By The Rt. Rev. Mark J. Lawrence, Bishop of South Carolina
Some years ago when the Diocesan Women gathered for their Annual Meeting I was scheduled to speak right before lunch. But when previous speakers had finished we were 30 minutes past our lunch hour so consequently I made a decision—appreciated by the vast majority of women—to forego my scheduled teaching. Several asked me at the time if I would write up what I had planned to teach. Here is an abbreviated version. I hope it is helpful to each of you in your walk with God offering something for the beginner in discerning God’s will and at least smidgeon for those long in the journey of faith.
The ABCs of Guidance
A—Advice: The Book of Proverbs teaches us through many axioms the importance of keeping wise counselors readily at hand (Proverbs 11:14; 15:22; 24:6). We never outgrow the need for advice from Christian friends, pastors, or wise counselors. Discerning God’s voice, as Dallas Willard rightly notes, is often “a shared activity.” Seeking counsel from others protects us from injudicious “impressions” regardless of how “spiritual” they may feel at the time. Perspective is almost always helpful in discerning God’s will for our lives.
B—the Bible: What do the Scriptures teach? As I’ve told students and adults over the years there is much that God has already answered for us in the Bible and many of life’s sorrows and disappointments can be avoided by following his word. This is the point St. Paul makes in 2 Timothy 3:16 “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness….” So, for instance, when the apostle counsels those considering marriage not to be “unequally yoke,” he’s reminding us to make sure the one we marry shares our faith in God. Not to be able to share that which is most important to us with our spouse is a recipe for sorrow or disappointment. And don’t forget to seek the Church’s consensus on the meaning of Scripture.
C—Conscience: Under “C” we’ll need to note four separate but inter-related concepts for discerning guidance. The first is conscience. Bishop Alfred Stanway used to say 90% of guidance is moral. If we think through what is the moral thing to do in any circumstance we will usually be able to discern what God would have us do. The 23rd Psalm reminds us that “He leads us in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” Some of us may remember the saying of cartoon character, Jiminy Cricket—“Let your conscience be your guide.” This is true but only if the conscience is rightly taught. The key here is to nurture in ourselves and the Christian community a “Christian conscience.” One that is able to distinguish not only right from wrong but also true guilt from false guilt—a conscience which is neither overly-scrupulous (and therefore wrongly condemns us) nor cauterized into passivity (no longer able to convict us). As we allow God’s Word and Spirit to renew our minds (Romans 12:1-2) we will become increasingly guided by a healthy Christian conscience.
C—Circumstances: God’s guidance invariably comes to us in the midst of a given circumstance. In seeking and discerning his guidance we need not be governed entirely by the circumstances before us, but we certainly would be ill-advised to totally deny them. As the saying goes—“If you find a turtle on a fence post you can pretty much assume someone put it there.” I recall a search process I was in some 30 years ago in which the search committee of Epiphany, Avalon, PA,. lost my phone number and didn’t find it again until another parish’s search committee, St. Stephen’s, McKeesport, had scheduled a time for Allison and I to interview with them. I believe it was no coincidence that I ended up as Rector of St. Stephen’s for 13 years.
C—Confirmation: It is sometimes a joyous moment when God assures us in what we believe is His will with a confirmation from the Body of Christ or an inner witness of the Spirit. This can be a modest occurrence or something truly miraculous (Judges 6:36).
C—Convergence: I have found that it is often the case that God will use several of these methods of guiding us which all seem to converge at the precise time that we need His direction, particularly when the decision before us is of abiding importance. Witness the unfolding of events which led St. Paul to take the gospel to what we today consider to be Europe—(see Acts 16:6-10 and the remarkable events which occured after this guidance from God).
D—Direct Guidance of the Holy Spirit: Though I called this article the ABCs of Guidance, I also need to include the letter “D” for God’s direct intervention. This can be His still small voice speaking to us (1 Kings 19:11-18), a pronouncement from a trusted spokesperson, or even a dream. Joseph was guided by a God-given dream, Paul by a vision, Barnabas by a prophecy, Ananias by the Spirit of God speaking to him as he prayed, Peter by a voice from heaven. Are these unusual? Of course they are. That is one of the reasons why they are noted in the Scriptures. But they are not nearly as unusual as many nominal Christians assume. In fact for those who seek to wait upon God, hearing from the Lord is a blessing few things in life can equal. Isaiah spoke rightly when he prophesied:
They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
They shall mount up with wings like eagles,
They shall run and not be weary,
They shall walk and not faint.
It is my conviction that God wants us to rightly discern his leading. He is not a God of confusion. I also agree with something Thomas Merton wrote years ago—that the desire to please God does in fact please him. When that is our desire we can certainly trust that he will indeed use one of several of these methods to get us on the God-ward path and all for His name’s sake. Joyous travels!