Dear Church, the following is an excellent article on God's will and personal guidance. Like most of what Dr. Packer has written, I found it to be both biblically wise and richly instructive. Enjoy!
How God Leads Us
Wisdom Along the Way
Evangelicals differ from most Roman Catholics and liberals in that they are constantly uptight about guidance. No other concern commands more interest or arouses more anxiety among them nowadays than discovering the will of God.
It was of evangelicals that Joseph Bayly wrote in 1968: “If there is a serious concern among Christian students today, it is for guidance. Holiness may have been the passion of another generation’s Christian young men and women. Or soul-winning. Or evangelizing the world.… But not today. Today the theme is getting to know the will of God.”
Again it was of evangelicals that Russ Johnston declared in 1971: “I’ve spoken at many conferences where part of the afternoons are set aside for workshops.… If you make one of the workshops ‘Knowing the Will of God,’ half the people sign up for it even if there are twenty other choices.”
And it was of evangelicals that Garry Friesen reported in 1981: “Interest in the subject of guidance is consistently high. The demand for magazine articles and books on the subject continues unabated. People continue to seek guidance on guidance.”
My own experience confirms this. The more earnest and sensitive a believer is, the more likely he or she is to be hung up about guidance. And if I am any judge, the evangelical anxiety level on the subject continues to rise.
Why is this? The source of anxiety is that a desire for guidance is linked with uncertainty about how to get it and fear of the consequences of not getting it. Such anxiety has an unhappy way of escalating. Anxious people get allured by any and every form of certainty that offers itself, no matter how irrational. They become vulnerable to strange influences and do zany things. This makes the guidance issue more perplexing than ever before. Over the past 150 years there has been a buildup of tension to a point where it muddles minds, darkens counsel, and obstructs maturity in a way that is Spirit-quenching.
When muscles are hurting, relaxation is the first step toward a cure, and the same is true of anxiety about guidance. The persons most worried are regularly those with least cause for alarm.
First, let it be said that the desire to know God’s guidance is a sign of spiritual health. Healthy believers want to please God. Through regeneration they have come to love obedience and to find joy in doing God’s will. The very thought of offending him grieves them deeply. They desire to live in a way that shows gratitude to God for his grace. As they grow spiritually, this desire becomes stronger. Naturally, they want clear indications of the will of God.
Reinforcing this desire is bewilderment at the vast range of choices in every field of our civilization. To want help in decision-making is understandable. Some turn for this help to gurus, palmists, astrologers, clairvoyants, Ann Landers, and specialist counselors. Healthy Christians, however, while valuing human advice, look to God also. There are many promises of divine direction in Scripture and many testimonies to its reality. It is wrong for Christians not to seek God’s help in making the choices, commitments, and decisions that shape their lives.
Secondly, let it be said that the fear of spiritual ruin through mistaking God’s guidance is a sign of unthinking unbelief. I have a particular fear in mind, one that I have met many times in my ministry. It is widespread. It is not the product of any one school of thought. Rather it is the twisting of truth that our fallen minds, with their legalistic bias and their inclination to view God as an ogre, easily fall into. Satan, who loves to misrepresent God and make him seem ugly, naturally sponsors it!
It may be stated as follows: God’s plan for your life is like an itinerary drawn up for you by a travel agent. As long as you are in the right place at the right time to board each plane or train or bus or boat, all is well. But miss one of these preplanned connections, and the itinerary is ruined. A revised plan can only ever be second-best compared with the original.
The assumption is that God lacks either the will or the wisdom to get you back on track. A substandard spiritual life is all that is now open to you. You may not be on the scrap heap, but you are on the shelf, having forfeited much of your usefulness. Your mistake sentences you to live and serve God as a second-rate Christian.
Many Christians run scared, fearing such disaster every time a major decision has to be made. Others trudge along with heavy hearts, believing that this fate is already upon them because of some imprudence long ago. The fruit that so fearful a fancy bears is bitter.
