Bethany House Publishers
God's Will ... A Map or a Process?
Lake Burntside. Virgin pines line the rocky outcroppings of its shores, their rugged appearance softened by an occasional sandy beach. Loons cry back and forth every hour of the day, their laughter cackling across the water as they take flight. For those who listen carefully, at night the thin howl of a wolf might rise toward the pitch-black heavens where stars shine undimmed by city lights.
Lake Burntside is our home away from home—my husband, Brian, and I even honeymooned there. The lake is huge, 74 miles of shoreline and at least 125 islands. Nestled in at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), the north arm of the lake houses a few secluded cabins, a YMCA camp for teens, and one for families. We've served as volunteer staff for several years at the family camp, leading voyager canoe paddles, adult blueberry expeditions through national forest trails, and canoe trips through winding rivers. We're experienced canoeists, breezing through portages in one trip. Brian, who grew up on a lake, often skippers the camp's pontoon boat.
A couple of years ago at the family camp, Brian and I arranged activities for a young woman with special needs. Because she couldn't canoe, we chose a cloudy but dry morning to offer her a pontoon boat tour of the lake.
Boats and water are always dangerous, so we planned for safety. We took her mother and another able-bodied couple along just in case.
We added extra life jackets for good measure.
We tucked water bottles, rain gear, sunscreen, and bug spray into a day pack.
Brian checked the gas cans.
We didn't grab a map because we only planned to head down the main channel, circle the first couple of islands, and head back.
But the sun peeked out as we motored onto the main lake, so our expedition voted to go a bit farther. Our guests laughed as loons dived, then popped up closer to us.
A shadow passed over the boat. I caught Brian's eye and pointed to a fast-moving bank of dark clouds rolling in from the west.
"I think that concludes our tour," Brian quipped as he swung the wheel and headed the boat back north. Within minutes, huge drops of rain splattered the water. I helped our guests into rain gear, then walked over to sit next to Brian. He was frowning, peering around at the shoreline.
"Where's the channel?" I asked.
"It's over there ... I think. I'm trying to remember how many islands we circled."
And we hadn't brought a map. Like a couple of greenhorns instead of the expert guides we considered ourselves. A solid wall of rain raced in behind us. Brian pulled closer to shore. The young disabled woman with us could barely walk, so I took note of a lone private dock that could be temporary refuge if we heard thunder. What were we thinking, not bringing a map? I chastised myself.
While not taking a map was stupid (navigating among the islands is tricky even when you have one along), we didn't panic. We put our heads together with the other couple and picked out the most likely bearings for the channel among the islands and coves ahead. A few turns later, we spotted the narrows. Within fifteen minutes, we pulled in at the camp dock, somewhat soaked but safe.
Even without a map, we had tools for guidance: Brian's boating experience, our collective wisdom about the shoreline and storm safety, and knowledge of the safe havens at hand. It was enough to get us home.
Lakes in the wilderness aren't the only places we feel lost in life. Job changes, relationships, illnesses, problems with finances, or that old car that simply won't start, leave us wondering whether we made a wrong turn onto a dead-end path or even whether we're totally lost.
The feeling can be paralyzing. You'd do anything for a map of the future with clear direction. Tell me what to do, you might pray. And if an answer doesn't come, you may start wondering if God has abandoned you. God, you guided the Israelites through the wilderness, you showed Paul where to go, you gave Moses a burning bush, Gideon the fleeces ... why can't I have a pillar of fire to show the way, too?
Ponder, though, how the Israelites reacted to being guided night and day.
They grumbled about the food.
They complained when water supplies ran short.
They criticized their leaders and even threatened to stone Moses.
They turned their backs on God completely, melting their jewelry into a tangible god they could worship instead of the invisible yet loving God who brought them out of Egypt.
Do you still want a map?
Somehow, human nature gets twisted when we don't have to think for ourselves. In these pages, you'll find stories of people, both biblical and modern, who desperately sought God's guidance. Occasionally the answers came as clear as pillars of fire. More often, though, as in our pontoon boat adventure, the answers came in other ways.
God doesn't guide us just through signs and wonders, but through three other systems as well:
God gives us four guidance systems then, not just direct "burning bush, writing on the wall, angel visit" direction. The other three seem to help us draw closer to our Creator who loves us no matter how far we stray.
The Bible. Without a map, Brian and I read the shoreline, looking for dips in the trees, recognizable rocks, and certain cabins to find our way. There was plenty of information already around us to get us home. Similarly, the Bible's sixty-six books contain timeless truths for guiding our lives. Sometimes all the guidance we need is already there for us to read.
Our own gifts. Brian knew boats, how to steer in a storm, how to handle the waves. He could confidently offer a pontoon tour. The gifts and talents we have come from God and are part of how God gives us direction.
Circumstances. We didn't need a map to read the clouds and head for safety. Nor would the map have helped us find shelter as much as our own perusal of the available rocks and dock. Circumstances—"open doors and closed doors"—are a part of how God guides us. But note that in the absence of lightning, we kept moving despite the "open door" of a safe dock. Sometimes we rush for an open door, only to find it wasn't a sign from God at all.
As you read these pages, take inventory of your agility with all four systems. Can you use them all? It is my prayer that even in the midst of a storm, with no map, you'll be able to navigate safely back to where God wants you to be.
Camp du Nord, Lake Burntside
Why Is It So Hard to Discover God's Will?
Key: The first step in finding God's will is giving our lives to God.
Ten Jewish men. That was the minimum number needed to establish a synagogue. In a synagogue, men and women sat apart. Men led the reading and explanations of the sacred texts and the prayers. Only men could question the rabbis. Philippi, a Roman colony in northern Greece, fell short of ten Jewish men. No synagogue, no gathering place for worship and study of the law.
In towns without a synagogue, though, a custom arose. Each Sabbath, Jews gathered by a river outside of town to pray. Perhaps rivers reminded them of the everlasting love of God. Perhaps rivers brought to mind Ezekiel's vision of a new temple from which a river flowed, nourishing all the land. Or perhaps they thought of their ancestors in exile who sang, "By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion."
Whatever the root of the custom, the apostle Paul knew that the river was the most likely place to find worshippers of Yahweh on a Sabbath morning.
Lydia and her servants hurried past the city gates, away from the vendors' cries and the push of the crowds in the marketplace. The Sabbath in Philippi was no different than any other day. Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy ... She knew the law. Here, though, Yahweh seemed crowded out, even more so than in her hometown of Thyatira. This Roman town had a sanctuary to the Egyptian god Isis, one for Serapis, another for Dionysus, and statues of Caesar, but no synagogue.
At home, a synagogue surrounded them for worship even if the insignificant building was a poor substitute for Jerusalem's temple. Jerusalem. Some of her merchant friends had traveled there, returning with descriptions of the temple towers gleaming in the sun. Maybe she would glimpse its golden roofs before she died. Maybe next year she'd take the purple dye she sold, coveted for silken garments and the fringes of prayer shawls, to the City of David herself.
Her ears caught the gentle gurgle of the Gangas River. She quickened her step, catching her first glimpse of the sunlight playing across the rippling waters. Surely Yahweh smiled as they gathered here each week. She glanced at the servant women who accompanied her. They, too, seemed eager to honor the Sabbath day.
A small group had already spread their cloaks over the rough grasses that edged the stream, a few women and four men whom she didn't recognize. She shook out the cloak she'd carried over her arm, then sat down.
One of the men began reciting, "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one ..." The familiar prayers rose from the group. Lydia quickly perused the strangers, then looked down again. Foreigners, from the look of them. And they'd been traveling quite a while, too, judging by the worn look of their tunics. Her expert eyes detected the good quality of the cloth they were made from. Not beggars, certainly, but not well-to-do merchants like herself, either. What brought them to Philippi?
The same stranger spoke again. His companions leaned back and relaxed, as if they were used to listening to him. "My name is Paul, a Pharisee, of the house of Benjamin, a keeper of the law. Yet God has only begun to work within me."
Lydia looked up, startled. She'd never heard a Pharisee admit to being less than perfect.
He continued, "Jews everywhere await the Messiah to rescue us from Roman rule and restore the kingdom of Israel. But hear the words of Isaiah, ‘He was crushed for our iniquities ... by his wounds we are healed.'
Does that sound like the savior the Zealots are watching for? No, our Messiah has already come, and we didn't recognize him!"
