Does God Still Guide?
Exodus 13:21-22; Psalm 48:14
September 5, 1993
The year was 1915. A young man in Liverpool, England was preparing to return to America . He was a poet growing in international fame. As he prepared to return home, he wrote a poem that he later insisted had been simply a joke, a funny story, written to amuse a friend. Yet that composition has become one of the best-loved poems of the twentieth century. No doubt you read it in English class in high school.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The poet was Robert Frost. His poem is known around the world as “The Road Not Taken.” After he achieved his fame, he always insisted this poem was a kind of an inside joke between him and another friend, and yet it is remembered and studied and memorized because all of us have been there.
We love this poem because we have all been there. We have all come to the crossroads of life, where two roads diverged, one this way, one that way. We stood at the crossroads and wondered, should we go this way, or should we go that way? We know that once the decision is made, we can never really go back and make it over again.
It’s that last line or two that catches the mind. “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”
Our Decisions Make Us
Our decisions really do matter. We make our decisions and our decisions turn around and make us.
We face so many questions:
LShould I get married? And if I should, should I marry Sally or Jane or Susie or Bill or Joe or Bob?
LShould I go to college? And if I should, should I go to UIC or Illinois-Champaign or Moody or Wheaton or Bethel?
LI’ve been offered a new job. It’s a good job. But I’ve got a good job. Should I take the new job? Or should I hold onto what I have?
LWe’ve got four children. We’re thinking about having a fifth. Should we have another one?
LIs God calling me to the mission field? How can I be sure?
We make our decisions, and our decisions turn around and make us. “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”
This morning we are beginning a new sermon series. Every message that I am going to preach is one that is brand-new that I have never preached anywhere before.
When this year started, I didn’t plan on preaching this particular sermon series. It came into my mind sometime in March or April, and I thought about it and set it aside because I planned on doing another series on these fall Sundays. As the spring turned into the summer, I began to listen to the voices of this congregation. As I studied the questions that were coming to me as the senior pastor, I realized that many of our people are at a major crossroads of life. So many of the questions that come to me every week are questions asking for advice. “Pastor, I’ve got a decision to make. I’m standing at the crossroads. I can go this way, or I can go that way. What do you think I ought to do?”
The Bible is a Book of God’s Will
In response to those questions we are going to be looking at what God’s word has to say about finding God’s will. That is an important statement I just made. It is important because the Bible is a book of God’s will. It is a book that explains who God is and how he works and how he relates to us as his people. It explains not just general principles but shows us clearly over and over again not only that God does guide his children but exactly how he does it.
And so I am hoping to offer something that will be both biblical and practical to all of you who are facing major decisions and are wondering what to do.
No Question More Basic
No question is more basic than this: Lord, what do you want me to do? Do you remember when Saul met Jesus on the road to Damascus, he asked him one question: “Lord, what do you want me to do?” It is the most basic question any Christian can ever ask: “Lord, what is your will for my life? Lord, what do you want me to do? Which way do you want me to go?”
New Christians ask this question. Whenever we see someone who comes to Jesus Christ, almost inevitably they want to know what is God’s will and how to discover it.
College students ask the same question. Moody students and Wheaton students and Concordia students—they all ask the same question. You are at a crossroads. And it is not just one road this way and one road that way; it is five roads this way and seven roads that way. College students want to know: “Lord, which way should I go?”
Those of us who are older, who have already chosen a career—especially those of us who are in midlife transition points—look back at what we have done over the last 15 or 20 years. Now we are wondering: “Are we on the right track? Are we where God wants us to be?”
But what about those approaching retirement age? They ask the same question. Many times in the past year I have chatted with folks in their 50s and 60s who are healthy, active and still want to serve the Lord. They say things like, “I’ve got 15 years left, and I want these years to count for Jesus Christ. I want these to be the best years of my life. How can I discover what God’s will for my life is?”
In Our Better Moments
Beyond all that there is an even more fundamental issue to consider. If you are a Christian, in your better moments, you really want to please Jesus Christ. You want to do that which is most important in God’s eyes. Deep in your heart, you really do want to seek first the kingdom of God. And only if you knew what God wanted, you would be glad to do it.
