Life is basically a journey from birth through to death. And after death there is going to be judgment. Our eternal destiny is going to depend on that. It may be a strange idea to some people. Nevertheless, that is the clear teaching of Jesus. Listen to him in John 5.28-29:
"Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his [the Son of Man's - his own] voice and come out--those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned."
If that is so, it is vital that you take the right path as you travel along on this journey. That is the number one secret of a successful and happy life. How important then to be "guided" in life. That is our subject for tonight. But immediately you have a problem. For many - even Christians - have the strangest ideas about guidance. I can remember a friend of our family when I was young and still at school. He was intelligent, a good linguist and a leader in the church. He certainly could speak the language of Zion! His business on one occasion took him to Paris. While there he not only slept with his secretary but decided to leave his wife of many years and move in with this other woman. As today that is terrible. In those days it also was widely recognized as terrible. However, what dawned on me for the first time then was how so called "spiritual people" could claim guidance for manifest sin. It was reported that this man spoke of the "blood of Christ" covering him and his mistress; and of "the Lord leading" them.
Hannah Whitall Smith in her book on Religious Fanaticism tells of a number of cases including the woman who was guided to help people obtain what she thought "the baptism in the Holy Spirit." Her guidance was very strange. Here are her words: "In order to help my friends to receive the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, I have felt distinctly led of the Lord to have them get into bed with me and lie back to back without any night gown between"! Sadly these sorts of situation are not as rare as you might think.
One of the problems is this. In the culture of today, where feelings are everything and the mind too often goes out the window, it is so easy to think that guidance from God is all to do with your "feelings" and not rational thought. This idea that guidance is to do with "feelings" and inward promptings rather than the outward objective word of God, the bible, also comes from a basic mistake. It is the mistake of thinking that all guidance is like the guidance you seek when making what are called "vocational choices". These often come at very important and very memorable times. They happen, particularly, when you are younger - and in his grace, God often does give remarkable direct leading in some of these cases. What do I mean by "vocational choices"? Well, who to or whether to marry; what job to do; where to live and so on. Here you can have choices that are morally equal and apparently equally good. And rationality only seems to take you so far. You need God directly to guide you. And he does - in ways that are clear to you. But to assume from these cases, which are relatively rare, that all guidance is like this, is the height of folly. Remember Psalm 32.8-9:
"I will instruct you [says God] and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you and watch over you. [But] Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle."
Yes, sometimes you need that direct "control". But mostly you need to have "understanding" so that you can understand God's will and then do it.
Well, to help our thinking tonight I want us to look at our New Testament reading, James 1.1-8. And my headings are first, ASSUMPTIONS, secondly, "TRIALS AND TESTING" and thirdly, PRAYER.
Look at verse 1:
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations:
This is a standard type of opening to an ancient letter. And it is using conventional language - but doing so tells you something of the assumptions both James and his readers would have had. The "twelve tribes" were the Jewish people of God in the Old Testament, but in God's plan those twelve tribes were to become the Jewish and Gentile people of God "scattered among the nations" and no longer limited to Palestine - the Church.
You see, God has a plan. He is a "planning God". He is planning the salvation of a world that is rejecting him. And his plan involved first Abraham, then the nation of Israel, and finally the coming of Jesus Christ, God the Son and his establishing the Church. The Psalmist says (in Psalm 33.11):
the plans of the Lord stand firm for ever.
And the plans he has for his people are good plans - Jeremiah 29.11:
"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."
Nor is this just Old Testament teaching. The New Testament says (Eph 1.11):
In him [in Christ] we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.
And Ephesians 2 says in verses 8 to 10:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. [Listen] For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
So we need to be guided as to those "good works". And we are! For God is a communicating God. The two great assumptions that James and his readers would have had from the Old Testament, and we can now have from the New Testament, are that, one, God has a plan, and, two, God tells you about it. God's plan is both for the world and for individuals. That is why issues relating to public life cannot be ignored. Psalm 33 verse 12 (we have already mentioned verse 11) says this:
Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.
Sadly, that is something we have not been hearing much in the millions (if not billions) of words that have been flowing during the past few weeks of electioneering. And God not only has a plan. He also tells us about it. And he tells us about it through history (not nature - nature is just where he reveals his essential being and his limited natural law). But in history and through God's prophets and supremely in Jesus and then through Jesus' apostles he clearly reveals his plans. And what God has done for us in history and will do as the prophets and apostles both explain and predict, you now have written down in the bible. That is God's word - the great means the Holy Spirit uses to guide us. So if you study the bible, you can immediately know what path to take in so many of life's situations.
For example, you know you have to be honest in speech or action. Just read the book of Proverbs or the ninth commandment about "false testimony". Or you may have an ethical problem not over murder but over the taking of life, whether it is warfare, or euthanasia, or abortion. Again the bible can guide you. In some of these issues it will guide you to other Christians - certainly to Christian teachers you can trust. Paul prays that Christians "have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ" (Eph 3.18). He implies you should find out what "all the saints" of previous generations have said about things - like "the just war" and abortion. So don't just "re-invent the wheel". Without a grasp of history re-inventing the wheel is likely to be a following of fashion rather than having your mind transformed.
