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Whose Will is it Anyway?

Series: Which Way? Finding God's Way in the Maze of Life

Sermon by Derek Thomas on Jul 4, 2004

The Lord's Day Evening
July 4, 2004

Psalm 23
“Whose Will is it Anyway?”

Dr. Derek Thomas

I do begin a new series this evening, a topical series of sermons on the subject of “Guidance.” We’re all, in one form or another, troubled, perplexed, by the issue of guidance. I think young people, especially, are troubled especially over one aspect of guidance as to their vocation, who they will marry, whether they should get married at all. Some are wrestling with the issue especially of missions, and perhaps full-time Christian work–all of those sort of issues. And over the next few weeks, then, we’ll try and cover a variety of themes relating to the whole issue of guidance.

Tonight I want us to look in part at Psalm 23. The nature of these expositions, especially this evening, is a topical one. We’re not going to be looking at Psalm 23 in any great detail this evening. We will towards the end of the sermon pick up Psalm 23 and see what it has to say, and hopefully to confirm some of the things that we've already said. But before we read the Psalm together, let's look to God in prayer.

Our Father in heaven, in Your wisdom You have caused us to seek Your will and Your ways through not only creation and providence, and through wisdom and counsel of others, but especially in Your written, enscripturated word. We thank You for the Bible. We thank you for these sixty-six books written over a period of 1500 years: over two million words and forty different authors, and three different languages, and yet, with one message, and one voice. And we thank You that You are the author of the whole of the Bible, and every jot and tittle of it. We thank You that it is profitable for doctrine and reproof and correction, and instruction in the way of righteousness, that the man of God might be thoroughly furnished unto every good work. So furnish us, then, Lord, by instruction from Your word, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Psalm 23:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet water. He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me. Thou dost prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; Thou hast anointed my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Amen. And may God add His blessing to the reading of His holy and inerrant word.

When I was growing up, a teenager, I inherited a number of books that are very precious to me, and one that my daughter has stolen and now regards as hers. And one of them was Louis Carroll's, Alice in Wonderland. I can't tell you the number of times as a young teenager I read Louis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. You remember the wonderful tale. Alice comes to a fork in the road, and she stands there frozen, not knowing which way to go. And she looks up to heaven and what she sees is a cat, a Cheshire cat, on a limb of a tree, and it's grinning at her. And Alice asks the cat, “Which way shall I go?” And the cat replies, “Well, that depends.” “On what?” Alice says. “On your destination,” the cat says. “Where are you going?” And Alice says, “I don't know.” And the cat says, “Well, then, it doesn't matter.”

Now, many of us can in a sense relate to that little scenario. We stand at a fork in the road, and there are several choices ahead for us, and we're asking the question, which way shall we go? And the answer to the question lies in the direction of the answer to another question: where is it that you eventually want to get to? And the problem is that many of us, many Christians, are confused about what the long-term goal and ambition is, and therefore, we are confused about which branch of the road we ought to take.

Guidance is something that God promises. Yes, it is. We see it in this wonderful Psalm. “He guides me in the paths of righteousness.” It's a promise, it's an assertion, that God guides His children. “He leads me beside still waters.” But even though guidance is something that is affirmed and assured and promised in the Bible, guidance is still a problem. Many Christians are troubled by guidance. They lose their way.

I think if you were to examine–and some of the college folk and interns here would verify this...I've not done it, but it would be interesting to know of the ‘hot topics’ in RUF circles, all the themes that you study, the topical themes that you've studied...and I know, relationships and all of that is probably number one… but actually that's not a million miles away from guidance. And I'm almost certain that right up there near to the top, somewhere, will be this perplexing issue of guidance. We want, as God's people, to do God's will. That's our hearts’ desire. We want to follow Him in the way that we should go. But the question is, which way? Which way should I go?

I want to say three things: I want to say, first of all, God has a plan for us. God has a plan for us; secondly, that there are right ways and wrong ways of discovering that plan; and, thirdly, to assert that God will make that plan known to us. God has a plan, there are right ways and wrong ways of discovering that plan, and God will make that plan known to us.

