For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. (2 Timothy 1.7).
How we view and talk about God’s dealings with us from day to day can have a considerable effect upon our openness to his guidance in the great decisions of life. Many Christians have picked up a manner of thinking and speaking known as pietistic speech, which is very damaging to the perception of genuine guidance. These friends constantly ascribe all kinds of everyday events to the special and direct intervention of the Lord, as though their lives were filled with minor miracles. They believe this way of speaking is ‘spiritual’, and just what the Lord wants to see in his people. However, it frequently leads to a form of spiritual ‘superstition’ in which Christians interpret their perceived interventions by God as signals of guidance.
We acknowledge that the Lord does intervene in the lives of his people, and there are many times when our circumstances are overruled in an unmistakable way, so that we cannot fail to recognise the hand of the Lord. But this is quite different from reading guidance into a chain of minor coincidences and ‘deliverances’. Some believers, intoxicated by the idea that God constantly works direct miracles in their lives, begin to think of themselves as super-Christians who sense the mind of the Lord. Their imagination becomes their king as they ‘feel led’ to do one thing or another, or say, ‘The Lord told me this morning . . . ’ or, ‘The Lord wants me to tell you . . . ’
All this obstructs genuine divine guidance, which requires a spiritual outlook coupled with sober, rational judgement, sanctified by humility. Because the habit of pietistic thinking and speaking can upset the perspectives of believers and fog the thoughtful seeking of guidance, we must briefly review its dangers.
It is worth noting that when Christians adopt the habit of pietistic thinking and speaking, they mainly focus on very little things, or entirely personal events, not great matters. Furthermore, these are usually earthly rather than spiritual matters, and most significantly, the Lord usually gives them good events, not hard or painful ones. We have heard people say, ‘The Lord sent a bus for me this morning.’ In circumstances of great need and in answer to prayer the Lord may intervene very kindly to help his people, but he is also training us to endure hardship by his wonderful grace. Many years ago the writer was told by an earnest Christian lady who had been making jam, ‘The Lord was marvellous to me this morning! He prevented the jam from boiling over while I was out.’ On another occasion someone said, ‘The sun has shone today, just when I sent my coat to the cleaners. What a wonderful thing! It must have been the Lord who commanded the sun to shine for me today.’
We repeat that God certainly does overrule and intervene in the lives of his people, through prayer, helping us in many ways, and frequently we realise that we have accomplished things we could never have done by our own ability or strength. What believer has not had the experience of remembering some vital responsibility just at the critical moment? We were certain that the Lord had done it, and we gave him thanks and glory. But we should not forget that all that happens to us is according to his will and permission, whether large or small, good or unpleasant.
The immediate cause of any occurrence in our lives may be natural or human, as natural forces and processes (known as second causes) are allowed to affect our lives under God’s supervision. Often the devil is permitted to influence affairs, as he did when Paul said – ‘But Satan hindered us.’ Frequently we ourselves, through our sin or foolishness, are the real cause of our bad circumstances, the authors of many of our own misfortunes, and the Lord permits it for our sanctification. God is sovereign, and nothing happens to us except by his consent and overruling, as we see from the opening chapters of Job. We must not drift into the idea that only small, earthly and good things are examples of his providence. Why should we single out life’s happy surprises and coincidences as instances of God’s work in our lives? Why not talk about the days when nothing remarkable happened, or about times of illness and failure? Does not God superintend all that happens to his children?
Here are some of the consequences of pietistic speaking, showing how it may distort our view of the Christian life and confuse any quest for guidance. Those who engage in it are likely to become very subjective in their spiritual lives, ever focused on what is happening to them. Further, because their minds are so focused on seeing interventions of God they become increasingly vulnerable to their own imagination. Some become ‘yo-yo’ or ‘up-and-down’ believers, whose assurance and peace is entirely dependent upon their seeing a constant flow of divine interventions in their lives. They watch almost superstitiously for little signs, rather than resting on the Word and the promises of God. Ultimately, their faith depends upon apparent coincidences and hopeful comforts, these being the chief evidence that God’s hand is upon them.