But so often the bible directly deals with the problem - like divorce and remarriage; sex outside marriage; greed; all the issues mentioned in Galatians 5 where Paul talks about "the acts of the sinful nature" and "the fruit of the Spirit"; and the issues in the Sermon on the Mount. There is so much in the bible that is clear guidance. You certainly don't always need inner promptings of the Spirit. Yes, the bible says that being "led by the Spirit" is a key mark of being a Christian - Romans 8.14:
those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.
But that is said not in the context of "inner promptings" but of the Spirit giving strength to do what is right. The previous verse - verse 13 - says:
if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.
So guidance is by the Holy Spirit, but God in his providence and plan has given us "means" for being guided in living the Christian life. And the supreme means of the Holy Spirit's guidance is God's written word, the bible.
Secondly, "TRIALS AND TESTING"
Look at verses 2-4:
"Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4 Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything."
You have got here "guidance by the experiences of life". You see, the normal Christian life is so often your "facing trials of many kinds" and "the testing of your faith".
I wonder who is going through a particularly difficult time at the moment. Well, remember God has got a plan for you. Nothing happens outside his control - however difficult it is to imagine that when you are at the bottom of some trough. Nor is he expecting you to "feel" all is wonderful. In our current "feelings" culture, it is to hard to imagine something may be good when you don't "feel" it. But here James says not "feel it pure joy", but "consider it pure joy". Use your mind, not your emotions. Realize that God is guiding and leading you in a way that will benefit you long term. And you will "develop perseverance." Perseverance is that ability to stand firm under pressure and under hardship.
You will "feel bad". But that can be providential. Of course, you pray for relief. But in the meantime you trust God, verse 3 "because you know" with your mind "that the testing of your faith develops perservance."
And verse 4:
"Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything."
When you have matured in the school of suffering, and, as James puts it here, you are "complete, not lacking anything", you have a developed judgment and a developed conscience. And that helps you with guidance.
So if you are a doctor or a teacher or a social worker or in business or even in the wider Church and there is some issue of conscience, you will not only be guided about standing firm (in a minority of one if necessary), you will have the confidence to do so. You know that there is more to life than having to compromise with a bunch of decadent health officials or teachers or even clergy. You know that you are on a journey from birth to heaven, and the Holy Spirit is leading you and guiding you "to put to death the misdeeds of the body". When you have been through the school of suffering, you get to that point where in a number of situations you are "not lacking anything" as far as guidance is concerned. God has already equipped you with judgment, "wisdom" and answers.
Certainly you are guided more in your understanding of God. Your eyes are opened to see afresh all those passages of the bible that tell you that God is both good but also not in as much of a hurry as you are to sort out problems. He is wiser and knows better. You are also guided more in your understanding of other people. You know who are the reliable Christians and who are the frothy types who are unreliable. Oh! they may talk, but they don't act. And suffering also guides you more about yourself - about your own weaknesses and where you need the help of other Christians. So there is the plain text of the bible and the lessons of "trials and testing". But these are not the total answer to the question of guidance. That brings us to our final heading tonight.
Look at verses 5-8:
If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. 6 But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. 7 That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.
There are occasions when, in spite of all we have been saying, you do "lack wisdom" - practical wisdom. Yes, there are those "vocational choices" we spoke about.
I expect there are some here tonight who are facing those sort of choices. Well, these verses are just for you.
You "pray" about your situation. In your own words you ask God to guide you. It is as simple as that. And there is a wonderful promise - "it will be given" to you. Prayer will be answered. Nor will God blame you for lacking wisdom in one of these open situations. God "gives generously to all without finding fault". God is not going to guide you to divorce your wife or husband or sleep with your boy friend or marry a non-believer. He has already guided you over those things in the bible. But perhaps you are facing a career choice. And you know that the Department of Social Services [or whatever it now will be called] or Procter and Gamble are not in the concordance of bible verses. There is no obvious verse to guide you.
Yet the promise here is that God will guide - in his way and in his time - and it will be clear to you. It may be through circumstances, or the advice of a friend, or something else in the bible or in a range of ways that he helps you make up your mind. However, there is a condition. Verse 6 - when you pray, you "must believe and not doubt".
Obviously that means you need to be a believer in the first place. Perhaps there is someone here tonight who has never trusted Christ as Saviour and Lord.
Sometimes these situations relating to guidance make it so clear that you need Christ to guide and lead. So why not trust him who died for you and your sins and to give you his Holy Spirit? But then you have to be open to God's leading. That is what these verses mean.
Too many people pray for guidance with their minds made up and made up over something that is wrong. They are simply kidding themselves that they want guidance. It is often the case over these sexual ethical matters - such as divorce and remarriage or homosexual relationships. James says that such a person is "like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind". They will follow the line of least resistance - like a wave on the surface of the sea.
I must conclude.
Our God does guide. Remember Psalm 23?
He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake. 4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You say, "but what if I have ignored God's guidance in the past; and followed the wrong path. Is that the unforgivable sin?" No! Psalm 23 also says that God "restores my soul". God is sovereign and he can take even our mistakes and reweave them into his good plan for us. This is a mystery and certainly no reason to justify the wrong we have done.
But God used David after he had committed adultery and murder; Zacchaeus after a life of greed; and Paul even after he had been persecuting Christians. Of course, he can use you, however, sordid your past.
The important thing is now to follow his guidance. And you have this supremely in the Bible; as you go through some of those tough experiences of life; and as you pray - in faith. So let us pray.