Intimacy and Eternity

The Paths of Guidance

 

Part Two, Chapter fifteen

For this God is our God for ever and ever;
He will be our guide even to the end.
(Psalm 48:14)

The Paths of Guidance

THE WALK WE HAD BEEN FOLLOWING was new to us. There were few signposts, and we often needed to stop and check our bearings. Now, on the Broad Open Spaces, we were able to catch our breath and look back on the varied route we had travelled.

Sailing ships advance against the wind by tacking. Effectively this means they often do not appear to be making much headway towards their destination. If we understood this principle better, we would perhaps worry less about the detours we experience on our pilgrimage. The Lord knows not only what is best for us, but also how to help us find the path that will lead us there.

It is awesome to look back over twenty years of ministry and see how accurately the Lord has led at each stage of our journey. Early in my Christian life I applied to spend a year teaching English in a French school. I indicated my regional preferences on the form, adding the proviso: ‘Anywhere except the Paris region.’ There is nothing more exciting than seeing the Power-that-is-eternal overruling the powers that be! Man makes his plans, but when God has something better in mind, He does not hesitate to overrule them completely. In the providence of God I was posted to a town just outside the capital city!

My predecessor warned me dourly that the accommodation was dingy, and the school horrible; why not cut my losses and cancel now while I still had time? (He himself had left early.) We will often experience such discouragement before entering into something of great spiritual value. During the last hour or two of my journey there I had an almost overwhelming sense of being held in the love of God. The sweetness of that time was an intimation of all the Lord had in store for me during that memorable year. There turned out to be nothing wrong with the accommodation, either; it became a treasured sanctuary where I was able to spend extended times of prayer and Bible study.

The way in which the Lord led me to the church that was to be my training-school was another example of heaven taking the initiative and overruling my plans. One day I decided to attend a day conference in Paris and set my alarm clock accordingly. For the first and only time in its honourable life, my trusted alarm failed to go off. One glance showed me that it was too late to set out. What should I do with the rest of the day?

Before leaving England someone had given me the address of a retired vicar in Paris. I decided to pay him a visit, supposing he might be lonely. You can imagine my surprise when I reached the address and discovered that, so far from being retired, he was leading a church that served the English-speaking community in Paris!

On such spectacularly inaccurate information hung much blessing. St Michael’s was a church in which ex-pats, au pairs, odd-bods, diplomats and teachers rubbed shoulders with each other, the chief common denominator being a reasonable grasp of the English tongue. There, in a warm and welcoming atmosphere, far from the familiar, if often soul-deadening, comforts of home, many people came to a living faith.

I can never speak too highly of the nurture I received from the pastor, Eric McLellan. Blessed are they who draw out people’s potential without being put off by their obvious immaturity! Eric played a pivotal role in my spiritual development by giving me opportunities to lead people to the Lord and to preach. In the light of all that subsequently happened, I often marvel how much I would have missed had my alarm clock worked as it should have done that morning. The Lord had taken the initiative and overruled my plans according to His far greater wisdom.

It was on a return trip to this English-speaking fellowship in Paris in 1978 that I received a nudge with far-reaching consequences. I had been invited to share at the evening fellowship meeting, at which I was greatly struck by the anointing on two musicians: an exceptionally talented young songwriter called Linda, and an oboist. The following day, which was to be my last in Paris, the Lord directed me to make a long trek across town to visit this oboist. When I finally got there, she was out!

You will no doubt be as familiar as I am with that sinking feeling that you must have got it all wrong. It is bad enough to waste a day, but it is even worse when you thought you were following the Lord’s leading.

I left a scribbled note under her door to the effect that it had been good to meet her the day before, and that if she were ever back in England, she would be most welcome to get in contact. That, so far as I was concerned, was the unsatisfactory ending to an otherwise unusually blessed trip.

Three years later I heard again from the oboist. She was back in England now and serving on the committee of the Musicians’ Christian Fellowship. They had been praying about who to invite as the speaker for their annual conference, and the Lord impressed on her that I was to be the one. (Mercifully she had stored my address away.) I was thrilled to receive the invitation, but was obliged to decline it as I had a prior engagement.

When the Lord has a purpose in mind, He is prepared to move heaven and earth to fulfil it. I received a letter the following day informing me that I was no longer needed for the mission I had been planning to attend. I was free to go and be with the musicians. It was there that I met up again with Linda – and, along with a number of outstanding musicians, we have been working together ever since. Only eternity will reveal the full significance of that nudge to visit someone who was out. Jesus is the Door, and He loves to open other doors for His servants.

There had been talk that I might return to serve in the church in Paris when I had finished my course at university. Although nothing was formally decided, I rather set my hopes on the post. Months went past and I heard nothing. I discovered later that the job had been offered to someone else. I remember crying out to the Lord that He would turn this disappointment into His appointment. And He did. As final examinations loomed, the Lord told me not to go looking for jobs because He was going to give me one directly.

