Down To Earth Discipleship    .    Getting real with issues facing young Christians today
Chapter 10
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10. Guidance - experience and opportunity

  • Discerning God's leading for each of us is basic to our discipleship.
  • Most guidance is ordinary and rational, in the context of prayer.
  • We need to be effectively open to new opportunities and leading.

In the context of the broader question of knowing about God and his general purposes in the world, is the personal question of discerning his specific purposes for one's self. It is a very special aspect of Christian discipleship, that we can even dare think in such terms! We need to see ourselves not as passive flotsam and jetsam in the affairs of the world, nor as needing to find our way solely by our own effort and wisdom, but as participants in the plans and purposes of God, with his direction and enabling always being accessible and within reach. We should properly have a sense of contributing to the fulfilment of God's kingdom and future renewal of his creation!

Be connected
The single most important factor for receiving God's guidance is that we need to be in effective relationship with him and in active fellowship with others of his people. As we make faithful choices in small matters, so to a large extent guidance on larger things just "happens". Most guidance is fairly ordinary and rational. Guidance usually happens just one step at a time. Though some decisions such as university courses have implications beyond, there is usually no sense in trying to discern God's detailed purposes for us many years ahead. That is more likely to lead to tunnel vision and a closed mind which precludes effective guidance.

Guidance is a balance: you pray as though everything depends on it and human initiative is irrelevant, but also you take the initiative - without being frenetic - as though the Holy Spirit doesn't exist. God will work in and through your choices.

Some people find that guidance in respect to their vocational progression is very straightforward - one develops interests and gifts/skills and then opportunities arise in line with those, so it is quite obvious what to do. A somewhat zig-zag and totally unpredictable course through life may result, as different things are tried, some successfully, some not. But a measure of guidance is clear at each stage.

Diverse indicators, getting them together
Generally the interaction among developing gifts and interests, personal contacts, opportunities, and prayerful obedience will reveal ways to proceed. However the relationships among those can also be fraught. The opportunities may be qualified by responsibilities, or confused by other possibilities which present themselves. Timing is a key factor in relation to any opportunity. Also, when in a role, there is always the question of which possibilities to pursue, both for the sake of the task in hand, and to discern and develop our own gifts and skills with a view to being ready for further steps in life and vocation.

The following are key signposts in vocational guidance (developed in next chapter):

  1. Motivation, interests, what we are passionate about and what most readily energises us.
  2. Gifts, skills, talents - especially as discerned by those close to us.
  3. Experience, both in relation to skills and interests, also in suffering or adversity.
  4. Opportunity, open and closed doors, circumstances - all relating to timing.

Confirming and supporting these are three more:

  1. People around us, friends, prayer partners, mentors.
  2. Joy and excitement in service (despite the inevitable boring and tedious aspects!).
  3. Developing a vision for where our efforts fit the whole picture of God's purposes in the world, seeing the 'big picture' beyond our sometimes ordinary roles.

The positive attributes of gifts, talents, interests, and experience are obviously the key factors in guidance. However, most of us will have some things in our lives which we regard as hindrances or handicaps. We need to realise that as well as influencing our general direction in guidance, those can in fact become positive attributes used greatly by God in particular circumstances. We need to be on the lookout for such possibilities, aware that this is another way God's values differ from the world's.

The other big decision relevant to vocational guidance is choosing a life partner. Here, timing is a key factor — i.e. need to decide at least tentatively whether to marry early or later, and then need to get to know socially and intellectually enough different members of the opposite sex to have some idea of the kind of person who will be an enduring stimulus and delight for 50+ years. Some of course will choose not to marry, or be denied the opportunity, and both situations have major implications for vocation. This surveying of the field involves developing a lot of self-knowledge too, which is relevant more widely. While marriage is a lifelong commitment, singleness will normally be seen as for the time being. Other comments are in chapter 3.

Always we need to be living in obedience to God's word, to have an open mind beyond that (alert to what may come out of left field) and, in principle, to be flexible and to be open to new possibilities.

