source. The following guidelines will help you discern which "voice" we are hearing:      

God Satan Flesh
Allow time for prayer. Do it now before praying. Give in to lust.
Confirm my word. Confuse the issue. Take the easy way out.
Get wise counsel. You don't need anyone. Pamper yourself.
Take one step at a time. Presume on God's grace. Be irresponsible.

The Mind of Christ  

The best way to get rid of unwanted impressions is to renew our mind. Paul urged the Romans: "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is - His good, pleasing and perfect will" (Rom. 12:2).  

A beautiful illustration of the transformation of a person's mind is demonstrated in the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly. From an ugly, wormlike creature the caterpillar is changed into the most beautiful of insects. The former has been relegated to creeping along the ground - able to see only inches ahead. Its immediate circumstances determine the future. If by chance it wanders away from its food source, it immediately becomes prey to birds or other animals. The butterfly, on the other hand, brings beauty and serenity as it flits from flower to tree. There is a freedom inherent in the butterfly as it soars above the confines of the caterpillar - seeing life from an entirely different perspective.  

The transformation from caterpillar to butterfly does not take place overnight. Inside the chrysalis, the caterpillar charges day­-by‑day‑becoming more like the beautiful creature it was des­tined to be. Mind renewal is likewise a day‑by‑day effort on the part of the redeemed person. But there the analogy ends, for a butteffly - once transformed - will remain a butterfly. Believers, how­ever, must continually renew their minds. As a person's mind is renewed in Christ, he becomes a new creature - no longer relegated to creeping along in a sordid world, unable to overcome circumstances. The power of the Holy Spirit frees believers to become the beautiful creatures God intended them to be conformed to the image of Christ.  


Having the mind of Christ is essential in choosing a vocation. For most people, the word vocation is synonymous with work - a profession or occupation. But the word has a much broader meaning. A vocation is any major area of involvement in our life - family, church, community organi­zation, athletic activity, hobby, and profession.  

The choice of a vocation is a major decision. Minor decisions refer to those decisions made within the vocation to carry out its particular respon­sibilities. For example, choosing to join a civic organization is a major decision, but deciding on our level of participation is a minor one. Further­more, good decision makers must consider the four important factors of desires, abilities, circumstances, and counsel. You will discover more about these in upcoming lessons.  

A Light Unto My Path  

"You were taught...…to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness" (Eph. 4:22‑24).  

"Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things" (Col. 3:2).  

"Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self‑controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed" (1 Peter 1:13).

Life Application: Making a tough decision doesn't always leave us "feeling" good - even when it is the right decision. Have you ever chosen a path that was difficult and turned out differently than you expected? What did you learn from the experience?

Do Desires Matter?

Key Scripture: "May he give you the desire of your heart and make all your plans succeed" (Ps. 20:4).  

Marilyn set her chin squarely, but Jim could see an almost imperceptible twitch of her left eyebrow. How he had come to love that expressive face! Though she was beautiful, he had perceived something more - a vivacity and intensity for life. Jim felt he had never met anyone so alive. Numerous times she had captured the hearts of pageant judges with her beauty and acting talent. Marilyn's closet bulged with crowns, banners, and pag­eant gowns. After winning the state title, Marilyn had tried to break into show business in New York City. Unsuccessful in her efforts, Marilyn had come home to Atlanta. She was not broken in spirit, but merely subdued. That's when Jim had met her.  

They had married after a whirlwind courtship. Jim felt so blessed to be her husband. Although Jim had thought Marilyn's acting interests were over, six months into the marriage she decided to join a theater group in the city. She secured the lead in all the plays. Jim was supportive of her - and proud. His wife threw herself into every role - forgetting everything (Jim included) - when a play was in progress. But Jim lovingly dismissed the slight. He knew how much Marilyn loved acting.  

Now two and a half years later, Marilyn dropped a bombshell. Her words poured out like lava from a volcano‑burning every­thing in their wake. "I've been offered a job in an off‑Broadway production. One of the producers was in the audience at the last performance of 'Sally Jayne.' He loved my interpretation and offered me a role in a new show that's opening in June. He assured me that Broadway is the next step. Casting starts in two weeks and he wants me there."  

