12. Divine Guidance
As Christians, we are committed to a life of obedience to the Lord. I hope I am right in assuming that you would like to act in every circumstance according to His will. The problem is how to know, clearly and without doubt, what His will is.
One fairly obvious way of discovering His will is to imagine Jesus in our situation and try to think how He would act. It is also illuminating to think how He would be treated in the world today. I know that if He were in South Africa, or even in some parts of the U.S.A., He would be shunned and ignored as an Asian, a non-white... What would be the reaction if He preached the Sermon on the Mount from the steps of the Capitol in Washington, D.C.? Incidentally, I wonder whether Jesus and His disciples, and Paul, would not worship in a synagogue rather than in any Christian church. If Jesus lived in modern America, would He still work as an itinerant preacher with beard and sandals and a band of hippie-like followers, or would He don ecclesiastical dress, write books and appear on TV? This kind of approach is difficult. Jesus lived in such a different culture from ours; it is almost impossible to guess how He would act here. Nor can we be expected to copy the external life patterns of someone living two thousand years ago in the Middle East. Nevertheless we can safely apply to our own situations His standards of love and tolerance and forgiveness and unselfish humility.
I met someone the other day who said he used to be a member of our church. He had been a very active member; but one year, for no reason, he was voted off the committee. He suspected that the minister had turned against him because he had criticized the minister once or twice. Of course he had resigned on the spot, and would never dream of going back again. "Once bitten, twice shy," he said, in a way which made me think he was quite proud of his attitude. Did he stop to ask himself whether Jesus would have gone off in a huff because his feelings were hurt? Yet hurt feelings seem quite common in Christian churches, and nobody apparently thinks it strange.
Sometimes the situation is more complex. During World War II England was fighting for survival, depending for its life upon her young airmen who were bringing down the Nazi invaders. Many conscientious people believed that Jesus Himself would have taken up arms under these circumstances to protect His country, and would have even dropped bombs on Berlin. This was preached from many church pulpits. Yet Jesus Himself lived in a conquered country which was continually staging abortive revolts against Rome, and there is nothing in the record to suggest that He would have taken up arms against anyone, Jew or Roman. It seemed to me at the time that war, even in self-defense, was totally out of keeping with the Christian ethic. I concluded that Jesus would probably have joined one of the medical units: to heal, not to destroy. This conclusion led me and many other ministers to serve at medical posts; it was a deliberate effort to do what we thought Jesus would have done in the circumstances.
However, all this is rather a crude way of determining one's actions, especially as it seems to be based on the assumption that Jesus was a mere man who lived a very good life on earth, long ago. You might equally well ask, What would Socrates do in my position? Confucius? Swedenborg? Lincoln? But Jesus was not just a great and good man; He was God incarnate. After His resurrection from the dead He became completely merged with the Divine, and is with us today, actually within us. It is not His example we seek, but His guidance. For example, an accountant wants to know whether he should accept this job or that. It would be no use his asking, "What would Jesus do?" Jesus was a carpenter, not an accountant. But he could legitimately ask, "Lord, what would you have me do?" In any circumstances whatever, we can and should ask the Lord, "What would you have me do?"
Unfortunately, many people only ask this question when they are in a crisis, and then are disappointed at not getting an answer. The channels are blocked with the sediment of years, the faucets have rusted up. Maybe we have attended church regularly, but never until now have we tried to get personally through to God. We have left that to the professional minister or priest. Then the crisis comes, and we cry out to the Lord for help, but there is no reply. It is like fetching an old radio down from the attic which your father left there when you were a child and trying to get some sound out of it. You have to work at it for some time, replace the batteries, clean the contacts, and so on, before it will function properly. Even when we do begin to get results, the answers we receive will not be clear and unambiguous until we have developed much further in our personal spiritual lives.