I. God has a plan for us.
Let's begin, then, with this assertion: God has a plan for us. God has a plan. Every Presbyterian believes that. Every Baptist who subscribes to the 1689 Confession believes that. God has ordered the end from the beginning. There's a plan. When you take the Bible in your hands, that's the wonderful thing. That's the miracle of the Bible. It's a miracle. You hold a miracle in your hands. But something written over 1500 years, with forty different authors, in three different languages, over two million words, and yet, it has a coherent plan! Despite all the attempts of the critics and the liberals, and the Marcionites of this world, the Bible still affirms to us that there's a plan, a coherent plan. A plan that you can discern in the opening pages, and a plan that is unfolding throughout the whole of Scripture.

God has a plan. It's what we sometimes call in its grandeur perspective, ‘a decree.’ God has a decree. In the Westminster Confession, in the third chapter of the Confession, we read these wonderful words: “God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeable ordain whatsoever comes to pass.”

Now, you can look at that, and read that, and hear that, and hear something that's terribly threatening. Or, you can, as a child of God who loves Jesus Christ, be wholly reassured by that–that the future is not chaos. That the future is not uncertain. That God holds tomorrow in the palms of His hands, because He's ordered it from the beginning. There's an order, there's a structure to the world in which we live. There's a goal, and a direction to the unfolding of Providence, and to the affairs and circumstances and contingencies of our individual lives. There's a definite future ahead. And God knows it.

Not only is that true on the grand scale, but it's true in the details. Not a hair falls to the ground, not a sparrow dies in a side street of Jerusalem without the decree and the permission of Almighty God. God has a plan. God has a wonderful plan for your life. Now, that's a slogan, of course, that's usually in the form of “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” And it's true, but it's inadequate as a representation of everything that God may have for you, and especially if you’re saying that to somebody who isn't a believer. But let's push all of that aside for a second and just take it at its face value. God has a wonderful plan for you.

You know, I'm tempted just to say, “Let's go and celebrate Independence Day now, and have done with it!” Because that's just a wonderful thought in itself: God has a plan for me, and it's a good plan, and it's a wise plan, and it's a holy plan. And it's a plan that is a part and parcel of His love and redemption of me as a child of God. I can trust Him for that plan which He has for me.

Now, more needs to be said than that, of course, but that much, at least, is true. God has a wonderful plan for you. There are folk–and there are some, perhaps, in here–who are the victims of spiritual depression. They’re melancholy because they've lost sight of that particular truth. Because they've lost sight of the fact that God has a plan for you. A wonderful plan, a loving plan, a gracious plan. You’re a Christian, you’re a child of God, you love Jesus Christ, He wants to bring you to Himself, and He's ordered every aspect of the way that you’re going to get there. That's special. That's encouraging. That should–as the English might say (forgive me for reminding you of the English today)–but it should warm the cockles of your heart. God has a plan, a wonderful plan for you.

Now! It gets a little complicated, because we are meant to discover that plan. You see, the trouble is that God hasn't given us a plan in the form of a 150-gigabyte hard drive with all of the details. You know: on day one do this at x-hundred hours, and then this, and then that, and turn left here, and turn right there, and do this and do that....God hasn't given us a plan in that form. We’re meant to discover that plan. And it gets tricky when we say things like “you can break that plan” and “you can rebel against that plan as Jonah did.” There's a plan of God, and yet Jonah rebels against that plan. And Jonah flees in the opposite direction to the way in which God wanted Jonah to go. So we're introducing now a complication.

There's a plan which cannot be broken. Theologians try to unravel this complication, and they’ll say things like “there is a plan, a secret plan, a plan that is known to God, and that plan can never be broken. But there's a revealed plan. There's the plan that you and I discover. There's a plan that is revealed to us in all of our frailty and weakness, and that plan can be broken, and often is broken, and often rebelled against.”

And I'm thinking just now of that second plan. Not the secret plan, not the hidden plan, not the inscrutable decree of Almighty God which cannot be broken, but I'm thinking especially of the revealed plan. The revealed plan of God that is written down in Scripture, and that we are to discover and unfold. And the one that says “This is what I want you to do. This is what I want you to be. These are the circumstances in which I want to find you, and I want you to discover that plan, and I want you to live it out.”

