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DESTINATION UNKNOWNA GUIDE TO DISCOVERING GOD'S WILL
By GORDON S. JACKSON
TH1NK BooksCopyright © 2004 Gordon S. Jackson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Big Five-and Beyond
Every quest for guidance should be shaped by scriptural guidelines, prayer, the advice of other Christians, the circumstances we face, and an overall sense that this course is what God wants.
It's the big picture that counts. A recurring theme found in books on guidance is that you need to look at this big picture as a whole when making major decisions concerning God's will. Far from basing our decision entirely on a chance remark made in last Sunday's sermon or on an obscure verse in 2 Kings, God expects us to use all the vehicles He's made available for our decision making. That's why it's important to consider each of The Big Five factors and see how they mesh together as we consider our decision. Again, these five factors are:
1. Scriptural guidelines
3. The advice of other Christians
4. The circumstances we face
5. A sense of inner peace about our decision
Until you've got a "thumbs up" on each of the five, you're probably not ready to make a decision. If, for example, you're seriously thinking of going to a particular university or college but your closest friends are advising you against it, you need to check your thinking. Or if you've been invited to go on a short-term mission trip and the first four points check out just fine, yet you've still got a nagging feeling that something isn't right, once again it may be best to hold off on your decision and give it further thought.
If you were leaving later today for a trip abroad, you'd make sure you'd taken care of your passport, air ticket, health insurance, luggage, and spending money. If you were heading for the airport and realized you'd left your passport at home, it's unlikely you would keep going and say, "Well, four out of five isn't bad."
Similarly, you're probably asking for trouble by heading into a decision without a check mark against each of The Big Five. Is it possible that your friends' advice is wrong? Or that you're confusing a lack of inner peace about a decision with plain old nervousness? Of course. The point here isn't that missing one of these five checkpoints means you shouldn't go ahead; it simply means there's a warning light on the dash-board and you're well advised to take a second look at what's happening. Or, to switch metaphors, if these five principles don't line up neatly like lights on a runway, you need to question seriously whether you're ready to come in for a landing.
Sometimes those landing lights don't line up neatly, or one warning light keeps flickering on the dash-and a major decision still looms. Remember, guidance is seldom a simple, clear-cut process. The words of C. S. Lewis provide a helpful reminder of the many ways God can speak to us: "I don't doubt that the Holy Spirit guides your decisions from within when you make them with the intention of pleasing God. The error would be to think that he speaks only within, whereas in reality he speaks also through Scripture, the church, Christian friends, books, etc."
Because working toward the decisions God would have us make can be complex and can lead to ambiguous answers, it's necessary to dig deeper into our understanding of The Big Five. The separate entries of The Big Five are not of equal importance. The simple flowchart that follows shows that scriptural principles are the starting point.
But they're only the starting point. Each of these five principles merits careful attention. The next step is to examine any of these five elements that merits special attention in your situation: Scripture 2, Prayer 3, Advice 4, Circumstances 5, or Inner Peace 6. Alternatively, you may want to turn directly to other individual topics that speak to your needs. The Guidance Road Map on page 21 will help you do that. Or you may simply want to browse.
Scripture is a foundational and sufficient basis for the general principles of living a life devoted to the teachings of Christ. For the particulars of our daily lives, we may need to supplement its directions with the other elements in The Big Five 1.
More than any other avenue, God is likely to use Scripture to light our way. Especially when it comes to the general principles that should mark our lives, Scripture is a complete, coherent, and trustworthy guide. We know that we can trust Scripture to give us all we need to know about God's general will. As Paul emphasizes in 2 Timothy, Scripture is not only reliable but is also intensely practical and applicable to our lives. It is both authoritative and useful. This quality of "usefulness" is of central importance to our daily lives as Christians and takes on a special relevance when we're dealing with guidance issues.