The writer remembers a young man who was most unhappy about something his church proposed to do. The objective was wholesome, and much needed, and the church had proceeded on the basis of biblical principles, but no amount of reasoning could help this young man see the value of the project. Then someone happened to tell him about a very small event which had occurred in the initial stages of the project and which had cleared away a hindrance. The unhappy young man’s face lit up at once, and, like a superstitious person who had found a lucky charm, he changed his opinion dramatically and totally. He had not been amenable to the need recognised by his church, but half an ounce of coincidence outweighed all his reservations. It is very possible that the small event that had made all the difference to his outlook was an intervention of the Lord, but it was never intended to be the exclusive, authoritative, decisive piece of guidance, and we have lost our way when we think only in these terms. It does not take much imagination to see the difficulties which many believers get into because they make similar coincidental or surprising occurrences the sole or chief basis of their guidance.
The famous words of Romans 8 tell us – ‘And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.’ To achieve this he allows us, alongside our blessings, to be exposed to a lifetime of temptations, troubles, trials, sorrows, inconveniences, illnesses and failings, whether brought about by ourselves, the devil, or by natural circumstances. While we must experience these troubles and difficulties, the Lord weaves all the strands of life’s experiences together, using them to chastise, strengthen and train, in short, to work our eternal spiritual good. Through trials the Lord may be rebuking us for some sin, or training us and improving our resilience and character for some future service. Equally, he may be stimulating our dependence upon him in prayer, or teaching us to be sensitive to the hardships of others, or simply reminding us that we should fix our affections on heavenly things and not attempt to get our satisfaction from the things of this world. When we are about to suffer minor discomfort because of the weather, or the late-running of a bus, it is not necessarily God’s will that we should be delivered from that problem. Everything that goes ‘wrong’ is part of our training for Heaven.
In Romans 8, where it is said that all things work together for our good, we do not read about earthly comforts, but about being kept close to Christ in the midst of – ‘tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword’. We do not deny that God makes remarkable provisions for his people, but judging from the detailed narratives of Luke and Paul, such interventions are generally connected with times of special need, such as when we are on some important service for the Lord, or when he is being especially sympathetic to us in some severe trial.
Before hastily ascribing all comforts to God we should remember that the devil can also bring ‘good’ into our lives (by the Lord’s permission), such as when he tries to distract us from the Lord’s service with comforts, benefits, flatteries, and great earthly opportunities. Satan may also arrange for us to be given gifts, pleasant surprises, or comforts in order to entice us into worldly friendships, alliances or careers.
The devil uses ‘wiles’ (that is strategies) says Paul in Ephesians 6, and King Solomon also points to the strategy of flattery as a prime tool in the onslaught on the soul of the believer (the adulterer in Proverbs, for example, working by flattery and fair speech). From the beginning of his offensive against believers Satan has used pleasant things to deceive. The trouble with friends who ascribe a constant stream of minor benefits to God’s direct intervention, is that they do not seem to realise that the Lord works to lift their interests above earthly, minor and domestic things, to make them more concerned about their part in the work of Christ, and the progress of the Gospel. He would hardly shower minor personal miracles upon them contrary to his own training objectives. In a previous article, reference was made to Matthew 6.25-34, where the Lord gave the rule which his disciples should follow, saying:
Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? . . . But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness . . . Take therefore no thought for the morrow . . .
The apostle Paul tells us that God’s power and blessing flowed most of all when he was weak and disadvantaged. He tells us about the thorn in his flesh permitted by God in order to counteract the pride he may have experienced as the result of the great revelations given to him, then he concludes –
Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong (2 Corinthians 12.9-10).
Paul also shows that believers are often called to endure hostility and unreasonableness, saying, ‘Alexander the coppersmith did me much evil: the Lord reward him according to his works: of whom be thou ware also’ (2 Timothy 4.14-15). Whatever Alexander did, the apostle was not delivered from his bitter hostility, and he warned believers of all ages to watch out for such a man. In the same passage Paul refers back to his first trial in Rome when no one stood with him, remembering that – ‘Notwithstanding the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me’ (2 Timothy 4.17).
In 2 Corinthians 11 the apostle describes his ‘stripes above measure’, how he had been imprisoned many times, beaten with rods, stoned, shipwrecked three times, and suffered danger, treachery, exhaustion, sleeplessness, pain, extreme hunger, thirst, cold, and exposure. None of these trials had been averted, and so the story of his life contrasts sharply with the accounts of non-stop, divinely provided comforts which some speak so excitedly about today.