And God says, “Some of these you will discover easily, and others you’re going to have to find out by using certain skills, which I will give to you in varying degrees, and you’ll need to show responsibility and maturity and wisdom, and discernment. I'm going to treat you like an adult. Sometimes I’ll treat you like a little child, and I’ll do it for you. And I’ll pick you up and carry you and put you down. And sometimes I’ll treat you like an adult, and I’ll tell you, ‘Now use the best wisdom that you can discover, and go!’ And it's possible that you may miss part of My plan, because you’re unwise and foolish, and you don't know what that plan is. And it's possible that you may miss part of that plan because you do know it, but you don't want to do it. Actually, you know it all too well. And you think you don't know it, but actually you do know it, but you just don't want to do it. You just don't want to walk in that way. But I want you to know,’ God says, ‘that there is a plan, and I will guide you through it.”

And the interplay–are you still tracking?- because it gets complicated now, because there's an interplay between what God does for us, and what God does through us. And Christians will fall into a kind of pendulum because sometimes we tend to think that what we need to do is to sit back and relax and let God do it all for us, like when you get on an airplane. You don't get anywhere near those controls. Not since 9/11! You don't get in there, you don't sit up in the front, and you don't see all those buttons and play with them. You don't’ do that any more. You just sit in the back and relax. And that's what He says, isn't it? He says, ‘Now you sit back and relax and take it easy and have a doze, sleep, read a book, and I’ll do all the flying for you.’

And sometimes we think discovering God's will is like that. You just sit back and let God do it all for you. And sometimes we forget the Pilot altogether, fearing we've missed the journey, and we've missed the runway, and that there's a possibility that we're lost forever. And there's a key verse, it's one of the most crucial verses in all of the New Testament. When Paul writes to the Philippians in chapter two and verse twelve: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God that worketh in you, both to will and to do of His good pleasure.” You work it out! You put a hundred percent effort into it, to try to discern God's will and do God's will, and God promises at the same time to work in and through us.

Now, I hope there's no one here who mistakenly thinks that somehow or other you made a serious mistake, maybe in the past, maybe when you were 21, maybe when you were at college...and you made a serious mistake, and you can never now get back onto track again. It's like missing a train. It's like missing a flight. And you needed to get to a certain destination. You needed to get to a certain meeting. But because you missed that flight, you can never get there. And for the rest of your lives you’re now living, as it were, Plan B, and it's like living a secondary Christian life. And that one mistake means you can never, ever, ever, get back on track again.

And I want to tell you this evening that that's not true. That's not true. I'm not saying that you may not have made a serious mistake, because you may well have made a serious mistake at some point in your lives. You may well have missed certain things that God was plainly saying to you, or you may have even rebelled against His revealed will in all of its transparency. But God can undo the consequences of that mistake, too. He can, in the words of the prophet Joel, “restore to you the years that the locusts have eaten.” Who is it that says that you cannot be restored into God's favor again? Well, it's man that says that, not God. And God says, ‘yes, you may well have missed the train, but I have ways and I have means to bring you to where I want you to be, just like that!’ And that's a wonderful thing.

I'm pretty sure Peter thought his days of following Jesus were over. He made a catastrophic mistake in discerning the will of God for him. There was a moment of test in the courtyard, and a young girl recognizes his northern Galilean accent and says “you’re one of the disciples.” And he cursed and he swore that he didn't know Jesus. Three times. It was a catastrophic blunder. He rebelled against the will of God for one of God's servants in that moment and time. And I'm sure Peter thought that his days of being a disciple and of being in the center of God's will, for the rest of his life was over.

And he goes back to Galilee, and he goes back to fishing. And there he is, all night on the boat, fishing. And he catches–nothing. Because God wanted to bring him back into the center of His purposes again. And you remember what Jesus does? It's a delightful little bit of minor detail in the story. You remember, Jesus says, “Put the net down,” and they catch —what was it?–169 or whatever it was–fish, yet that's not the fish that they eat for breakfast, because Jesus has His own fish, and He's already cooking the fish on the side of the Sea of Galilee, as though He's saying to Peter, ‘Look, it's going to be My way. Every part of the journey, it's going to be My way.’ And God can bring Peter, who made a catastrophic mistake, and He can bring him to be perhaps the most useful servant in the New Testament, next to the Apostle Paul. God can undo the blunder of Peter's mistake.

So, we need to get a little technical. Just for a second. Because theologians have insisted that there is what we call the secret will of God. God's secret efficacious will, which insures that everything falls out according to His plan. Everything, in all of its cosmic and minute details. But we commit a serious error if we limit God's will to His secret will. You know, that's what Islam does. It limits God's will to His secret will, the inscrutable will of Allah. Whatever happens, que sera sera. And you end up with that determinism that is so very much a feature of Islam. And Christianity has insisted that God works out His will through human means; that there are secondary as well as primary causes. So, God has a plan. God has a plan.

