Signs and Omens

How many of you are familiar with the television show Crossing Over with John Edwards or its sequel Cross Country? These programs have been quite successful.

Host and “spiritual medium” John Edwards – not to be confused with the presidential candidate or the preacher of the “Great Awakenings” – claims to be able to channel the spirits of deceased people.  Each week, people crowd into the Crossing Over studio hoping for a chance to see Edwards and to receive counsel from their dead loved ones.

The show reflects America’s growing fascination with New Age, spiritualism, and the occult.  But it also reflects another trend: our deep-felt desire to know with certainty what paths our lives are to follow; to know our fate, our destiny.  Obsessed, many Americans are willing to read, conjure, and pay just about anything to find direction in their lives.  It is estimated that fortune telling alone is a billion dollar business.

Of course, none of this is new.  In I Samuel 28, King Saul, facing a strong Philistine army and desperate to know what to do, seeks the counsel of the Witch at Endor.  (She was sort of a John Edwards of the Bible.).  According to Roman mythology, the sight of certain birds flying overhead was taken as an omen that Romulus should be king rather than Remus.  The Athenians and the Spartans consulted the famed Oracle of Apollo at Delphi even as the Persian army approached.  The last tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, and his wife, Alexandra, faithfully followed the disastrous advice of a peasant starets named Rasputin, a man who claimed he could foretell the future.  And Nancy Reagan, we are told, consulted astrologers on a wide range of issues.

Perhaps you think these are exceptions.  That the masses do not make decisions based on such nonsense.  A poll of students at Cambridge University revealed that more than two-thirds of them relied on vague inner promptings when making major decisions.

What about Christians?  Well, Christians, it seems, are no less obsessed.  A quick search on Google of phrases like “finding God’s will for your life” or “finding God’s purpose for your life” yields millions of hits.  A steady stream of books addressing this issue pours into the Christian market every year.  Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Lifesold some 25 million copies and, according to Publisher’s Weekly, it is the bestselling hardback book in American history.  The book revealed that there are millions of people who have no idea what their purpose is in life.  That this would be true of many non-Christians is not a surprise, but Christians, too?  Unfortunately, yes.  According to one poll, some 30% of Christians do not know their purpose in life.

Today, I am speaking only to Christians – more specifically, to the 30%, or to those Christians who, while knowing their purpose in life at a macro level, still feel tremendous angst when it comes to making decisions.  If you are not a Christian, I invite you to listen in, but I have no counsel for you on this topic.  Christians are given exclusive access to a variety of resources to assist them in making decisions, and it is those resources that I want to focus on.  To be clear, purpose and decision-making are two separate things; but one must settle the former before he can wisely address the latter.

Before I get to what the Bible says about decision-making, let me first deal with the question of purpose very quickly.  Simply put, the primary purpose of man is to glorify God.  The Bible is emphatic on this point. Romans 12:1 tells us that we are to present our bodies as “living sacrifices.”  The point is, we fulfill our purpose on a daily basis by responding faithfully, biblically to the things the Lord puts in front of us, moment by moment.  Glorifying God is always the end.  Everything else is the means – in loving my wife, I am glorifying God; by endeavoring to raise Godly children, I am glorifying God; by working hard and with integrity, I am glorifying God; in giving this talk, I am (I hope) glorifying God.

As for decision-making, the fact is, we are confronted with hundreds of decisions each day.  Will we eat here or there?  Will we buy this or that?  Should I wear a suit or a blazer?  How will we respond to him and to her?  Unfortunately, it is often the “little decisions” we make that have the biggest consequences.  In making them, we should ask ourselves what would be most pleasing to the Lord.

But I am sure that this is not the reason you are here!  It is the big decisions that perplex or paralyze you.  So then, how do we, as Christians, discern God’s will for our lives in these moments?  We do it through five primary means (I know.  I hate lists, too, but I recommend that you write these down and commit them to memory).  The first three, I wish to group together – the Bible, the Church (that is, the counsel of God’s people), and prayer.  Allow me to illustrate my point.  Many years ago, a former student of mine called me from college late one night.  Clearly very agitated, she wanted to discuss a number of struggles she was then facing in her life.  Atop the list were two items – her relationship with her boyfriend and finding God’s will for her life.  After we dispatched with number one, she declared to me that she felt God was leading her into fulltime ministry.

“Really?”  I asked.  “How do you know this?”

“I feel it,” came the response.

“Really?  Why do you feel that way?”

“I don’t know.  I just do.  I think it is the Holy Spirit’s leading,” she replied.

Now feelings should not always be regarded as illegitimate, but there should be something more substantive than feelings alone.  So I pressed her.