I think all of us live in some fear that we’ll come to the end of life and look back and see all that we’ve done and we’ll feel that we’ve wasted most of what was given to us. I think we fear that some day we’ll stand before the Lord only to hear him say, “You did a very good job at what you chose to do. Unfortunately, what you chose to do was not what I put you on earth to do.” We all have that secret fear that some day the Lord will say that you did good but that you didn’t do your best. So this question of discovering God’s will touches the ultimate issues of life. Perhaps you can say there is nothing else more important.
There is yet one other reason to delve into this topic. I have a personal interest in this area because I have agonized over the will of God. This week I took a look back over the 41 years of my life. I realized that who I am today is the result of all the decisions I have made until now. I am the result of hundreds and thousands of decisions, many of which when I made them did not seem very important. For instance,
NThe decision to study journalism, to join the band, and to learn how to play the trombone, to save up money to go to the Cotton Carnival in Memphis, Tennessee, when I was only about eight or nine years old so I could happen to go to the radio station and happen to talk to that man and gain an interest in that which would become a part of my life.
NThe fact that when I was a senior in high school, I decided to enter The Junior Civitan Public Speaking Contest and happened to win it and happened to go on to the state competition.
NThe fact that when I was in the seventh grade I just happened to decide without even thinking to stop in at Ira’s Gift and Book Shop. Every week Ira Schnell gave me a copy of a Christian magazine called “The Sword of the Lord,” the first place where I ever saw the gospel of Jesus Christ clearly set forth in print.
NWhen I graduated from high school I was offered a college scholarship, and without much thought I said no because it wasn’t the right place for me.
NAnd how at a certain moment in time, I took a deep breath and went by and said hi to that cute girl who was the secretary of the music department in the college that I attended.
NAnd how the year after my father died, and my faith had disappeared, I chose—almost by throwing a dart at a piece of paper—to go to Paraguay for a summer missions trip that turned my life and our marriage completely around.
What I am today is a result of thousands of decisions which when I made them didn’t seem very important but today have made me exactly who I am.
You make your decisions, and then your decisions turn around and make you.
Does God Still Guide?
There are many different ways to ask the question this morning. You could ask: How can I, a mere mortal, ever discover what Almighty God wants me to do? Or you could ask it this way: How can I bring God into the reality of my daily life? Or you could ask: Where is God when I have to make a really tough decision?
Or you could ask it this way: Does God still guide? In the moments of life when you have to make a tough decision, when you are in the woods with the two roads diverging in front of you, one this way and one that way, can you count on God to help you?
I want to share with you a verse of Scripture that is the theme verse for this entire series. Psalm 48:14 says, “For this God is our God for ever and ever; He will be our Guide even to the end.” I discovered it some years ago when I was in a desperate moment of my own life. I had lost my job and had nothing on the horizon. But I had a wife, three children and a mortgage payment to make. When I desperately needed to know what God wanted me to do, this verse was precious to me.
I discovered this verse is true. He will be our guide. He will be our guide whether we believe it or not, whether we see it or not, whether we know it or not. He will be your guide. It doesn’t matter whether you believe it. It doesn’t matter whether you know it or understand it or can comprehend it. He has promised to be your guide. The verse says, “This God.” What God is “this God?” The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our fathers, the God of the Bible, the God who led his people through the wilderness, the God of the nation of Israel, this God will be our God for ever and ever. This God, the God of the Bible, will be our God even to the end.
Follow That Cloud!
There are many places you can go in the Bible to find this illustrated. But as I was thinking about it, the story that just kept coming back to me, the story that just gripped my imagination, the story that to me most clearly shows the guidance of God for his people is the story of the cloud and the pillar. You can find it in Exodus 13 and in Numbers 9.
The nation of Israel is leaving the land of Egypt. As soon as they cross the Red Sea, they are going to go down toward Mount Sinai, and eventually they are going to come up to the Promised Land. And as they are leaving the safety and security of Egypt, something amazing happens. Exodus 13:20-22 tells the story:
After leaving Succoth they camped at Etham on the edge of the desert. By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.
