How does a person go about discerning guidance from God? God doesn’t send out emails or text messages or newsletters offering His guidance. (I don’t get them. I don’t know about you.) So, how am I to recognize His guidance for my life.
I want to share an example from the life of Peter. In Acts chapter 11, Peter reported to the church in Jerusalem concerning his mission into Gentile territory. Christianity was in its infancy. The first believers were still wrestling with personal prejudices. Initially, Peter’s mission created quite a controversy in the church in Jerusalem. They wanted to know who authorized such a trip. That is when Peter went into great detail concerning how God guided his journey. When we put together his explanation with the details of the story, we get a very clear picture of how God guides.
Peter shares how it all began. 5“I was in the city of Joppa praying…Acts 11:5a
While there is no indication that Peter was specifically praying for guidance from God, that is when His guidance came. In prayer, we share our hearts with God, and He shares His heart with us. All the great men of the Bible, including Jesus, took time every day to pray. If you will take time to pray, as you share the concerns of your heart with God, He will share the concerns of His heart with you.
In the previous chapter, where more details of the account are given, we discover Peter went up on the roof. He did this so he could be out of the hustle and bustle below where meal preparation was taking place.
Peter was just like us. He had no idea of what God was doing somewhere else in the world. Yet, what God was doing in Peter’s life had a direct connection to what God was already doing in another person’s heart. That man, Cornelius, was prompted by God to send to Joppa for a man he had never met. The man’s name was Simon Peter. Peter didn’t know that the men were already on their way. God set events in motion in two men’s hearts so that His purpose could be accomplished. That lets us know that God knew where Peter would be in advance. I have no doubt, the prompting to pray came from God. Peter went on to describe what happened while he was praying.
4But Peter began speaking and proceeded to explain to them in orderly sequence, saying, 5“I was in the city of Joppa praying; and in a trance I saw a vision… Acts 11:4-5
I don’t know about you, but I wanted to know what that meant? Some translations describe it as a visionary state. However the Greek word used to describe Peter’s experience is a word that refers to a mind so fixed and focused on the things of God that all else fades away.In that moment alone with God, his spiritual perception became exceptionally clear, and God communicated through signs or symbols that appeared very real.God used that opportunity as a teaching moment to prepare Peter for what was ahead. This happened in the context of prayer, and I think we can safely say that without prayer, Peter would have missed this guidance from God.
First, Peter’s guidance was received in the context of prayer.
Second, in the context of prayer, Peter received a witness in his spirit.
While Peter was praying, something happened, but it happened inside Peter. He describes that moment, and it must have been just a moment. You understand the process of dreams. Peter’s experience involved a question and answer session about this sheet that he saw that was filled with animals. Why did God have to use such a symbol to get Peter’s attention? It was because Peter had a major hindrance to receiving God’s guidance. Do you have any idea what that might have been? It was his own prejudice. Likewise, one of our greatest hindrances to receiving guidance from God is our own personal prejudice. We already have our own mind made up before we go to God to ask. Therefore, one of our biggest challenges is being willing to allow God to mold our mindset to his. If I come to prayer with my mind made up about the guidance I want from God, that is the guidance I will probably get. I will not allow God to move my mind from my will to His. Watch this struggle take place in the life of Peter.
I saw a vision, an object coming down like a great sheet lowered by four corners from the sky; and it came right down to me, 6and when I had fixed my gaze on it and was observing it I saw the four-footed animals of the earth and the wild beasts and the crawling creatures and the birds of the air. 7“I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8“But I said, ‘By no means, Lord, for nothing unholy or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9“But a voice from heaven answered a second time, ‘What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.’ 10“This happened three times, and everything was drawn back up into the sky. Acts 11:5-10
The first part of God’s dealing with Peter was to prompt him to give up his own personal prejudices in favor of the will of God for his life. As God guides you away from your own will toward His will for your life, He may use lessons from life just like He used with Peter.
God may have something for you to do that is different from what you have in mind. You may want to serve Him but not as a missionary. You may want to be a missionary but not with a specific people group whose race or customs you find repulsive. So God may lead you through a process of discovery to teach you to give up your will in favor of His own. That also has to happen in the life of a church. Each person must give up his or her own will for the church in favor of the will of Christ, who is the Head. When He reveals it, we must follow without question just as Peter did.
