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The story behind the sermon (from John Ortberg)
I have grown to love the theme of God's guidance. This is a chance to help explain the reality of God's presence for many people who hunger for it but don't know how to name it. It's also a chance to try to coach and connect some of the mistaken practices and language that can creep into all our lives.
Dallas Willard's book Hearing God is the best resource on this topic I know, so it's a gift to be able to point people toward that book. The need for guidance and wisdom will always be urgent.
Some of you know I took my wife fly fishing for our 25th anniversary last year. She was thrilled about that. I know nothing about fishing. Unless the fish jumped into the boat and voluntarily sacrificed themselves, I'd be relatively useless. My wife grew up fishing. The wisest piece of advice we got was: don't try doing fly fishing on your own; you need a guide. So we got one.
Our guide was amazing. He knew every inch of every river we went on. He knew when we should go. He knew where we should we go. He knew how to tie the fly. He knew where we ought to cast it. He knew when we ought to pull on the line. He was amazingly patient. We would get excited and start casting all over, and the hooks and lines would get tied up into tiny knots. Those of who you have been fly fishing know about that. He would untie them and untangle them and get us started once again.
The best part was we actually caught fish. Nancy wanted to have a contest between her and me to see who would catch the most fish. I won't tell you how that came out, except to say it was me!
I was thinking afterwards, Wouldn't it be great if you could get a guide for other parts of your life besides fishing? Like if you're dating, wouldn't it be great if you could get a guide to walk you through the dating process? "No, not that one! Date this one!" Or if you get in an argument with your spouse, wouldn't that be a wonderful gift to have a guide with you? Just when you're about to tell them how much they're like their mother, have a guide say, "No, don't go there. Go over here." We make key decisions all the time. Bad ones are so damaging. Wouldn't it be great if we had a reliable expert who could be our guide through all the twists and turns?
The Bible says we do. The writers of Scripture have these remarkable ideas, names, and pictures of him. He is the Redeemer. He is the Creator of everything. He is a Father. He is a Judge who brings justice. He is a Comforter. God is a Guide. In the beginning when he was going to form a people, he came to Abraham, or Abram as he was known then. The text says, "The Lord said to Abram, 'Leave your country, your people, and your father's household, and go to the land I will show you.'" God guided Abraham.
Then when it was time for Israel to leave Egypt, we're told the Lord would go before them as a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night. This was a physical picture of a spiritual promise. In the Book of Proverbs, the writer says, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths."
The most famous psalm talks about this. Psalm 23: "The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul." He knows just what I need. Our God is a Guide. He doesn't leave people on their own. James 1 puts it like this: "Whoever among you lacks wisdom …. " Anybody here ever make a bad decision? You ever needed any wisdom? Anybody need any right now? "Whoever among you lacks wisdom, ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault."
Our God is a guiding God. But of all the facets of the greatness of God, the guidance of God can be the most confusing to people. How do we actually experience it? Some people use the language of divine guidance easily: The Lord told me to do this. God spoke to me about going here. God put this burden on my heart. God showed me this. Then there are other people who love God deeply, who follow God, who learn about God, who honestly simply never find themselves having that experience. They wonder, Am I doing something wrong? Is there some secret I don't know? Am I off-base, or are other people just making stuff up? Some denominations and traditions use that language of guidance all the time. Other ones seriously devoted to God never use that language at all. So that's what we're going to talk about in this message.
We have to learn how to recognize when God is speaking to us.
I want to start by going back to a story in the Old Testament. It's a wonderful story about a little boy named Samuel, and it helps us understand what needs to be learned. "The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days, the word of the Lord was rare." That's an interesting phrase. The text doesn't explain why in some areas the Lord's guidance might be different than in others. But he is a sovereignly wise God. "In those days, the word of the Lord was rare."
Then the Lord called Samuel. Samuel answered, "Here I am." And he ran to Eli and said, "Here I am; you called me." But Eli said, "I did not call; go back and lie down." So he went and lay down. Again the Lord called, "Samuel." And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, "Here I am; you called me." "My son," Eli said, "I did not call; go back and lie down." Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel a third time, and Samuel got up, and went to Eli and said, "Here I am; you called me." Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, "Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, 'Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.'"
And that little boy, Samuel, did. This is the beginning of his relationship with God. Here is what I want to point out right now. God was speaking to Samuel in this story. Samuel knew he was being addressed. He did not know it was God. He actually had to learn how to recognize God was speaking to him. In other words, it's possible for God to speak to someone and for that person to know something is going on, but they don't know it's God.
