The Paths of Guidance
||For this God is our
God for ever and ever; He will be our guide even to
THE WALK WE HAD BEEN
FOLLOWING was new to us. There were few signposts, and we
often needed to stop and check our bearings. Now, on the
Broad Open Spaces, we were able to catch our breath and look
back on the varied route we had travelled.
ships advance against the wind by tacking.
Effectively this means they often do not appear to
be making much headway towards their destination. If
we understood this principle better, we would
perhaps worry less about the detours we experience
on our pilgrimage. The Lord knows not only what is
best for us, but also how to help us find the path
that will lead us there.
It is awesome to look back
over twenty years of ministry and see how accurately the
Lord has led at each stage of our journey. Early in my
Christian life I applied to spend a year teaching English in
a French school. I indicated my regional preferences on the
form, adding the proviso: ‘Anywhere except the Paris
region.’ There is nothing more exciting than seeing the
Power-that-is-eternal overruling the powers that be! Man
makes his plans, but when God has something better in mind,
He does not hesitate to overrule them completely. In the
providence of God I was posted to a town just outside the
My predecessor warned me dourly that the accommodation was
dingy, and the school horrible; why not cut my losses and
cancel now while I still had time? (He himself had left
early.) We will often experience such discouragement before
entering into something of great spiritual value. During the
last hour or two of my journey there I had an almost
overwhelming sense of being held in the love of God. The
sweetness of that time was an intimation of all the Lord had
in store for me during that memorable year. There turned out
to be nothing wrong with the accommodation, either; it
became a treasured sanctuary where I was able to spend
extended times of prayer and Bible study.
The way in which the Lord led me to the church that was to
be my training-school was another example of heaven taking
the initiative and overruling my plans. One day I decided to
attend a day conference in Paris and set my alarm clock
accordingly. For the first and only time in its honourable
life, my trusted alarm failed to go off. One glance showed
me that it was too late to set out. What should I do with
the rest of the day?
Before leaving England someone had given me the address of a
retired vicar in Paris. I decided to pay him a visit,
supposing he might be lonely. You can imagine my surprise
when I reached the address and discovered that, so far from
being retired, he was leading a church that served the
English-speaking community in Paris!
On such spectacularly inaccurate information hung much
blessing. St Michael’s was a church in which ex-pats, au
pairs, odd-bods, diplomats and teachers rubbed shoulders
with each other, the chief common denominator being a
reasonable grasp of the English tongue. There, in a warm and
welcoming atmosphere, far from the familiar, if often
soul-deadening, comforts of home, many people came to a
I can never speak too highly of the nurture I received from
the pastor, Eric McLellan. Blessed are they who draw out
people’s potential without being put off by their obvious
immaturity! Eric played a pivotal role in my spiritual
development by giving me opportunities to lead people to the
Lord and to preach. In the light of all that subsequently
happened, I often marvel how much I would have missed had my
alarm clock worked as it should have done that morning. The
Lord had taken the initiative and overruled my plans
according to His far greater wisdom.
It was on a return trip to this English-speaking fellowship
in Paris in 1978 that I received a nudge with far-reaching
consequences. I had been invited to share at the evening
fellowship meeting, at which I was greatly struck by the
anointing on two musicians: an exceptionally talented young
songwriter called Linda, and an oboist. The following day,
which was to be my last in Paris, the Lord directed me to
make a long trek across town to visit this oboist. When I
finally got there, she was out!
no doubt be as familiar as I am with that sinking
feeling that you must have got it all wrong. It is
bad enough to waste a day, but it is even worse when
you thought you were following the Lord’s leading.
I left a scribbled note under
her door to the effect that it had been good to meet her the
day before, and that if she were ever back in England, she
would be most welcome to get in contact. That, so far as I
was concerned, was the unsatisfactory ending to an otherwise
unusually blessed trip.
Three years later I heard again from the oboist. She was
back in England now and serving on the committee of the
Musicians’ Christian Fellowship. They had been praying about
who to invite as the speaker for their annual conference,
and the Lord impressed on her that I was to be the one.
(Mercifully she had stored my address away.) I was thrilled
to receive the invitation, but was obliged to decline it as
I had a prior engagement.
||When the Lord has a
purpose in mind, He is prepared to move heaven and
earth to fulfil it. I received a letter the
following day informing me that I was no longer
needed for the mission I had been planning to
attend. I was free to go and be with the musicians.
It was there that I met up again with Linda – and,
along with a number of outstanding musicians, we
have been working together ever since. Only eternity
will reveal the full significance of that nudge to
visit someone who was out. Jesus is the Door, and He
loves to open other doors for His servants.
There had been talk that I
might return to serve in the church in Paris when I had
finished my course at university. Although nothing was
formally decided, I rather set my hopes on the post. Months
went past and I heard nothing. I discovered later that the
job had been offered to someone else. I remember crying out
to the Lord that He would turn this disappointment into His
appointment. And He did. As final examinations loomed, the
Lord told me not to go looking for jobs because He was going
to give me one directly.
This sounds easy to record on paper, but it was, as you can
imagine, a strange feeling to shun the Careers Office at a
time when all my colleagues were busying themselves with
interviews. Unusual guidance requires rigorous testing. It
is only too easy to stray beyond faith into presumption. (I
have done so myself on other occasions and come a cropper as
a result.) Since I was faced with a total absence of any
alternative leading, however, I yielded to what I sincerely
hoped to be God’s plan for me, and made no effort to look
for a job.
first real experience of waiting, was not made any
easier by having little idea what it was I was
supposed to be waiting for. (There again, did the
disciples really understand what they were waiting
for when they prayed together in the Upper Room for
the Holy Spirit to be sent upon them?) Faith was
finally rewarded a few weeks before my final exams,
when the rector of the church I was attending in
Oxford offered me the post of lay evangelist for the
parish. Through this unexpected invitation, I was
able to pass directly from university into full-time
ministry. Knowing all that was to come, the Lord
closed the path back to Paris.
experience was a steep Ascent of Toil – but it
opened up into a long-term Broad Open Space.