Paul continued, interweaving Scripture and the life of a man called Jesus. The sounds of the river, the rustle of the cooling breeze through the tree leaves, the dove in the tree, all faded away as her whole being pondered Paul's words. Can this be true? Lydia thought, glancing at the surprised faces of the women around her.
As Paul finished, he and the other men started softly singing a hymn,
... but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant
... that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Messiah as servant, not conqueror, showing us how to be obedient, Lydia pondered. Somehow, it seemed right. The power of the stranger's message must have come from God! Something in their eyes, their bearing, kept Lydia from worries about whether they were just another band of false prophets.
Lydia joined in as the men repeated the hymn. Her heart sang along with her voice. As their singing faded with the last words, Paul looked at each face in the little circle of worshippers. He spoke again, his plea seeming to hang in the air, "Believe in him and you shall be saved." Paul's glance caught her eye. He nodded and smiled. She heard her voice asking, "Can we be baptized now?" She looked at her servants, who nodded their assent.
Lydia and her household were the first Europeans baptized into the Christian faith, right there at the river where the Jews of Philippi gathered to worship and pray. Then she invited Paul and his companions to stay with her.
Lydia had no hesitation because she was already looking for God, making space in her life for prayer and worship, gathering with other women who also sought to do God's will. The first hurdle we face in discovering what God wants us to do is making room in our lives—our hearts—our homes—for God!
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and in depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best.
The cheerless, gloomy isolation room at Children's Hospital where my 16-month-old daughter, Mari, and I had spent the night would be, it seemed, my home for at least 48 hours more. I stood by her crib, exhausted. She was safe now from the flu virus that had made her so ill, but her little body needed sleep. The doctor had told me that her muscles ached so much that she wouldn't want to be held or even touched.
I brushed a strand of hair from her forehead, checked that the life-giving IV was still in place, and wondered what to do next. I had to stay; my husband would patch together day care for Dan, our other preschooler. But what would I do while I waited?
Even the corridors seemed silent, especially compared with all of the comings and goings in the early-morning hours that had kept me from sleeping—although I hadn't expected to get much sleep in the vinyl-covered fold-out chair that doubled as a cot for parents.
I slumped back into the chair, the past 36 hours replaying in my mind. Actually, I hadn't been tired at all until now, despite a couple of sleepless nights. How had I managed to calmly remain with my daughter through the spinal tap, the X rays, and the long wait for results? It was you, God, wasn't it? Thank you for your care, but what do I do now?
With two children under the age of four, I never had enough time. While Mari slept, I could return all of those business phone calls, go over financial projections, or even work through some training materials without being interrupted. Better yet, I deserved a rest. What about reading a few of the novels on my nightstand?
In the chapel-like stillness of the room, I seemed to hear God say, "This is your chance for a whole day with me. When was the last time you had more than fifteen minutes for prayer?"
Time for prayer... time to be still? Why not take this unexpected day of inactivity and spend it with God?
A bit later at the nurse's insistence, I dashed home for my toothbrush and apples and clean clothes. I didn't let myself touch anything connected with work, or those novels. Instead, I tucked Andrew Murray's The Believer's School of Prayer into my overnight bag. I'd purchased it months before but hadn't had time to look past the table of contents.
Later that day, and all through the next, I settled into that vinyl chair, feet up, notebook by my side, and slowly underlined, looked up Scripture passages, and prayed. Instead of trying to finish the book, I let each thought it contained capture my attention until I felt moved to go on.
It wasn't until that evening that Mari sat up and called, "Mom? Mom!" Ever so gently, I picked her up, thankful that she again wanted to be hugged. As she laid her head on my shoulder and snuggled her nose into my neck, I whispered, "I know just how you feel." And I did, for during the past 24 hours, I'd felt that close to God.
As my prayers resonated with adoration and thankfulness for the Spirit's presence, I rejoiced in my God who could provide healing, peace, and renewal, even in a lumpy chair in a cheerless hospital room.
That day at the hospital changed permanently how close I felt to God.
Shortly afterwards, I faced an incredibly difficult confrontation with a
co-worker. God seemed to be right in the room with me, on my shoulder, when I
asked for guidance.
While I don't always remember to pray as soon as I should, the hospital room, followed by the confrontation, taught me a key principle. If you want to find and follow God's will, you need to take time to get to know your Creator.