Let's apply this to you and me for a minute. What does it mean to communicate with someone? This is an important subject. It's quite a miraculous thing we're able to do. We take it for granted. People can communicate. It's essential to community, to communing.
Communication is simply guiding somebody else's thoughts. Dallas Willard writes about this in the best book I know about guidance and God's will for your life: Hearing God. When someone is communicating with you, all they're doing is causing you to think certain thoughts you would not otherwise be thinking. Those thoughts are going on in your head. They're your thoughts, but somebody else is prompting them. That's communication.
Because we're finite creatures, we have to use finite means to guide each other's thoughts. So we make sounds. I'm doing that right now, and because you're sitting here for this talk, you are having thoughts you would not otherwise be having, right? Thoughts like, When will this be over? We make sounds, or we write symbols down on paper. Then when people look at those symbols, they prompt thoughts. That is what it means to read.
Because we're finite creatures, we have to use finite means to guide each other's thoughts. But God is infinite, and among other things, this means God can guide your thoughts directly. He doesn't have to use sounds. He doesn't have to use symbols. He can; he doesn't have to. He has direct access to your mind. He can simply guide a thought without using any other means at all.
But now part of what this means is it's possible for God to guide a thought in my mind, but I may not know it's God doing that. Something like this is what happened to little Samuel. He didn't know. Eli helped him with this. This is what might be called the ministry of Eli—helping someone to discern when God may be speaking or guiding in their life.
Prayer is not just me talking with God. If God wants to, God can also talk back. To commune, to be in community, involves communication. Jesus says about his people: "When he"—the Good Shepherd—"has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice." To have a personal relationship with God means I must be open to the possibility that the Spirit of God is prompting me, guiding me.
For example, one night Nancy was sleeping. I had woken up overwhelmed by how much I loved this person. I was looking at her face while she was asleep. It was like when kids are sleeping, you can look at them, and in the peacefulness of their sleep, you're filled with love, and you can't imagine how you could ever be mad at them. When they're awake, you can imagine. But when they're sleeping, in that unguarded moment, you get this heart of love. I was having that experience looking at the face of the person I'm married to. Then the thought that came next was, John, that sense you have of being filled with love for Nancy is a tiny echo of what is in my heart. I look at you while you're sleeping, and my heart for you is a heart of love. It was an amazing thing to think God could love me like that.
Now, can I prove that was the voice of God? No. None of us is infallible about this. But it's in line with what the Scriptures say: "God is love." Paul says this is Romans 8:16: "The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God." This means something. It happened for Paul.
Last week I was going for a run on a beach, and I was talking with God. I had been discouraged about some things, and I was asking for encouragement. This was before six o'clock in the morning, so there was nobody on the beach. I was running on it, and then coming toward me I saw one other guy—this big, old guy, bald as he could be, just swimming trunks on, long white beard. He looked like Santa Claus on summer vacation. He headed right toward me. I was going to give him a little wave to say hi, but he shook his head and stuck his hand way out. He wanted a high five. So I gave him a high five.
He had all this attitude, giving me this solemn nod like, I'm glad you're alive. You and me on the beach. Then came this thought: John, that is a little picture of my heart for you. I know all about your life. I know all about your problems, and I'm not neutral about you. I'm glad you're alive.
Can I prove that thought was from God? No. But it helps me understand his heart. Think about God this week saying to you: I'm glad you're alive. I'm right there with you.
Often the Spirit will prompt us with ideas. A thought will come to write somebody a note or encourage somebody who feels alone or serve somebody who is in need or confront somebody who is going down a wrong path. I talked to somebody this week whose life got altered because someone in this church invited her out to eat when she were visiting here. It ended up altering the trajectory of her life.
When those thoughts come, the main thing is not to say, "Hey, God is speaking to me." What is important is that you actually do what the prompting is. It may be that you have been obeying those kinds of thoughts and serving God your whole life long, while never identifying that that is God's voice. The main issue is not that you say it's God's voice. The main issue is that you actually respond with obedience. That is the adventure, and that is our guiding God.
I want to look at some of the myths that keep us from experiencing God's guidance—some of the misguided notions that keep us from an interactive adventure in being led by the Spirit.