Seizing opportunities
We only get one shot at life, so live without hesitation in trying new things. Be an explorer, and don't leave things too late. If God gives you a vision don't be afraid to chase after it, failure is not something to fear because we know that through him all things work together for good. Put it down to experience! Learn from it! Don't spend your life living to regret missed opportunities. Failure is forgivable and can be left behind and forgotten, instead live for the future. Be open to allow God to take you places that you have never been and to do exciting things. Most of us tend to get so comfortable with our lives that we are not able to actually change the way that we live.

God never leads us into something expecting us then to shut down our vocational antennae and stick with it forever no matter what. Christian guidance is often a bit of a zigzag, with each leg taking us to a new vantage point or new opportunity as our gifts and wisdom develop.

It is important to be deliberately alert for opportunities, and be predisposed to take them. "Never miss an opportunity" was the advice given by one of Australia's most illustrious headmasters to his departing students.62 Or as David Bussau, founder of Opportunity International put it: "You miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take. The mistakes you make on the way are redeemable."63 He also made the point that guidance and discerning God's purpose in our lives is not merely passive, we need think of life as a process of creation and active enterprise, not just a process of discovery which might or might not turn up something worthwhile.

Building experience
Part of that open attitude may be seeking life experiences through travel or short-term work away from our home comfort zone. Six months or a year learning to adjust to new challenges, savouring exotic parts of the world, working with mission agencies, or simply on a GAP year placement can do much to open minds and extend horizons. Sometimes such experience will suggest vocational possibilities, more often they will provide a base for greater maturity. Sometimes they can occur between school and university or other study, or they may be later. We do operate in a culture which has many opportunities to gain experience of the world through travel and moving around a backpacker culture. Such activity and experience is valuable, up to a point. But a Christian must be alert to when this becomes an indulgence rather than edifying, and be prepared to settle down and contribute to others in the context of both church and job.

Sometimes in life "what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger"64. Tough experience at a younger age can really mature us as individuals and help us to grow. To a large extent we need to see everything in life as a learning and formative experience, even the negative experiences, rather then getting caught up with wishing we hadn't done something or hadn't wasted our time on something. God is in control of our lives and he knows what we need, and sometimes it is the hardest or toughest experiences in life - perhaps even brought about by our own stupidity - which are the most educative, or which help equip us in the long run to become the person that God wants us to be.65

It is good for Christians to see every problem as an opportunity under God's sovereign guidance. Without problems in our path, we tend not to think about possibilities as thoroughly as we might.

Sometimes we are led in particular directions but the apparent opportunity does not come to fruition. This can be frustrating and perplexing unless one takes a broader view and asks what has been learned in the pursuit of that possibility, and what new vantage point it has led to, perhaps enabling one to see new opportunities hitherto invisible or unknown.

Sometimes too doors are inexplicably or disappointingly closed, when we feel very much called to proceed that way. Such times may be a sign to look elsewhere, or they may be a call to persistent effort to reopen those doors. "No"should not necessarily be seen as the last word on a possibility, though neither should we try God's patience by our obstinance. Persistence should always be accompanied and guided by earnest prayer, and sometimes there will in fact be long periods of frustration and disappointment before God's purposes unfold. Patience can be difficult when we have grown up with the expectation of short-term answers to questions and problems - the "microwave society", when slow cooking is sometimes best. We often need to remind ourselves that God's timescales and patience are vastly greater than ours.

Sometimes our plans - pursued in the context of careful guidance - will fail, in which case we need to see if perhaps some related purpose of God with longer-lasting significance has not been achieved instead. In discerning answers to prayer we need to look beyond those which fulfil our own immediate desires. Never be afraid to fail!

L:ift eyes and expectations
All too often we operate in an entirely worldly and limited framework of vision and expectation. We don't expect the Lord to make openings, to provide funding, to go before us and show us that all situations are clay in his hands, and that having called us he will provide - if only we will step forward in faith and let him. That could mean pushing on some 'closed doors', aiming higher than our natural confidence suggests, and generally proceeding prayerfully on the basis that his love for us is matched by his calling and his provision.