This sounds easy to record on paper, but it was, as you can imagine, a strange feeling to shun the Careers Office at a time when all my colleagues were busying themselves with interviews. Unusual guidance requires rigorous testing. It is only too easy to stray beyond faith into presumption. (I have done so myself on other occasions and come a cropper as a result.) Since I was faced with a total absence of any alternative leading, however, I yielded to what I sincerely hoped to be God’s plan for me, and made no effort to look for a job.

This, my first real experience of waiting, was not made any easier by having little idea what it was I was supposed to be waiting for. (There again, did the disciples really understand what they were waiting for when they prayed together in the Upper Room for the Holy Spirit to be sent upon them?) Faith was finally rewarded a few weeks before my final exams, when the rector of the church I was attending in Oxford offered me the post of lay evangelist for the parish. Through this unexpected invitation, I was able to pass directly from university into full-time ministry. Knowing all that was to come, the Lord closed the path back to Paris.

This experience was a steep Ascent of Toil – but it opened up into a long-term Broad Open Space.

The opportunity arose to move into a spacious flat in Oxford that was owned by the church. Life in a small community was, for the most part blissfully happy. It was a time for living life to the full, cutting teeth in ministry situations, and helping people in ways that I could never have done on my own, or even in a nuclear family for that matter.

Three exciting years of pastoral and evangelistic ministry later, the Lord redirected my path. He told me to resign my job in six months’ time, but did not initially tell me where I should be going. The field was wide open for outrageous suggestions! The six months were almost up before the sequel began to unfold. It began with a dream of black and white houses. For some reason, I felt convinced that the place referred to was Chester, a city I knew nothing about.

As I waited on the Lord for more detail, He showed me from Deuteronomy chapter 18 that I was a ‘Levite’: one who was set apart to minister to Him. This was all very encouraging, but how did God care for the Levites? By causing the people of God to share with them the material benefits that they themselves had received from the Lord. So long as the people of God were fruitful and faithful, the Levites prospered. In times of recession, however, they suffered. Clearly, He was calling me to live without a regular income – something I had always hoped He would never ask me to do!

I told the Lord I was willing to go, but asked for more guidance. A few nights later as I was going to bed, the Lord whispered the names of two Anglican churches into my ear. On the strength of this word, I paid Chester a flying visit.

Feeling more than a trifle foolish, I asked a newsagent whether she had heard of these two churches. To my amazement, they turned out not only to exist but to be neighbouring parishes!

Truly, we serve a God who guides His children wonderfully. I have rather trembled to share so much autobiography in one chapter, in case people suppose that such things happen to us every day, or that they should be experiencing similarly dramatic guidance. I would emphatically not counsel anyone to sit back in the way that I did and wait for a job to turn up, unless the Lord makes it abundantly clear that this is the path that He would have them follow. His leadings are as infinite as His variety in creation. The important thing is that He is completely committed to guiding His children who put their trust in Him.

By moving me to Chester, the Lord was calling me to embrace a radically different lifestyle. From merely being aware that contemplation existed, the Lord was now giving me a specific call to it. It marked the beginning of an entirely new phase in my life.

Dreams and Visions

As we have seen, it was through a dream that the Lord first directed me to Chester. Dreams and visions are two of the ways the Lord sometimes uses to impart guidance. When Aaron and his sister Miriam grumbled against Moses in the wilderness, their rebellious attitude provoked this word of correction from the Lord:

When a prophet of the Lord is among you,
I reveal Myself to him in visions,
I speak to him in dreams.
But this is not true of My servant Moses;
He is faithful in all My house.
With him I speak face to face,
Clearly and not in riddles;
He sees the form of the Lord.
(Numbers 12:6-8)

Implied in this passage is the existence of a sort of hierarchy of communication. At the top are ‘face to face’ encounters between God and His children. After that come dreams and visions, which the Lord uses to show us things we could not otherwise have known. I have discussed the significance of riddles at some length in the chapter ‘The Dark Speech of God’ in Ravens and the Prophet.1

We have been hearing many exciting reports recently of the Lord revealing Himself through dreams to Muslims in countries where it is impossible to preach the Gospel openly.2 In a village in Algeria where the martyr Ramon Lull once preached, the Lord sent so mighty a visitation that every single man in it was converted. There have been other recorded instances of imams (religious teachers) being converted, and subsequently holding church services in their mosques.

This is something to remember actively in prayer. The Church in North Africa and the Middle East needs all the support we can give it.

The dreams God sends are intended to comfort and instruct us but they are in no way deterministic. In other words, what we see in a dream is not inevitably bound to happen in real life – though it may serve to warn us of what might happen if we do not pray to avert the danger we have glimpsed.

