One of the most common questions that people ask about God’s direction can be verbalized in many different ways:
- “How do I know what God wants me to do in this situation?”
- “How do I hear God’s voice?”
- “How do I seek God’ guidance?”
- “How do I follow God’s lead?”
We are all trying to make the right choices in life. Many of us are fearful of taking a wrong turn or making a life-altering decision. The Bible gives instruction in so many different areas, but there are still many things that it doesn’t specifically speak to.
In the book of Exodus, God gives the Israelites a very clear method for following His lead.
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. Exodus 13:21-22
Wouldn’t it be nice if He still led us this way today? Man, if I could have a pillar of fire pointing me in the right direction, life would be so much easier! There would be no question about what I am supposed to do or when I am supposed to do it.
My Current Conundrum
As I sit here today, I am actively trying to understand God’s direction in an opportunity that has been placed before me. Seven months ago, I joined the board of our local pregnancy center. Yesterday, they asked me to consider taking the chair position.
I have to be honest; this prospect frightens me. I already have a lot on my plate. If this is the Lord’s will, He will provide the resources needed and it won’t be the burden that I fear. But if this isn’t His will and I do it anyway, I could end up drained and depleted, leaving my family to suffer.
I really want to make the right decision.
How to Ask for God’s Direction
Before we can even begin to hear His voice, or to understand His will in a given situation, we need to first know how to ask for it.
Communication is the key to any relationship and your relationship with God is not an exception. All prayer is, is a fancy label for talking to God. So, if you intend to ask for His will, you can’t do that without prayer. (For more on prayer, read this Blog Post on why it is important.)
Show me your ways, Lord, teach me your paths. Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long. Psalm 25:4-5
That seems simple enough, but you’d be surprised at how often I forget to slow down and actually ask for His guidance. I get caught up with the autonomy and independence of my own wisdom. I barrel on forward, figuring it out on my own (all the while waiting for His divine word to intervene and agree with what I am already thinking).
If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. James 1:5-6
2. Read His Word
If prayer is one half of the conversation, then the Bible is the other half. There is a reason we call it “His word”. Because it really is filled with the words of God.
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17
If you want to know what He thinks about a particular subject, or a spiritual heart condition, just open your Bible and read. Chances are, He’s already covered it….on some level.
3. Seek Counsel
One of the best ways to process through a decision, is to talk it out (especially for us women!) And if you’re going to talk it out, you might as well find someone with a little more wisdom and experience both in life and in the Lord than you.
Plans are established by seeking advice; so if you wage war, obtain guidance. Proverbs 20:18
Years ago, I was trying to decide if I should go back to work, so I asked our pastor’s wife for her advice. I chose her specifically because I knew her background was different than mine. She was a big advocate for the stay-at-home mom. I knew she wouldn’t just affirm my own opinions and desires but would give me real meat to chew on.
She had shared a lot of great wisdom that day, but the one that stood out to me was a question. She asked how I was going to maintain the relationship that I had been building with the Lord. Unfortunately, in all my arrogance, I told her that wouldn’t be a problem at all, that I had it covered.
Boy, was I so wrong. In the five years that I worked after that, my relationship with the Lord suffered. I really struggled to find time with Him each day, and I was often too exhausted to pray. I do feel that going back to work for that period was the right decision. However, I wish that I had been a little more humble in heeding her advice.
Which brings me to the next step:
4. Surrender to God’s Direction in Humility
So often, we state that we want to follow God’s will for our lives, but that’s easier said than done when His direction isn’t what we had pictured.
It takes a lot to recognize that He knows better than we do, as He can see past, present, and future all at the same time. He can see hearts and motivations, what’s on the inside; whereas we can only see external actions.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. Proverbs 3:5-6
When we seek God’s direction, we must surrender to that direction. Jesus Himself did just this when He was faced with His own death.
Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that, if possible, the hour might pass from him. “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” Mark 14:35-36
God has His own way of doing things. We can not always understand them, but we can submit to them.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8-9
How to Hear God’s Direction
God is God. He has the whole world at His disposal. There are a million different ways He could communicate to you when you are truly seeking His guidance for your life. And since the chance of Him walking up to you on the street and giving a plain, black and white instruction is slim, we need to know to look for Him in other ways.
These are just a few of the ways that I have seen God’s direction given in my life, and in the lives of those close to me:
1. God’s Direction as “Opened and Closed Doors”
This is probably the more commonly used of the metaphors in regard to hearing God’s voice. The idea is to move forward in the decision until God shuts the door, and as long as the “doors” are open, you keep moving ahead.
This is not a wrong way to proceed. I have done this many times, and have felt confident in the decisions that have been made.
The problem comes, when we force that door back open. I heard someone say once (and I have now stolen it) that instead of praying for a closed door, they pray for a big, solid, strong brick wall that can’t be torn down or blasted through. (In this scenario, I always picture Grover and his wall in the Monster at the End of this Book.)
God’s will IS strong, but He will not usually stop us from making our own decisions, right or wrong as they may be. He’s given us the choice, which means that we really need to be willing to keep that door closed, especially if we’ve asked Him to close it.
In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps. Proverbs 16:9
2. Look for Confirmation when the Decision is Fast
Sometimes we are put into the position of making such a fast decision that we don’t have time to wait on the Lord. This is stressful to those of us that are fearful of taking a wrong turn, but He is good and will bless you if your heart is truly fixed on Him.
Last winter we were faced with the hard decision to walk away from the church body that had meant so much to us. This decision came fast, blindsiding us. All four of us grieved heavily for weeks, and we were left with the question of whether we had made the right decision.