II. There are right and wrong ways of discovering this plan.
The second thing I want us to see is that there are right ways and wrong ways of discovering this plan. And I want to begin with the negative, to rule out certain things in order that we might see more clearly what the positive is. Some of you will know the name of Pearsall Smith. He was a Keswick “Higher Life” speaker of great renown toward the end of the nineteenth century. Abraham Kuyper was greatly enamored of Pearsall Smith for a while, came over to Brighton, heard Pearsall Smith speak; wrote eloquently of the power of his ministry, and then Pearsall Smith engaged in an act of adultery and it led Abraham Kuyper to a period of depression that lasted for well over a year.

Well, it's not Pearsall Smith I want to talk about, it's his wife, Hannah Whitall Smith. And she wrote a book which she called The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life. And it was published first of all in 1928, with the title, Religious Fanaticism, and it was later published by the title, Group Movements of the Past and Experiments in Guidance. It's full of pathetic stories of sincere, godly, Christian folk who followed impulses and urges, and mental suggestions, thinking that this was indeed the will of God for them. Hannah Whitall Smith called these papers that eventually were published her ‘fanaticism papers.’ And she speaks, for example, of a woman who each morning, having first of all consecrated the day to the Lord, would then ask the Lord in prayer whether she should get up or not. And then, until she would hear a voice that would stir her to get up (which reminds some of you of your teenage children, no doubt!)–but until she would hear this voice to stir her to get up, she would remain in bed. And having heard the voice, she would then pray for each article of clothing, as to whether the Lord wanted her to put each article on. Very often the Lord would tell her to put on the right shoe and leave the left one off, and to put on stockings on her left foot, but leave the stockings off her right foot. And so she would appear on different days wearing this absurd collection of garments, thinking that this was God's will for her.

And it's a pathetic, sad sort of story of what happens when you look uncritically to urges and impulses, and equate those with movements of the Holy Spirit. And some have been certain that God was guiding them to do all kinds of crazy and daft things.

I remember in Belfast when I was a minister there, this man had called me up on a Thursday morning, wanted to see me, and I agreed eventually to go and see him. And we met, and he said, “God has told me that I must preach in your church on Sunday morning.” And I said, “When God tells me this, I’ll let you know!” It's a murky sort of area, where urges and impulses pop into your mind, and they come out and they manifest themselves with expressions like “the Lord has told me.”

Now, there are ministers who emphatically, and with great pomp and assurance, will tell their congregations “the Lord has told me to say this, this morning.” Be very careful before you say things like that. It may be indigestion!

Hannah Whitall Smith recounts the case of a maid who saw some money lying on a dressing table that belonged to her mistress. And she felt ... a voice telling her to take this money, because “all things are yours.” And she took it, and she was fired. She lost her job.

They come in all kinds of ways: voices and prophecies, and words of knowledge and whatever you want to call them. And the consequence can be catastrophic, especially for sensitive Christians who pray like crazy for God to speak to them in this sort of direct form, and then they feel totally abandoned when they don't feel God speaking to them. And they lose their assurance, and they lose their perspective, and sometimes they lose their sanity. And the latter need to be encouraged and helped, and ministered to, and told that God's Holy Spirit doesn't speak to us like that. And those who insist that the Holy Spirit does invariably lead us in that way need to be given a slap on the wrist.

So, let me pull back a little and say that it's dangerous, it's dangerous to categorically insist that God never, ever does things in that way. That could be dangerous to say that. I'm not saying God never puts a pressure on your consciousness and urges you to do something. I'm not saying that. If you live by those kinds of impulses, you’re in some danger; but I'm not saying God never does that. I have known times when I think God the Holy Spirit was indeed putting a pressure on my consciousness and my affections in a certain direction. It was of the Holy Spirit. Now it needed ten thousand tests, you understand! And lots of words of wisdom and lots of counsel to make sure that that wasn't just indigestion that needed Pepto-Bismol or something. But I'm not saying that God never, ever speaks to us in that way.

