How many decisions we make during the course of a day! What to wear, what to eat, when to make a call, what gift to take a friend, how to tackle a project we are undertaking . . . These are everyday matters – and in them we find a training ground for learning to listen to the Lord. He beckons us to follow Him, sharpening our skills and directing our feet along His paths.
More times than I can count, the Holy Spirit has nudged me to set out in some specific direction, or to go out and post a letter or something, only to find myself crossing paths with someone it had clearly been His intention all along that I should meet. Nudges are important. If Jesus had not responded to the leading of the Holy Spirit to set out across the lake, would the Gadarene man have ever been set free from the demons that chained him? (Lk. 8:26-35)
The Lord delights to lead us in this way, and even ‘chance’ encounters and conversations can have the most profound impact on people’s lives. Receiving and acting on such guidance is a two-way matter, therefore, being not only for our own benefit, but also for the difference it will make to others.
May we make the effort to train our hearts to discern the Lord’s leadings, big or small, and then to gird up our loins to take whatever action is required – for without courage nothing of any lasting worth is ever accomplished.
The training aspect is so important because there are many occasions when we find ourselves needing to know for sure that we are following the Lord’s leading. A life-changing decision made on the basis of just one word or impulse can lead to serious consequences. In our opening post in this series, on Triangulation, we saw how wise it is to ‘take measurements’ from multiple directions to ascertain the best way forward.
It is deeply reassuring when the Holy Spirit speaks to us from several different angles, causing many factors to converge to a single point that confirms that all is indeed tallying and corresponding. In terms of guidance, it’s the equivalent of ‘let every matter be established by two or three witnesses.’ (Deut. 19:15)
The word ‘tallying’ (from an Anglo-Norman word meaning ‘twig’) was originally used to describe marking notches on a stick in order to count something. When two people wanted to keep a record together, a stick would be scored with a number of lines, and then split in two, with each party keeping one half. The accurate agreement of the notches on the sticks was evidence of the arrangement. ‘Tallying’ has thereby come to signify agreement and convergence, and something that doesn’t tally – as in the case of the false testimonies brought against Jesus at His trial – non-agreement.
It is often the case that what the Lord confirms to us not so much fresh revelation, as a reminder of things we have learnt before, or an insight and understanding into some aspect of our life in Him. He loves to deepen the flow of our perception and to provide confirmation, whether through the testimony of others, a word of Scripture that stands out to us, a deep inner knowing, a prophecy dream or vision that we receive, or some entirely different marker, it is our job to, as it were, inscribe a notch on our tally stick, recognising that a particular path or course of action is lining up.
Incidentally, have you ever noticed how the next stage of spiritual growth usually appears out of reach and quite impossible? When I was at university, I used to listen with wonder to stories of students being given the gift of speaking in tongues. As a linguist I could not imagine how it could be possible to speak another language fluently without having first studied it! But there came a day when the Lord gave me the gift too, and not only was tongue loosed but also my understanding of many other things.
You delight to draw out and release unseen and new giftings in us, Lord Jesus. Only You know all that You have sown within us, and purposed for us as those seeds to begin to waken and to flourish.
Notching the tally stick: Circumstances, scripture and other leadings
Whilst circumstances are often the final arbiter and deciding factor as to whether something is really right or possible, we should not rely solely on them alone, as this can be a superficial way of seeking guidance. Do you remember how Paul arrived at Troas to find a door wide open for ministry? (2 Cor. 2:12-13) A lesser man might well have concluded that he was meant to grasp the opportunity with both hands and remain there. But Paul knew he had a call to work with Titus and, because he did not find his friend there, had the courage to leave Troas and go to Miletus. (Titus 2:12-13)
At other times, as we saw in the case of Jackie Pullinger, circumstances may sometimes appear to present us with a great big ‘STOP’ sign. If we remain firmly – and humbly – convinced that we have heard from the Lord, and that this obstacle is a challenge to overcome rather than a warning to heed, then we must ask Him for the courage to act on His leading. CS Lewis depicts this dilemma in Prince Caspian, when Lucy catches sight of Aslan but remains with her companions rather than having the courage to follow him. He rebukes her – and the next time he appears, she is willing to go with him despite the others still refusing to believe that he really has appeared. We must strengthen ourselves at such times by remembering that the turtle only makes progress by sticking his neck out!
As the Lord Jesus disciples us in the ways of God, He wants to bring out all manner of treasures from His storehouse. Often, He will illuminate a verse or story in His own living Word that is comparable to our unique situation. But not every circumstance is perfectly paralleled in the Bible, and some calls may be of too personal, local or specific a nature to find clear-cut precedent there. The authentic call of Jesus, though, will never run counter to the thrust of Scriptural teaching – although it may sometimes shed an entirely new light on it. (1 Thess. 5:21)
This is why we should be wary of something that seems ‘off-piste.’ The devil is a counterfeiter, and adept at pointing out verses and bits of verses which appear to confirm a false leading, building them magnetically one upon another. However appealing these verses may seem, in reality they are nothing but a mirage, the reflection of a mistaken starting shape. May the Lord help us to ‘smell a rat’ and willingly look beyond them for the solid reality of His true foundations.