Myth 1: God will only speak and give guidance to spiritual giants.
We think God's guidance is just for prophets or missionaries or professionals. The story that shows how misguided this myth is comes from the Old Testament Book of Numbers. There was a prophet of God named Balaam. The enemy of Israel, Midian, wanted to use Balaam to speak against Israel. So he summoned Balaam. Balaam is riding a donkey to go to Midian. God sends an angel to turn Balaam back to Israel. On the road, the donkey sees the angel of God blocking their path. Balaam doesn't see it. So the donkey turns aside. Balaam beats the donkey to get her back on the road. This happens three times. This is in the Bible, Numbers 22:
Then the Lord opened the donkey's mouth, and she said to Balaam, "What have I done to you to make you beat me three times?" Balaam answered the donkey, "You have made a fool of me. If I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now." The donkey said to Balaam, "Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?" "No," he said.
The donkey is reasoning with Balaam, not just speaking to him. He's trying to appeal to logic: "Have I ever done this?" "Well, you have a good point now that you're saying it." God is speaking through a donkey. God can speak through anybody he chooses. He can speak through a donkey if he wants to. It's not about spiritual greatness and maturity. God can speak to a little boy. He can do whatever he wants to.
Myth 2: If I'm always in tune with God, he will guide all my decisions, and I will never have to make any decisions on my own.
It's a myth. Think about it as a parent. Would it be a good thing if a parent could make every decision for a child's whole life? If you're a parent, would you like it if for your whole child's life you could say, "Wear these clothes. Take this class. Date this person. Choose this major. Buy this house. Enter this job. Marry this person." Would you like that? The correct answer would be no. Because what would that do for their development? If I'm a parent, my main goal for my child isn't any particular outcome or event. My main goal is that he or she become a good person, a person of wisdom and courage and grace and mercy and love and truth.
Becoming a good person requires you to think things out, exercise judgment, sometimes make difficult choices in the face of uncertainty, and then take accountability and learn. That process is indispensable for the formation of a human being, and that means that many times in your life when you pray and ask for guidance, God's response is going to be: You choose. Because you'll never grow if you don't do that.
Sometimes the reality is, I don't really want guidance. What I want is to be spared the anxiety that goes with freedom and choosing and being responsible. God is not a convenient escape from the anxiety of choice and responsibility. God will not let you use him in that way. Part of God's will for your life is that you grow broad shoulders. God wants broad-shouldered sons and daughters. We want to offload responsibility.
A CEO has taken on a new job, and the outgoing CEO says to him, "Sometimes you'll make wrong choices. You will. You'll mess up. When that happens, I have prepared three envelopes for you. I left them in the top drawer of the desk. The first time it happens, open #1 and so forth." So for awhile everything goes fine, and then the CEO makes his first mistake, goes to the drawer, opens up envelope #1, and the message reads, "Blame me." So he does: "This is the old CEO's fault. He made these mistakes. I inherited these problems." Everybody says, "Okay." It works out pretty well.
Things go fine for awhile, and then he makes his second mistake, so he opens up envelope #2. This time he reads, "Blame the board." And he does: "It's the board's fault. The board has been a mess. I inherited them. They're the problem." Everybody says, "Okay, that makes sense."
Things go fine for awhile, and then he makes his third mistake, so he opens up envelope #3, and the message he reads is, "Prepare three envelopes."
There is no way to learn except by choosing. No way to choose except by risking. No way to risk without failing sometimes. No way to fail without feeling pain. God does not offer guidance as a method of risk avoidance. God's guidance is not about you reducing your anxiety in the face of choice. It's about you becoming the person God intended you to be. That means very often God will say to you: You choose. You be wise, get good counsel. I'll be in all of that mix.
Myth 3: God's will is an inner, subjective, individualistic trump card I can use to get my way.
I went to a Christian college, and the form this most often took was when somebody—usually a guy—would say to somebody—usually a girl—"God told me you're the person I'm meant to marry." The best response to this is, "You tell God to tell me, and as soon as he does, I'll get back to you."
All too often churches and church people can wallpaper over human difficulties with a veneer of pseudo-spiritual language. A lot of you have seen this before. A pastor at a church will leave it. Maybe they got in trouble. Of course it's not always appropriate to share the details of that. Or maybe they're leaving to go to a larger church with more prestige and a higher salary. But they will never say, "I'm leaving to go to a bigger church with more prestige and a higher salary." What they'll say is, "I got … called. It's a funny thing. I don't want to go to that bigger church with more prestige and a higher salary. Personally, I'd rather stay here with you, but God called me, so what can you do?"
