Great Themes of the Bible (#18-Guidance)

"Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight."

There are times in life when we look back at things as they have been. I had one of those this week. Myra and I went back to my hometown in West Tennessee last Friday to walk through my father and mother's house one last time. Daddy has been with the Lord for over fifteen years now, and my mother is a final-stage Alzheimer's Disease patient. She no longer knows any of us, and she will never need or set foot in that house again — which is still just as she left it on the day she fell and broke her hip over a year ago now.

The house was sold a few weeks ago. Yesterday was the last day it would belong to the Shelly family, and today is the title-transfer day to its new owner. I wanted to walk through that house one more time — to see what smells were still there, what pieces of furniture might stir a memory, what pictures we might want to take before someone altered its appearance. It was a melancholy Friday for us.

We brought back a couple of things that seem almost representative of my mother and father: a serving bowl Mama must have used a gazillion times and a hat my Daddy wore to work an equal number of days. But that's the past. The memories are good and worth stirring occasionally, yet I don't live there. Against the thought that we might want to stuff our car trunk with mementos and odds and ends, I turned to Myra and said, "It's time to go. I have everything I want to take from here . . ." Because a knot came into my throat at that point, I finished the sentence only in a private place in my mind: "I have everything I want to take from here, and they gave me those things years ago by loving me and showing me what was right and holy."

Life is not lived well from backward glances! The movement of life is inexorably, blessedly forward. Thus the great need any one of us has is less for "precious memories" that linger than for guidance into a future we cannot see. Hindsight on history is easier than insight for today or guidance for tomorrow.

Some Fundamental Insights

Do you remember this verse from the Old Testament: " ‘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' "? (Jer. 29:11). It is taken from a letter the prophet Jeremiah wrote to exiles of 597 B.C. who had been taken into Babylonian Captivity. We like to read that verse to a specific group of people in an identifiable historical situation and believe it represents God's will for all his people in whatever circumstances we must endure at awkward times of life. I have no objection to that, for I believe God is the same yesterday, today, and forever — and therefore is always determined to bring his people to holy outcomes. But we must be certain that we look for God's guidance into those prosperous and hopeful times. We must be cautious about trying to chart our own course, lest we wind up defeating his will for our lives. It is so easy to do, for "there is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death" (Prov. 14:12).

According to the biblical perspective, we all need divine guidance for our lives. "We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way," said the prophet (Isa. 53:6a). This statement about humankind being like straying sheep is spoken in the context of the great Suffering Servant text that the earliest Christian evangelists used so constantly in explaining the work of Jesus of Nazareth.

If indeed we have all gone astray and if the paths we pick in our confusion are most frequently the ones that lead to death rather than life, isn't it obvious that we need guidance? Isn't it transparent that we need a guide, mentor, and rescuer?

Among the best-known and most often-quoted verses from the Book of Proverbs are these two that reflect the tenor of the entire collection: "Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight."

Human wisdom isn't enough. We humans are not smart enough to find our own way. So, rather than take pride in our own understanding, we will be wiser to follow the Lord with wholehearted abandon; God himself will justify our faith in him by clearing away the obstacles that otherwise would derail our lives from their holy calling and heavenly destination. But how does someone who is confused and bewildered, so far off the path that leads to God that she is an alcoholic or that he is addicted to homosexual relationships ever find him again? How does somebody so wounded by abuse and religious judgment that God himself seems remote and unavailable find guidance back home?

Discerning Divine Direction

Bob Mumford tells about a harbor in Italy that can be reached only by sailing up a narrow channel made terribly dangerous by rocks and shoals. Over the years, many ships have wrecked in that stretch of water. Navigating it is truly hazardous.

To guide the ships safely into port, three lights have been mounted on huge poles in the harbor. When the three lights are perfectly lined up and seen as one, the ship can proceed safely up the narrow, treacherous channel. If the pilot sees the light separating into two or three distinct beacons, he knows he's off course and in danger.

God has provided three means of guidance for us, and they need to "line up" before it is safe for us to proceed. If they don't match or if they give off competing signals, stop dead in your tracks until they are in coherent and unified alignment. The three beacons are sensitivity, reality, and community.

Spiritual Sensitivity. The first and most important light to guide us to the Lord is spiritual sensitivity. It is important for each of us to stay in the Word of God and prayer for the sake of keeping our hearts tender to the Lord. Do you really think it was coincidental that Jesus responded to Satan's temptations, his disciples' questions, or his own anguish on the cross by quoting the words of Scripture? He was deeply rooted in the Word of God. He spent incredible amounts of time in prayer.

