Some time ago, author and educator Parker Palmer was offered the opportunity to become a college president. He visited the school, where he met with faculty, students, administrators, and trustees. Before leaving, he was told that he would probably be offered the position. However, Palmer, a Quaker, was not completely certain about accepting the role. In keeping with his Quaker tradition, Palmer called on half a dozen friends to meet with him as a “clearance committee.” The group refrained from giving advice. Instead, they asked honest, open-ended questions in order to help Palmer himself to discern the right path.
Most of the first questions were routine and easy. But then one person asked, “What would you like most about being a president?”
Palmer answered with a volley of negatives: “I would not like having to give up my writing and teaching. I would not like the politics of the presidency, never knowing who your real friends are. I would not like having to glad-hand people that I do not respect simply because they have money.”
Gently, but firmly, the questioner interrupted, “May I remind you that I asked you what you would most like?”
Compelled to give an honest answer, Palmer found himself appalled at the words that came out of his mouth. “Well,” he said in a quiet voice, “I guess what I’d like most is getting my picture in the paper with the word president under it.”
Palmer recalls that although his answer was laughable, not one of those present laughed. Rather, they settled into a long, serious silence, which made Palmer extremely uncomfortable. Finally, his questioner broke the impasse. “Parker,” he said, “can you think of an easier way to get your picture in the paper?”
With that, everyone broke out in laughter. The clearance committee ended, and Palmer called the school to withdraw his name from consideration. “Had I taken that job,” he said later, “it would have been very bad for me and a disaster for the school.”
Seeking God’s guidance is a vital spiritual discipline. Without it, people can end up in unfocused pursuits, unhappy relationships, and unfulfilled lives. That may be why the psalmist prayed, “Teach me to do your will, / for you are my God; / may your good Spirit / lead me on level ground” (Psalm 143:10).
Following are some time-proven, effective ways to discern God’s guidance.
Jesus lived a God-directed life, the basis of which was fervent prayer. The Gospels consistently report Jesus praying regularly. Jesus prayed in the morning: “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (Mark 1:35). He prayed in the evening: “Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God” (Luke 6:12).
Henry Edward Manning, a nineteenth century clergyman, wisely observed, “It is prayer, meditation, and converse with God that refreshes, restores, and renews the temper of our minds, at all times, under all trials, after all conflicts with the world. By this contact with the world unseen we receive continual accesses of strength. Without this healing and refreshing of spirit, duties grow to be burdens, the vents of life chafe our tempers, . . . lower the tone of our minds, and we become fretful, irritable, and impatient.”
God guides through uncertainty and difficulty. Tense times in our lives should not be construed as unproductive and infertile. They may, in fact, be the precise moments when God is most able to guide us. Human extremities become God’s opportunities. Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God promised, “ ‘I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, / along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; / I will turn the darkness into light before them / and make the rough places smooth’ ” (Isaiah 42:16).
This was precisely the experience of singer Johnny Cash during a dark, despondent time in his life. His drug addiction was causing him enormous problems personally and professionally. Cash decided to end his life by driving out to a complex of caves near Chattanooga, Tennessee. He entered Nickajack Cave, which wound under the earth for miles. He walked and then crawled for hours, until his flashlight finally burned out. “I lay down and gave up,” he remembers thinking. He planned to “just lie here and die.”
But as he waited to die, he began to sense God’s presence. “I felt something—that love, the warm presence of God that I knew as a boy. I understood that I wasn’t going to die, that there were still things I had to do.” He heard God instruct him to “get up and go.” Although he didn’t know the way out, Cash realized that if he followed the movement of the air, it could lead him to an exit point. When he emerged from the dark cave, “everything was beautiful and good.” After that divine encounter, Cash regained sobriety and self-control over his life.
The Bible frequently reminds us to be silent before God: “ ‘Be still, and know that I am God’ ” (Psalm 46:10); “search your hearts and be silent” (Psalm 4:4); “ ‘Be still before the Lord’ ” (Zechariah 2:13). In his book The Other Side of Silence, Morton Kelsey defines quiet meditation as “the art of letting down the barrier that separates our rational consciousness from the depth of our souls.” He also notes that “silence unbinds a person from ordinary perceptions and attitudes and offers a fresh look at life and reality.”
So any time you are troubled, or whenever the path is unclear, take some time for silent meditation, for it is in silence that you will discern God’s “gentle whisper” (1 Kings 19:12).
Consider the example of one woman who heads for her sacred space each morning after taking her children to school. “It’s the place where I go to center myself,” she says of a routine she had begun five years earlier. She spends time in silence and concludes by asking God to “send me someone to love today.” She adds, “I think everybody needs a place where they can be still. We are all very busy. It changes your perspective on the day to have this time of silence.”
God’s guidance often emerges when we take a risk and step out in faith. After living in New York for two years, a woman realized she was lonely for friends. When she moved from her native Kansas City to New York, her new job was satisfying, but her life was incomplete without the kind of close friends she’d had in Kansas City. She told herself, “This time next year, I’ll have a circle of friends like the one I left behind.”
A few days later, she received a mass e-mail announcing that peace discussion groups were forming in homes around the country. She clicked on the New York City link and wrote to a stranger, “What part of the city do you live in?” A woman named Linda replied. Amazingly, she lived just across the street! The two made a date for coffee and are now good friends. That woman was well on her way to establishing a new circle of friends. It began when she took a risk and stepped out in faith.
All of us come into contact with teachers. They may be called ministers, priests, elders, deacons, rabbis, Christian educators, counselors, or therapists. Pay close attention to them, because they are often the source of spiritual unfolding and divine guidance.
The biblical book of Acts reports that the early apostles were spared death because a teacher named Gamaliel intervened on their behalf (see Acts 5:33, 34). The high priest had forbidden them to preach about Jesus. They refused to obey and were arrested. During their questioning by the Sanhedrin (the top Jewish legislative and judicial body of the time), Peter refused to back away from his message, saying, “ ‘We must obey God rather than men!’ ” (Acts 5:29).
The members of the Sanhedrin were furious and wanted to put the apostles to death, but Gamaliel, a highly revered teacher of the law, cautioned them, saying, “ ‘Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God’ ” (verses 38, 39). His words persuaded the Sanhedrin, and the apostles were released.
So any time the way is not clear to you, talk with your pastor or other spiritual leader. Doing so can provide you with a new perspective.
Finally, it’s always helpful to remind yourself that at any given time, you may not be sure of God’s specific will, but His presence with you is certain. That reality can give you the motivation to patiently wait for greater clarity and insight.