Thou Our Guide

I've finished going over chapter 20 of J. I. Packer's Knowing God (InterVarsity Press, 1973, 1993). This chapter, entitled "Thou Our Guide" is an excellent treatment of what it means to have God guide us. 

Below are some of my highlights... 

Christians are God's sons; and if human parents have a responsibility to give their children guidance in matters where ignorance and incapacity would spell danger, we should not doubt that in the family of God the same applies. "If you, then though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!" (Mt 7:11). [p 232] 

Again, Scripture is God's Word, "profitable" (we read) "for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work" (2 Tim 3:16-17 RSV). "Teaching" means comprehensive instruction in doctrine and ethics, the work and will of God; "reproof," "correction" and "training in righteousness" signify the applying of this instruction to our disordered lives; "equipped [ready] for every good work" -- that is, a life set to go God's way -- is the promised result.

Again, Christians have an indwelling Instructor, the Holy Spirit. "You have been anointed by the Holy One. ... The anointing which you received from him abides in you, ...his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie" (1 Jn 2:20, 27 RSV). Doubt as to the availability of guidance would be a slur on the faithfulness of the Holy Spirit to his ministry. It is notable that in Acts 8:29; 10:19; 13:2; 16:6 and most strikingly in the decree of the Jerusalem council -- "it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us" (15:28) -- the giving of guidance is specifically ascribed to the Spirit.

Again, God seeks his glory in our lives, and he is glorified in us only when we obey his will. It follows that, as a means to his own end, he must be ready to teach us his way, so that we may walk in it. Confidence in God's readiness to teach those who desire to obey underlies all Psalm 119. In Psalm 23:3 David proclaims the reality of God giving guidance for his own glory -- "he guides me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake." [p 233]

How We Receive Guidance [pp 233-34]

Earnest Christians seeking guidance often go wrong. Why is this? Often the reason is that their notion of the nature and method of divine guidance is distorted. They look for a will-o'-the-wisp; they overlook the guidance that is ready at hand and lay themselves open to all sorts of delusions. Their basic mistake is to think of guidance as essentially inward prompting by the Holy Spirit, apart from the written Word. 

How do thoughtful Christians come to make this mistake? What seems to happen is this. They hear the word guidance and think at once of a particular class of "guidance problems"-- on which, perhaps, the books they have read and the testimonies they have heard tended to harp exclusively. This is the class of problems concerned with what we may call "vocational choices" -- choices, that is, between competing options, all of which in themselves appear lawful and good. 

Naturally, because they shape our lives so decisively and mean so much for joy or sorrow, we think a lot about "vocational choices," and it is right that we should. But what is not right is to jump to the conclusion that, in the last analysis, all guidance problems are of this one type. 

But the true way to honor the Holy Spirit as our guide is to honor the holy Scriptures through which he guides us. The fundamental guidance which God gives to shape our lives -- the instilling, that is, of the basic convictions, attitudes, ideals and value judgments, in terms of which we are to live -- is not a matter of inward promptings apart from the Word but of the pressure on our consciences of the portrayal of God's character and will in the Word, which the Spirit enlightens us to understand and apply to ourselves. [p 236]

The basic form of divine guidance, therefore, is the presentation to us of positive ideals as guidelines for all our living. "Be the kind of person that Jesus was"; "seek this virtue, and this one, and this, and practice them up to the limit"; "know your responsibilities-husbands, to your wives; wives, to your husbands; parents, to your children; all of you, to all your fellow Christians and all your fellow human beings; know them, and seek strength constantly to discharge them" -- this is how God guides us through the Bible, as any student of the Psalms, the Proverbs, the Prophets, the Sermon on the Mount, and the ethical parts of the Epistles will soon discover. "Turn from evil and do good" (Psalm 34:14; 37:27)- this is the highway along which the Bible is concerned to lead us, and all its admonitions are concerned to keep us on it. Be it noted that the reference to being "led by the Spirit" in Romans 8:14 relates not to inward "voices" or any such experience, but to mortifying known sin and not living after the flesh! [p 236]

The Spirit leads within the limits which the Word sets, not beyond them. "He guides me in paths of righteousness" (Ps 23:3) -- but not anywhere else. [237]

Six Common Pitfalls (in seeking the Lord about vocational decisions) [pp 237-38]

Even with right ideas about guidance in general, however, it is still easy to go wrong, particularly in "vocational" choices. No area of life bears clearer witness to the frailty of human nature-even regenerate human nature. The work of God in these cases is to incline first our judgment and then our whole being to the course which, of all the competing alternatives, he has marked out as best suited for us, and for his glory and the good of others through us... It is worth listing some of the main pitfalls.

First, unwillingness to think... God made us thinking beings, and he guides our minds as in his presence we think things out -- not otherwise (Deut 32:29). 

Second, unwillingness to think ahead and weigh the long-term consequences of alternative courses of action. (Deut 32:29)

Third, unwillingness to take advice. "...a wise man listens to advice." (Prov 12:15)

Fourth, unwillingness to suspect oneself. We dislike being realistic with ourselves. We need to ask ourselves why we "feel" a particular course to be right. (Ps 139:23-24)  

Fifth, unwillingness to discount personal magnetism. Outstanding people are not, indeed, necessarily wrong, but they are not necessarily right, either! They, and their views, must be respected, but may not be idolized. (1 Thess 5:21)

Sixth, unwillingness to wait. "Wait on the Lord" is a constant refrain in the Psalms, and it is a necessary word, for God often keeps us waiting. He is not in such a hurry as we are, and it is not his way to give more light on the future than we need for action in the present, or to give us more than one step at a time. 

When We Miss the Road [pp 241-42]

If I found I had driven into a bog, I should know I had missed the road. But this knowledge would not be of much comfort if I then had to stand helpless watching the car sink and vanish; the damage would be done, and that would be that. Is it the same when a Christian wakes up to the fact that he has missed God's guidance and taken the wrong way? Is the be now be put off course for life? Thank God, no. Our God is a God who not merely restores but takes up our mistakes and follies into his plan for us and brings good out of them. [p 241]

Guidance, like all God's acts of blessing under the covenant of grace, is a sovereign act. Not merely does God will to guide us in the sense of showing us his way, that we may tread it; he wills also to guide us in the more fundamental sense of ensuring that, whatever happens, whatever mistakes we may make, we shall come safely home. Slippings and strayings there will be, no doubt, but the everlasting arms are beneath us; we shall be caught, rescued, restored. This is God's promise; this is how good he is.

Thus it appears that the right context for discussing guidance is one of confidence in the God who will not let us ruin our souls. Our concern, therefore, in this discussion should be more for his glory than for our security -- for that is already taken care of. And our self-distrust, while keeping us humble, must not cloud the joy with which we lean on "the Lord Protector" -- our faithful covenant God. [p 242]


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