The Bible thus will identify the general principles that will point us to the ultimate meaning and purpose of our lives (to be holy and become more like Christ) and, more practically, can convey what kind of son or daughter we should seek to be or what kind of student or employee we should be. But the Bible will not and cannot be comparably helpful in showing us God's specific will. (See God's Will 25.)
At the specific level where we often seek answers-when we want to know whether to marry person X or Y-Scripture will typically be of limited help. The reason, as indicated in Clear Thinking 9 and Do What You Like 31, is that after showing us the general principles God wants us to follow, He gives us considerable freedom in making choices that are pleasing to Him.
Yet the Bible must always be our starting point in the guidance process. Hannah Whitall Smith put it well when she wrote, "The Scriptures come first. If you are in doubt upon any subject, you must, first of all, consult the Bible about it, and see whether there is any law there to direct you. Until you have found and obeyed God's will as it is there revealed, you must not ask nor expect a separate, direct, personal revelation." If Scripture has spoken clearly on some issue, we ought not to keep looking for alternative answers. For example, if we're seriously thinking of marrying someone who does not follow Christ, we don't need any more guidance than what God has plainly told us in 2 Corinthians 6:14: "Do not be yoked together with unbelievers."
At times God will speak to us in our specific situations through a particular Bible passage. Most often, though, we do Scripture an injustice if we expect detailed guidance from it. We wouldn't turn to the Sermon on the Mount for instructions on repairing a toaster. Likewise, we shouldn't demand from Scripture detailed solutions to our guidance needs. Max Anders notes that the "Bible does not give us a road map for life, but it does give us a compass."
We must study Scripture regularly for two reasons. The first is to have a high level of understanding of God's overall purposes for our lives so that when guidance issues arise, we will already know the rules of the game. G. Campbell Morgan says, "We are regularly, and devotionally, and intelligently, to study [Scripture], in order that we may discover the revelation of principles. Where this is done as a habit of the life, the mind will act under the power of these principles." (See Getting Ready for Guidance 24.)
The second reason to study Scripture is for those moments of special need when we must remind ourselves of the Bible's basic truths and open ourselves to any special leading from the Holy Spirit as we immerse ourselves in God's Word and prayer.
The principles that Scripture provides are all we need to point us in the right direction and to keep us on the right track. When we need those "road map" details for guidance, we look to the other elements in The Big Five 1 to fill out the picture. But our conclusions about where God is leading us must always arise from and remain rooted in what we learn from Scripture.
However, we should not treat Scripture like a collection of fortune cookie solutions to our guidance needs, thinking we can meet those needs with the easy, one-step finger-pointing technique. The classic example of the danger of this approach is demonstrated by a man who wanted to know God's will for his life. Flipping open the Bible and pointing randomly to a verse, he came up with "Then [Judas] went away and hanged himself" (Matthew 27:5). Convinced that wasn't quite what God had in mind for him, he tried the finger-jabbing approach again, landing on Luke 10:37: "Go and do likewise." Shaken, he tried one more time-and got John 13:27: "What you are about to do, do quickly." Of course, that's not a true story. But it makes a point about the quality of guidance you can expect with the finger-pointing approach. Worse, though, is the disrespect we show God and His Word when we take the richness of Scripture and reduce it to some kind of magical crystal ball. Bruce Waltke says that "the use of promise boxes, or flipping your Bible open and pointing your finger, or relying on the first thought to enter your mind after a prayer are unwarranted forms of Christian divination."
A related but different danger is taking verses out of the context of a fuller understanding of Scripture. Hannah Whitall Smith tells of an "earnest Christian woman who had the text 'All things are yours' [1 Corinthians 3:21] so strongly impressed upon her mind in reference to some money belonging to a friend, that she felt it was a direct command to her to steal that money," which she did. But if she'd only evaluated what she thought was her "leading" in the light of overall biblical teaching, Smith says, she wouldn't have ended up in the trouble she did. This is a glaring example of how not to use Scripture. All of us, though, may at times be tempted to use Scripture for our own ends. (See Mixed Motives 54.)
