How do I follow God’s lead in my daily decisions? I know he’s my shepherd. He’s leading me. I think so. But how do I know if I am following him?
That’s such an important question we all must answer for ourselves, and it was a question taken up by a very young Pastor John Piper, in his very first summer as a pastor. In fact, just a few weeks into his pastorate, Pastor John preached through some of his favorite Psalms. One of them being, of course, Psalm 23. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” (Psalm 23:1–3).
I was 22 before I first saw one of the lines in this psalm. Now I’d seen it, but there is seeing and then there is seeing, right? Verse 3, “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his namesake.” I’d never seen “for his namesake” until I went to seminary. Well, yes, I’d seen it. I’d read the words, but you can read over phrases in the Bible a hundred times and they never hit you for what they mean.
Open My Eyes to See
I went to visit Mrs. Bromgren just before her surgery on Wednesday. She was getting her eye operated on, and it was all bandaged over, and I read to her this verse from Psalm 119:18,
Deal bountifully with thy servant that I may live and observe thy word, open my eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.
And I said, “Isn’t it true that one of the best things about having two good eyes is the Bible, being able to read the Bible? But isn’t it true, too, that there is another pair of eyes that God has given us? The apostle Paul calls them the eyes of the heart, and he prays in Ephesians 1 that the eyes of the heart might be enlightened. I think that’s what Psalm 119 is talking about: ‘May the eyes be open that we may behold wondrous things out of thy law.’”
Well, I hadn’t seen that phrase there in Psalm 23 as wondrous. I’d been as deaf to that theme as you could imagine, but there it was, “he leads me in paths of righteousness for his namesake.” The thought that God might have been causing me to do right ever since I was a little boy for his sake just never dawned on me. I just read right over that phrase. It never struck me, though I’d read it hundreds of times.
So I want to zero in on that phrase for a few minutes, but before we get there, we better look at the phrase before it, namely, “he leads me in paths of righteousness,” and ask how God does this.
How Does God Light Our Paths?
The picture, of course, here is a shepherd leading sheep along with his crook, or maybe with his call. “The sheep know my name, and they follow me.” But when we get out of the metaphor of sheep and shepherd into our own experience in our day and ask, “How does God lead in paths of righteousness,” we need to ponder a little bit and poke around in the Scriptures to see how he does it.
“In my experience, I have never seen a manifestation of God going before me at a fork in the road.”
Now, in my experience, I have never seen a manifestation of God going before me at a fork in the road. I’ve never seen a cloud of fire or pillar of cloud like they had in the wilderness. That’s not part of my experience, nor have I ever heard an audible word that I know was God speaking. A lot of people talk in that language, and maybe I’m just callous, but that’s never been part of my experience to see God in some clear manifestation showing me it’s this way and not that way, or to hear a voice like my teacher at Wheaton said he heard one day while he was shaving in front of the mirror, “Go to Wheaton from Boston.” He was in Boston. “Go to Wheaton.”
God can do that if he wants. He’s just never done it for me, and he doesn’t do it for most people most of the time. The way he leads us is apparently differently, and I think we can get a clue from what David would say in Psalm 119:105. There, he says, “Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” And in that same psalm, verse 9, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to thy word.”
So one answer to the question, “How does God lead his people in paths of righteousness” is: he has revealed a lot about those paths of righteousness. He’s described what sort of paths are righteous paths and told us to walk in them so that we can read and obey. Surely, David did that often because he talked about meditating on the word day and night.
Why the Bible Is Not Enough
But now, that answer is only half the answer, isn’t it? By itself, the Bible will not keep us on track. No matter how wonderful the Bible is, and how we would be utterly lost without it, it is not enough by itself and for two reasons.
“By itself, the Bible will not keep us on track.”
One, we make lots of decisions in life which are not prescribed for us in the Bible — hundreds of little decisions every day and some big ones in which we look in the Bible and there are no sentences about that. How many children to have, where to send your child to school, where to go to work, this, that, just hundreds of little things that we have to decide every day, and we don’t want to bracket those and say, “Well, that’s not part of Christianity. I’ll just make those decisions anyway I please, and then Christianity is something else.” God has to do with all those decisions. But the Bible doesn’t give explicit guidance for every one of those little decisions and, therefore, something more has to be said if we’re to walk in right paths in those decisions, as well as the ones where the Bible is perfectly explicit.
The second reason that the Bible, by itself, is not enough to guide us in those paths of righteousness is this: a path of righteousness is doing the right thing with a right attitude or a right motivation. It’s not just a bodily action. It’s having a right attitude towards your wife as well. But, reading words on a page doesn’t always change attitudes.
You can read over what you ought to feel like in the Bible a hundred times and maybe your attitude is just the same. Something else has to come into play, and I think that’s why David said, “God leads us in paths of righteousness,” and why Paul said, “All who are led by the Spirit are the sons of God.” We need not only revelation coming to us from outside, namely the Bible, we need transformation coming to us inside from the Holy Spirit. The word and the Spirit together are the leadership that we need.
Renewed in the Mind of Christ
Paul says in Romans 12:2 this very familiar word, “Don’t be conformed to the world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” — why? — “so that you can prove — or better, approve of — “the will of God, what is good, acceptable, and perfect.” In other words, you’ve got to have something happen up here on the inside, some changed attitudes, some changed feelings, or when little decisions present alternatives, you won’t know how to prove which one of those is the will of God.
So the Bible is the input into that new mind, and the Spirit takes the word and begins to shape our thinking, mold our emotions, so that even when there’s no explicit command in Scripture for this decision you’re facing, you weigh all the alternatives and you’re weighing those alternatives with the mind of Christ. Paul says, “We have the mind of Christ.” And then when you make the decision, you look back and you don’t say, “My, what a smart fellow was I,” but rather, you say, “Thank you for your word that informed the principles of my life, and thank you for the Spirit that shaped my emotions and my priorities so that I made this decision your way,” and God then gets the credit for the leadership, which means personally, for me, that I have been driven basically for all of life to meditate day and night on the word and to pray continually that the Holy Spirit would work on me.
You can’t over-intellectualize the Bible. You can’t over-spiritualize your private experience with God. It’s both/and, not either/or. It has been in my experience, and I haven’t found the two in conflict but tremendous complements for guidance in life.