J. I. Packer’s essay, “Guidance: How God Loves Us,” in God’s Plans for Us (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001), 89–106, is a really important read.
Halfway through, Packer covers what he has argued thus far:
I have already said that God ordinarily guides his children in their decision-making through Bible-based wisdom.
I have dismissed the idea that guidance is usually or essentially an inner voice telling us facts otherwise unknown and prescribing strange modes of action.
I have criticized the way some Christians wait passively for guidance and “put out a fleece” when perplexed, rather than prayerfully following wisdom’s lead.
He acknowledges that at this point, some readers might be muttering in response.
Some readers may believe that I have played down and thereby dishonored the guiding ministry of the Holy Spirit. One cannot say what I have said in today’s steamy Christian atmosphere without provoking that reaction. So there is need now to discuss the Holy Spirit’s role in guidance in a direct way.
The last thing I want to do is to dishonor, or lead others to dishonor, the Holy Spirit. But the fact must be faced that not all endeavors that seek to honor the Holy Spirit succeed in their purpose. There is such a thing as fanatical delusion, just as there is such a thing as barren intellectualism. Overheated views of life in the Spirit can be as damaging as “flat tire” versions of Christianity that minimize the Spirit’s ministry. This is especially true in relation to guidance.
So, Packer asks, “What does it mean to be ‘led by the Spirit’ in personal decision-making?” The phrase, he points out, is from Romans 8:14 and Galatians 5:18 and speaks not of decision making but of resisting sinful impulses. But, he acknowledges, “the question of what it means to be Spirit-led in choosing courses of action is a proper and important one.”
The Spirit leads by helping us understand the biblical guidelines within which we must keep, the biblical goals at which we must aim, and the biblical models that we should imitate, as well as the bad examples from which we are meant to take warning.
He leads through prayer and others’ advice, giving us wisdom as to how we can best follow biblical teaching.
He leads by giving us the desire for spiritual growth and God’s glory. The result is that spiritual priorities become clearer, and our resources of wisdom and experience for making future decisions increase.
He leads, finally, by making us delight in God’s will so that we find ourselves wanting to do it because we know it is best. Wisdom’s paths will be “ways of pleasantness” (Prov. 3:17). If at first we find we dislike what we see to be God’s will for us, God will change our attitude if we let him. God is not a sadist, directing us to do what we do not want to do so that he can see us suffer. He wants joy for us in every course of action to which he leads us, even those from which we shrink at first and that involve outward unpleasantness.
Packer knows that virtually no Christian would deny what he has written here. But he also knows that some would say this is only “half the story.”
Part of what being Spirit-led means, they would tell us, is that one receives instruction from the Spirit through prophecies and inward revelations such as repeatedly came to godly people in Bible times (see Gen. 22; 2 Chron. 7:12-22; Jer. 32:19; Acts 8:29; 11:28; 13:4; 21:11; 1 Cor. 14:30). They believe this kind of communication to be the fulfillment of God’s promise that “your ears shall hear a word behind you saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left” (Isa. 30:21 RSV). They are sure that some impressions of this kind should be identified as the Spirit-given “word of knowledge” in 1 Corinthians 12:8. They insist that this is divine guidance in its highest and purest form, which Christians should therefore constantly seek. Those who play it down, they would say, thereby show that they have too limited a view of life in the Spirit.
Here I must come clean. I know that this line of thought is sincerely believed by many people who are, I am sure, better Christians than I am. Yet I think it is wrong and harmful, and I shall now argue against it. I choose my words with care, for some of the arguments made against this view are as bad and damaging as is the view itself. The way of wisdom is like walking a tightrope, from which one can fall by overbalancing either to the left or to the right. As, in Richard Baxter’s sharp-sighted phrase, overdoing is undoing, so overreacting is undermining.
He then distinguishes the real issue from what he is not insisting or implying:
The issue here is not whether a person’s life in the Spirit is shallow or deep, as if the further one advances spiritually, the more one will seek and find guidance through prophecies and inward revelations. Nor is the issue whether God has so limited himself that he will never communicate directly with present-day Christians as he did with some saints in biblical times. In my view there is no biblical warrant either for correlating spiritual maturity with direct divine guidance or for denying that God may still directly indicate his will to his servants. The real issue is twofold: what we should expect from God in this regard and what we should do with any invading impressions that come our way.
