Thanks for pushing through the difficult week of submission! Most of the disciplines are easy to understand and affirm, but hard to do – submission, I think, is both hard to affirm and hard to do. But we needed the foundation of submission to move on to the discipline of guidance. Even if we are capable of hearing the voice of God (and, not insignificantly, knowing that it’s God and not someone else), we need to know how to submit to that guidance if it is to be of any use to us.
Definition of Guidance
The discipline of guidance is developing a listening relationship with the living God, who lives in you and desires an intimate relationship with you. Our search for guidance is not a search for answers, but discerning the voice that is already constantly speaking. Very often when we struggle with discerning God’s voice, we’re straining to hear an answer to a question he’s not answering – and ignore the answer he’s giving. Guidance can be individual and corporate.
Individual Guidance – A Placeholder
For now, it’s enough to know that when seeking guidance from God individually, his voice is gentle but constant. For example, in 1 Kings 19, the prophet Elijah had just emerged from a dramatic showdown between the God of Israel and a rival god, Baal, in which the God of Israel was victorious (see the full story here). However, he had to flee for his life, and found himself exhausted and discouraged in the desert. He went to the top of the mountain to listen for God – and found that God was not in the earthquake or the fire, but in a still, small voice. If we expect dramatic epiphanies whenever God speaks, we will miss the clarity of the still, small voice that is so subtle it mingles with our own thoughts.
Although we will spend plenty of time learning how to listen to God privately in the coming weeks, this week we will focus on corporate guidance, which is hearing God’s voice in community. Like submission, corporate guidance is another against-the-grain but foundational concept in practicing the Christian disciplines, because it acknowledges that we are not little gods unto ourselves, but truly interconnnected. We need to understand the importance of corporate guidance before we can fully understand the role of individual guidance.
The Context of Guidance: Not Answers, But Mature Relationship
In his book Hearing God, Dallas Willard likens hearing God, or knowing God’s will for our lives, to the way a parent might interact with his child who is playing outside. The child could make many choices that would still be within the parent’s will, and the older the child is, the more he’s capable of making good choices on his own, rather than constantly asking the parent what to do. The child is free to play according to his own design and own unique interests, and this pleases the parent. Now, if the parent very clearly asked the child to come inside, then it would be disobedient to play in the sandbox – even if the parent had said yes before, and the child was capable of playing in the sandbox. But with the lack of a clear directive, the child is free to either come indoors or play in the sandbox – both are fully within the parent’s will. When my children were two years old, they were constantly asking me what they were allowed to do. “Can I play with my work truck?” “Can I play in the sandbox?” “Can I take my shoes off?” Now that they are three and five, they have a better sense of what they are allowed to do and are more self-directed, which of course pleases me. Also, what they are allowed to do in the first place changes with their ages. When my oldest son was two or three, he was absolutely forbidden to take one step into the road without holding my hand. Now that he’s five, I know he’s learned to look both ways, and he is allowed to cross the street if I am outside with him. When he’s ten, I’m sure he’ll be running out the door to explore the entire neighborhood.
Our maturity in hearing God and receiving his guidance follows much the same trajectory. At the beginning, once we realize God is indeed speaking to us and we can actually understand him (very much like a toddler), it’s appropriate to ask God about everything we’re doing, especially if we haven’t been in the habit of involving him in our lives and we don’t trust our instincts. But God will father us in that he will provide well-placed challenges to mature us, and he will give us a clear directive if we need it. What pleases God are mature individuals with the eternal and abundant life of Christ so powerfully active in them that they naturally desire and choose the right and good thing. We won’t need him to tell us what to do at every turn because we will no longer be infants, but adults. This is his goal – this is spiritual formation – this is what the disciplines will do if we stick with them and stick with God. It’s the natural result. So as we practice the discipline of guidance, we find that at the beginning, we ask much and hear little; later we ask less and hear more; and in maturity we ask little and rest much, trusting the character of God enough to know that guidance will come when we need it.
If we practice the discipline of guidance in isolation, we become very vulnerable to deception and despair – precisely because growth requires so much waiting and so many unexpected directions and results. Even as we receive individual guidance, we need to be sharing and walking alongside other believers. Seeing that others are having similar experiences encourages us and helps us stay steady spiritually for the long haul. Even at our most mature and complete, we were made to be in community.
Receiving guidance from the body of Christ truly is sacramental, which means that God is using something physical to convey something spiritual. When we receive guidance from the mouths and words of our own physical brothers and sisters in Christ, it is a sacred moment, and it is nourishment that Jesus intends for us to partake of whenever possible.
Biblical history of corporate guidance
God’s constant attempt to communicate with his people has followed the same dynamic throughout history: God seeks to draw near, while his people seek distance. After Israel’s exodus from Egypt, God communicated clearly and corporately to his people: he was visible to every person simultaneously and without ambiguity. He appeared as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, and through other physical signs and manifestations: the manna appearing each day, the water from the rock, his presence on Mt. Sinai. But the people were overwhelmed by the presence of the Lord and insisted Moses speak to God for them. By Exodus 18, the people of Israel were coming to Moses for every little question and issue. God still spoke to Moses conversationally, face to face, but from then on in Old Testament history, God’s people had a mediator, embodied in the prophets and judges and kings. When God would have chosen intimacy, the people’s own desires and distrust distanced themselves from direct communication with the living God.