Stopping momentarily to catch her breath, Marilyn went on. "I know this is hard for you, Jim, but you have to understand. This is what I've wanted since I was four years old. I can't believe God would open this door if I weren't supposed to do it. I've been a good person and a faithful wife. Why I've taught Sunday school ­and tithed. I truly love God, and now He's rewarding me with the desire of my heart. Won't you go with me, Jim?"  

Jim staggered under the impact of her words. 'What?" he gasped. Seizing control of himself, he asked, "Marilyn, what about my teaching job here? I'm in the middle of the semester, and my students are depending on me. I have a responsibility to them. And what about you and me?"  

Jim detected a flicker of pain in her eyes, but it passed quickly. Composing herself, Marilyn answered coolly, "Well, Jim, I guess you will have to choose between them and me. This is my last chance at Broadway. And I'm going to take it!"  

Marilyn believed that her desire for theatrical prominence was more important than anything else, even her husband. Unfortu­nately, her desire contradicted an important biblical principle. Her marriage covenant, entered into with God as a witness, should have taken precedence over her self‑centered desire.  

Two Conflicting Reports  

"Love God and do as you wish!" This is the motto of Christians who believe that desire is the all‑sufficient indicator of God's will for their lives. Their favorite verse is the Key Scripture. Life would be less complicated if we could automatically turn toward those vocations we desire - or would it? Our divine Father knew that we would ruin our lives by always following our desires. Human desires can range from God‑given vocation to lust for the possessions of others. An earthly parent cannot satisfy a child's every whim for fear of spoiling him or her. And our heavenly Father cannot grant our every wish for the same reason.  

"Find the vocation you least want and pursue it!" At the opposite end of the spectrum are those believers who see God as a divine schoolmaster. He sits in heaven, they believe, watching - waiting for an opportunity to bring them in line. Happiness, joy, and satisfaction have no place in their narrow perception of God. These Christians do not need to seek God concerning His will. They already know: He wants them to do the opposite of what they would like to do. How sad our Lord must be when He looks down from heaven and sees such joyless lives wasted in a miserable existence.  

There is a bit of truth in each of these extremes. Therefore the believer must balance the two. At times God calls us to affirm our desires - to follow the course we are motivated to pursue. At other times, we must deny our desires in sacrifice to Christ. A healthy, balanced perspective requires that we know the difference and can understand how the two interrelate.  

God creates desires within believers to move in a given direction. The apostle Paul recognized that his desires were divinely given. When Paul longed to see the Romans, he assumed that God was leading him to visit them (Rom. 1:11‑13). Paul told the Corinthians that the Lord had opened a door for new converts in Troas. Yet Paul followed his own desire to revisit his friend Titus in Macedonia (2 Cor. 2:12‑13). Today God still energizes, motivates, inspires, and stimulates each one to move in the direction of His will.  

A Light Unto My Path

"If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself"” (Gal. 6:3). 

"Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth" (2 Tim. 2:15).  

"But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness" (Heb. 3:13).      

Life Application: What happens when our desires are at odds with what God would have for us? Are you able to sacrifice to something you thought you wanted for something better? Ask God to help you understand the difference.

Considering Personal Desires

Key Scripture: "Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all genera­tions for ever and ever! Amen" (Eph. 3:20‑21).  

The body of Christ by design is not a group, crowd, or mass. Its members, created in the image of God, are individuals. God has endowed each with a unique personality and a pattern of motivations unaltered by time (Ps. 139:15‑16). He does not annul the motivational pattern already in place; instead He complements it. God gives each believer specific direction and the courage to implement it.  

From the studies of personality and motivation, we can conclude that God through the Holy Spirit:  

  • Energizes us through the motivational pattern.  
  • Often gives us new desires.  
  • Awakens in us a latent motivation.  