When Christians feel that God has directly told them to say or do something, Packer says they should face up to the following three facts:
1. If anyone today receives a direct disclosure from God, it will have no canonical significance. It will not become part of the church’s rule of faith and life; nor will the church be under any obligation to acknowledge the disclosure as revelation; nor will anyone merit blame for suspecting that the disclosure was not from God. If the alleged disclosure is a prediction . . . , Moses assures us that there is not even a prima facie case for treating it as from God until it has come true (Deut. 18:21ff.). If the alleged disclosure is a directive (as when a leader claims that God told him to found a hospital, university, mission, or crusade of some kind), any who associate themselves with his project should do so because wisdom tells them that it is needed, realistic, and God-honoring, not because the leader tells them that God directly commanded him (and by implication them) to attempt it.
People who believe they have received direct indications of what God will do or what they should do should refrain in all situations (worship services, board meetings, gatherings of family or friends, preparation of publications, or whatever) from asking others to agree that direct revelation has been given to them, and Christians should greet any such request with resolute silence.
2. Guidance in this particular form is not promised. For it to occur is, as we have said, extraordinary, exceptional, and anomalous. No Scripture leads us to hope or to look for it. Isaiah 30:21, which may seem to point this way, is actually a promise of wise teaching through wise teachers. No one, therefore, who believes that he received a direct revelation at any time should look for this event to recur. The idea that spiritual persons may expect this sort of guidance often or that such experiences are proof of their holiness or of their call and fitness to lead others should be dismissed out of hand.
3. Direct communications from God take the form of impressions, and impressions can come even to the most devoted and prayerful people from such murky sources as wishful thinking, fear, obsessional neurosis, schizophrenia, hormonal imbalance, depression, side effects of medication, and satanic delusion, as well as from God. Impressions need to be suspected before they are sanctioned and tested before they are trusted. Confidence that one’s impressions are God-given is no guarantee that this is really so, even when they persist and grow stronger through long seasons of prayer. Bible-based wisdom must judge them. . . .
Some people conclude that the Holy Spirit never gives specific impressions and that every claim to them must be a delusion. Packer says this is wrong.
Impressions—not revelations of information but focusings of concern—belong to Christian living. When we say we have a “vision” or “burden” about something, we are referring to an impression. When our concern is biblically proper, we are right to regard our impression as a nudge from the Holy Spirit.
Nehemiah speaks of what “God had put into my heart to do for Jerusalem” (Neh. 2:12 RSV), and by prayer, persuasion, and push, Nehemiah got the job done. Paul and Silas “attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them” (Acts 16:7 RSV)—that is, an inner impression restrained them. God, as they soon discovered, was leading them to Greece. Paul’s “mind could not rest” while evangelizing Troas, because Titus had not come (2 Cor. 2:13; mind is “spirit” in the Greek, meaning a mind enlightened by God’s Spirit). So Paul left, construing his restlessness as God prompting him to go in search of Titus rather than continue the Troas mission. These are biblical examples of saints pulled or pressed by God in particular directions. This is an experience that most Christians know.
My point is not that the Spirit of God gives no direct impressions, but rather that impressions must be rigorously tested by biblical wisdom—the corporate wisdom of the believing community as well as personal wisdom. If this is not done, impressions that are rooted in egoism, pride, headstrong unrealism, the fancy that irrationality glorifies God, a sense that some human being is infallible, or similar misconceptions will be allowed to masquerade as Spirit-given. Only impressions verified as biblically appropriate and practically wise should be recognized as from God. People who receive impressions about what they should believe or do should question such impressions until they have been thoroughly tested.
Nor can one be certain even then about one’s impressions. Some impressions seem to be instances of clairvoyance, sanctified for restraint or encouragement (as in recorded cases of Christians feeling constrained to leave trains and planes that later crashed or when C. T. Studd saw in the margin of his Bible the words “China, India, Africa,” the three parts of the world where he subsequently served as a pioneer missionary). There is no certain way to test such impressions. Sometimes one will not be able to tell whether they are a message from God or a human fancy. The correct conclusion to draw is that as we seek to do what by biblical standards best serves God’s glory and the good of others, God will be with us—just that.
The radios of my youth would crackle with atmospherics, making clear reception impossible. All forms of self-centeredness and self-indulgence, from surface-level indiscipline and lawlessness to the subtlety of grandiose elitism or the irreverence of not obeying the guidance one has received already, will act as atmospherics in the heart, making recognition of God’s will harder than it should be and one’s testing of impressions less thorough and exact. But those who are being “led by the Spirit” into humble holiness will also be “led by the Spirit” in evaluating their impressions, and so they will increasingly be able to distinguish the Spirit’s nudges from impure and improper desire. “He . . . teaches the humble his way” (Ps. 25:9 RSV). Blessed, then, we may say, are the pure in heart. They shall know the will of God.