But God has been good and has delivered confirmation after confirmation that our decision had been His will for us. Our hearts are in a healthier place now both spiritually and mentally, and we’re meeting a whole new group of people that we had no idea existed in our small town!
When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” John 8:12
This light of life that Jesus speaks of IS the confirmation we’re looking for in our decisions. If we follow Him, He will work in our lives regardless of the specific outcome.
3. Check your Heart
Sometimes, the easiest way to know God’s direction in our lives, is to take an honest look at our own motivations in the situation. Are they honoring to God? Are they rooted in sinful nature, or in glorifying Him?
His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires…Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble. 2 Peter 1:3-4, 10
If your true motivations are self-serving, you might have a problem aligning them with God’s direction. It’s not always easy to be honest with yourself in these situations, but if you are, you won’t regret it.
4. Is your Gut in Knots?
A couple of years ago, I felt the Lord press upon me an idea to share something incredibly personal and painful with a good friend. This was a thing that I had only recently began coming to terms with, and at that point it was something only two people on the whole planet knew about.
But this friend needed to hear it. She needed to know that she was not alone. So, I planned a weekend away with her. As the weekend grew nearer, my stomach began to tighten. This was not a thing I wanted to do. I was going to speak words to her that I had not yet spoken out loud.
As the weekend progressed, my stomach grew tighter. We were having a great time, and it would have been easy to let it go, pretend that the opportunity didn’t come up. But a time came when the intensity of my stomach squeeze was so strong that the words came flying out, almost of their own volition. And the conversation that followed was a sweet one, full of tears and confessions. And we are now bonded together closer than we could have been without it.
So what causes that knot in your gut? The short answer….the Holy Spirit. When we invite Him in to live through us, He has His own plan for our lives. My best explanation is that when He wants to go one way, and we are fighting to go another, we can sometimes feel that inner conflict in a very real and physical way.
Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? 1 Corinthians 3:16
5. Intimacy with God’s Heart
The more we get to know someone, the more we understand their heart. It is the same for God. The more we read His word, the more we begin to understand His motivation and sovereignty. The only way for this to happen is to be in His word as regularly as possible. If this is daily for you, that is fantastic. If this is a few times a week, then you are on your way. As long as we position our hearts with desire to know Him more, He will happily comply.
The more intimately we know God’s heart, the less confusing He becomes, and the more easily we’ll be able to decipher His will for our lives.
Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path. Psalm 119:105
(For more on establishing a regular Bible study, read this blog post on 30 Unique Bible Study Methods.)
6. Hearing His Audible Voice
Sometimes, not often, He will speak to us in a voice we can hear. This has happened to me only once. And it was big.
When I met my husband, Bruce, I was not following the Lord….at all. I had accepted Him into my heart as a child, but then through my twenties I had chosen a path of serious disobedience and poor life choices. By the time Bruce came along, I had been through so many short- and long-term relationships, and my view of a healthy one was somewhat skewed. By the time Bruce took me out on our first date, I didn’t think much was going to come of it and I was waiting to get on to the next guy.
But, sitting at Olive Garden for coffee and dessert after seeing the movie Borat together, in the midst of something Bruce was saying, a peace came over me in a way that I had not ever felt before. And I heard the words, “you can rest, this is the one I have for you.”
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 1 Kings 19:11b-12
I will never forget those words. At the time, I had thought relationships were supposed to be filled with uncertainty, drama, and all the ups and downs that an unhealthy dating relationship can bring. I was so used to this as the norm, that the ease Bruce and I had felt unnatural. But the simple promise that God had brought to me in His still, quiet voice carried me through. And wow….we have been so blessed because of it.
7. God’s Direction Can Come in Visions
This is another uncommon occurrence in how God speaks.
About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven. Acts 10:9-16
Before my mom had married my dad, she had been engaged to another man. (This was actually during a period of time that she and my dad had been broken up, having previously dated already.) She made her way down to the beach to talk to the Lord one day. As she was praying, she looked up and saw a vision of my dad walking toward her.
The way she tells it, she knew in that moment, not that she was supposed to marry my father, but that she wasn’t supposed to marry the other man. (Of course, it didn’t take long after the breakup for my grandmother to invite my dad over for dinner!)
8. Ask for a Sign
This one comes from a historical account in the Old Testament about one of my favorite men – Gideon.
Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised—look, I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you said.” And that is what happened. Gideon rose early the next day; he squeezed the fleece and wrung out the dew—a bowlful of water. Then Gideon said to God, “Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request. Allow me one more test with the fleece, but this time make the fleece dry and let the ground be covered with dew.” That night God did so. Only the fleece was dry; all the ground was covered with dew. Judges 6:36-40
Here’s the thing with putting God to the test like this – He doesn’t have to comply. And, if you pay attention to the words above, Gideon isn’t looking for direction, he’s looking for confirmation. God had already given him the instruction, Gideon just felt insecure in it and needed further assurance.
I have known so many who have laid out the proverbial fleece, waiting for the clear guidance from the Lord. But if our hearts aren’t pure in our trust for Him, with a willingness to move forward regardless of the instruction, what’s the point?
I have seen so many do this, only to justify the results they weren’t wanting. Be careful that this isn’t you.
What if You Don’t Follow God’s Direction?
I have good news and I have bad news. The bad news is that we will all make the wrong choice at some point in our lives, leading us down a path that isn’t God’s best. The good news? God will remain with you on that other path. He will provide other opportunities to choose His better way. Until the day you die, He will not leave you, and He will give you the option daily to follow Him.
Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9