A listener named Chelsea writes in: “Hello, Pastor John! Thank you for providing so much wisdom and encouragement through your answers on this podcast. I’ve been thinking about how the Spirit speaks to us. Among things that are not necessarily evil or wrong, does God ever give us an anxiety or fear in order to direct us away from something in our lives?”
First, let me try to imagine some situations that Chelsea might be talking about, because I am not sure. So I need to tell her what I am thinking she is meaning, so she will know what question I am really answering.
How Does God Direct?
She explicitly refers to things that are not necessarily evil or wrong. So the question, it seems, is not whether God could put a fear of sin in our lives to direct us away from sin, which he certainly can, but whether God might use fear or anxiety to direct her away from something that, in itself, is innocent.
So perhaps, she might have in mind (this is what comes to my mind) should I accept an opportunity to become a missionary in Saudi Arabia where you can be jailed for practicing the Christian faith? Or should I move into the inner city of a crime-ridden neighborhood to live and minister there? Or should I go hunting for grizzly bears? I don’t know what kind of thing she might have in mind.
So her question would be: In any of those situations, or others like them, does God give us an anxiety or a fear to direct us away from them because those aren’t his will for us, even though they are not bad? They are just not his will for us.
Never Seek Anxiety
And here is my answer: God can and may do this, but we should never seek to be guided this way. And the reason I don’t think we should ever seek to be guided through being anxious or fearful about something that is not sinful is that Jesus says things like this:
Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:28–31)
So it seems to me that Jesus does not want us to be motivated by fear of what man can do to us when we are confronted with the prospect of witness or ministry for him. Whether we follow through with a particular path of mission or witness should depend on other things besides being afraid of man.
So here is another example: Peter said to wives in 1 Peter 3:5–6 that they are in the line of “holy women who hoped in God” if they “do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.” In other words, hoping in God should give these women such a confidence in God’s care that they are not afraid of anything, so that their relationship toward their husband, in this case, is not governed by fear, but by humble wisdom. So they are making choices not because they are motivated by anxiety or fear to avoid certain things, but because of other factors of gracious wisdom — but not fear because hoping in God has taken away that fear.
So that is why I say I don’t think this strategy of seeking guidance is one we should pursue. We should not pursue: “Lord, give me, please, feelings of anxiety and fear about this non-sinful path as a way of discerning whether I should take those paths or not.” I don’t think we should pray like that or seek like that.
God Can Use Sin
So she may be wondering: Then why did you say that God can indeed guide us this way, if we shouldn’t seek it? And the answer is that God can use sin to bring about circumstances that he wants to take place.
We know this from the story of Joseph. God, in his providence, moved Joseph to Egypt. That was his will: get Joseph down to Egypt. He is going to save his people someday. And how did he get him there? Through the sinful attitudes of his brothers. The fact that God can give guidance through sinful attitudes doesn’t mean we should pursue the sinful attitudes. I presume, if he wanted to, he could have gotten Joseph to Egypt through Joseph’s sinful attitudes. That is not what the Bible teaches, but he could have done it. Joseph happened to be a very godly man.
So the fact that God can guide us through our anxieties or other people’s sins — and those anxieties would be sinful, I think — doesn’t mean we should pursue them.
Now I just thought of one other qualification of what I have said — although it may not be a qualification; maybe it is an expansion. God does guide us, and we should seek to be guided away from intrinsically non-sinful behaviors by causing us to regard them as foolishly dangerous, which comes, I admit, very close to fear or anxiety.
For example, if someone told me to walk across the Grand Canyon (like that guy did recently) on a tight rope, I would say no. And if they said: Are you afraid? I think the true answer would be: I would be afraid on a tight rope, but the reason I am saying no is because I am sure I would fall because I can’t walk on a tight rope, and I think it is foolish. It is foolish of me. I would even say it would be sinfully foolish of me to put my life at risk for no good purpose. That is what I mean by being guided away from something that is foolishly dangerous.
Or here is maybe a more realistic and helpful example of skydiving. I think that if I were in the military, and we were in a war, and it was my job to serve my country and my fellow combatants to jump out of a plane with a parachute, I could jump out all day long. I really could. I think I could get up there. “Let’s go.” Pull that thing. “Come on. Let’s go win this battle.” And I would jump out all day long.
But I will never skydive as a recreation. It doesn’t feel like fear at all to me, frankly. It doesn’t feel like fear, because I would jump out all day long if I were in the military. It just seems foolish to me to put yourself at risk of absolutely certain death with one small malfunctioning of a parachute made by fallible human beings. So I just think that is foolish, and therefore I think it will direct me away from that innocent (in itself) behavior.
So I hope that I didn’t complicate matters too much, but back to my main answer. Here it is: Even though God can turn our anxieties for his own sovereign guiding purposes, this is not a method of guidance or discernment we should pursue.