Ponder for a moment some of the ways in which the Lord has inscribed ‘tallying notches’ to lead you into some important change of direction. Think of all the strands of guidance that you may have experienced and mentally ‘notched up’ on your tally stick, even apart from hearing His still small voice directly. Dreams, prophecy, inner ‘knowing’, external signs, things that happen out of the blue (which isn’t quite the same as circumstances) . . .
Ponder, too, the times you have got something wrong. It is so easy to beat ourselves up at this point, and be less keen to wait on the Lord another time. But isn’t it rather the things that we get wrong that are the ones we learn most from?
Inviting others to see how the notches tally
Put all things to the test; hold fast what is good. (1 Thess. 5:21)
We saw earlier that one of the uses of a tallying stick was to give two parties the opportunity to check that they were keeping corresponding notches. This is a helpful illustration when it comes to guidance, because others can help us to examine them and see if they match. Our close and trusted friends can be the best placed to discern by what spirit we have come to believe, or not believe certain things – because, let’s face it, even the best of us can succumb to wishful thinking, grandiosity and self-importance. And equally, some of us feel so unworthy and inadequate that we fail to take note of the signs by which the Lord is wanting to lead us.
The loving wisdom of our companions can spot the true hallmarks of God’s leading in our lives, as opposed to the ‘scratches’ we make by our own imaginings, or that we are fooled into making by evil intent. We are wise if we share where we believe the Lord may be leading us with other mature believers.
It can be a delicate matter though. Whilst sharing a matter when it first comes to our attention saves us from wasting time and energy heading down dead ends, there is also a real danger that other people may not be able to pick up on how the Lord is leading us, especially when it is at a very early stage. There are times when, like Nehemiah we have no option but to go about our initial business unannounced, and to ‘set out during the night . . . not having told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do.’ (Neh. 2:12)
The counsel I often give to budding writers is to be wary both who you share your current plans with, and how much you say about them. It is only too easy to share projects with such eagerness that all the vitality of momentum goes into the sharing rather than into the writing – not to mention having to ward off discouragement if they fail to kindle at the idea. There is something in this not unlike viewing a house with a view to buying it – some people can be completely put off by the décor or by a leaky tap – issues that could easily be put right. Praise God for those who see the potential and respond with such enthusiasm that it fires us on our way!
Many have strayed into heart-breaking delusion because they have misheard, misinterpreted or otherwise presumed something to be of God which, in fact, was anything but. Wise and loving overseers will keep us from such mistakes. On the whole, it is usually wise to humble ourselves and consult with others when we are faced with a particularly major decision. And that should include not only our friends, but also our leaders and authority figures – a daunting prospect, if we sense that the matter lies outside their experience or denominational beliefs. Nonetheless, this is not a phase to sidestep for fear of being misunderstood or rejected. If the vision is of God, then it can (and must be) able to withstand such scrutiny. As Tacitus reminds us, ‘Truth thrives with inspection and delay; [whereas] things which are false thrive upon haste and uncertainty.’
Being told that our sense of direction is not from the Lord, or, at least, not in the specific way that we were interpreting or expecting it to work out, is hard for the flesh to hear. May we be willing – and even gracious – to receive such necessary corrections, and so allow the hot air of our inflated or presumptive ideas to be harmlessly released. And if the boot is, so to speak, on the other foot, and it is we who are called upon to puncture another person’s false dreams, may we do so with gentleness and grace.
Father, help us to check our coordinates carefully, be open to test everything, and to stand corrected when need ne. May we go to the right people for testing: not just those who we assume will automatically take our part and endorse us, but those who have Your genuine perspective on a situation.
When we have no time to tally or submit our leadings to be tested
Rather than immediately plunging into a course of action, it is usually best, when time permits, to pray and ponder the options. You may want to remind yourself of these posts: The power of prayerful pondering and Three important principles for making radical decisions.
Perhaps you have heard me quoting the old army maxim, ‘Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted.’ It is one of my favourite sayings, and one we have benefited from time and again as we have prayed and pondered rather than leaping into premature action. God can be deeply in such ponderings. There are occasions, however, when we simply don’t have the luxury of time to ponder, tally and triangulate – the situation demands we size it up there and then, and make a decision immediately. Paul, for instance, had to respond very fast when his life came under threat in Damascus, and he submitted himself to being lowered in a basket over the city wall.
On other occasions, it is the enemy who would love to goad us into making hasty decisions – and haste does not get a good press in the Scriptures: ‘Do you see a man who speaks in haste? There is more hope for a fool than for him.’ (Prov. 29:20).
This is where our practice of training our hearts and minds to seek the Lord in even the little and everyday things comes into its own: if it is our practice to listen to Him, then we are far more likely to hear correctly in the heat of the moment. A simple rule of thumb can help us discern between choices at such times: do we have a sense of being led in a particular direction, or of being driven? The Good Shepherd leads us, but there is also a butcher who drives, flatters, promises, dominates and intimidates us.
May you know the Good Shepherd weaving strands together to lead you concerning the decisions that you face.
Father, help us to be prepared to put in the hard graft of tallying and triangulating so that we can develop the skills the Lord Jesus had in discerning Your leading.
May no fear or tension prevent us from hearing what we need to hear, nor from trusting that You will keep that which we commit to You.
May we be able to recognise Your Spirit beckoning us in the direction we need to go, the things we need to study, the people we need to spend time with. May we love You well, and bring glory to Your Name as we seek to fulfil Your purposes for us. Amen.