What does God's voice sound like when it does begin to come through? What language does He speak? English? Latin? Hebrew? For that matter, what language do evil spirits use when they speak to us? They don't use any specific language, but stimulate our evil desires, and draw attention to any false beliefs which we have previously accepted as our own. So with the Lord. He speaks to us through our conscience, which we have previously formed from our study of the Bible, and the principles we have adopted for the control of our lives. The trouble is that so many people do not have a conscience; or, if they do, it is so twisted and warped that God simply cannot use it as a means of communication with them. They have built it up from the mores of their society, from novels and the TV. It is a matter of "conscience" with them that they should be successful, aggressive, rich, important, admired. The man who told me he had left the church because he had been dropped from the committee, probably felt it was a matter of conscience that he should not show up there again. He doubtless believed that God Himself had told him to act as he did. But let us beware! There are evil spirits with us all, trying to lead us astray and destroy us. They can make their voices sound very like the voice of God. How can we distinguish between them and Him? It is not always easy, and we can be mistaken at times. One test is, "By their fruits ye shall know them."
If what we feel guided to do is creative and not destructive; if it seems to be in line with the Law of Love (love to the Lord and the neighbor) and the Golden Rule ("Do to others as you would have them do to you"), then it is probably from God and should be acted upon. On the other hand, if it panders to our self-love and self-pity, and tends to make us feel important at the expense of others, then it is probably from hell and should be ignored. "By their fruits ye shall know them." If the memory of something you did in the past makes you gloat and feel condemnatory towards somebody, then it was probably prompted by evil spirits. But if you feel serene and happy over the memory of it, and the richer for it in your spiritual life, then it was probably from God.
Neither God nor the devil can speak to us in a vacuum; they reach us through our own ideas and ideals. If we are full of our own self-importance, God cannot speak to us. But if we want to further some unselfish ideal, though it may be a mistaken one, then the Lord can, and will, speak to us through our unselfishness, and bend and guide us according to His will. It is no use our standing waiting for orders. We must take the initiative and set out along the road. We must do the best we can, according to our lights. Then He will re-direct us where necessary, turn things around and switch them over, so that we may find circumstances becoming quite different from what we expected, and we may end by acting quite differently from what we intended. Afterwards, we shall see and acknowledge that the Lord was guiding us and over-ruling everything for good.
One or two other small points. God cannot guide us to overcome some sin unless, in our higher selves, we want to be free of it. Nor can He heal us of some sickness if we inwardly want to be sick (as many people do, from escapism or self-pity). Nor can He instruct us on any matter about which we have already made up our minds. The only condition under which we can receive guidance from God is that we should be wanting sincerely and earnestly to do His will.
There are many different ways in which He can make His will known to us. It may come like a flash of illumination while we are reading the Bible. Or it may come when we are reading a novel or the newspaper. How often have I been glancing over some article in a magazine, not thinking consciously about my own situation, when suddenly some word or phrase has hit me. The magazine has dropped on my knee, while my mind has drifted off on a long, long journey; and a stranger has joined me, like on the road to Emmaus, and I have received wonderful enlightenment, so that perhaps I have not wanted to read any more that day! In such a manner can God guide us, if we are ready for it. Or it may happen while we are talking with a friend. The subject under discussion may not seem to have any connection with what is troubling us. Then a certain idea enters the conversation; the Lord touches it, and it comes alive, and we know that it is the complete and perfect answer to our problem. With me it is usually a sense of pressure, as if my Father were edging me this way or that. Sometimes He stops me altogether, with a "No Road" sign, or a "Wrong Way." Most often He just gently eases me into the track He wants me to follow.
When we have developed a little further, and have made our will His will and His will ours, then He will be able to give us more explicit directions. At last a still small voice will sound over our spiritual radio, saying, "Child, do this!" And if we answer, "Yes Lord!" and do it at once, the voice will come again, clearer and louder. Eventually the channel will be fully open, and we shall have a means of knowing from moment to moment, exactly what the Lord would have us do in every smallest detail of life.
"The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord, and he delighteth in his way. Wait on the Lord, and keep his way, and he shall exalt thee to inherit the land."