The kernel of truth in the above scenario is that bad decisions have sad consequences from which we cannot expect to be shielded. But beyond that, the fear expresses nothing more than unbelief regarding the goodness, wisdom, and power of God. God can and does restore the years that the locusts have eaten (see Joel 2:25). Scripture shows us a number of saints making great and grievous mistakes about the will of God for them—Jacob fooling his father, Moses murdering the Egyptian, David numbering the people, Peter boycotting Gentile believers—yet none became incurably second class. On the contrary, they were each forgiven and restored. This is how all true saints live.
Misconceiving God’s will is less sinful than knowing it and not doing it. If God restored David after his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah, and Peter after his threefold denial of Christ, we should have no doubt that he can and will restore Christians who err through making honest mistakes about his guidance.
The last phrase paves the way to my third point: Wrong ideas about God’s guidance lead to wrong conclusions about the right thing to do. The basic fault here is disregard of a principle that is writ large in Scripture—too large perhaps for some to see. The principle is that the right course is always to choose the wisest means to the noblest end, namely the advancing of God’s kingdom and glory. Moral law delimits the area within which the choice must be made (for sin is always out of bounds; the end never justifies the means). God-given wisdom, comparing the short- and long-term effects of alternative courses of action, then leads us within these limits to the best option. That option will always be the greatest good, or in invidious situations where no course of action or inaction is free from regrettable aspects, the least evil.
In making our choice, that which is merely good (“good enough,” as we say) must never become the enemy of the best. It is never enough to ask, as the Pharisees did, whether such and such a course of action is free from taint of sin. The question should be: Is it the best I can envisage for the glory of God and the good of souls? God enables us to discern this by prayerfully using our minds—thinking how Scripture applies, comparing alternatives, weighing advice, taking account of our heart’s desire, estimating our capabilities. Some call this common sense. The Bible calls it wisdom. It is one of God’s most precious gifts.
Is there a personal touch from God in all this? Most certainly. Those whom God wants in the pastorate, in cross-cultural missionary work, or some other specialized ministry are ordinarily made to realize they will never find job satisfaction doing anything else. When God has a particular career in mind for a person, he bestows on that person an interest in that field of expertise. When God plans that two people should marry, he blends their hearts. But God’s inclinings of the heart (as distinct from our own self-generated ambitions and longings) are experienced only as meshing in with the judgments of wisdom. Thus interest in an unsuitable person as a life partner or a ministry beyond one’s ability should be seen as a temptation rather than a divine call.
Over the past 150 years, however, a different approach to Christian decision-making has established itself, one that plays down the significance of thought and wisdom in the quest to know God’s will. A mode of guidance more direct and immediate than the forming of a wise judgment on the matter in hand has come to be desired. Why is this? The desire seems to reflect a mixture of things.
One is the anti-intellectual, feeling-oriented, short-term mentality of today’s secular culture, invading and swamping Christian minds.
Another is an admirable humility. Believers do not trust themselves to discern the ideal course of action, and so they want it directly revealed to them.
Another is the false idea that what God wants his children to do is irrational by ordinary standards and not something to which wisdom would direct us.
Another is the fancy that, since each Christian is a special object of God’s love, special instructions from God can be expected whenever he or she has to make a significant decision—a fancy that seems to reflect as much of childish egoism as it does of childlike faith.
Another is the presence in Scripture of guidance stories involving direct revelation, stories on which latter-day narratives of guidance are verbally modeled, leaving the impression that guidance is usually given this way.
Some seek guidance by making their minds blank and receiving what then rises into consciousness as a divine directive. This was a daily devotional routine in Frank Buchman’s Oxford Group (afterwards Moral Rearmament). It undoubtedly kept people honest with their own consciences, and that was good. But murky urges and self-indulgent dreams as well as pricks from conscience will surface at such times. Those who assume that whatever “vision” fills the blank is from God have no defense against the invasion of obsessive, grandiose, self-serving imaginations spawned by their own conceit.