In this connection, from his experience in setting up a significant ministry network while still a teenager, Jono Green (JEG in Preface) says with some feeling that "sometimes it is a great practice to really step out in faith over certain issues in life, even when It doesn't seem likely that they can be achieved. We cannot see any further then the next bend but God has the whole map in front of him and knows where we are headed. Sometimes it can be the persistence of one person which causes a major breakthrough."

This raises the question of personal organization. If we really do take up many of the opportunities which are before us for involvement with people, activities and ministries, we cannot help being stretched and often feeling disorganised. But this should not discourage us unduly as we struggle to fit everything in and still get enough sleep and other recreation. Nevertheless we need to be a bit self-disciplined so that in a week to month perspective we are actually getting the main things done, and making a conscious decision to let go (or diminish the time spent on) what simply will not fit and is clearly of lower priority. Each of us needs to take that objective look at our own situation every now and then, and make clear decisions which reflect our real priorities. Once we have, conscript accountability partners and prayer partners to help us implement that. (But day to day, don't fret if it all feels a bit chaotic!) Also it is easy for us to be impatient, and often God's purposes work themselves out very much more slowly than we might like.

Any Christian needs to keep a clear mind and be ready for some unexpected directions in life. Some who have been quite comfortable and settled in their life but have been told to sell up everything and head down a different direction. This would not be easy at the time, but we need to be ready for that. God's will for our lives will not always be easy and is unlikely to lead to material riches, but once again it is not worldly prosperity that we are called to in this life but rather a life of service to our God. Suffering rather than prosperity is the normal Christian expectation.

Source of guidance
It is very important that guidance is perceived as coming from a loving and intelligent Lord, via the Holy Sprit in the context of faithful prayer, and not primarily by odd tricks or funny coincidences. Since Pentecost, God has promised the enduring presence of his guiding Spirit with every believer, and this continuous closeness must be central to how we understand God's communication of his will. We must avoid our seeking of God's guidance becoming superstitious, like some kind of glorified horoscope. Thoughtful and prayerful application of intelligence plus a lot of patience and sometimes persistence - coupled with advice from those best placed to give it - seems ordinary, but it is mostly very reliable and in accord with the way we are made, and the role of the Holy Spirit in believers. In the context of prayer, God's guidance will often seem common sense.

But be aware of mental fatigue, and try to do any complex mental processing when fresh, not late in a busy day. Decision fatigue is real, and compromises sound decision-making (as well as self-control)

For many major decisions, there is a place for drawing aside from the pressures and distractions of daily life to pray and maybe fast, focusing attention of all aspects of the choice in front of us. On every occasion when Jesus confronted a major trial, he did this - how much more do we need to? We should approach the time in the context of understanding our vocational direction as it has unfolded and our gifts as they have developed, while being supported in all this by others who are praying for us, focused on the same question.

Ch 10 Discussion questions:
How much does common sense come into guidance?
What else is needed and offered?
What have been some significant experiences in your own guidance hitherto?
What are the main decisions you face in the immediate future?
How would you describe yourself and you situation against each of the six key signposts we list?
What about guidance in relation to a life partner? To what extent do you simply get on with developing relationships?
Are you deliberately broadening your life experiences?
Have you experienced problems and closed doors which turned out to be opportunities?
Would you agree with Jono Green's words? Have you experienced similar?
How important do you think is personal organization?
What about prayer and fasting?

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62 Sir James Darling, of Geelong Grammar School, who went on to be Chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Commission.

63 At Melbourne Prayer Breakfast 6/10/06. Opportunity International is a major organization providing small-scale loans to people in third world countries - a very effective means of alleviating poverty.

64 Also James 1:2.

65 Rom 8:28 - everything works for good with those who love God and are called according to his purpose.