As with other forms of guidance, what God reveals to us is usually partial, and needs further clarification. Dreams serve to stimulate our minds to explore a subject prayerfully, but it is comparatively rare that God tells us what to do through them. In my experience, I often dream about friends in unusual contexts, or people with whom I have lost contact. Most of the details may be irrelevant, but the dream has served its purpose in reminding me of someone I am meant to pray for or to get in touch with.

The principle is that God gives fresh guidance as and when we need it. We are brought so far along a path, and then we have to stop and ask again. This keeps us humble and dependent. The Lord warned Joseph in a dream to flee to Egypt. This piece of guidance saved the Lord Jesus’ life, but it cost Joseph his livelihood and reduced his family to refugee status.

Some time later, Joseph was shown in another dream that Herod was dead. The family set out accordingly, only to come to an abrupt halt on hearing the disturbing news that Herod’s tyrannical son was now reigning in Judea. It was at this point of uncertainty that God revealed the next stage of His plan, warning them in yet another dream not to return to Judea, but to head north instead to Galilee.3

Most of our dreams, of course, are just the normal random processes of the subconscious mind, and we must beware of trying too hard to find an interpretation where none is immediately forthcoming. Dreams that God has sent either come back to us during the course of the day, or are so firmly etched in our minds the moment we awake that we know them to be of a deeper significance. We are wise if we write down the details quickly, before they begin to fade. C.S. Lewis records that he ‘saw’ the substance of his Narnia books in a series of dreams before he put pen to paper.

More commonly, God uses dreams as a ‘progress report’ on our spiritual condition. Because they are just between ourselves and God, they are the most discreet way He has of alerting us to something that is out of balance in our life.

Dreams in which certain situations continually recur may be particularly significant. These revelations about our inner selves are often the jolt we need to take something seriously.

If dreams can be significant, it is even more important that we heed visions, for God is addressing our conscious mind here as well as our subconscious. In a vision we are shown something in picture form that throws spiritual light on a situation. There are many examples in the Bible of the Lord using visions to guide and instruct His people.4 God still sends warnings to churches and to nations through prophetic visions. He wants us to be His watchmen and to pray as fervently for our nation as we do for our loved ones.

It was through a vision the Lord led Ananias to the house where Saul was staying. Since Saul of Tarsus was known to the disciples only as a red-hot opponent of the Church it was an improbable and dangerous command. Ananias’ willingness to make himself vulnerable was a crucial step in transforming Saul into the great apostle Paul.7 Think of all that would not have happened had Daniel and Ananias not obeyed their improbable leadings! It makes us eager to imitate their obedience, whilst maintaining sensible safeguards.

The series of visions the Lord gave Micah concerning the state of Samaria and Jerusalem formed the substance of his prophetic message.5 God likewise gave Daniel the interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in a vision, an act of grace which not only saved his life but which prepared the way for his meteoric rise to power in the Babylonian court.6

More often than not, however, we are speaking of simple fleeting impressions that pass across the screen of our minds and which help us to pray or to counsel more effectively. If we are open to the Lord, He may well speak to us from time to time in dreams and visions.

Interpreting God’s Time-Scale

Solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil — Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity.
(Hebrews 5:14; 6:1)

The present move of the Spirit has empowered many Christians; now the Lord is urging us to press on to maturity. The verb phero (translated to go on in Hebrews 6:1) means to be borne along, like a ship driven by the wind. The King James Version speaks of having our senses exercised. This is a translation of the word aistheteria, which refers to the organs of sense, such as our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, fingers and the nervous system. Clearly, there is something in the soul that corresponds to these senses and which we need to build up. The word ‘exercised’ (gumnazo) means to train (stripped of clothes). This use of imagery from the world of athletics reminds us that considerable effort is required in order to reach spiritual maturity.

Most of us find few things harder to interpret than God’s time-scale. The Lord often works fast, but He is rarely in a rush. Paul had to remind the Thessalonians that although Jesus would be returning soon, they still needed to work and earn their daily bread.8 Our confusion often stems from mistaking some initial calling for the commission itself. The initial call is given to alert us to begin to make preparations. We may not need to take any decisive action until the confirmation comes that releases us into action. Understanding this will save us from rushing into premature and irresponsible actions,9 and will encourage us to double-check sudden impulses.

I mention this with some diffidence, because we have known occasions when an unexpected curtailment of our plans has proved to be the Lord’s leading. While we were on honeymoon, the Lord told us to cut our holiday short, and to return home three days early. We found a letter waiting for us, inviting Rosalind for an interview on the following day. Not only was she offered the job – she was the last midwife from outside the county to be appointed for nearly a decade! In the light of the way the Lord has developed her midwifery ministry, we can only marvel at the care He took to bring us back in time for that all-important interview.

