The Goodness of God and the Guidance of Sinners
I hope to talk mainly this morning about getting guidance from God for our personal lives and for our church. Psalm 25 is one of the most helpful parts of the Bible on this matter. But before we look at it there is a concern I have that demands a sober word of warning.
A Sober Warning
It is an amazing thing how many people consider themselves Christians who don't consult Christ when making choices. So I feel the need to sound this warning: You cannot be saved from sin by the Christ of the Bible if you reject the Christ of the Bible. The Christ of the Bible is an authoritative Adviser as well as an atoning Savior. So if we try to receive him as an atoning Savior and reject him as an authoritative Adviser, all we receive is an imaginary Christ, while rejecting the Christ of the Bible. Therefore, since we can't be saved by the Christ of the Bible if we reject the Christ of the Bible, we will never make it to heaven, nor enjoy the fellowship of God here, if we don't aim to make the counsel of Christ decisive in the decision making process of our life.
Atoning Savior and Authoritative Adviser
Suppose Jesus Christ walked through that door and came up to you and said, "Hello, my name is Jesus, I am the Son of God and I came into the world to save sinners and give them complete happiness and everlasting life. By my death and resurrection I have atoned for sin. And by my wisdom and knowledge I can show you how to make choices that will bring you the greatest life and joy. Will you trust me?"
And suppose you said, "Well, I do want to be happy. I like the idea of having all my sins forgiven. I certainly don't want to go to hell. But I have looked over some of you directions for the good life and I just don't agree with some of your ideas about how I can be happiest. So I accept your forgiveness now, and I really appreciate it. But I think I will go with my own ideas of how to live."
What would Jesus say about you as you turned to walk away? Well we know exactly what he did say when that happened once. He said, in effect, "It's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone to enter the kingdom of God who thinks he knows more than Christ about the way to be happy."
Who This Message Is Aimed At
This morning I am speaking mainly to those of you who trust Jesus—that is, to those of you who aim to make the counsel of Christ decisive in the decision making process of your everyday life. I am talking mainly to people who are like David in Psalm 25—who don't have an easy life, who are often unsure about the will of God in certain situations, but who, with all your heart, want to know God's ways and God's paths.
- In what you watch on TV,
- what job you take,
- whom you marry or whether you marry,
- how you spend your leisure time,
- what courses to take,
- where to live,
- what kind of car to drive,
- how much to eat,
- how to dress,
- how to pray and read the Bible, and
- what sort of sanctuary to build at Bethlehem.
I am talking mainly to people who believe in Christ, that is, people who trust his direction for happiness, and so aim to make it decisive in all the choices of their life. Even if you are NOT in that category this morning, I urge you to listen carefully, because it may suddenly seem reasonable that to put your own wisdom above the wisdom of God in the choices of your everyday life is not only an insult to him but suicide for you. The only way to salvation is trust in the true God, not an imaginary half-god who offers merciful forgiveness and unacceptable advice.
Three Steps in Examining Psalm 25
I want to do three things with Psalm 25:
- Describe the situation of the psalmist, so that you can identify with him.
- Show you what he asks God for, so that you can learn from his prayer.
- Point out some of the reasons he is confident of God's help.
If catch phrases will help you follow and remember, you can label these three parts,
- the elements of his situation,
- the content of his supplication, and
- the basis of his expectation.
1. The Elements of His Situation
They boil down to four things that he is struggling with: fear, loneliness, guilt, and confusion. Let me start with the trouble that comes from outside and move to the trouble that rises from within.
David is struggling with fear because his life or his reputation is in danger.
Verse 2: "O my God, in thee I trust, let me not be put to shame; let not my enemies exult over me."
Verse 19: "Consider how many are my foes, and with what violent hatred they hate me."
So David's life is not one of outward peace and safety. There are threats. And he does not breeze through these without feeling the tight chest and sweaty hands and pounding heart of fear. Normal Christian life in this age does not mean escaping danger, but handling it with prayer. We will see that in a moment.
David is struggling with loneliness. This often goes in hand with a life devoted to radical obedience and hardship. People pull back. You are uneasy to be around, and it is too threatening. It happened to Paul at the end of his life in prison (2 Timothy 4:16) and it happened to Jesus in Gethsemane.
Verse 16: "Turn thou to me, and be gracious to me; for I am lonely and afflicted."
You know who your friends are when trouble strikes and life together is comradeship in battle not just company for dinner.
Four times he mentions his struggle with guilt because of his sin.
- Verse 7: "Remember not the sins of my youth, or my transgressions."
- Verse 8: "Good and upright is the Lord; therefore, he instructs sinners in the way."
- Verse 11: "For thy name's sake, O Lord, pardon my guilt, for it is great."
- Verse 18: "Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins."
He can remember the folly of his youth and he admits that even his present guilt is great. So in the middle of all this external turmoil with foes threatening and friends forsaking, the trouble is compounded by the internal misery of a sinful and guilty heart.
Notice verse 17: "Relieve the troubles of my heart and bring me out of distress." Literally: "The troubles of my heart are enlarged." In other words, it's the inward turmoil as much as the outer circumstances that make David so distressed.
It is not unusual in a situation like this to begin to lose your bearings. What is the will of God? What am I supposed to do? We feel so uncertain. We just want to lie down and cry we are so confused. No path seems like a way out.
Verses 4–5: "Make me to know thy ways, O Lord; teach me thy paths. Lead me in thy truth and teach me. (See vv. 8–12.)
Aren't the Psalms precious! O how it helps to see ourselves so clearly. Every one of us struggles at one time or another with fear, loneliness, guilt, and confusion. Now what do we do? David's answer was PRAY!
2. The Content of His Supplication
There are at least 18 petitions in this psalm. And what David does in these petitions is come to God in every aspect of his situation.
David Prays in Every Circumstance
He asks God to guard his life and deliver him from the foes (v. 20). He asks God to turn to him and be gracious and relieve his loneliness (v. 16). He asks God not to remember the sins of his youth (v. 7) but to pardon his guilt (vv. 11, 18). And in verses 4 and 5 he asks God to take away his uncertainty and confusion by making him know God's ways and leading him in truth.
In other words David comes to God with his fear and his loneliness and guilt and confusion and pleads with God to make things right and to lead him in the way of love and faithfulness (v. 10).
I suppose most of us take that for granted. Of course, that's what you do when you are threatened, or lonely, or guilty, or uncertain about God's will for your future. You pray! But take this issue of guidance for example. How does God answer that?
How God Answers the Prayer for Guidance
If you face a decision, and there is no biblical command relating directly to that specific choice, should you wait for a dream or a vision or a voice in your head? Will there be some miracle in the circumstances to point the way? Well, I will not dare to say that God can't use any of those means. But I think I can say that these are not his normal means of guidance in such cases.
It seems to me that the Bible describes the ordinary guidance of God as the development of spiritual sensitivity. In other words, the prerequisite of divine guidance is not the quest for messages, but the quest for holiness. Guidance is the product not of ecstatic heights but of spiritual depth.
Let me try to put in a sentence how I think God normally guides his children, and then I'll try to show how David expresses this in Psalm 25.
God's Normal Mode of Guidance
Normally God guides his children through alertness to circumstances, and through spiritual sensitivity to the present implications of God's character and purposes revealed in his Word.
In other words, God guides us by bringing our hearts and minds into harmony or sympathy with his own heart and mind so that when we study a situation, we discern (you might even say intuit) what path would best accord with the character and purposes of God that we know from Scripture.
So what we ought to be asking when we pray, "Lead me in thy truth, and teach me," is that God would create in us a spiritual and moral conformity to himself and that he would help us see all the relevant factors that relate to the decision we're about to make. God teaches us his way by alerting us to significant facts of the situation and by awakening us to the implications of his character and his purpose.
Now how does this get expressed in Psalm 25?
3. The Basis of His Expectation
It comes out most clearly when we turn to our third focus, namely, the basis of David's expectation. We have looked at the elements of his situation—fear, loneliness, guilt, confusion; and the content of his supplication—how he takes all these concerns to God. Now we look at the basis of his expectation.
Not a Quest for Messages but a Quest for Holiness
And what we see when we look at the basis of his hope for guidance is that the essence of it is a spiritual condition. The prerequisite of divine guidance is not the quest for messages, but the quest for holiness. Let's be more specific.
When David asks, "How can I be sure that I get led by God?" he answers with a series of spiritual conditions. Notice his plea in verses 4 and 5:
Make me to know thy ways, O Lord, teach me thy paths. Lead me [lit.: make me walk] in thy truth, and teach me, for thou art the God of my salvation; for thee I wait all the day long.
Then he comes to verse 8 and begins to describe the kind of person who can be confident of God's guidance.
Sinners Can Be Confident of God's Guidance
First, (v. 8) sinners can be. "Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way."
Not that sin is a qualification for guidance! But that sin is no necessary obstacle to guidance. We saw that David confessed his sinfulness four times in this psalm. Sinlessness is not a prerequisite to guidance, because God is good.
So if you ask me how to know the will of God, the first thing I might say is, Admit from the bottom of your heart that you are a sinner.
Humility Is a Prerequisite to God's Guidance
Second, (v. 9) humility is a prerequisite to guidance. "He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way."
In other words a person who admits his sinfulness, and feels helpless in himself has one of the indispensable spiritual qualifications for discerning what pleases the Lord. The quest for guidance must be the quest for humility.
If you ask me, How can I know the will of God? I will say, Admit all known sin and humble yourself under the mighty hand of God.
Covenant Keeping Is a Prerequisite to God's Guidance
Third, (v. 10) covenant keeping is a prerequisite to guidance. "All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies."
To keep God's covenant and his testimonies does not mean sinlessness. That has already been ruled out by verse 8. In fact I don't know a better passage in the Old Testament to show that covenant keeping (=righteousness) does not mean sinlessness. Well, what does it mean?
I think the next two verses are the best answer. Verses 11–12: "For thy name's sake, O Lord, pardon my guilt, for it is great. Who is the man that fears the Lord? Him will he instruct in the way that he should choose."
Covenant keeping means
- admitting sin ("Pardon my guilt!"),
- seeing your only hope in the Lord's commitment to his own name ("For thy name's sake!"), and
- fearing God ("Who is the man that fears the Lord?").
And what does fearing God mean? It means fearing to insult his knowledge by presuming to hide our sin. It means the reverence of humility. It means fearing to dishonor God's name by not trusting that he is a reliable guide to joy.
So if you ask me a third time how you can know the will of God, I will say, Fear the Lord!
Faith Is a Prerequisite to God's Guidance
And if fearing God means fearing the prospect of dishonoring him by unbelief, then we can add a fourth prerequisite for divine guidance, namely, faith. And we don't have to get this from some indirect inference like this. It is the first thing David says in the psalm.
To thee, O Lord, I lift up my soul,
O my God, in thee I trust;
let me not be put to shame.
So you ask me a fourth time, How can I know the will of God? How can I choose the path that will please God and spare me from shame? I answer, Trust God.
Do You Really Trust God?
Which brings us back to where we started. Do you really trust God this morning? Do you trust him for who he really is—a sin forgiving Savior and an infallible guide to everlasting joy? If you do, you will aim to make his counsel decisive in all your decision making.
And the counsel that you hear in Psalm 25 is . . .
- First, that as you walk with him there is going to be trouble, and you will struggle with fear and loneliness and guilt and confusion.
- Second, that when you do, you should come to him in prayer and bring all your struggles with no hesitation.
- Third, that the basis of your expectation when you come is not that messages are promised in visions but that guidance is promised in humility and in the fear of the Lord.
The decisions we make at Bethlehem in the next nine weeks will probably shape the life of this church for a century to come. We need the guidance of God. That is why we prayed round the clock this week and all day yesterday.
And now we can see what we must do. We must admit our sin. We must humble ourselves before the Lord. We must keep his covenant and his testimonies. We must fear his name and trust his mercy and his counsel.
If he is pleased to draw the blueprints of the new sanctuary on the wall with a finger of fire, so be it. But if he is not, the only way we will have a building that pleases him is to be a holy people. The quest for guidance is the quest for holiness! Not in ecstatic heights but in spiritual depth.