The Holy Spirit in Action  

Numerous characters in Scripture were energized by the Holy Spirit to do things they might not have thought of doing. The Holy Spirit:  

  • Gave Bezalel skill, ability, and knowledge in all kinds of crafts for building and furnishing the tabernacle (Ex. 31:2‑5).  
  • Rested on seventy elders gathered by Moses around the Tent of Meeting, causing them to prophesy. Two other elders absent from the meeting also prophesied (Num. 11:25‑26).  
  • Came upon Othniel, Caleb's nephew, so that he became Israel's judge who led in battle (Judg. 3:9‑10).  
  • Descended on Gideon, inspiring him to call Israel to arms against the Midianites (Judg. 6:34‑35).  
  • Stirred in Samson (Judg. 13:25) and came upon him in power, allowing him to tear apart a lion with his bare hands (Judg. 14:6).  
  • Came in power upon Saul, who joined a procession of prophets in prophesying (1 Sam. 10:10).  
  • Spoke through David. The king was aware that God's Spirit was at work in him, enabling him to speak under the Spirit's leading (2 Sam. 23:2, 4ff.).  
  • Overshadowed Mary, who became pregnant with Jesus (Matt. 1:18).  
  • Filled Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, before his birth. The baby leaped in his mother's womb when Mary greeted Elizabeth (Luke 1:41).  

The Holy Spirit still energizes believers to do incredible exploits. And he may also intervene in their lives at precisely the right time, for His timing is never off. 

God's Perfect Timing  

One Christian who believes in God's perfect timing shares the following incident: 

Recently two employees of a local rescue mission stopped by our home to pick up a bed. After speaking with them briefly, I walked back into the bedroom. Minutes later I heard a snap. When our house darkened, I feared the worst. Rushing to the living room window, I saw the overhead power lines draped over the mission truck in our driveway. Its trailer had snagged the low-hanging wires, pulling them loose. I panicked; imagining the worst - anyone who came near would be electrocuted. Further­more, I envisioned it would be days before the power company could repair the lines. Meanwhile, I would have to keep watch, warning everyone not to touch the exposed wires. I couldn't phone for help since the phone lines were down too. And, since I couldn't get my car out of the driveway, I had to stay home.  

The men in the truck, however, saw things from a different perspective. As I watched in amazement, the driver got out of the truck and walked up the street. He resumed quickly, assuring me that help was on the way. Before coming to my house he had spotted linemen working on electric lines a block away. Imme­diately, service personnel from the power company showed up. And minutes later the huge cherry‑picker, which was used to lift the workers, drove up. In a scant forty‑five minutes the electric and telephone lines were reconnected. The utility workers and the men in the mission truck all drove away. It was as though nothing had ever happened. I stood amazed! The chance of those technicians being there at that precise moment of crisis was slim to nothing. God was on time again!  

It is evident that difficulties do not bind God; rather, they are opportunities for Him to work. From time to time He allows us to see His mysterious work in our lives revealed in His perfect timing. But a lack of trust in His timing causes unnecessary anxiety. A close look at the Christmas story demon­strates His flawless timing.  

The First Christmas  

Jesus was born "when the time had fully come" (Gal. 4:4). God orches­trated the convergence of human events perfectly for Jesus\' entrance into the world. Looking back, we can see many ways in which God aligned circumstances perfectly for the birth of the Savior and the spread of the gospel. These included:  

  • A period of peace within the Roman Empire.  
  • The unity of a common language.  
  • An elaborate road system facilitating travel.  
  • Urbanization fostering a hunger for purpose in life.  
  • The dispersion of Jews throughout the empire.  

Considering the events of the first Christmas, it is apparent that only a handful of people were aware of the extraordinary event. For most, it was simply business as usual. However, for select individuals God's timing was peculiarly demonstrated in the Incarnation. Their response has meaning for us today as we seek God's will.  

