Following divine guidance doesn't have to be so hard. We make it harder than it really is by accepting certain assumptions about God, and about how life works.
Many people go through life with the idea that God has specific plans for their lives, and that God’s plans are different than theirs. And so they live in a state of anxiety and hesitation, because they fear that they are not on the right path.
Decisions feel like forks in a road, where one side is the right path, and the other is wrong. Going left at the fork is the path God wants for you, and it involves blessing, peace, harmony, and success.
But God help you if you turn right. That's the wrong way. From there on out, you'll be going in the wrong direction, and you will experience stress, obstacles, and failure.
And with this view, the decision points keep coming, along with opportunities to drift further and further away from the “right path.” After having chosen the wrong way at the previous fork, you will soon come to another fork in the road. Another decision point, and another right or wrong choice. Choose wrongly on this one and you will veer even further away from the path God wants for you.
I realize there are deep dilemmas inherent in this issue. Philosophers have debated for centuries about determinism vs free will. Most spiritually-minded people I know don’t usually think about this in a deep, philosophical way, but the confusion remains, often below the surface.
People believe that there is a set plan marked out for us in advance, with certain tasks in life for us to fulfill. The Apostle Paul seems to indicate this in Ephesians 2:10 when he says: "For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do."
Many people find this idea encouraging, but it’s also confusing:
- How many "works" are there prepared for us to do?
- How detailed is that plan?
- Does it include specific tasks I'm supposed to do this year? This week?
- How do I know what these plans are?
- Is there a chalkboard in heaven somewhere on which God has a list of things I'm supposed to do?
- Is there a divine plan written down somewhere with specific tasks and instructions that I'm supposed to follow?
- If so, how can I find out what’s on that list?
The heart of the problem
And therein lies the heart of the problem for many people: When they step back from the busyness of their lives and ask God, "What do you want me to do?" they struggle to get an answer. It would be one thing if there was a set plan for all of life, with specific tasks we had been assigned … and there was a clear and straightforward way to learn this plan. But that’s not how it works for most people.
When I talk to people facing difficult decisions, I often hear them say something like this: "I wish God would just tell me clearly what He wants me to do. If only the clouds would part and reveal divine hand writing, with directions spelled out for me about which direction to go!"
But that never seems to happen, and people feel frustrated that they have to muddle through.
"Should I take this job offer or not?"
"Should I get involved in this ministry, or should I just wait?"
"Should I pursue this relationship, or let it go?"
"God, what do you want me to do?"
But it gets even worse.
The spiritualization of suffering and “hard things”
Sometimes people spiritualize the path of suffering, and give the impression that God always wants to challenge and stretch us. Our sinful nature / ego wants to be happy and comfortable, so that must mean that what God wants is for us to be challenged, stretched, and uncomfortable. Therefore, if we're faced with a choice between something that appeals to us and something that we would struggle with, of course God would want us to do the hard thing!
People tell dramatic stories of how some possible course of action emerged in their lives that they really didn't want to do, but God told them to do it. It was something they hated, but God blessed them in the process, and it turned out to be really good. And the takeaway from these stories is this: If faced with a choice between two things, the one that is least appealing, and involves the most pain and suffering … well, that’s probably what God wants you to do.
This mentality is offensive. It dishonors the character of God by not taking into account God's infinitely loving and compassionate nature. It also dishonors people, because it assumes that we never know what's good for us, and should never choose what we desire. It sets people up to be martyrs and spiritual victims, rather than spiritually mature and emotionally healthy people who love God and love other people.
Obviously there will be times when choosing to do the hard thing is the right course to take. Sometimes what we need to do, what is best not only for others, but also for ourselves is uncomfortable, difficult, and even painful. It's also often the case that we don’t really know if a given course will involve suffering and struggle or not. We often think we can predict if a certain path will be easy or hard, but we’re frequently wrong. We don’t know what the future will bring.
How do we choose?
Notice that one of the assumptions here is that God has a plan which is quite different from our desires. It’s the assumption that God’s intentions are different than ours. Of course we know that in any given situation this could possibly be the case, given that God’s knowledge, plans, and ways of working in the world are much greater than ours, and not always knowable by us. As God says in Isaiah 55:9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts and your thoughts.”
It would be foolish and narcissistic to simply assume that whatever we want is the same thing that God wants. But at the same time, I would argue that it’s also foolish and unhelpful to assume that what God wants for us is different than what we want. In fact, the Bible seems to teach that the process of spiritual growth involves us growing into closer alignment with what God wants. So the goal of growth is to have desires that are increasingly consistent with God’s desires.
This seems to be the basis of with the wish offered in Psalm 20:4, which says “May God give you the desire of your heart and make all your plans succeed.” God created us with personalities and interests and desires, and because he loves us God wants those desires to be fulfilled. Think about the promise of Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” It would seem that those plans -- which involve “prosperity” and hope and a future -- would be things that we would want too.
It seems crazy to have to say this, but some spiritually minded people have been so brainwashed by faulty concepts of God that it needs to be reiterated: Just because you, personally, prefer one option over another, doesn’t mean that the other is likely more “spiritual.” Just because one path seems harder, and would require more “sacrifice” for you to follow, doesn’t mean that is what God wants for you.