I imagined this would be easy. Or at a minimum, certainly easier. Choosing to follow Jesus should undoubtedly bring many new difficulties, but I thought making decisions would not be one of them. My simplistic logic went something like this: I have a personal relationship with God, I have access to His plan for my life, and therefore this plan must be clearly obtainable through prayer.
This assumption did not stem from any real biblical analysis on my part, but rather through ill-fated observations of fellow Christians. It began quite hopeful though, the techniques I heard sounded supernatural and exciting. Phrases like ‘God called me’ and ‘God opened a door for me’ and even the occasional, ‘God told me’ offered glimpses of a mythical parallel universe. A place where normal human senses were set aside as quaint and elementary, eagerly replaced with supernatural impressions. This is incredible, I thought, hoping I was no longer constrained by the inadequacies of my mortal decision making powers.
From what I observed, the goal was to quiet my mind and emotions down to such a level that I could hear directly from God. Bound the scattered thoughts and impulsive desires, lock them away, and allow the Lord unfettered access to my soul. I was told that if I could attain this level of momentary detachment, a message was awaiting me on the other side. A Christian nirvana of sorts.
The first real attempt came while attending a missionary training school in Honduras. After a lesson from one of the leaders, we were asked to gather into small prayer groups. Unlike the normal prayer I was familiar with, we were instructed to clear our minds and listen for a message from God. Specifically, we were to listen for a communication regarding our upcoming research trip. What should we prepare for, what did God want to accomplish, what might we encounter? I closed my eyes.
Difficulties quickly arose. I found it eerily similar to the old trick of telling someone not to think about the color red. Of course, as soon as the request is uttered, it is categorically impossible to imagine anything but the color red. You try to think of a car instead, but annoyingly, it is a red car. I tried another technique. Perhaps if I pictured nothingness it would help. But what does nothingness look like? I assumed it was black, so I tried to picture a vast, unending blackness. This worked momentarily, until I realized when I closed my eyes it wasn’t truly black, but rather a very dark red with twinkling flecks of grey. While fascinating, I was thinking far more about not thinking than if I had just gone for a quiet walk.
The next effort seemed to yield more fruit. Instead of draining my mind of all attention, I thought it better to perhaps encourage thoughts, but set up firm boundaries. Rather than shooting the horse or letting it trample the entire range, I set up a small corral for it to explore. Contemplating whether I could wake board behind the missionary boat was not allowed, but letting my imagination wander through the upcoming trip was perfectly acceptable. In this I created, at least it seemed so, a sort of space for God to work. I had sketched the background hues, now it was his turn to paint the story.
At this point I didn’t really care what it was. I just didn’t want to be the one guy in the group who had nothing spiritual sounding to say when we were asked to share what God told us. Finally something came. I can’t recall if it was an image or a word, or for that matter, an image of a word. But it was the clearest thing that came to mind. The trip was going to be dangerous. I felt God telling me that we were going to experience opposition and difficulties. This brought much relief. First, I liked the idea of a little adventure, and second, it sounded profound. Soon the prayer session wrapped up and people began sharing their impressions.
I grew anxious. These well meaning Christians failed to include a few key pieces in their instructions. Like, for example, how was I to determine if my imagination was properly constrained? Was that word or image that just entered my mind truly from the Lord or merely the lingering fingerprints of human thought? What if I tell the group my impression and it never comes to pass? Not only would I look like an idiot and lose all Christian street cred, this would certainly cast a pallor over my entire connection with the Lord.
A week or so later my message from the Lord was soon tested. We stuffed our packs and headed to the Mosquito Coast. Soaked in DEET and missionary zeal, we stepped off the ferry in La Ceiba, a port town on the northern edge of Honduras. By this time I had mostly forgotten the personal prophecy I’d sensed in our prayer meeting. Yet had it been at the forefront of my mind, the conclusion would have been the same.
Nothing. No danger, no aggression, not even a periodic, good natured Latin American hassle. Lining up all my other travels throughout Latin America, the insane border crossings, the mind numbing bureaucracy, the distasteful police interactions, this 2 week trip stands out as remarkable only in its blatant normalcy. In fact, the most memorable encounters during the trip occurred when the locals mistook me for a popular Mexican soap opera star.
In the years to come, this event, and others in a similar vein spawned growing doubts. Doubts about what we hear from the Lord, and even more, doubts about what God truly wants us to hear. At first glance, I imagined these two questions as simply two ways to describe the same thing. But I don’t think it is. The first makes an assumption, an assumption God is constantly articulating His plan and desire for our specific situation. And with this in mind, we must simply learn how to tap into this stream. Many Christians, I am convinced, blithely accept this assumption without the briefest consideration. Of course, they will tell you, God is constantly trying to talk to us. Just listen! they exclaim with spiritual exasperation.
But really, does this make sense? Setting aside the far greater question of whether it rests upon biblical foundations, does it seam like the way God would arrange things? If we assume God’s grand goal is to glorify Himself through the abundance of His gracious love, would this arrangement accomplish His mission? I don’t see how. Imagine for a moment, if God clearly communicated his desired plan for every situation. A simple, ‘do this, but don’t do that’. A’ yes or no’, a ‘go or wait’, a ‘marry her, but not her’. Even if we executed this with the faith of Elijah, it would bring little glory to God. Yes, we could offer Him our obedience, but the satisfaction is thin when the teacher whispers every answer in your ear.
Or consider for example, two employees. The first is given complete and unabated access to the boss. Every time a question comes to mind, he dutifully brings it to his boss and waits for the clear answer. However, because this access is so readily available, no other resources are deemed necessary. The second employee is granted only periodic communication. But instead he is encouraged to study the boss deeply. Learn what makes him happy, see what provokes him to anger, read his published articles, ask other employees what pleases him. Questions often arrive, yet when confronted with a question, his bosses door is often closed. Forced to make a decision on his own, the choice instead depends on the careful study of his boss’s character.