The opportunity arose to move
into a spacious flat in Oxford that was owned by the church.
Life in a small community was, for the most part blissfully
happy. It was a time for living life to the full, cutting
teeth in ministry situations, and helping people in ways
that I could never have done on my own, or even in a nuclear
family for that matter.
Three exciting years of pastoral and evangelistic ministry
later, the Lord redirected my path. He told me to resign my
job in six months’ time, but did not initially tell me where
I should be going. The field was wide open for outrageous
suggestions! The six months were almost up before the sequel
began to unfold. It began with a dream of black and white
houses. For some reason, I felt convinced that the place
referred to was Chester, a city I knew nothing about.
As I waited on the Lord for more detail, He showed me from
Deuteronomy chapter 18 that I was a ‘Levite’: one who was
set apart to minister to Him. This was all very encouraging,
but how did God care for the Levites? By causing the people
of God to share with them the material benefits that they
themselves had received from the Lord. So long as the people
of God were fruitful and faithful, the Levites prospered. In
times of recession, however, they suffered. Clearly, He was
calling me to live without a regular income – something I
had always hoped He would never ask me to do!
the Lord I was willing to go, but asked for more
guidance. A few nights later as I was going to bed,
the Lord whispered the names of two Anglican
churches into my ear. On the strength of this word,
I paid Chester a flying visit.
Feeling more than a
trifle foolish, I asked a newsagent whether she had
heard of these two churches. To my amazement, they
turned out not only to exist but to be neighbouring
Truly, we serve a God who
guides His children wonderfully. I have rather trembled to
share so much autobiography in one chapter, in case people
suppose that such things happen to us every day, or that
they should be experiencing similarly dramatic guidance. I
would emphatically not counsel anyone to sit back in the way
that I did and wait for a job to turn up, unless the Lord
makes it abundantly clear that this is the path that He
would have them follow. His leadings are as infinite as His
variety in creation. The important thing is that He is
completely committed to guiding His children who put their
trust in Him.
By moving me to Chester, the Lord was calling me to embrace
a radically different lifestyle. From merely being aware
that contemplation existed, the Lord was now giving me a
specific call to it. It marked the beginning of an entirely
new phase in my life.
Dreams and Visions
As we have seen, it was through a dream that the Lord first
directed me to Chester. Dreams and visions are two of the
ways the Lord sometimes uses to impart guidance. When Aaron
and his sister Miriam grumbled against Moses in the
wilderness, their rebellious attitude provoked this word of
correction from the Lord:
a prophet of the Lord is among you,
I reveal Myself to him in visions,
I speak to him in dreams.
But this is not true of My servant Moses;
He is faithful in all My house.
With him I speak face to face,
Clearly and not in riddles;
He sees the form of the Lord.
Implied in this passage is
the existence of a sort of hierarchy of communication. At
the top are ‘face to face’ encounters between God and His
children. After that come dreams and visions, which the Lord
uses to show us things we could not otherwise have known. I
have discussed the significance of riddles at some length in
the chapter ‘The Dark Speech of God’ in Ravens and the
We have been hearing many exciting reports recently of the
Lord revealing Himself through dreams to Muslims in
countries where it is impossible to preach the Gospel
openly.2 In a village in Algeria where the martyr Ramon Lull
once preached, the Lord sent so mighty a visitation that
every single man in it was converted. There have been other
recorded instances of imams (religious teachers) being
converted, and subsequently holding church services in their
This is something to remember actively in prayer. The Church
in North Africa and the Middle East needs all the support we
can give it.
The dreams God sends are intended to comfort and instruct us
but they are in no way deterministic. In other words, what
we see in a dream is not inevitably bound to happen in real
life – though it may serve to warn us of what might happen
if we do not pray to avert the danger we have glimpsed.
As with other forms of guidance, what God reveals to us is
usually partial, and needs further clarification. Dreams
serve to stimulate our minds to explore a subject
prayerfully, but it is comparatively rare that God tells us
what to do through them. In my experience, I often dream
about friends in unusual contexts, or people with whom I
have lost contact. Most of the details may be irrelevant,
but the dream has served its purpose in reminding me of
someone I am meant to pray for or to get in touch with.
The principle is that God gives fresh guidance as
and when we need it. We are brought so far along a
path, and then we have to stop and ask again. This
keeps us humble and dependent. The Lord warned
Joseph in a dream to flee to Egypt. This piece of
guidance saved the Lord Jesus’ life, but it cost
Joseph his livelihood and reduced his family to
Some time later, Joseph was
shown in another dream that Herod was dead. The family set
out accordingly, only to come to an abrupt halt on hearing
the disturbing news that Herod’s tyrannical son was now
reigning in Judea. It was at this point of uncertainty that
God revealed the next stage of His plan, warning them in yet
another dream not to return to Judea, but to head north
instead to Galilee.3
Most of our dreams, of course, are just the normal random
processes of the subconscious mind, and we must beware of
trying too hard to find an interpretation where none is
immediately forthcoming. Dreams that God has sent either
come back to us during the course of the day, or are so
firmly etched in our minds the moment we awake that we know
them to be of a deeper significance. We are wise if we write
down the details quickly, before they begin to fade. C.S.
Lewis records that he ‘saw’ the substance of his Narnia
books in a series of dreams before he put pen to paper.
More commonly, God uses dreams as a ