I was sure I heard God’s voice. “Take your family to Romania.” It had been that clear in my mind as I prayed, and it was one of the outreach options for our YWAM training school. My wife had prayed and agreed, and we were excited to say, “We’ve experienced God’s clear direction!”
But we had no money. Sad and confused, we watched the team leave for Romania without us. Inner-city Chicago ended up being where our family spent that summer instead (another story). For a long time afterward I was discouraged. Hearing God was obviously for people much more spiritual than me.
Three years later we were on staff at a YWAM base. The Discipleship Training School (DTS) leader asked me to lead an outreach to Romania with my family. Christine and I nervously agreed. Within a short time all the money we needed came in, and with our three young children, we went to Romania for five weeks. It was an amazing time of ministry for all of us, particularly in the orphanages. Maybe we had heard God afterall. . . but just hadn’t understood His timing?
Later, I read a book* about receiving guidance from God. The author used the illustration of a 19th century Italian port with an entrance so treacherous from submerged rocks that something innovative had to be done to safely guide ships in. Three light houses were set up in a row. As long as a ship’s pilot kept all three aligned in his sight so they appeared as one light, boats could enter the harbor safely. But if ever he saw three separate lights, disaster was eminent.
The author used this illustration to explain components of seeking God’s direction in life. He proposed that (1) the word of God, (2) the internal witness of the Holy Spirit and (3) circumstances were all “lights” that need to align in order to be confident of God’s leading in any major decision. I quickly saw the wisdom in this and eventually added a fourth light that complemented the three.
God Told Me to Do It?
We all can think of examples of people who have claimed to be guided by God but in the end their decisions proved to be foolish, wrong or outright evil. Below are four “lights” that, when aligned, provide clarity and safety as we seek to hear God’s voice and make life decisions.
1. Alignment with the light of God’s written word
From the very beginning of the Christian Faith, what was written in the Old Testament scriptures was considered authoritative and inspired. The writings of the first followers of Jesus were later added to create what we know today as the Bible. Without the Old and New Testaments there would be no followers of Jesus today because we would not know the story of God’s work in the world. Thus the Bible is still the reference point for those who claim to be Christ followers (Matthew 5:18-19; Luke 21:33).
Yet it can be used wrongly, deceptively and selfishly when quoted out of context. Without seeking to know the heart of God, which is both loving and holy and revealed throughout the book’s entirety, many words can be twisted to justify almost anything. Hatred, murder, various perversions as well as slavery have all been “supported” using the Bible. Despite the sometimes conflicting interpretations of certain passages, it still holds a unique place as a standard for right and wrong behavior and insight into what is truly important to God. It must be the starting point for any follower of Jesus when seeking God’s guidance.
2. Alignment with the light of the Holy Spirit’s internal witness
Whether it comes through a desire, idea, strong impression, voice or vision while reading the Bible, the Holy Spirit’s personal confirmation is very important. Through an internal witness we experience the intimate awareness of God’s presence. What we “hear” within should not be ignored (John 10:3-4). This is where we own the guidance God is giving us with our “yes.” Any internal leading, however, that is contrary to what God has already revealed in His word must be rejected.
Occasionally people tell me what they think God wants me to do. Could that be God speaking to me? At times something inside immediately resonates and it seems clear that this is from Him. It’s like experiencing an internal “amen.” In other cases, I feel nothing or even an uncomfortable sensation. On such an occasion, I have learned to not throw it away but place it on the “waiting shelf” in my mind. If anything comes along in the future that confirms it, I can take it down and consider it once more. There are “words” from other people that have been on that shelf now for many years.
Ultimately, I’m responsible for all my decisions. I can’t blame my actions on some other person telling me what the Holy Spirit is saying. I have to own my choices, and the Holy Spirit helps me do just that. His witness is an internal conviction that is accompanied with peace (Colossians 3:15) even when I don’t like what He’s saying. A lack of peace could also be the Spirit’s witness and should not be ignored. The Spirit’s voice will never back me into a corner in a condemning way but will offer His counsel with the freedom for me to refuse or embrace it.
3. Alignment with the light of wise counsel
The Bible is full of instructions to seek input from others, besides the internal witness, when making decisions (Proverbs 12:15; 15:22). Of course, choosing the right source for your advice is of vital importance. If you go only to those who always tell you what you want to hear, it’s wasted effort. You’re really just doing what you want and not truly interested in God’s will. Who is the person not afraid to tell you “no” and you will respect it? That’s the one you should seek out. On the other hand, going to someone who has a vested interest in the decision you’re making is not a good idea either. Even good and godly people can have selfish reasons for the counsel they give, which may not be God’s.
In the end, everyone, no matter how spiritual they are, needs to hear from outside themselves. You then are left to prayerfully decide whether the counsel is good and fits with what you know to be true about God’s character. This light can also help correct a subjective inner witness that may be leading you astray—if you have the humility to actually listen (read “Choosing to be a Learner”) .
4. Alignment with the light of circumstances
When the first three lights line up, we must then wait for the “open door.” Favorable circumstances alone provide poor guidance. Just because something is a good opportunity does not make it God’s will. The word of God, the Holy Spirit’s internal witness and wise counsel are all important tests for any “great” opportunities no matter how perfect they appear on the surface. How easily we can misinterpret the inner witness of the Spirit, presuming to know how God is going to do what He said. The light of circumstances helps keep guidance from God rooted in reality.
As when Christine and I heard God’s direction to take our family to Romania, timing is an important factor. For us, three of the lights were lining up. But God used finances to steer us to be in Romania at just the right time. I’m still not sure why He spoke the directions more than three years before the door opened, but that’s how He works sometimes.
These are good principles. But guidance from God is not a formula with four easy steps to always know God’s direction. It’s not “magical” like using a ouija board. It’s based on relationship with Him because that is His first priority. He wants you to know He has your highest in mind throughout the entire process. Trusting that He is good and desires to lead you to good places, whether you can presently see them or not, is the foundation for all godly guidance (read “Choosing to Hear God on His Terms”).
He desires, more than anyone else, to see you guided into the safe harbor of His love.
*Take Another Look at Guidance by Bob Mumford is presently out of print, but used copies are available online.