Others, like the diviners of ancient paganism and the devotees of modern astrology, want to be told facts about the future in light of which they may chart a knowledgeable course in the present. This is what guidance means to them. But Scripture directs us to live by God’s precept, rather than by prying into his hidden will or purpose. As Deuteronomy 29:29 says: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God; but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.”
Others, rather than seeking wisdom to do the best and most God-honoring thing in the circumstances, will draw lots or set up situations in which they ask God for signs (a practice loosely based on Gideon’s action recorded in Judges 6:36–40, and therefore sometimes called “fleecing”); or they will wait for a “prophecy” or dream or vision or heavenly voice in their inner ear. Sometimes they succeed in inducing the experience they seek, as did covetous Balaam. There are few experiences that cannot be induced if one wants them badly enough. Many have been led in this way to embrace wildcat schemes and immoral follies, believing that God has approved or even instigated such plans.
A similar mistake is to find in Scripture private messages from God that in fact are no more than one’s own reading into the text a meaning that cannot be read out of it. My long-time friend and teacher Alan Stibbs, after promising to serve a church in northern England, was invited to an attractive post in South Wales. He read in Isaiah 43:6 (rsv), “I will say to the north, Give up,” and got the idea that God was promising him providentially to terminate his prior commitment so as to free him to do what he felt he most wanted to do. When this did not happen, Alan looked again at his text and saw that it goes on: “and to the south, Do not withhold.” He then realized that the verse concerns the gathering of God’s people from all over following the Exile and that he had been fooling himself with his original fancy.
God is sovereign and gracious to those who humbly seek him. No doubt he has given guidance on occasion by all the means I have mentioned, and no doubt he will do so again. But such cases are exceptions, and to expect them to be the rule is to ask for trouble. What sort of trouble? Either delusion and misdirected zeal, or apathy and lack of motivation as a result of concluding that if guidance has not come in this way, there can be nothing in particular that God wants one to do. Which is worse—fanatical activity or passive idleness? Being a lunatic or being lazy? Each is bad. But a biblical approach to guidance will save us from both kinds of trouble.
How may we formulate such an approach? I offer the following ten checkpoints as a summary:
1. Ask the question: What is the best I can do for my God?
2. Note the instructions of Scripture. The summons to love God and others, the limits set and the obligations established by the law, the insistence on energetic action (Eccles. 8:10; 1 Cor. 15:58), and the detailed drilling in wisdom (see Proverbs and James especially) enable one to make the best choice among behavioral options.
3. Follow the examples of godliness in Scripture. Imitate the love and humility of Jesus himself. If we do this, we cannot go far wrong.
4. Let wisdom judge the best course of action. Consider not only the wisdom God gives you personally, but the corporate wisdom of your friends and mentors in the Christian community. Don’t be a spiritual Lone Ranger. When you think you know God’s will, have your perception checked. Draw on the wisdom of those who are wiser than you are. Take advice.
5. Note nudges from God that come your way—special concerns or restlessness of heart might indicate that something needs to be changed.
6. Cherish the divine peace that Paul says “garrisons” (guards, keeps safe and steady) the hearts of those who are in God’s will (Phil. 4:7).
7. Observe the limits set by circumstances to what is possible. When it is clear that those limits cannot be changed, accept them as from God.
8. Be prepared for God’s guidance to be withheld until the right time comes for a decision. God usually guides one step at a time.
9. Be prepared for God to direct you to something you do not like and teach you to like it!
10. Never forget that if you make a bad decision, it is not the end. God forgives and restores. He is your covenant God and Savior. He will not let you go, however badly you may have slipped. “Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me” (Mic. 7:8 rsv).
Micah’s words, just quoted, offer great comfort to all who want to do God’s will but find themselves afraid they may have missed it. The Lord is my Shepherd. He leads me. He restores me. He stays with me. I need not be uptight! What a relief!