This is not the place to discuss at length any detailed principles on how to read and interpret Scripture. Pastors and professors spend several years training to do that. But it's important to remind ourselves of some basic principles of understanding the Bible, especially as they affect our questions on guidance.
Interpret passages or books of Scripture according to the form of expression in which they were written (that is, don't take poetry literally or a parable as a historical story).
Try to learn the meaning of the original text.
Try to learn what the text would have meant to its original readers.
Interpret Scripture in the light of what the rest of Scripture says. (See the example above on the danger of prooftexting-stringing together an inappropriate series of Bible verses to prove one's theology or to discern God's will.)
Recognize the overall purpose of Scripture, which is to describe how God deals with human beings and their need for salvation and how it is through Christ that salvation is made possible.
Regard Christ as the central theme of both the Old and New Testaments.
Interpret Scripture with common sense, reading words and sentences in light of their contexts. (Remember, just because Satan's words appear in the Bible doesn't make him any more trustworthy!)
In the end, reading about Scripture, such as you're doing here, never substitutes for knowing God's Word directly as you seek His guidance. With fullest confidence we can join in the psalmist's prayer: "Give me understanding according to your word" (Psalm 119:169).
Like the other elements in The Big Five, prayer is crucial but by itself is not a sufficient ingredient for knowing God's will.
Prayer is indispensable for discovering God's will and obtaining the wisdom and grace we need to live it out. Scripture offers us abundant guidance on God's general will for our lives, and we don't need to spend much (or any) time in prayer figuring that out. Still, those seeking Christ must turn to prayer for two needs: to discover God's particular will for our lives and for the empowerment to live it out.
Over the past 2,000 years, Christian writers have built a massive treasury of literature on prayer. Rather than attempting to summarize this material, this section can best speak to your interest in guidance by pointing to several places where prayer and guidance overlap. The following eight points are worth considering.
1. Take prayer seriously. Jesus' example makes plain that His disciples must take seriously the need to pray. Not only did Jesus model this for us, but His words also indicated an assumption that prayer is an integral ingredient in the life of God's people.
For example, He said several times in the Sermon on the Mount, "When you pray ..." (Matthew 6:5-7, emphasis added). Later in that chapter, when He gives us the Lord's Prayer, He says, "This, then, is how you should pray ..." (verse 9). The attention-getting, empty, or repetitious prayers that Jesus warns against in these three verses offer a sharp contrast to the sincerity and genuineness God expects in our prayers. In the words of H. E. Fosdick, we are to avoid the tendency to make our prayers "a pious form and not a vital transaction." We are to approach God in prayer with a seriousness befitting the One to whom it is addressed. Or, as Bible translator Evangeline Blood puts it, "When we pray it is far more important to pray with a sense of the greatness of God than with a sense of the greatness of the problem."
In addition, if the only time we come to God in prayer is when we have a need for guidance, we have a prayer life in need of a tune-up. God welcomes and wants our petitions, yet if He hears from us only in times of trouble and need, we act like the self-absorbed teenager who speaks to his mom or dad only when he needs the car or his allowance. However loving his parents may be and however generous their hearts, their son's "gimme" attitude must sadden them greatly. With God, our prayer life should be far richer-characterized also by prayers of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and requests on behalf of others. Yes, God eagerly seeks to meet our needs, but if we present those needs only in a context of spiritual self-absorption, we have more than matters of guidance that God would like us to deal with.
2. Pray with expectancy that God will guide us. Scripture is replete with encouragements for us to bring our needs before God, confident that He will both hear and answer. In Matthew 7:7, for instance, Jesus gave us these familiar words: "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you." He also tells us in John 16:13, "But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth."
3. Pray with an openness to hearing and doing God's will.]
Excerpted from DESTINATION UNKNOWN by GORDON S. JACKSON Copyright © 2004 by Gordon S. Jackson. Excerpted by permission.
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