The desert was behind them, the Red Sea was in front of them, and here come the Egyptians. The people were scared to death because all they had known was Egypt and Pharaoh, and as bad as that was, at least they felt secure. But what will they do now that they are leaving their security behind them?
God answers their concern by sending them a moving pillar to guide them on their way. During the day, the pillar was a visible cloud in the sky. During the night, the cloud became a blazing pillar of fire. That provided visible, unmistakable guidance 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. All they had to do was follow the cloud and the fire and they would be safe.
This week I just discovered a remarkable passage in Numbers 9:15-23 that explains how the pillar of fire actually worked. The passage is a bit long, but I find it fascinating in its details.
On the day the tabernacle, the Tent of the Testimony, was set up, the cloud covered it. From evening till morning the cloud above the tabernacle looked like fire. That is how it continued to be; the cloud covered it, and at night it looked like fire. Whenever the cloud lifted from above the Tent, the Israelites set out; wherever the cloud settled, the Israelites camped. At the Lord’s command the Israelites set out, and at his command they encamped. As long as the cloud stayed over the tabernacle, they remained in camp. When the cloud remained over the tabernacle a long time, the Israelites obeyed the Lord’s order and did not set out. Sometimes the cloud was over the tabernacle only a few days; at the Lord’s command they would encamp, and then at his command they would set out. Sometimes the cloud stayed only from evening till morning, and when it lifted in the morning, they set out. Whether by day or by night, whenever the cloud lifted, they set out. Whether the cloud stayed over the tabernacle for two days or a month or a year, the Israelites would remain in camp and not set out; but when it lifted, they would set out. At the Lord’s command they encamped, and at the Lord’s command they set out. They obeyed the Lord’s order, in accordance with his command through Moses.
Whenever the cloud lifted, the Israelites followed it. When it stopped, they stopped. Sometimes it would stop overnight and then move again in the morning. Sometimes it would stop for a week or a month or for an entire year. No matter. When it moved, they moved. When it stopped, they stopped with it.
I want to share with you four lessons from the cloud and the fire that explains to us something about how God guides his people.
Lesson # 1: God’s guidance is revealed to us one step at a time.
Numbers 9 makes this very clear. The cloud would lift and they would go. As long as the cloud kept moving, they would follow. When it stopped, they would stop. Sometimes it would stop for a night and go the next morning. Then it would stop for a fews days, and they would stop for a few days. The Israelites never knew from moment to moment or day to day what the cloud was going to do next.
It is precisely at this point that we have our number one problem with knowing the will of God. To us, knowing the will of God means discovering the future. We think that God should unroll the scroll of life before us so that we could see the whole thing stretched out in front of us.
God normally doesn’t work that way. Let me clarify that. I do believe that God has a blueprint for your life. I just don’t know any way you can get a copy. I think the way that God guides us today is exactly the way he guided his people back in the Old Testament—day by day and step by step.
One of the most important verses in this whole area is Psalm 119:105, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” It is a picture of a man walking in darkness with a lamp to light his way. How far can he see in front of him? He can see one step. As he follows the light, he takes a step. Where does the light go? It goes one step in front of him. As he takes a step into the light, where does the light go? It goes one step in front of him. As he takes another step, it goes one step in front of him.
That light is the light of God’s guidance. So many of us get tripped up because we want to see ten steps in front. God rarely shows you ten steps in advance. He normally leads us step by step by step. He will lead you a step, and then he’ll lead you another step, and then he’ll lead you another step. And then after he’s led you about ten steps, you’ll look back and say, “How did I get from there to here?” Then you’ll realize it was just step by step by step. So don’t think that knowing God’s will means that you know your whole life in advance. That’s not how God reveals his will for his children.
He normally reveals it step by step by step just as he did with the cloud and the fire. One day at a time. We’re moving, we’re staying, we’re moving, we’re staying.
Lesson # 2: God’s guidance demands our obedience whether it makes sense to us or not.