Fantasy and Reality
As we said at the outset, guidance is a very tricky subject for many modern Christians. Most of us have had firsthand experience with guidance problems, either our own or those of others whom we have tried to help. Focus now on these perplexities. Why do so many problems of this sort arise? Where do the difficulties come from? Most of them are of our own making. In our quest for God’s guidance we become our own worst enemies. What happens? We go into a twofold tailspin.
On the one hand, we lose theological control, so that erratic superstitions take over. We isolate and narrow the guidance issue to major decisions that involve sizable risks for the future—the choice of a life partner, a vocation or employment, or a place to live. That isolation is bad theology and leads to the further mistake of thinking that guidance on these matters comes “out of the blue,” like an oracle reflecting facts about the future that we ourselves do not and cannot know. Those who look for guidance through a prophecy, inner voice, “fleece,” or random selection of Bible verses are under the spell of this misconception.
On the other hand, we embrace the romantic fancy that all experiences of true guidance can be reported in terms of the formula: “The Lord told me” thus and so. Such experiences, so we think, produce absolute confidence about the rightness of a specific action. In the absence of any experience that we could describe in this way, we say we have not received guidance as yet. If, however, after prayer we find ourselves with a pressing urge in our minds, we hail it as “my guidance” and defy anyone to talk us out of it. Are we right? Probably not. Yet this idea of guidance is so well established in our thinking that a recent book could call it the “traditional” view.
What shall we say of it? The first thing to say is that this idea of guidance is actually a novelty among orthodox evangelicals. It does not go back further than the last century. Second, it has led people to so much foolish action on the one hand and so much foolish inaction on the other, as well as puzzlement and heartbreak when the “hotline” to God seems to go silent, that it has to be seen as discredited. Third, it must be said that Scripture gives us no more warrant constantly to expect personal “hotline,” “voice-from-the-control-tower” guidance than to expect new authoritative revelations to come our way for the guidance of the whole church.
Certainly God’s guidance is promised to every believer. Certainly some individuals in Scripture (Gideon, Manoah and his wife, and Philip, for instance) received guidance in “hotline” fashion—just as some biblical characters did receive revelations of universally authoritative truth and just as Gideon’s “hotline” guidance, given by theophany, was later confirmed to him by remarkable things that happened to a sheepskin on two successive nights. But, as was said earlier, we must learn to distinguish between the ordinary and the extraordinary, the constant and the occasional, the rule and the exception.
God may reveal himself and give guidance to his servants any way he pleases. It is not for us to set limits on him. But it remains a question as to whether or not we are entitled to expect “hotline” disclosures on a regular basis. The correct answer is no. All the biblical narratives of God’s direct communications with men are on the face of it exceptional, and the biblical model of personal guidance is quite different.
Scripture presents guidance as a covenantal blessing promised to each of God’s people in the form of instruction on how to live, both in broad policy terms and in making specific decisions. “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you” (Ps. 32:8 rsv). “Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in his ways. He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way” (Ps. 25:8–9). How does God guide? By instructing. How does he instruct? Partly by his shaping of our circumstances and partly by his gift of wisdom to understand the teaching of his Word and apply it to our circumstances. God’s regular method of guidance is a combination of providence and instruction. What more he may do in a particular case cannot be anticipated in advance. But wisdom will always be given if we are humble and docile enough to receive it.
God’s guidance is more like the marriage guidance, child guidance, or career guidance received from counselors than it is like being “talked down” by the airport controller as one flies blind through the clouds. Seeking God’s guidance is not like practicing divination or consulting oracles, astrologers, and clairvoyants for information about the future. Rather, this quest is comparable with everyday thinking through of alternative options in given situations to determine the best course open to us. The inward experience of being divinely guided is not ordinarily one of seeing signs or hearing voices, but rather one of being enabled to work out the best thing to do.