Because there may be a significant time delay between an initial call and our subsequent commission, there is a danger that we may try to fulfil the vision by our own efforts. The troubles multiply when we try to force the outcome prematurely. Like Abraham, we can make an ‘Ishmael’ out of a genuine promise of God. It is not always wise to get the oars out when the wind is not filling our sails!

True spirituality is neither outlandish nor impulsive, but acts with mature deliberation on what the Lord has revealed. I sometimes wonder, though, whether too many of us in the Church today are not so heavily influenced by the cautious dictates of worldly wisdom that we are no longer willing to risk following the still small voice of God’s leading. As Peter Marshall put it:

God save us from the hot heads who would lead us foolishly, and from cold feet which would keep us from adventuring at all!

We must do our best to test everything. Thus it was not enough that I felt the Lord telling me to go to Chester; the mind, after all, can imagine anything. It wasn’t even enough that I had found the churches the Lord had told me about through a word of knowledge. The clinching factor came when I met to pray with the leaders of the church in Chester about the possibility of my coming to be with them. The vicar was given a clear conviction that our lives had been proceeding as it were along parallel lines, and that the Lord now wanted to bring our paths together.

Within a few months I was based at the one church, and leading a prayer group in the other. God had spoken through a dream and a word of knowledge, to lead me to a town with which I would otherwise have had no connection. The Lord was my Provider and my Shepherd during those early days in Chester. I felt, in many ways, as though I was being ‘fed by ravens’. I had then, as I have now, no guaranteed income, but the Lord provided, first a city-centre flat overlooking the river, then a car, and finally, three years later, a house. He is generous beyond our wildest imaginings – and He wants His children to trust Him.

In recent years we have faced a number of serious setbacks and disappointments and experienced the inevitable temptation to wallow in the pain and confusion. We have discerned a pattern emerging, however, of the Lord wonderfully making up to us over a period of time for the things we had lost in the short term. The Lord is faithful, and wishes to reassure all who put their trust in Him that the Broad Open Spaces do indeed await us. He has indeed ‘saved the best till last’ (cf John 2:10).

On the Broad Open Spaces, just as much as on the Ascent of Toil, we must keep our gaze firmly fixed on the Lord who has gone ahead to prepare the way for us. He wants us to have confidence to follow His leadings, and to discern His whispers to us. But how are we to handle the many times when we are unable to discern the Lord’s will? The simple answer is that we must trust Him in the darkness and learn from our mistakes! We should no more stop trying to listen to the Lord because we have misunderstood His will in the past than refuse to get back into a car because we have had an accident.

There is another aspect to this. We must also face the fact that God sometimes appears to allow those who are seemingly very mature to trip over their feet from time to time in some matter of listening, if only to keep them from taking undue pride in their own abilities and achievements.

Many of our mistakes stem from failing to share our situation in sufficient detail with praying friends. However, not everyone will agree with us even when we have heard correctly. The way of the cross sometimes sets us on a course that others – even those who love us dearly – will find hard to understand. Their outlook on life makes it virtually impossible for them to see things as we do.

Feeling something for oneself, but hearing the opposite from one’s friends can be extremely confusing. Often it is best to wait until things become clearer to all concerned. Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted, and most matters of guidance benefit from proper prayer and consultation. But there are occasions when we face a unique opportunity and have to decide more or less there and then what to do about it. With great humility we must accept that if the Lord really is calling us forward, we cannot afford to keep looking over our shoulder to see who is following us! But do remember that when a major issue of guidance is involved, the Lord will confirm His calling to us by more than one strand of leading.

For Reflection

Most of us find guidance a complex issue – but that does not mean the Lord is not leading us. It is worth making the effort to record the Lord’s dealings with us. Take time to ponder and discern His leading in your life, and to praise Him for his faithfulness to you.

Selah

Father, I praise You that You are guiding me.

I plan my ways, but it is You who ordain the steps of my life.

Thank You for bringing all the people who mean so much to me into my life.

Give me eyes to recognize when You are calling me to some new venture,

or leading me in a particular direction – and grant me the willingness to respond accordingly.

In Jesus’ name. Amen.

References

1. Robert Weston, Ravens and the Prophet (New Wine Press).
2. cf Genesis 28:11-15; 1 Kings 3:5-15. See, for example, Bilquis Sheikh’s book, I dared to call Him Father (Hodder and Stoughton).
3. Matthew 2:19-23. The wise men were likewise instructed in a dream not to return to King Herod (Matthew 2:12). See also Matthew 1:20; Genesis 31:24.
4. E.g. Genesis 15:1ff; Acts 2:17; 2 Corinthians 12:1.
5. Micah 1:1.
6. Daniel 2:19 ff.
7. Acts 9:10-18.
8. 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12.
9. When the Lord calls us to do something unconventional, it often happens that an easier course of action comes our way at about the same time. Such temptations are a test of our willingness to pay the cost to see the original vision through.