I'm saying that when He does, He's treating us like children. He's treating us like infants, you understand. He's saying, ‘Look, you ought to be wiser, but because you’re not, let Me deal with you in this way.’ I'm saying it's dangerous to think that God, when He wants us to do something, always calls us by the Red Telephone in the Oval Office. (I don't think it's there anymore, but you know, that kind of a thing.) There's a direct hot line to God. Modes of guidance that see yourself as an airline pilot being guided down by someone in a control tower–the emphasis that is very common, I have to say, in Belfast in certain groups of Christians about “putting out the fleece.” You know the story of Gideon — and you put out the fleece, and if it's wet in the morning, God was saying this, and if it was dry in the morning, God was saying that. And you remember that Gideon was actually testing God, and actually he did it twice; and there's a sense in which God is condescending to Gideon's lack of faith. God had already given Gideon the word, and Gideon was testing Him. So let's be cautious about that kind of thing: you know, the kind of guidance that says ‘I’ll marry the girl that first says to me ‘how's your dog?’’ That kind of thing. And there are wrong ways and there are right ways of discovering that plan.

III. God will make that plan known to us.
Now, let me say briefly a third thing: that God will make that plan known to us. That's the promise of this great Psalm, this Twenty-third Psalm. He guides us, He leads us. “He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake.” Psalm 23:3. Let me formulate guidance as it emerges from this Psalm in this way. Let me try and give it a definition: that divine guidance is divine counsel within the framework of covenant care. It is divine counsel within the framework of covenant care. Guidance, like all God's acts of blessing under the covenant of grace, is a sovereign act. Not only does God guide us and show us the way, He does so in a most fundamental way. He insures that whatever happens, whatever mistakes we make, we still come home safely. We’ll slip and stray, but the everlasting arms of a covenant God are always embracing us.

And so this Psalm says a number of things, and they’re very familiar to you. In verse four, He guards me. He guards me. I'm in the valley of the shadow of death, but I'm not afraid. Why? Because He is there, with a club in one hand and a staff in the other: a club to ward off oppressors and violent men and women, and if I fall into the mire, a staff to hook me out. He guards me. God forbid that we should miss His guidance, that we should miss His guidance through an act of disobedience. God forbid it. But if we do, He restores us. He guards me.

In verse five, He feeds me, in the presence of my enemies. My table is full and overflowing, in the presence of my enemies, I'm feasting!

In verse six, He keeps me. He keeps me. “Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” You remember the words of D. L. Moody? “One day you’ll read that D. L. Moody is dead, but in that day I’ll be more alive than I've ever been,” he said. Because God keeps me, and He keeps me forever, and He guides me. Beside the quiet waters, in green pastures...to lie down where there's no fear or danger. He walks before us, and He leads me...and notice, He leads me and guides me in the paths of righteousness. And there's a tool as to how God guides us: He guides in the paths of righteousness. And part, and in fact, a considerable part of learning what it is God wants you to do in any given situation is discerning the path of righteousness from the path of folly. God will never guide you into the path of folly. God will never guide you into sin. God will never guide you into breaking one of His commandments. If you are married and you see an attractive woman, God is not guiding you to marry that woman, or to have sex with that woman, because God guides in the path of righteousness.

Now, how do we learn the path of righteousness? And that's the big question. It's what we're going to spend the rest of the summer trying to answer. Sometimes we're to use our intelligence, we're just to be wise. We’re to be led by wise principles, what our Confession of Faith calls “Christian prudence and the light of nature.”

“Use your common sense!” The problem with common sense is that it's not so common, because we tend to be very foolish. And God is saying, ‘Wise up! Wise up.’

Sometimes, it's by going directly to the Scriptures. The Scriptures sometimes will tell us directly what's right and wrong, and sometimes it will just give us broad-brush principles. And like adults, God will say to us ‘Now you apply that in your situation, and in your context. Ask a million questions. Go to other Christians, and go to other wise Christians, and go to other older Christians, and go to the elders of the church and ask them for wisdom. And let them, from the perspective of their years and growth and maturity, apply these principles to you, so that you and I may walk in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake.’

Now, that's much easier to say than it is to do. And over the next few weeks I want to dig a little deeper into all of that, and take out some specific issues and see what it is that Scripture has to say in detail, but also in principle, to various life situations. And may God add His blessing. Let's pray together.

Our Father, on this the close of Your day, and on this Independence Day, we ask for Your blessing, and we want You to encourage our hearts. We thank You, bless You, for the promise and the assurance that You will indeed guide us. Help us when we are so slow to learn, and so prone to stray. And forgive us our sins for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

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