The classic Bible presentation of the guided life and of the reality of the guidance that produces it is Psalm 23, the beloved shepherd psalm. Christians should read it as a declaration of what it means to be a believer led through life by the triune God who is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the “he” who is “they.” The picture is of the saint as a divinely led sheep. Silly and apt to stray as I am (“prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love,”), my covenant God will not leave me bereft of either security or sustenance. He provides rest (“beside still waters”), refreshment (“he restores my soul”), protection (“through the valley of the shadow of death”), enrichment (“thou preparest a table”), and enjoyment (“goodness and mercy shall follow me”). Guidance is one facet of that total covenant care whereby the King of Love draws me into the destiny of deliverance and delight that he planned for me before the world was made.
Look more closely at verse 3: “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” “Paths of righteousness” are behavior patterns that please God because they correspond to his commandments and match his moral nature. Perceptive and prudent vocational decisions are certainly included, but the basic idea is that our holy God calls us to be holy. This is the essence of biblical guidance. “For his name’s sake” refers to the furthering of his glory (i.e., our responsive praise for his revealed praiseworthiness) through his demonstration of covenant faithfulness. The Lord is my Shepherd; he is pledged to watch over me, order my travels, stay with me, and bring me safely home. He will not fail in his commitment. Finally, “he leads me” means that by his providential instruction he gives me wisdom to see the right thing—the best, the most fruitful, the purest and noblest, the most Christlike and God-honoring thing—to do in each situation, and he motivates me to that end.
How does God give this discernment? We say it is a matter of wisdom. Where does this wisdom come from? That question may be answered in two ways. Formally and theologically, the answer is: from God’s Word and Spirit. Personally and experientially, the answer is: from being transformed by God’s grace. Each answer is part of the other; both go together.
God’s teaching in Scripture is our basic guide for living. Bible history and biography illustrate and enforce, both positively and negatively, the divine demand for faith and faithfulness that so many didactic passages spell out. The Holy Spirit who inspired the Scriptures authenticates them to us as the Word of God, making us unable to doubt their authority. He also interprets them to us as we read and meditate on them and hear and read others’ expositions of them. Interpretation means precisely seeing how they apply. Commentaries can tell us what the text meant as an expression of the writer’s mind to the original audience, but only the Holy Spirit can show us what it means as God’s Word of direction for our lives today. Only through the Spirit is guidance from Scripture a reality.
Two points often are overlooked. First, in many situations the general principles of Scripture are all the guidance we either need or get. In military operations the general will give the field commander his orders of the day in the form of objectives (capture this strong point, defend that position, move troops to such and such a place), and leave it to him to devise the ways and means. God often guides us in the same fashion, leaving it to us to use the intelligence he gave us to work out the best way to implement biblical principles and priorities. It is part of the process whereby he matures us in Christ.
Second, the moral law of Scripture, which is the family code for all God’s children, leaves us free to make our own choices as to how we use created things—what interests we pursue, what hobbies we have, and so forth. No guidance is to be expected in these areas beyond the general maxims of not letting the good displace the best, not hurting others by the ways in which we enjoy ourselves, and not hurting ourselves by excessive indulgence that diverts us from heaven to earth and from the Giver to his gifts. These are the rules of using liberty responsibly.
On the other hand, inward discernment of the best and holiest thing to do is always a fruit of faith, repentance, consecration, and transformation by the Holy Spirit. We know the opening words of Romans 12: “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind …” (vv. 1–2 rsv). Less often, however, is stress laid on what comes next: “That you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (v. 2). Prove means “discern by examining alternatives.” Paul’s point is that there is a moral and spiritual precondition of being able to see in each situation what God wants done. Those whose minds God is currently transforming may still err about specific aspects of God’s will in areas where their earthly perspective yet holds sway, but where no work of inward renewal is in progress, no adequate discernment of God’s will at any point can be expected. Guidance is God’s gift to those who are looking to him—that means precisely, looking to Jesus Christ—to save them from sin. “He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way” (Ps. 25:9 rsv, emphasis added).