As I read the account in Numbers 9, I get the feeling that the person who wrote these verses was writing them with a little bit of frustration. He goes into great pains in Numbers 9 to let us know that sometimes the cloud would suddenly move or suddenly stop without any particular explanation. We would stay somewhere for a long time, and then suddenly we would move. Then we would stay some place else for a long time, and then we would move. Then we would stop for one night, and then we would move on.
Many days it didn’t make any sense at all. God’s guidance is often like that. Sometimes God keeps you moving when you would rather stop. You get to a place in your life where you are happy and settled, and you are content. You have a job, you have your family, you have your money, and you have everything going for you. Your kids are happy in school, you like your neighbors, your work is going well, you enjoy your church. Life is good. So you say, “Lord, let’s just camp here for awhile.” The next day the cloud begins to move. And you say, “Lord, what are you doing? I’m happy now. I’m content. Let’s stay here.” The Lord says, “We’re moving on. If you’re going to follow Me, you have to keep on moving.”
Can you imagine what it was like to wander in the wilderness for 40 years? You are in Year 23—only 17 more years to go. For about the last four years it seems like you’ve been moving in circles in the desert. Finally the cloud stops. You’re somewhere south of Kadesh-Barnea, about 100 miles from Zoar, 27 miles from Hazaroth, and roughly 3 miles from the end of the world. They call this place the “Desert of Zin.” It’s hot, rocky, barren, dusty, not a sign of life for miles in any direction. But the cloud has finally stopped. So you start to set up camp. You get the tent up and find some rocks to make a temporary sheepfold. You think to yourself, “Well, it looks like we’re going to be here a while.” There’s an oasis just over the next hill where you can get water. The next morning the cloud lifts. That makes you mad. “What are you talking about? We just got here. I just got the sheep fed. I just got the tents put up. What are you doing?” And the Lord says, “What I’m doing is moving. If you are going to follow me, you are going to have to move with me.”
I have heard it said this way: “Don’t put your tent pegs down too deeply, Pilgrim. We may be moving on in the morning.” You have heard that old southern gospel song. “This world is not my home. I’m just a-passin’ through.” We’re Pilgrims and we’re just a passin’ through, and sometimes we’re moving when we would rather be staying.
“Lord, We’ve Been Here Long Enough”
The other side is also true. Sometimes the Lord says, “Stay,” when we would rather be moving. Sometimes the cloud and the pillar would stay in the same place for days or weeks or months or maybe even for a year.
And some of the old men would do what some of the old people do down South, you know, spitting and whittling, just kind of talking to each another spitting and whittling in front of the bank. You know what I am talking about? Just killing time. The young guys would say, “Let’s go. We’ve got to move.” “Can’t go anywhere. The cloud is here. We have to stay here,” the old men would say.
We live in a pro-active generation, don’t we? We live in a generation that says let’s move, let’s go, let’s do it right now. Sometimes God says, “No, you are going to stay right where you are.”
I’ve got a dear friend whose wife has Alzheimer’s Disease. A few weeks ago he said, “It’s gone on for so long. I don’t see any purpose in it. I saw a purpose two years ago. But I don’t see a purpose in this any more. Why doesn’t God do something?”
I don’t know the answer to that. All I know is this: Sometimes God says wait, and we would rather move. Chuck Swindoll calls waiting the hardest discipline in the Christian life. I agree. That is why the psalmist says, “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.” (Psalm 37:7) That is why Isaiah 40:31 says, “Those that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.”
So get this second principle and get it down clearly. God’s guidance demands our obedience even when it makes no sense to us. Sometimes God moves when we want to stay. Sometimes God says, “Stay,” when we would rather move on and get our life going again.
Lesson # 3: God’s guidance changes its character according to the need of the moment.
During the day when they needed to see a cloud, what they saw was a cloud, but at night when the cloud would be invisible, the cloud looked like fire. God had one way of showing himself to them during the day and another way of showing himself to them at night.
That leads me to this conclusion: God’s guidance is always there, but his means of guiding us changes from moment to moment. Consider the implications of that statement. God is not obligated to lead you in the same way he leads somebody else. He is not obligated to speak to you in the same way he speaks to somebody else.
