One of the things I love most in reading Paul’s letters is the little biographical bits he throws in every now and then. These usually come at the end of a letter, logistical odds and ends that reveal Paul’s upcoming travel plans.
I love these sections not just because it helps me imagine Paul’s journeys. I love them because in these seemingly mundane passages, we actually get to see a person actively (and humbly) following God’s leading. Consider 1 Corinthians 16, where Paul says (this is my generous paraphrase), “I’m headed your way after I go to Macedonia. At least, I’m planning to go to Macedonia. Then I’ll stay with y’all for a little bit. Maybe I’ll stay for the whole winter? You never know. For now, though, I’m going to stick around Ephesus for a while: God’s given me a lot to do here” (16:5–9).
Here is Paul, the most famous Apostle of all time, candidly admitting that even he isn’t sure of what God is calling him to do next. He’s got a plan. But it’s pretty obviously in pencil.
Some Christians want God to spell out every decision they should make. They want a map. I will tell you from experience that God rarely does that. He doesn’t offer a map, but he usually provides a compass. With a map, I can be in total control. With a compass, I have only the right direction. But along the way, I still need God to open and close doors for me. And sometimes he changes the trajectory altogether.
God doesn’t offer a map, but he usually provides a compass. With a map, I can be in total control. With a compass, I have only the right direction. But along the way, I still need God to open and close doors for me.
So if you’re following God and then have to change course, don’t panic. That kind of flexibility and adjustment doesn’t mean you are out of touch with the Spirit. It’s how Paul followed God.
Following the Spirit is a nuanced business. But I don’t think it needs to be completely mystical. In fact, in the New Testament, I see four primary ways God’s Spirit leads his people. Check it out:
1. The Word
This is the easiest, clearest, and most definitive way God leads his people. God provides clear instructions and wisdom in his Word. If the Word says it, that should settle it. Full stop.
2. The Church
God also gives guidance through members in the church. Sometimes, he uses others to give general, wise counsel. Other times, he empowers people with words of wisdom and insight specifically for you. Proverbs even says there’s wisdom in a multitude of counselors. So why would we overlook that? It amazes me how many people either don’t do this or resist the counsel of what everyone is telling them (usually because they don’t want to hear something different from what they already think). This is an arrogant recipe for disaster.
God gave you people because he wants to guide you by his Spirit. Open your ears and listen.
3. Your Spirit (Through Prayer)
If you’re walking with the Spirit, as you pray, he’ll often enlarge things in your heart, growing burdens, giving vision. Now, don’t get too carried away here. This kind of guidance must be held in balance with the other ways God leads you. You’d be naive to use your internal impulses without checking them against Scripture and what your godly counselors are saying.
4. Your Circumstances
As you go through life, God opens and closes doors in front of you. If you’re like me, you won’t like this part. But it’s part of the dance of following the Spirit. Don’t assume that just because it was in your spirit that God intends for it to happen. After all, Paul felt that God was leading him to Spain—and he never got there. Follow the Spirit’s lead, trusting him to show you the way as you go.
Anytime you have to make a decision, ask God how he might be leading you using these four markers—the Word of God, the counsel of the church, prayer, and the open and closed doors around you. Then, go forth and do what he calls you to do.