We should note here the importance of models. The apostles tell us to imitate Christ and also themselves. What this imitation amounts to is catching the spirit of lowly, costly, self-giving love—love that in its desire to make the other person great spends and is spent up to the limit. Part of discerning God’s will is an awareness of the need to maintain this attitude in all relationships and to avoid the ego trips that negate it.
The importance of corporateness in our quest to know the will of God also needs to be stressed. We were neither made nor redeemed for self-sufficient aloneness. We must not expect our private stock of wisdom and discernment to suffice. “In an abundance of counselors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14 rsv). We must never be too proud to take advice from persons wiser and godlier than ourselves. Personal guidance that we believe we have received by an inner nudge from the Lord needs to be checked with believers who are capable of recognizing unrealism, delusion, and folly when they see it. The Holy Spirit regularly uses the fellowship of the body of Christ to deepen our discernment of God’s will. It is part of the discipline of divine guidance to be ready for the Spirit to confirm his will for our lives through other believers.
Such, then, is divine guidance according to the Scriptures. It may be more than this. What is certain, however, is that it will never be less. Any supposed guidance that deviates from the Bible, the limits of possibility set by providence, and the discernment of the regenerate heart as to what most honors and pleases our Savior God must be judged phony and delusive.
In this age of shallow, secularized self-confidence pitfalls abound. We need to search our hearts time and again lest we fool ourselves and others by imagining that we have received God’s guidance when really our own desires are leading us astray. Yet God remains faithful, and it may still become every Christian’s honest and true testimony that “he leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” Praise his holy name!
I have already said that God ordinarily guides his children in their decision-making through Bible-based wisdom. I have dismissed the idea that guidance is usually or essentially an inner voice telling us facts otherwise unknown and prescribing strange modes of action. I have criticized the way some Christians wait passively for guidance and “put out a fleece” when perplexed, rather than prayerfully following wisdom’s lead. After all this, I am sure there are mutterings. Some readers may believe that I have played down and thereby dishonored the guiding ministry of the Holy Spirit. One cannot say what I have said in today’s steamy Christian atmosphere without provoking that reaction. So there is need now to discuss the Holy Spirit’s role in guidance in a direct way.
The last thing I want to do is to dishonor, or lead others to dishonor, the Holy Spirit. But the fact must be faced that not all endeavors that seek to honor the Holy Spirit succeed in their purpose. There is such a thing as fanatical delusion, just as there is such a thing as barren intellectualism. Overheated views of life in the Spirit can be as damaging as “flat tire” versions of Christianity that minimize the Spirit’s ministry. This is especially true in relation to guidance.
What does it mean to be “led by the Spirit” in personal decision-making? That phrase, found in Romans 8:14 and Galatians 5:18, speaks of resisting sinful impulses, not of decision-making. However, the question of what it means to be Spirit-led in choosing courses of action is a proper and important one.
The Spirit leads by helping us understand the biblical guidelines within which we must keep, the biblical goals at which we must aim, and the biblical models that we should imitate, as well as the bad examples from which we are meant to take warning.
He leads through prayer and others’ advice, giving us wisdom as to how we can best follow biblical teaching.
He leads by giving us the desire for spiritual growth and God’s glory. The result is that spiritual priorities become clearer, and our resources of wisdom and experience for making future decisions increase.
He leads, finally, by making us delight in God’s will so that we find ourselves wanting to do it because we know it is best. Wisdom’s paths will be “ways of pleasantness” (Prov. 3:17). If at first we find we dislike what we see to be God’s will for us, God will change our attitude if we let him. God is not a sadist, directing us to do what we do not want to do so that he can see us suffer. He wants joy for us in every course of action to which he leads us, even those from which we shrink at first and that involve outward unpleasantness.