Troubles came frequently to Paul because he served the Lord, and although these were not always averted, he was always strengthened to withstand them until God’s moment of deliverance came. We notice also that when God intervened to deliver Paul from his first imprisonment, it was specifically for a spiritual purpose, namely – ‘that by me the preaching might be fully known, and that all the Gentiles might hear: and I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion’ (2 Timothy 4.17).
Significant interventions give assurance
As we asserted at the beginning of this article, a selective, trivialising view of God’s providential dealings with us profoundly affects our approach to guidance, distorting our Christian perspectives, and causing us to read all the wrong messages into God’s providences. From earliest times God’s people were taught to take a far higher view of God’s conspicuous providential overrulings showing that they were given for spiritual purposes.
Two classic Old Testament events illustrate this, both taking place at Mahanaim, a place in old Gilead which received its name from Jacob, who saw there one of the most uplifting sights of his life, recorded in Genesis 32.1-2. Fearful of his approaching meeting with Esau, he was met by the angels of God, and when he saw them he said, ‘This is God’s host: and he called the name of that place Mahanaim.’ The name means ‘a double camp’ or ‘a double host’, indicating that the thousands of angels seen by Jacob resembled a double army.
Why, at this particular time in his life, should he be privileged to see the army of Heaven which cared for him? Clearly, it was to reassure him, and equally, to teach him to distinguish between his earthly circumstances and his spiritual lot. As he thought about his earthly situation he might well feel fearful and depressed, facing an immense trial. But when, for a moment, the curtain of time and sense was drawn aside, he caught a glimpse of his spiritual, heavenly status and privileges, realising he was a child of the heavenly King, attended by those who minister to the heirs of salvation. So today, God’s conspicuous interventions are designed partly to remind us of our spiritual privileges; but there is more to it than this.
Nearly a thousand years later Mahanaim was the site of another outstanding demonstration of God’s power to intervene and bless. This occurred just as King David brought to an end his sorry retreat from Absalom, and decided to take a stand and defend his kingship (the event being recorded in 2 Samuel 17 ). As soon as he turned from despondency to obedience and trust, Mahanaim proved true to its name once again. This time, no double host of angels appeared, but the power of God became visible in another way when three wealthy landowners, moved by the hand of God to come to the aid of David’s destitute army, supplied provisions on a scale which he could never have expected or imagined, and the way was set for a great victory.
God also blesses his people with many remarkable interventions in the major battles of faith and service. When we are going forward for the Gospel, then he marshals and moves both people and events to bring about his purposes. David was not delivered from the hardships of the battle, nor from the crushing heartache of personal grief over his rebellious son, but God moved mightily to preserve and prosper his own work and witness. Once David returned to where he should have been, prayed to God, and dedicated himself to the battle, God encouraged him with the tremendous evidence of overruling power.
We believe that our God intervenes and provides for his people in all things, but we must particularly look for these blessings in the great concerns of life, and especially in service for the Lord. Sometimes the blessing comes in the form of inner strength, as with Paul in Rome, and sometimes as a great blaze of assurance, as when Jacob saw the double host of angels. If we really commit ourselves to the Lord, sever all entanglements with worldly living, and seek to put him first, then we shall experience many evident interventions, and be able to say: ‘The best of all is – God is with us!’
However, we must be extremely careful what we say to others, for the evidences of God’s presence should humble us, and not spur us to pride and vainglory. As far as all the lesser comforts and benefits are concerned, we shall praise God for them all, although we cannot necessarily tell when God is merely permitting the natural course of events to take place, or when he is intervening directly.
To summarise, constant pietistic speaking about the Lord’s supposed direct interventions in all the minor matters of our lives frequently leads to an over-confident presumption that he is behind everything we think or do. Then the attitude of humble and open enquiry so vital to the seeking of guidance is undermined. Also, this seemingly super-spiritual line of speech so often leads us to be more concerned about personal and even material aspects of life than about the major matters of holiness, obedience and service.
1. Does the Lord Really Guide?
2. Six Biblical Steps for Guidance
3. Guidance in Courtship and Marriage
4. Guidance for Activities, Possessions and Leisure
5. Guidance on Wealth and Ambition
6. Imagining the Lord’s Interventions
7. Guidance and Loyalty to the Local Church
8. Guidance in Church Decisions
Appendix: Tests for Amusements and Recreations (Richard Baxter)