We can go farther than that. God is not obligated to deal with you today in the same way he dealt with you yesterday or the way he is going to deal with you tomorrow.
That’s an important principle to learn because so many of us put God in a box. We think that since God dealt with my best friend a certain way, therefore he’s got to deal with me in the same way. “Lord, you answered her prayer that way, now answer mine the same way.” God says, “No deal.” He’s not a God in a box.
How does God guide his people? Sometimes through dreams and visions. Sometimes directly through the Word of God. Sometimes through the advice of good Christian friends. Sometimes through prayer. Sometimes by impressions we receive. Sometimes by inner convictions. Sometimes by a deep sense of inner peace. Sometimes by looking at all of the circumstances of life that clearly point in one direction. Sometimes he simply gives us the wisdom to make the right decision. Sometimes he speaks to us. Sometimes he guides us by his silence. Very often it is a combination of all of those things put together.
Do you know why that is an important point to understand? Because our God is infinitely creative. God can make billions of snowflakes and no two of them are ever alike. If God can do that, he is able to lead each person individually in exactly the way they need to go.
“Some through the water, some through the flood, some through the fire, but all through the blood. Some through great sorrow but God gives a song in the night season and all the day long.”
God is committed to guiding his children. Yes he is. And though his methods may change, and though
Lesson # 4: God’s guidance is revealed as we stay close to Him.
The Old Testament tells us that the cloud and the pillar represent the very presence of God. They weren’t just symbols. They represented God’s presence with his people. We are told in the Old Testament that the Lord spoke from the cloud. So when they saw the cloud, they would understand that the Lord himself was leading them.
Do you know what that means? If the cloud went north and you went south, you were soon going to get in trouble. If the cloud started moving and your family didn’t follow, you would be separated from the presence of God. And the only thing you can do is turn around and come back and follow.
Do you know what that tells me? Knowing the will of God is not a matter of geography. It is not a question of where you should go or what you should do. Knowing the will of God is not about who you should marry or when you should get married. It’s not about should you take this job or that job or how many kids you should have or where should you go to school or should you be a missionary or not. Those are very important, but those are secondary questions.
“Give Me Your Heart”
The primary question is this: Are you willing to follow God wherever he leads you? It is a spiritual question. When we say to God, “Show me what to do,” the Lord says, “Stay close to me.” We cry out to the heavens, “I’m scared.” God says, “Follow me.” We say, “Oh, God, give me some answers.” And God says, “Give me your heart.”
That’s why I like that verse at the end of Numbers 9 that says, “At the Lord’s command they encamped, and at the Lord’s command they set out.”
If you will do the same thing, God will guide you. If the Lord says stop, you will stop. If the Lord says go, you will go. He will guide you. It is a moral and spiritual issue. The secret to knowing God’s will ultimately is the secret of knowing God, and as you get to know God better, he will reveal his will to you.
Do you know what I think it means for our decision-making? I think it means that when you need to know, you will know. And that when the time comes to make the decision, you’ll have everything you need to make a wise decision.
The issue is not mystical superstition. The issue is: Am I ready to follow God? Am I ready to stay close to him? Am I willing to put the Lord first in everything? Because if I will seek first the kingdom of God, everything else, all my guidance questions, will then be answered.
Did Jesus Do God’s Will?
Does God still guide? Yes he does. The ultimate proof is his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who came to do his Father’s will. As he approached the cross, he struggled with the will of God. In his agony he cried out, “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done.”
Did Jesus do the will of God? Look at the dying form of the Son of God. Beaten, bruised, rejected, a Man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. When he died, his life appeared to have been wasted, but from that waste has come the salvation of the world. And from that waste, we receive the Bread of Life.
Does God still guide his children? Yes, he does. And how does he guide them? He guides them step by step by step.
I realize that does not answer every question but it does answer the main question. Can I count on God this week? Yes, you can.
So go forth from here with confidence. Go forth, child of God, with your head held high. Go forth into this world and do the will of God because God is willing to guide you if you are willing to follow him.
How can you be so sure? Because the Bible says so. For this God, the God of the cloud and of the fire is our God forever and ever. He will be our Guide even to the end.