A kid comes into a house. He has a dead rat in his hand and doesn't notice that his mom is talking with the pastor of their church. He says, "Mom, you'll never guess what! I was out behind the garage. There was this rat. I picked up a rock and threw it, and it hit the rat and it just laid there. So I went over and kicked it, and then I jumped up and down on it. Then I picked it up, and I threw it against the garage as hard as I could. I picked it up, and I threw it again." Then he sees his mom is there with the pastor, and if looks could kill, he'd be a dead guy. He holds the rat up by the tail and says, "Then the dear Lord called him home."
We get so goofy around this language of "calling" to bail ourselves out. Sometimes we try to make ourselves look more spiritual, and we're just being more carnal. We add to the normal human problems of greed or whatever else we're after a veneer of hypocrisy: "The Lord called me to … " Let's not be that kind of people. Let's be honest and human.
As a general rule, if you think an idea came from God, if you hope and pray, listen, get wise counsel, and believe an idea came from God, don't tell other people that to get them to do what you want them to do. As a general rule, if an idea really is from God, it will be a good idea. The goodness of the idea alone will be enough to convince other people. You don't have to try to hype it up.
I was at another church in a worship planning team meeting, and the worship leader had a plan for a service. It was not a good order of service, and it wasn't going to work. We told him that. His response to me was, "But the Lord gave me this worship order." It wasn't, "Let's talk about the pros and cons of it and get wisdom and see if it would work." He said, "The Lord gave me this." We said, "No, the Lord does much better work than that. It didn't happen that way." God generally speaks in and through community. You don't get to use "God told me" to trump the wisdom of community.
In Acts 13, the whole church is gathered for prayer and worship and fasting. God told them, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." In Richard Foster's book about the celebration of discipline, guidance is listed not as an individualistic enterprise, but as a corporate discipline. God guides us together. That is a wonderful part of our heritage, of our legacy as a church, as a people. It's not about any one person, individual, or superstar. It's through community, wise women and men together speaking into each other's lives.
Myth 4: There is nothing anyone can do to be guided by God.
The Prophet Elijah was discouraged and needed guidance at one time in his life. The Lord led him to a place alone for 40 days. He was on a mountain, and some spectacular things happened. A great and powerful wind came down, but the text says the Lord was not in the wind. Then this dramatic earthquake. The text says the Lord was not in the earthquake. Then a fire. The text says the Lord was not in the fire. Elijah had to wait and wait and wait, and finally after the fire was a still, small voice. There was the Lord. Not the big, spectacular, dramatic special effects, but a still small voice.
What is my role in finding God's guidance? Listening. Of course reading Scripture is a primary way we listen to God. The Holy Spirit never leads us in a direction contrary to the teachings of Scripture. When you wonder, How do I know if a prompting is of God? part of what to recognize is that God's guidance will never be in contradiction to the teaching of Scripture. Sometimes you hear this: "God must want me to go down this road," because that person wants to go down that road, but it's in violation of the teaching of Scripture. God never contradicts himself.
The promptings of the Spirit are generally in line with the gifts the Spirit gives. If somebody says, "I want to sing in the choir," but they have a terrible voice, that is probably not the Spirit leading them. The Spirit generally leads people in a direction of servanthood. If you find an idea, and it's really all about your fulfillment and not about serving, there is good reason to question.
One big key is when you think the Spirit is prompting, when it is consistent with the Scriptures, when it's consistent with the fruit of the Spirit, when it moves you in the direction of servanthood, be relentless about saying yes and obeying. Cultivate this gear.
When we were going fly fishing, we wanted to go right to the river. The guide said we weren't ready. He said we had to go to another spot to practice casting first. I didn't want to practice casting. I didn't want to waste time. I wanted to catch fish. How hard can it be to cast? You just make the fly go wherever you want the fly to go. It turns out, casting is not as easy as it looks. The only thing I hooked that first session was Nancy. Part of following a guide is trust. A wise guide will sometimes take you where you did not want to go.