No one, I hope, would dispute what I have said, but some would say that it is only half the story. Part of what being Spirit-led means, they would tell us, is that one receives instruction from the Spirit through prophecies and inward revelations such as repeatedly came to godly people in Bible times (see Gen. 22; 2 Chron. 7:12–22; Jer. 32:19; Acts 8:29; 11:28; 13:4; 21:11; 1 Cor. 14:30). They believe this kind of communication to be the fulfillment of God’s promise that “your ears shall hear a word behind you saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left” (Isa. 30:21 rsv). They are sure that some impressions of this kind should be identified as the Spirit-given “word of knowledge” in 1 Corinthians 12:8. They insist that this is divine guidance in its highest and purest form, which Christians should therefore constantly seek. Those who play it down, they would say, thereby show that they have too limited a view of life in the Spirit.
Here I must come clean. I know that this line of thought is sincerely believed by many people who are, I am sure, better Christians than I am. Yet I think it is wrong and harmful, and I shall now argue against it. I choose my words with care, for some of the arguments made against this view are as bad and damaging as is the view itself. The way of wisdom is like walking a tightrope, from which one can fall by overbalancing either to the left or to the right. As, in Richard Baxter’s sharp-sighted phrase, overdoing is undoing, so overreacting is undermining.
The issue here is not whether a person’s life in the Spirit is shallow or deep, as if the further one advances spiritually, the more one will seek and find guidance through prophecies and inward revelations. Nor is the issue whether God has so limited himself that he will never communicate directly with present-day Christians as he did with some saints in biblical times. In my view there is no biblical warrant either for correlating spiritual maturity with direct divine guidance or for denying that God may still directly indicate his will to his servants. The real issue is twofold: what we should expect from God in this regard and what we should do with any invading impressions that come our way.
What should Christians do when they feel that God has directly told them to say or do something? They should face up to the following facts:
1. If anyone today receives a direct disclosure from God, it will have no canonical significance. It will not become part of the church’s rule of faith and life; nor will the church be under any obligation to acknowledge the disclosure as revelation; nor will anyone merit blame for suspecting that the disclosure was not from God. If the alleged disclosure is a prediction (as when Rees Howells, founder of the Bible College of South Wales, predicted back in 1930 in his book God Challenges the Dictators that there would be no Second World War), Moses assures us that there is not even a prima facie case for treating it as from God until it has come true (Deut. 18:21ff.). If the alleged disclosure is a directive (as when a leader claims that God told him to found a hospital, university, mission, or crusade of some kind), any who associate themselves with his project should do so because wisdom tells them that it is needed, realistic, and God-honoring, not because the leader tells them that God directly commanded him (and by implication them) to attempt it.
People who believe they have received direct indications of what God will do or what they should do should refrain in all situations (worship services, board meetings, gatherings of family or friends, preparation of publications, or whatever) from asking others to agree that direct revelation has been given to them, and Christians should greet any such request with resolute silence.
2. Guidance in this particular form is not promised. For it to occur is, as we have said, extraordinary, exceptional, and anomalous. No Scripture leads us to hope or to look for it. Isaiah 30:21, which may seem to point this way, is actually a promise of wise teaching through wise teachers. No one, therefore, who believes that he received a direct revelation at any time should look for this event to recur. The idea that spiritual persons may expect this sort of guidance often or that such experiences are proof of their holiness or of their call and fitness to lead others should be dismissed out of hand.
3. Direct communications from God take the form of impressions, and impressions can come even to the most devoted and prayerful people from such murky sources as wishful thinking, fear, obsessional neurosis, schizophrenia, hormonal imbalance, depression, side effects of medication, and satanic delusion, as well as from God. Impressions need to be suspected before they are sanctioned and tested before they are trusted. Confidence that one’s impressions are God-given is no guarantee that this is really so, even when they persist and grow stronger through long seasons of prayer. Bible-based wisdom must judge them.