A year later, the boss is in a terrible car wreck and must choose one of them as his successor. Which would he choose? Of course the analogy has its shortcomings, God will never find Himself in a car accident. But the principal is clear enough. If God’s supernatural revelation of His plan was the norm, our souls would remain in a state of perpetual immaturity. Like the indecisive college student who flounders to make a commitment because his parents never granted any freedom in high school.
This discovery, however true, did not bring universal applause in my heart. Though perhaps a validation of the more logical side of my brain, it also brought a prick of disappointment. As a Christian, so much of our faith asks us to acquiesce the wild and exciting to the hands of the secular world. No more raucous parties, no more drunken escapades, and now this? This last vestige of excitement, this supernatural hearing from the Lord, we don’t get this either?
But it is a lie. A lie told by Satan to keep us from the Father. And what better way to stretch the distance between our Lord and his children than to convince us we are already very close. Convince us that when we hear these murmurings in our minds, we have finally arrived at the pinnacle of our communication with Him. Yet all the while, God cries in exasperation ‘how could you have settled for so little?’
Here lies the irony. By restricting His communication of a specific plan for our lives, He creates a landscape with infinitely more room for us to become Christ like. Because if what the bible teaches is true, and God does not regularly reveal His plan, we must quite pleading for directives, but rather engage our gracious freedom to choose. And if we are free to choose, then we also must dig into the motives, idols and desires lying beneath those choices. It is within this excavation that we draw closest to God. Studying our flesh, so that we know what to walk away from, and studying Christ, so we know what to walk towards.
None of this is to say the Holy Spirit does not work through prophecy, supernatural impressions, opening and closing of doors, emotions or knowledge or the thousand other ways He guides us. It is merely to point out that the Holy Spirit very rarely uses any of these to guide our purposed decisions. Here, I am drawing a line between dear Lord, whom should I marry, should I take this new job, etc? and those situations where unprovoked, God interrupts our normal thoughts and emotions with a supernatural revelation. Therefore, it is more a question of the approach to a decision than the final decision itself. The bible does not call us to regularly ask God to make his plan clear to us, but it clearly tells us God may on rare occasion, tell us on His own volition.
Marriage. Here is where it gets rowdy. And personal. Second to your decision to follow Jesus, no other decision will have a greater impact on our life. If there was any area where we desperately seek God’s guidance, it is here. In my life as well, more than any other decision, marriage has forced me to confront my view of choices. We must tread carefully here though, at first glance it can sound terribly unromantic.
Originally, I approached this question like many Christians would, praying for God to reveal His divine will for who I ought marry. Because of the rather severe nature of the consequences I prayed with an unprecedented fervor. Pining for a word from the Lord, I even prayed that if I am dating the wrong person, please turn her heart away from me. This didn’t work. Nothing worked. To my nearly unbearable frustration, I heard absolutely nothing. Or more accurate, I heard everything. One moment I thought I felt a strong impression from God whispering yes. In retrospect it was little more than emotions, but in the desperate throes of indecisiveness, it felt sufficiently real. Yet even this conviction was fleeting. Upon awaking the next day a very opposite sentiment stumbled into my soul. No no, you ought not marry her. And so went the menagerie of neurotic emotions.
This is not to say I solely depended on this. I also put tremendous weight on my rational, logical analysis of a relationship, weighing the pros and cons, looking for the most sensible answer. But this failed as well. There were too many factors for my brain to hold at once. I never could come to a firm conviction. This was utterly maddening to me, I felt like I was being faithful to God, yet couldn’t make a Godly decision.
Something finally changed. Several wise friends and family members brought to my attention the key that blew a hole through all of the clutter and fog. It was almost annoyingly simple: ‘Make a decision’, they told me. Do not just sit there in comatose contemplation, man up and make a choice. This evolved into a mantra that I reminded myself often. ‘Men make decisions, make a decision.’ This is not to say that women do not make decisions, but merely that I am a man, and well, that was the line that stuck.
Oddly, this revelation did not occur within a relationship, but rather during a time of singleness. As if God was saying look, little punk, you better figure this out before messing up the next opportunity I give you. This worked, even outside the confines of a relationship, because it really didn’t depend on a view towards a specific woman, but rather how I believed God viewed all of my decisions.
To this day, I’ve never received a single communication from the Lord regarding who I should marry. Yes, yes, this can sound terribly unromantic to Katie, my wife. The inner romeo pines for a dramatic story of God whispering in my heart the name of who I ought marry. A saccharine sweet story from the Lord, worthy of a morning feature on the local Christian radio station.
But this is all terribly backward. The romeo version isn’t romantic in the least, in fact, it offers a horrific combination of selfishness and delusion. Because unless you have a perfect track record of interpreting your supposed impressions from the Lord, your confusing romance with flippant emotions that are nothing more than a broken crystal ball.
Of course, exceptions do exist. Some Christians hear audible, prophetic words from the Lord on who to marry. But it is exceptionally rare and those of us writing or reading this essay are neither exceptional or rare.
Yet hope remains. We can follow a biblical approach and still retain a beautiful romance. We can say, ‘I’ve diligently worked to let the scriptures and Holy Spirit redeem my mind and values and emotions and desire. The Holy Spirit has opened my eyes to seek and cherish what God seeks and cherishes. And because of this, I am absolutely free to choose who I desire the most. God has redeemed and purified my desires, and with these, I choose you. The more I purify my desires, the more I want you. And I trust that my choice of who I decide to marry is deeply pleasing to the Lord, and perfectly aligned with His will.’ And this, I believe, is far more romantic.