I was with a good friend earlier this week, and I thought of a relational problem I was having with another person, some behavior on my part that I am not proud of at all. This thought came, Tell it to my friend. Just confess it. That was consistent with the Scriptures: "Confess your sins to each other." But my immediate thought was, I don't want to tell him. It's none of his business. It would be embarrassing to me. Then there was this still, small voice: Tell him. So I had to do it. It was so healing. Once I did it, I thought, Why would I not do this? It opened up things for him to tell me about.
Cultivate that gear, that muscle inside where when you think you're on a Spirit-guided adventure, you say, Yes, I'll do it, God. Speak, your servant listens.
Myth 5: Being guided by the Spirit is a myth.
It's a myth that being guided by the Spirit is an optional and private matter. The truth is, to be led and guided by the Spirit isn't about your personal spiritual experience. The Spirit was sent by Jesus. To have a relationship with Jesus means to be indwelt by the Spirit. It's about being used by God in his work in redeeming the world. Paul said, "And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city, the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me." Imagine if Paul had said no. When you say yes to being guided by the Spirit, somebody else gets blessed. Jesus lived his life under the guidance of the Spirit.
Henri Nouwen was a priest and a brilliant teacher at places like Harvard and Yale. He spent the last decade of his life living in a community with severely challenged people, people with emotional, mental, physical disabilities. He felt guided by God. In ways, it became enormously healing to him and then he blessed a whole lot of folks in what he said and wrote.
One time there was a guy in his community named Trevor, a man with severe mental and emotional challenges who was sent to a psychiatric facility for evaluation. Henri wanted to visit him, so he called the hospital to arrange a visit. When the authorities found out Henri Nouwen was coming, they asked him, "Could we have a lunch in the golden room and invite doctors, clergy people, and PhDs to meet you?" Henri said, "All right."
He showed up, and they took him to where the luncheon would be, but Trevor was not there. Henri said, "Where is Trevor?" He was told, "Trevor cannot come to lunch. Patients and staff are not allowed to have lunch together. Plus, no patient has ever had lunch in the golden room." That was a key moment. The default mode here is usually to say, "Well, okay. You're in charge."
By nature, Henri Nouwen was not a confrontational person. He was a meek man. But being guided by the Spirit is this constant adventure, and here is the thought that came into Henri's mind: Include Trevor. Community is about inclusion. Trevor ought to be here. Then Henri had to choose. Here is what happens. It will happen to you. It will happen this week. Do I respond? Do I say yes? All right, Spirit.
Henri said, "But the whole purpose of my coming was to have lunch with Trevor. If Trevor is not allowed to attend the lunch, I will not attend either." A way was found for Trevor to attend the lunch. Nouwen writes about this. Here is what is interesting. Everybody thought they were there to hear Henri Nouwen. Of course they're excited this great man was going to be with them, and people, as people do, would posture and jostle for who could sit next to him. Who could be close to him? It would be cool to be able to say to somebody, "I said this to Henri Nouwen last week." So all that was going on.
At one point Henri was talking to the person on his right, and he didn't notice that Trevor stood to his feet and lifted up his glass of Coca-Cola. Trevor said, "A toast. I will now offer a toast." Everybody in the room got nervous. What was he going to do? Then Trevor, this deeply challenged man in a room full of PhDs and doctors, started singing, "If you're happy and you know it, raise your glass. If you're happy and you know it, raise your glass … "
Nobody knew what to do. It was awkward. Here was this man with a level of challenge and brokenness they could only imagine. He was beaming. He was thrilled to be there. So they started to sing, softly at first and then louder and louder until doctors and PhDs and clergymen and Henri Nouwen were all almost shouting, "If you're happy, and you know it, raise your glass."
Henri went on to give a talk, but the moment everybody remembered, the moment God spoke most clearly to that room and touched hearts with a memory that would last as long as they lived, was through the person they all would have said was the least likely person to speak for God. God spoke through Trevor.
God still speaks. The Spirit still guides. The world still gets changed. People still get blessed. God will do it. The Spirit will do it through you. If you're a Jesus follower, the Spirit is in you, and that is part of your adventure. Our God, the redeeming, creating, judging, comforting Father, is a guiding God. He'll do it for you. Whatever area of your life it is where you need wisdom, where you need guidance, just ask God.
To see an outline of Ortberg's sermon, click here.
To listen to Ortberg's sermon, click here.
For your reflection:
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? _____________________________
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Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? _______________________
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? ______________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ___________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see Plagiarism, Schmagiarism and Stolen Goods: Tempted to Plagiarize.
John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.