David wrote these words: "I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands" (Psa. 119:10). Because of the importance of seeking, knowing, and doing the divine will, the Book of Psalms is introduced by the challenge to "delight in" and to "meditate on" the instructions of the Lord day and night (Psa. 1:2). And although not every psalm is written by David, many of his psalms preserved to us in the collection are beautiful prayers to Yahweh.

David sought the Lord through meditating on his instruction and communing with him in prayer. That is why his life had a spirituality about it that most of ours lack. What is that you said? He was guilty of murder and adultery? Exactly! And what do you think kept sins that serious from destroying him? His time with Scripture and prayer had created a sensitivity toward God that drew him back there at the lowest and worst time of his life for pardon, renewal, and healing.

Reality. The desire for God isn't enough in and of itself to fix, heal, and restore us from the things that have thrown us off-course in life. And this is a point that needs to be made clearly and emphatically. The gospel is sometimes presented to people in a tone of such naivete that they are left with the impression that anyone who accepts Christ as Savior and gets baptized, joins a church and teaches Sunday School, or prays to be released from painful memories and past rebellion will be healed instantly and given victory over cancer or depression, alcoholism or sexual addiction.

In the real-life circumstances of your experience, the gospel is always on-target but so may be therapy for childhood sexual abuse or medication for depression, Alcoholics Anonymous or a twelve-step program for sex addicts. The cross is not your means for escaping reality but the heart of your courage to face it. You need forgiveness from the heavy load of guilt you have been carrying that would eventually crush and destroy you. But you also need understanding and insight for dealing with what happened, how it affected you, and what it made you do.

Community. Yesterday I heard Mark Laaser make the point that, since most of our hurts come from relationships, so will most healing come in relationship. In the "Healthy Families / Healthy Sexuality Seminar" we hosted, he was pointing us to the biblical truth that spiritual rehabilitation from life's brokenness doesn't happen in isolation. In fact, isolation from others can both create and exacerbate our problems. The God who exists in the companionship of the Holy Trinity has created us to live in healthy relationships with one another. In these relationships we learn how to value, nurture, and love one another — the actions above all others that count as "godliness." You do not know how to love God until you learn how to love other human beings.

"God sets the lonely in families, he leads forth the prisoners with singing; but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land" (Psa. 68:6). This line is from a processional psalm that praises God for his ability to meet the needs of his people. Whether viewed as a psalm for Israel to use in bring the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem or for the church to celebrate the redemptive work of Christ, it celebrates the fact that God gives his people relationships with one another. In the context of those relationships, we find the true purpose and meaning of our individual lives. If the family isn't a nuclear one, it is the family of God — the larger church community — where we find encouragement and accountability.

With a trusted small group of family members, we can share the things that are most challenging in our spiritual lives. We can pray for one another. We can hold one another responsible to the high calling we have accepted as Christ's disciples. "He who conceals his sins [or heartaches, trauma, addictions, RS] does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy" (Prov. 28:13; cf. Jas. 5:16).

Go back now to the metaphor I gave you earlier that told of a treacherous Italian channel. How do sailors find their way? They get the three beacon lights in alignment with each other. In the same way, when the Word of God, our life circumstances, and a supportive community of fellow-believers affirm a course of action, we can proceed with boldness and confidence. While we are not infallible in our judgments, these three beacons in alignment with one another constitute good reason to proceed with a course of action.


"Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding . . ." To trust in God and to put his will above our own understanding is the essence of humility. This all-too-rare Christian virtue empties one of egotistical arrogance in favor of childlike faith. Humility allows one to acknowledge that it is not her life to do with as she pleases but that her life has been surrendered to Christ for pardon, hope, and daily guidance.

"In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight." The operative word here is "all." God is to be sovereign over every aspect of a believer's life. Not just in special seasons or in holy places but always and everywhere, his will is to be sought in all things. In church assemblies and at work, in public view and in the privacy found behind closed doors, in your business ethics and at play — the acknowledgment of God carries a promised reward. He will move the obstacles out of the way that otherwise could have broken your fellowship and kept you apart.

Yes, there are times when such trust appears to be misguided. "He trusts in God," mocked the people watching Jesus die. "Let God rescue him now if he wants him!" (Matt. 27:43). Was that bitter for the Son of God to hear and to bear? Why, he even cried aloud in his anguish about his sense of God-forsakenness on the cross, did he not? (cf. Matt. 27:46). Yet he died with these words on his lips: "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" (Luke 23:46). On Sunday morning, the obstacles were removed and his path home was clear!

In your present or coming ordeal, cry out. Confess your own sense of pain or God-forsakenness. But keep the beacons in line, and trust God to guide you. He won't fail you.


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