  • Elizabeth, well beyond child‑bearing age, had a son. (Often we give up too early on a personal goal when we mistake God's "Wait" for "No.")  
  • The young virgin Mary conceived a child miraculously. (Sometimes God wants us to move ahead before we consider it logical.)  
  • A king, Jesus Christ, was born in a lowly stable. (Sometimes we feel unprepared because of a lack of material advantages.)  
  • The shepherds were simply doing their job. (We often consider the mundane responsibilities unimportant until God intervenes.)  
  • Zechariah, Anna, and Simeon dedicated much time to prayer in the temple. (Often we forget the importance of consistent daily prayer.)  
  • The wise men, after much preparation, set out in search of the King. (Christians tend to forget the importance of setting goals in their faith.)  

God perfectly times the circumstances of our lives. Since He has given no easy formula for understanding His timetable, Christians should not compare themselves to others. His timing for each person is individual­ized. While there is great encouragement in this thought, there is a significant challenge as well. Christians need spiritual insight to appreci­ate God's timing. He works behind the scenes to protect and provide. Acknowledgment of His providence frees us to make decisions that conform with His timing, even when we do not consciously cooperate with Him. God desires that we reap its benefits in our lives. While His timing will always remain a mystery, an awareness of its value will aid us in finding direction.  

Sacrifice or Enjoyment?  

Seeking God's direction regarding our life's vocation raises a pertinent question: "Should I determine to enter sacrificial employment or look for work that I really like?" When circumstances allow freedom of choice, we should base major decisions on personal desire. Yet every major decision should begin with a willingness to do God's will. Our day‑to‑day decisions in carrying out a vocation will often require self‑sacrifice and considerable self‑denial. We must pray for the strength to deny our desires and to make sacrifices if necessary. Any vocation that requires total sacrifice of our desires is probably not meant for us.  

Why? Because everyone does a better job when they enjoy their work. Believers who exude joy in their vocation attract others. Students love a teacher who enjoys teaching them. A congregation learns more of God's love from a pastor who enjoys his work. People intuitively shy away from those who are performing their responsibilities from a sense of duty. (A happy Christian businessman might be a better witness for God than an unhappy pastor or missionary!) But if we thrive in and are energized by our work, it is not sacrificial. Our innate sense of enjoyment allows us to manage any sacrifices that may arise.  

A Light Unto My Path 

"By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light" (Ex. 13:21). 

"Send forth your light and your truth, let them guide me" (Ps. 43:3). 

"In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people" (Acts 2:1 7).    

Life Application: God's timing rarely matches up with ours! But while we wait for an answer, we can find joy in the waiting. Perhaps you can bide your time by seeking God instead of growing impatient.

Understanding God's Promptings

Key Scripture: "But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of every­thing I have said to you" (John 14:26).  

Christians often forget how often God intervenes in the day‑to‑day deci­sions of their lives. Although our circumstances point to failure, God has the ability to work them out for our benefit (Rom. 8:28). Blaine Smith relates how God helped him with the problem of house hunting:

About four years ago, after much deliberation, Evie and I decided that we needed a new home. Under most circumstances our town house would have been quite adequate. But since my ministry was operating out of it, the space was not sufficient. To make matters worse, the real estate market had reached its lowest point in decades and was accompanied by soaring inter­est rates. We really could not afford to move, and the prospects of selling our present home were bleak.  

For several months I studied the market and read real estate brochures. But in my discouragement I had forgotten to pray seriously about the problem. I took two hours out of my busy schedule, deciding to drive as I prayed. Suddenly, I came upon a street, which I had never noticed before. That was unusual since I have lived in the same county most of my life. There was a house for sale on the street, which I felt was right for our needs. But I knew it would be too expensive.  

Within a week the owner had accepted our contract at a price far below market value. Furthermore, our town house sold within another week although identical homes had been on the market for months without selling.  

My prayers did not change God's mind - convincing Him to do something He would not otherwise do. Instead, during those several hours God gained my attention, showing me a way to solve an impossible problem. He could just as well have given me grace to accept things as they were. In fact, that happens more frequently than the dramatic answer I received about the house. But whatever solution He chooses, I must be still before Him in order to understand it.  