“You are consistently attending church?”  I queried.  There was a long silence and then, “No.”  Strike one.

“Then you must be regularly reading and reflecting on Scripture?”

“Uh, no.”  Strike two.

“Ah, then you must have a phenomenal prayer life?”  By now, she knew where I was going and had picked up on my playful tone.

She sighed deeply.  “No, I don’t pray too much.”

“Young lady, how can you possibly know God’s plan for your life when you have cut off all means of communication with him?”

The Holy Spirit speaks to us through the Word, prayer, and God’s people.  But we cannot hear Him if we do not keep the lines of communication open.

What are God’s other means of communication?  They are authority and providential circumstances.  By authority, I mean those authorities God has placed in your life, be they your government, employer, husband, or parents.  The Bible is clear on the point that we are to obey our authorities, whether they are Christian or not, unless they direct us to do that which is contrary to God’s Word.  Indeed, many times in Scripture we see God using pagan authorities to accomplish His will.  As for providential circumstances, in my experience, this is the favorite means of determining God’s will for many Christians.  Neglecting the first three on our list – and by far the most important of the five – they look for the proverbial “open door” in everything.  “I was thinking about where we should vacation this year and then I got the latest issue of National Geographic.  On the cover was Hawaii!  I think God is telling me something!”

Don’t misunderstand me.  Providential circumstances can be an authentic means of determining God’s will for your life; but it is only one of several, and it is certainly not God’s chief means of communication with us.  Unfortunately, it seems that most Christians are no different from unbelievers when it comes to making decisions, relying as they often do on those same vague inner promptings.  Of course, being Christians, we couch this method in Christian-sounding language.  We speak of “God’s leading” or “the Spirit’s prompting.”

Why do so many Christians rely on their feelings rather than earnestly seeking God’s will in a given matter?  One reason is that it may validate our own selfish desires.  By attributing our will to God’s plan, we are able to add authority to what we want to do.  When someone says, “God is leading me” to do this or that, what is left to say?  Because it is often beyond verification, some would employ this as a means of removing the discussion from the table.  It is also for this reason that such a remark can be used to cloak a sordid agenda.  I have many times heard people say that God led them to do something that I knew, without a doubt, that He did not.  How did I know?  Because the thing they said they were “called” to do was manifestly opposed to the teaching of the Bible.  For example, in deciding whether to sign a bill giving homosexual unions the same legal status as heterosexual ones, Vermont Governor Howard Dean said that it was his Christian conviction that led him to support the measure.  Later, when asked his favorite book of the New Testament, Dean responded “Job.” (No kidding.)  Was Dean sincere?  Perhaps.  I do not know.  But one thing is certain – because he was so terribly ignorant of what the Bible actually says, he misinterpreted what he wanted to do as what God wanted him to do.

Another reason that we gravitate to this method of determining God’s will in a given matter is that it requires no work.  But God expects us to seek Him.  Consider Joshua 1:7-9.  Here we find Joshua, saddled with the enormous task of following Moses as leader of the Israelites, and what instructions did God give him?  “Meditate on [My Word] day and night.”

In this we find a clue as to how God reveals His will – incrementally.  Few in the Bible ever saw the big picture.  When God might have given a complete inventory of daily events to remove all uncertainty in the lives of his people, He instead instructed them to trust and obey.  C.S. Lewis put it this way: “A glimpse is not a vision.  But when traveling on a mountain road by night, a glimpse of the next three feet of road may be more important than a vision of the horizon.”  God’s will is not something “out there” on a distant horizon.  It is found in being obedient to His Word on a daily basis.  So don’t feel overwhelmed by the plethora of decisions that you face.  Instead, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; but in all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make your paths straight.” (Proverbs 3:5, 6)

Augustine put it another way.  He said, “Love God and do as you please.”  Sounds flippant, doesn’t it?  What he meant was this.  Many times we find ourselves confronted by options that are equally good.  There is nothing in the Bible that would suggest that we should not do one or the other.  In such circumstances, says Augustine, just choose one and go with it.  We see this in Acts 1 when the Apostles seek a replacement for the deceased traitor Judas.  The “selection committee” whittles the candidates down to two fine men.  Both meet the qualifications.  Unfortunately, there was only one slot available.  What did they do?  They cast lots!  In other words, they were confident that God would be pleased with either man.  They might just as easily have drawn straws, picked numbers between 1 and 10, or raced for it!  They did all that they could do and left the rest to God’s sovereign will.

“So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.  But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:31-34)

© Copyright 2009 Larry A. Taunton