How do you follow God? How do you know when to move forward, and when to go no further? That is a hard question to answer.
I recently read this passage from my Daily Bible, Isaiah 30:1, “Woe to the obstinate children, declares the Lord, to those who carry out plans that are not mine.”
Here is the context: The northern kingdom of Israel had been conquered, devastated, and carried away into exile by Assyria. By all appearances they were gone forever, as a nation, and no one remained to rebuild if they got another chance.
Many of the leaders in Judah, the southern kingdom, were afraid the same thing would happen to them, and rightly so, since as a nation they were guilty of the same excesses that got Israel into trouble. Some of the leaders wanted to go to Egypt and form an alliance, essentially selling their freedom in exchange for Egypt’s protection against Assyria. Isaiah, speaking from God, warned them not to do it.
But the idea to ask for help wasn’t that crazy. They needed help. They had to do something.
But there is another Bible story about a time when the Israelites were trapped between the Red Sea and the Egyptian army, who was bearing down on them, and God said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to Me? Tell the Israelites to move on.” (Exodus 14:15) In other words, God told Moses to stop asking for direction and protection and do what he already knew to do.
I can’t remember a single instance when God told me directly to take a certain job offer, or buy a particular house, or go to a specific school, or move to another town. I recognize His guidance in retrospect, but not in the moment. Most of those decisions just happened. I was praying and asking for guidance, but never saw anything so obvious as a burning bush or words painted in the street. I just did what seemed to be wise or logical, and hoped God was with me.
However, that doesn’t mean God has been silent. I can recount several instances when I knew for certain it was God speaking and I should act on it. Never in a big voice audible to everyone, but always inside my head, sounding like my own voice.
God told me to “Marry Cyndi” in the fall of 1978, while sitting at the table in my apartment in Norman, OK. Fortunately, she agreed. We married in July 1979.
God said, “You should be teaching,” while we were in the Parker’s Sunday School class, in the spring of 1990. Later, over lunch, when I mentioned to Cyndi what I’d heard, she said something to the effect of, “Duh, everyone knows that.” As if they had all been talking about it and waiting for me to make the commitment. That week I asked Marilyn Leonard if she could find a place for me to teach, and I started teaching adult Bible study class in September 1990.
God said, “You have something to say.” This was a bit more general, but definitely a call to action, to step further up and further in, to be more courageous when I teach. It was the summer of 1996. We were at Glorieta, NM, where Cyndi was teaching at Church Leadership Week and I was hanging around. Specifically, I was studying in a cabana in the Prayer Gardens when I heard those words.
God said, “Stay where you are.” It was 1995. I had been unemployed for a year and considering a major career change which would mean relocation. After attending two funerals at my church, both services crowded with over 1,000 people from all across our community, I asked God, “How can I live a life that means so much to so many.” As I walked across the church parking lot to my pickup, He answered, “Stay where you are.” I immediately changed my job-hunting strategy, determined to stay in Midland. And today, I cannot imagine the ministries we have now, had we moved back then.
I know these are old stories, but just last June God said, “Don’t find Me, standing alone.” I was sitting on Sam’s porch writing in my journal when this sentence shut me down for the next hour. God reminded me once again that my search for Him is useless unless I bring others along with me.
I have more examples, but yet none of them really answer my question: When do we move forward and when do we wait?
I guess I don’t know the answer, except for this: (1) Develop practices and form habits to pursue God every day; (2) Move in the direction your heart tells you; and (3) When you hear a word, act on it immediately.
Here is the best news - We don’t have a God who is trying to trick us or give us puzzles we can’t solve. He wants us to follow Him.
Give your heart to God, and trust your heart to tell you when to go and when to stay.
“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32