As history progressed, the mediators moved from the center of the community to the periphery. The prophet became the voice crying out in the wilderness. When Jesus came, this was very much the case – the prophet John the Baptist was quite literally crying out in the wilderness, and the messiah himself was born in a stable and forced to flee to Egypt as an infant for his life. He was not born a king or even a great teacher, but a carpenter. And when he began speaking, he was shunned and threatened by those in authority. Only the prostitutes, lepers, and the poor wholeheartedly welcomed him. But even so, when Jesus died on the cross and rose again, God reestablished intimacy with his people through the forgiveness of sin and gave the gift of a constant spiritual counselor inside our very bodies – the Holy Spirit. Through the sacrifice of Jesus, God could once again communicate directly with his people.
But when we receive the Holy Spirit, we do not become little gods unto ourselves. Jesus made clear that when two or more are gathered in his name, whatever they ask will be given them (Mt. 18:19). If we really believe Jesus is present with us and will speak, then when we all agree, there’s great authority and power in that decision, and we can treat as directly from God himself, and not just someone’s good idea.
This idea of guidance through the body of Christ is crucial to Christianity, because even though Jesus came from the outside, those who accepted his rule became a gathered people – they did not follow him alone and in secret, but as we read in Acts 2, they had to gather together. Why? Because when we become Christians, the structure of our life changes entirely – we no longer live for ourselves, but we enter into God’s purposes for the entire world, across time and space. We become grafted onto the vine of Christ, on which there are many branches – or, as Apostle Paul puts it, we become part of a body of which Christ is the head (1 Corinthians 12). Alone we are merely an eye or a foot. The whole body working together activates our individual spiritual gifts to inform each other, and for the mind of Christ to be made clear to us as a whole. God has a larger plan, not just for our own lives, but for the entire world – and he wants to use us to bring it to fruition.
The Practice of Corporate Guidance
Practicing corporate guidance takes great humility and courage, because sharing our struggles with others goes against the grain of our cultural values. If we value rugged independence and success, admitting that we can’t figure everything out on our own seems like failure. But whether we know it or not, we cannot live our lives in isolation – we simply weren’t made that way. We must ask the question: do we want to hear God, or do we want to appear successful in the eyes of others? When we can finally decide that we want to hear God, it’s easier to conjure up the courage to share our struggles with another trusted friend or mentor. Here are some ways we can begin:
- When you need to make a significant life decision, ask two or more separate trusted friends to pray/contemplate on your behalf. If they agree, take it as the voice of God and don’t look back.
- Call together spontaneous groups of discernment over a particular decision.
- If you’re in a position of leadership at a church or like-minded organization, hold business meetings that seek God-given consensus rather than compromise.
- Meet with a spiritual director (see below).
Spiritual directors, although very common in the Middle Ages, have only recently experienced a renaissance as people are realizing their need for such a relationship. This is not an ordained or institutional position, but a particular role one believer can play for another. A spiritual director is simply someone who can usher you into God’s presence: someone who willingly sets themselves aside for your good alone, who has eyes to see and ears to hear what God is saying to you, and who can clearly give voice to it. Ideally they will be comfortable with the process of spiritual growth, both in you and themselves, knowing that God always has a transformative word for us wherever we are on the journey. Even if we believe we have fallen away, a good spiritual director knows God will never let go of us.
Relationships with individual spiritual directors can be long-term or short-term. He or she can be an ongoing mentor of sorts, like spiritual mentors for those preparing for ordination or joining a monastic order, or you may meet for just one or two sessions as you’re trying to discern God’s voice in a particular situation.
Whenever I have the opportunity to practice spiritual direction, the basic rhythm I follow is simply to get to know each other and understand why the person has come, and then we just move into a time of prayer when God can speak a living word to the person’s heart. It’s both that simple and that miraculous.
Limitations of Corporate Guidance
And as good as corporate guidance can be, it’s also good to acknowledge that it’s not perfect. Authoritative leaders might quench the life and spirit and uniqueness of believers. Unresponsive or resistant people might refuse to hear the voice of God from wise leaders. Groups (leaders and people together) can become isolated from the body of Christ when Scripture is not the ultimate guide. The clearest sign of this is when, even though the body is unified, they begin exhibiting the works of the flesh rather than the fruit of the Spirit. And of course, there are natural human limitations – we may simply hear wrong, and our spiritual directors might hear wrong, too. For all these reasons, we must always be humble and willing to yield (again, why submission is so important). The good news is that God will keep speaking, and we will always learn valuable lessons through our weaknesses and even our mistakes.
The Fruit of Guidance
The fruit of guidance is a deep and abiding sense of trust and rest. We’ll become more intimate with God’s ways and know that he is fundamentally our parent, growing our hearts into maturity. Living in that posture of trust is what will allow us to enjoy those moments in the backyard when our father doesn’t have to shout instructions constantly – in the stillness we know that all is well, and we have reached a level of maturity in which we are free enough to explore and play within the boundaries that have already been set. If and when we get into trouble, our Father will let us know. We’re utterly secure.
For this week, we’ll dabble in both individual and corporate guidance. I’d like you to think of a burning question you have, and first, privately ask God about it and listen for an answer. Remember that his voice is gentle but relentless – and often sounds very much like our own voice because he speaks the language of our heart. Give yourself the full week to discern whatever God might say. Also, take the risk of sharing your burning question with a trusted friend or mentor, and ask them for their input. This can be done within or outside of any religious context. The point is to recognize that we are indeed all connected, and God uses the voice of others as well as our own to communicate with us.
And as always, post your experiences and questions – or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.