Two tragedies of misguided impressions come to mind. Both involved godly men who were greatly used in spiritual ministry. Rees Howells, whom I have already mentioned, informed his Bible college community that through him God was forbidding marriage to those who wished fully to serve the Lord. Havoc resulted from this unscriptural teaching.
Again, some years earlier, the American Frank Sandford had an impression that he should cruise the Atlantic in a yacht to intercede for worldwide revival. When a colleague became ill, he had an impression that they should not put in to port for treatment. The man died. After serving a prison term for his action, Sandford had an impression that he was called to reproduce the hidden life of Elijah prior to the contest at Carmel. So he did, living entirely incognito save to a handful of friends, until his death. These are examples of unjudged impressions and their sad results. To follow impressions, however much they are bound up with the holy concerns of evangelism, intercession, piety, and revival, is not to be Spirit-led.
Following unjudged impressions, particularly when they concern sex, money, and power, makes the Lord’s enemies blaspheme and discredits the whole idea of a guided life. In reaction some conclude that no specific impressions are ever given by the Holy Spirit and that every claim to them must be a delusion. But that also is wrong. Impressions—not revelations of information but focusings of concern—belong to Christian living. When we say we have a “vision” or “burden” about something, we are referring to an impression. When our concern is biblically proper, we are right to regard our impression as a nudge from the Holy Spirit.
Nehemiah speaks of what “God had put into my heart to do for Jerusalem” (Neh. 2:12 rsv), and by prayer, persuasion, and push, Nehemiah got the job done. Paul and Silas “attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them” (Acts 16:7 rsv)—that is, an inner impression restrained them. God, as they soon discovered, was leading them to Greece. Paul’s “mind could not rest” while evangelizing Troas, because Titus had not come (2 Cor. 2:13; mind is “spirit” in the Greek, meaning a mind enlightened by God’s Spirit). So Paul left, construing his restlessness as God prompting him to go in search of Titus rather than continue the Troas mission. These are biblical examples of saints pulled or pressed by God in particular directions. This is an experience that most Christians know.
My point is not that the Spirit of God gives no direct impressions, but rather that impressions must be rigorously tested by biblical wisdom—the corporate wisdom of the believing community as well as personal wisdom. If this is not done, impressions that are rooted in egoism, pride, headstrong unrealism, the fancy that irrationality glorifies God, a sense that some human being is infallible, or similar misconceptions will be allowed to masquerade as Spirit-given. Only impressions verified as biblically appropriate and practically wise should be recognized as from God. People who receive impressions about what they should believe or do should question such impressions until they have been thoroughly tested.
Nor can one be certain even then about one’s impressions. Some impressions seem to be instances of clairvoyance, sanctified for restraint or encouragement (as in recorded cases of Christians feeling constrained to leave trains and planes that later crashed or when C. T. Studd saw in the margin of his Bible the words “China, India, Africa,” the three parts of the world where he subsequently served as a pioneer missionary). There is no certain way to test such impressions. Sometimes one will not be able to tell whether they are a message from God or a human fancy. The correct conclusion to draw is that as we seek to do what by biblical standards best serves God’s glory and the good of others, God will be with us—just that.
The radios of my youth would crackle with atmospherics, making clear reception impossible. All forms of self-centeredness and self-indulgence, from surface-level indiscipline and lawlessness to the subtlety of grandiose elitism or the irreverence of not obeying the guidance one has received already, will act as atmospherics in the heart, making recognition of God’s will harder than it should be and one’s testing of impressions less thorough and exact. But those who are being “led by the Spirit” into humble holiness will also be “led by the Spirit” in evaluating their impressions, and so they will increasingly be able to distinguish the Spirit’s nudges from impure and improper desire. “He … teaches the humble his way” (Ps. 25:9 rsv). Blessed, then, we may say, are the pure in heart. They shall know the will of God.
Packer, J. I. (2001). God’s Plans for You (pp. 89–106). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.