Whether you are a student, a homemaker, or involved in a demanding profession, the time you spend alone with God is time well invested. He alone can give you peace of mind and the wisdom to carry out your work effectively. Satan, however, will do everything possible to convince you that this is an intrusion on your schedule. If that doesn\'t work, He will cause interruptions, which demand your immediate attention. You have the option to let the problem wait while you put first things first.  

Steps Toward Understanding  

Six steps that will help you to understand your desires in regard to God\'s guidance are found in KGW, pp. 182‑83. The following summary demon­strates how Blaine Smith utilized these steps when he purchased a home:  

Pray. Seek God's will and His assessment of your desires. (Once Blaine prayed, God moved and things began to happen.)  

Desire. Seek a vision that benefits others as well as yourself. (A larger home would benefit the entire family and Blaine's ministry.)  

Experiment. Get involved before making a long‑range commitment. (Blaine studied the real estate market before making a commitment.)  

Examine. Look to your intuition for the best insight into your motivations. (Logically Blaine knew the house was too expensive, but he felt it was right for their needs.)  

Time. Allow your desires to season before making a major commitment. (Blaine and Evie deliberated carefully before purchasing a home.)  

Question. How would you advise someone else with the same set of facts? (In all good conscience, Blaine could have advised someone else to make the same decision.)  

When Perception is Deception  

In trying to understand our desires, we often run into the problem of self-­deception. We must realize the existence of blind spots. Experiences, biases, and moods often distort our perception of God's will. Many people struggle in making sound, independent decisions, for it is difficult to overcome the unhealthy social pressures that shape our viewpoints.  

In Galatians Paul addressed the subject of blind spots. Certain Jewish Christians in Antioch had begun to separate themselves from the Gentiles at meals. The apostle Peter joined them, as did Barnabas (Gal. 2:11‑14). Social influence had subtly colored the thinking of Peter and Barnabas.  

Paul told them bluntly that such racial prejudice had no place in Christ's church. Like Peter and Barnabas, we never reach a point of Christian maturity where blind spots disappear. Therefore, before making a major decision we should assume that our perspective is limited. We may envision problems that do not exist and miss existing ones.  

We should, first of all, seek divine counsel. Discover the mind of Christ and ask Him to guide you. This is a continual process, for yesterday's wisdom is not sufficient for today. Next we should seek human counsel­ors - special people such as friends, a spouse, teachers, pastors, Bible study members, and supervisors. Like our own judgment, theirs will also be fallible. Yet God can use them to give us a different perspective - often showing us misperceptions in our thinking.

A Light Unto My Path 

"The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding" (Ps. 111:10).  

"In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight" (Prov. 3:6).  

"His God instructs him and teaches him the right way" (Isa. 28:26).      

Life Application: Do you have a goal for the future? What short-term desires must you give up to achieve that ambition? List the steps necessary to realize that goal.

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. Intuition is the direct voice of God.



2. Paul preached that __________ should be our guide in the gray moral issues.



3. Waiting for absolute peace before making a decision is necessary.



4. __________ gives valuable insight into the subconscious mind.



5. God most often guides through a person's __________.



6. __________ are available opportunities.



7. God may create desires in order to guide us.



8. There must be a balance between self-affirmation and self-denial.



9. Desire is a key sign of God's will in __________.



10. Our basic desires can give vital insight into how God is leading us.



11. A major decision should be based on personal desire as much as possible.



12. We can do our best work for Christ when we are doing what we least enjoy.



13. Desires may have to be sacrificed in order to fulfill __________ range responsibilities of the vocation.



14. A shorter commitment to vocation allows a greater freedom to experiment.



15. Assessing your desires is __________ stewardship of time.



16. We should not heed a desire that contradicts Scripture.



17. When making a decision, the first thing to do is __________.



18. We should become involved in a vocation before making a long-range commitment.



19. A person interested in career missionary work should not bother with a short-term mission trip.



20. Personal feelings are __________ guidance.



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