When I’m traveling somewhere new, I plug the address into my GPS app on my phone and then I turn off my brain. I hardly pay attention to where I’m going — I just take the turns my phone tells me to. It’s an outside-in approach to guidance.
On the other hand, while a GPS helps, the main thing you need to get from point A to point B is a healthy, functioning mind and body. You need a body that has been taking its multivitamins, so to speak. You need a mind alert to the road. This is an inside-out approach to guidance.
Many of us, when it comes to guidance from God, treat the Bible as a GPS unit or a map, hoping Scripture will tell us what to do in any given situation. But this is not primarily how God through His Word guides us. The main way He guides us in life is through making us a certain kind of man or woman, over time, so that as we come to life decisions, we are the kind of person who makes a godly choice without needing a sign from heaven. Romans 12:2 tells us to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God.” Internal transformation leads to wise decision-making.
The Bible guides us by nourishing us over time and nurturing health, not by giving us a book to flop open to a random verse when we have a choice to make to hear a supposed word from God. Ask yourself about who you are becoming more often than what you should be doing.
There’s even a kind of cowardice in treating the Bible as providing magical, direct guidance from God. It means we’re not taking responsibility for our choices. We’re shifting the responsibility away from ourselves in the name of trusting God.
How does God guide us? By letting us do what we want, as we live for His glory. By making us into a certain kind of people, not by giving us the circumstantial answer. Gideon’s fleece is the exception, not the rule (Judges 6:36–40).
Desire, Ability, Opportunity
That may seem a bit abstract, so let’s put some hands and feet on this.
When facing any individual (morally neutral) decision, there are three basic questions to ask. If you can answer yes to all three, there’s a good chance God is guiding you in that direction.
1. Do I want to do it? Do I have an inner drive to do this, a compulsion? Is my heart in it?
2. Am I good at it? Am I able to do this with excellence, or are there many others who can do this as well or better? Am I gifted to do this?
3. Is there an open door to do it? Is an opportunity presenting itself?
Desire. Ability. Opportunity.
This works for major decisions like jobs, of course, but also for things like relationships. Let’s say you’re considering dating someone. Ask yourself if you strongly want to date this person (maybe others are putting pressure on you to date this person, but you aren’t particularly interested yourself). Ask yourself if you’re compatible with this person so that the relationship is able to work well — if you’re headed to the mission field and the other person wants to make money in corporate America, think twice. And thirdly, obviously, ask yourself if the person is available!
Two out of three isn’t good enough. Many of us have taken a wrong turn in life, for example, by having the desire to do something and an open door to do it, but we failed to get counsel from others who knew us best and who could have steered us away from something we weren’t gifted in. On the other hand, others of us had a strong desire to play a professional sport when we grew up, but we had neither the ability nor the opportunity.
When you have a heartfelt desire to do something, and others tell you you’re good at it, and an opportunity presents itself, go for it.
This threefold diagnostic is another way of saying, then, that God doesn’t generally guide us with direct words from heaven. More often God works indirectly, through our desires, friends and opportunities.
It’s often not this neat, of course. For example, sometimes God appears to be opening a door to do something that we want to do and that we’re good at, and then the door slams shut. Maybe the job interview went well, maybe the first date was a hit, but we never get a call back. Even that closed door is from the hand of a loving Father. “No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Psalm 84:11).
Not a Tame Lion
All this is not to say God never gives us tangible signs or sends us dreams to guide us or directs us in some other explicit way. God can guide us however He wants. And it’s clear from Scripture that He does sometimes show us directly what He wants (Matthew 2:13; Acts 2:17; 16:9–10). As C. S. Lewis would put it, He’s not a tame lion. We can’t domesticate God or put Him in a box. He leads each of us in His own way, uniquely.
But we will be disappointed if we expect direct guidance to be the norm. Rather, He works through our desires, abilities and opportunities, all bathed in prayer and a heart of trust in the Lord.
Once in a while God told Paul what he was to do through a direct vision (Acts 16:9–10), but more often the apostle was simply compelled by his own desire (Romans 10:1), ability (1 Corinthians 3:10) and opportunity (Colossians 4:3).
Don’t Just Do Something — Stand There
I remember a time in my 20s when I was at a crossroads in life, unsure what to do, and my dad said to me something that his dad had said to him when he was at a similar crossroads: “When you’re not sure what to do, don’t do anything.”
It was just what I needed to hear. When you don’t know what to do in life, it’s not cowardly or disobedient to do nothing at all. Wait it out until you have a settled sense of the way forward.
In our younger years especially, we can allow ourselves to feel an unnecessary and unhelpful sense of urgency in life decisions. But why? We have plenty of time, after all. And the last thing we need to do is rush a major decision, not giving it the unhurried reflection it deserves, out of a false sense of urgency.
Moses spent 40 years in the desert after leaving the Egyptian court before God met him and sent him to free His people. Jesus spent 30 years swinging a hammer before beginning His public ministry. You can work at Starbucks or Home Depot for a few years as you get your bearings, test your gifts, serve in the local church, and generally grow as a human being.
Trust God, and Do What You Want
But at some point, take the plunge. It’s easy to get paralyzed at a major crossroads in life as we consider things like what job to take, whom to marry or where to live. But while the threefold diagnostic above is helpful in practically thinking through these major decisions, the central way I would counsel someone is to say: Trust God, and do what you want.
Easier said than done! you might think. After all, what if the marriage or career or grad school or GPA we long for isn’t happening? And of course such disappointments happen to us all. The answer is to keep looking to the Lord, relying on Him, drawing strength from His undeniable love. He will shepherd us forward as He wishes, in His own good time. Trust Him.
When you come to the end of your life, you will look back and recognize how the Lord led you each step of the way. But it’s often hard to sense God’s leading when you’re in the midst of the decision. Don’t let that paralyze you. If you have desire, ability and opportunity, and you have a desire for God to be glorified through your life, move ahead in peace.
We should not view “God’s will for my life” as some pathway out there I need to find, like blindfolded kids trying to pin the tail on the donkey, groping around in darkness. Rather, trust the Lord, and do what you want. And what you find yourself doing is God’s will for your life.
And above all, go into every day and every decision mindful that your greatest need in life is not guidance from God, but Christ himself. When standing at a crossroads, agonizing over what to do next, remember what my friend Brian Martin said to me years ago as I stood, paralyzed, at a major life decision. “Dane, you can’t make a wrong move, because whichever way you go, you’ll have Christ. And He is everything.”
Copyright 2014 Dane Ortlund. All rights reserved.