Obviously, this didn’t happen immediately for Peter. Peter’s initial response was to tell the Lord, “No.” But the process continued, until after the third time, God had Peter’s attention.
When you pray, stay alert to see what happens next. You will notice that what happened next in Peter’s life was essential to him discerning the guidance of God.
Third, the witness in Peter’s spirit was confirmed by the witness of circumstances.
11And behold, at that moment three men appeared at the house in which we were staying, having been sent to me from Caesarea. Acts 12:11
Can you put two and two together? If you pray, and ask God for guidance, what is it when the phone rings and someone who had no idea you were seeking God calls to give you information that fits right into how you had prayed. That is guidance, and it is likely guidance from God.
Suppose you are seeking God’s guidance about surrendering to be a missionary. When you pray, you inform God that if He wants you to go to the mission field, you first need to sell your home. You struggle with that issue because you love your home and you don’t want to give it up. So, you continue to pray and ask God for guidance. Then one day someone calls you and tells you they were looking for a house in your neighborhood and were wondering if you ever thought about selling your home. What is that? That is guidance. It is the witness of circumstances confirming the witness in your spirit—and it all grew out of the context of prayer.
Fourth, the witness of circumstances was confirmed by the witness of the Spirit.
The Spirit told me to go with them without misgivings. Acts 11:12
These three events came for Peter in rapid succession. First was the vision—this witness in his spirit. Then came the obvious providential circumstances. And then like a bolt out of the blue came the witness of the Holy Spirit.
The time will come when God will make it very clear to you what He wants you to do. He will show you the direction you should take. The answer will come in the context of prayer. It will come when you are willing to surrender your personal prejudices in favor of the will of God. There will be a witness in your spirit. There will be circumstances that take place that seem to confirm that witness. But the ultimate authority is the witness of God’s Spirit who will say to you, “This is the way! Walk in it!”
What is it like to hear the voice of God’s Spirit? Is it audible? For me it has never been. But I can tell you this, although that voice has always come in a different way, I always knew it when it when it came. When God speaks to verify His leading, you will know that it is God.
How can you be sure? There is only one way to verify God’s guidance. When God shows you the way—walk in it.
Finally, Peter’s guidance was verified in the context of obedience.
12“The Spirit told me to go with them without misgivings. These six brethren also went with me and we entered the man’s house. 13“And he reported to us how he had seen the angel standing in his house, and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and have Simon, who is also called Peter, brought here; 14and he will speak words to you by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’ 15“And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as He did upon us at the beginning. Acts 11:4-15
When Peter began to take steps of obedience, each one was verified by God. He saw God’s activity. He saw how God had been working to prepare the way for his visit to that home. He saw God’s work in the lives of those to whom he preached. But how would the guidance of God have ever been validated if Peter had not been obedient. There are some things that you will never know until you make the journey of obedience.
Pray for God’s guidance. As you listen for a witness in your spirit be sure that you are willing to give up your own personal prejudices in favor of the will of God. Watch for providential circumstances that God will use like signposts pointing the way. Make sure that you have that vital witness of the Holy Spirit before you go. Then when God shows you the way, walk in it and watch God work.
In the fall of 1988, I found myself in the small community of Camden, Alabama, being considered as the pastor of the church there. I didn’t know a soul. In many ways, it was like a foreign country to me. I was so apprehensive for myself and for my family. I needed some word from God about what to do.
I was alone in the back hallway waiting to enter the sanctuary. The instrumentalists inside began playing the prelude music. I recognized the tune. It was the familiar hymn, Trust and Obey. As they played, one of the verses of that hymn came clearly to my mind. “But you never can prove the delights of His love, until all on the altar you lay. For the favor He shows and the joy He bestows are for those who will trust and obey.” In that moment, I knew clearly what God wanted me to do. He wanted me to surrender my family and my future into His hands. The only way to confirm God’s guidance up to that moment was to obey. I did, and never once have I regretted the years I spent there.
God’s guidance in one decision will not be a blueprint for another. However, these basic principles have helped me get a sense of God’s will for my life.
Photo by Robin Noguier