God’s Guidance: Packer’s Six Pitfalls

From the hymn  “Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah” some of the lyrics say:

“Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah,

Pilgrim through this barren land.

I am weak, but Thou art mighty;

Hold me with Thy powerful hand.”

J.I. Packer writes that we need a guide in this world, someone to help us with our choices.  He refers to those choices as “vocational choices” but what does he mean?  Here are some examples.  When contemplating marriage, the big question is should I marry or not?  Another example is joining a church.  Should  I join a particular church or not?  Regarding work: should I take one job over another?  Regarding living situations: should I live in one location as opposed to somewhere else?

I have been very fortunate to have had very wise men and women to help me over the years and one of the most important pieces of advice I ever received from someone happened in 1998.  I will never forget it.  I had just accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior and this man told me “life is all about choices.”  That statement sounds infantile, but I needed to hear that at that time.  Previous to 1998, I had gone through a horrible period in my life and I was beginning to see some hope through beginning my belief in God.  Anyone who goes through justification will tell you that you are made right with God when you profess your belief and all things truly become new.  After all, it says in 2 Corinthians 5:17 “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away;  behold, all things have become new.”  All may become new but anyone who has been born again will tell you that old problems will not immediately go away; they will reappear and choices must be made about whether to revert to ingrained habitual responses or to try to respond to problems in a more Christlike manner.

I needed my mentor’s guidance.  I was a “baby” Christian and I had no idea what my future would hold.

I accepted the guidance and to this day, I remember it and I try to live it…every day.

Why won’t people accept guidance from God?  We may know we need it, but we go our own way anyhow.  Packer writes that even though a Christian may have right ideas about God’s guidance, it is “easy to go wrong.”  We are frail human beings; he calls our human nature “regenerate.”  “The Spirit can be quenched, and we can all too easily behave in a way which stops this guidance from getting through.”

He comments on six major pitfalls.

First is the “unwillingness to think.”  Deuteronomy 32: 29 says “O that they were wise…that they would consider.”  This is God’s call for us to think.  God gives us many gifts, one of which is a rational brain and He intends us to use it.  In the thinking process, God can and will work to shape us through our thoughts.  Packer lists a couple of problems that interfere with man’s thinking:  false piety [putting on a show to garner the favor with others], “super-supernaturalism of an unhealthy and pernicious sort that demands inward impressions that have no rational basis” [Knowing God, 237].  We all have feelings and feelings are not bad.  In fact, emotions can be very effective in spurring us creatively, motivating us to tackle projects and helping us to experience the joy of life.   However, there are times when we need to think and there are times when it is ok to feel.  Be willing to seriously consider matters  when life calls us to do so.  Feelings cannot rule all day long.

Related to thinking in the moment is the skill of thinking ahead.   Present-centeredness is a useful skill and it helps us to enjoy life in the immediate.   Of course, none of us can predict the future and most of us worry too much about what the future holds,  but choices have consequences and those consequences are in the future.  Thinking people realize this, that they need to “think ahead” from time to time.  Packer says God can guide us in the short-term and in the long-term.  “Think ahead is part of the Divine rule of life no less than of the human rule of the road.  Often we can see what is wise and right (and what is foolish and wrong) only as we dwell on its long-term issues” [327].

“The way of a fool seems right to him, but a wise man listens to advice” [Proverbs, 12: 15].  Too often people can become so narrow-minded that they don’t want to hear what others think about their actions.  There are people in this world who know the Bible, they are wise about human nature and they have Godly gifts which can be passed along to us in the form of advice.  It is smart to listen to people who can help us with their words.  Packer says to spurn the advice of wise counselors is a sign of conceit and immaturity and it is a major pitfall in receiving God’s guidance given to us through people.

However, some words of advice coming from others can be harmful.  As we can make errors in not accepting good advice, we can make grievous errors accepting advice that is grounded in “ego-boosting, escapist [words], self-indulging or self-aggrandizing [words]” [238].  We all need to feel good about ourselves, but some people prey on others by words of flattery, words that are not grounded in reality.   It is important to reflect on advice when it elicits feelings and not thought.  Packer says “we need to ask ourselves why we ‘feel’ a particular course to be right, and to make ourselves give reasons” [328].  Psalms 139: 23-24 says “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me.”  It is wise to distrust the motives or others in matters of flattery and it is wise to distrust ourselves in matters of receiving flattery.

Packer says the fifth pitfall is the influence of others who have “personal magnetism.”   Hero worship is what he is discussing.  Too often we can be directed by well-meaning people who have a desire to be the center of attention.  They don’t care so much for us and the guidance we need as they care for the power of being admired as guidance-givers.  People who need to be guided by God can be deluded by others with personal magnetism.  “Even when a gifted and magnetic person is aware of the danger and tries to avoid it, he is not always able to stop Christian people from treating him as an angel or a prophet, construing his words as guidance for themselves and blindly following his lead” [328].  This blind following is not the way to be guided by God.  Outstanding people are not always wrong, but they are not always right either.

The final pitfall is something that has tripped me up repeatedly over the years.  I work hard to avoid this problem but it rears its ugly head at the most inopportune times.  It is called “unwillingness to wait.”  We know God has good plans for us, but God delivers his plan at His speed, in His circumstances.  He gives good advice but His guidance comes when He is ready to give it.  We are an impatient and “stiff-necked.”  People want what we want to know yesterday, not some obscure time in the future.  I am reading Psalms now and a constant phrase I am encountering is “wait on the Lord.”  God is never in a much hurry as we are.  He may want to guide us but He wants that guidance to come one step at a time.   We want the complete picture all at once.   It is much better for me [maybe you?] to learn to wait for God rather than to be guided by impatience and act prematurely. 

As I reflect back on my life I can pinpoint times when I made choices that had a major impact on my life.  Some of the most important choices I have made are those where I consulted God, either directly or God working through His advisors. 

As I reflect back on my life I do think of my mentor who pulled me aside and said “life is all about choices.”  I also think of the times when I asked God for guidance and I recall a poem written by Robert Frost that I would rank up there as one of my favorites.  It is a stretch to defend the poem as God inspired, but to me it has always had great meaning and it is about choices and their implications; The Road Not Taken:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

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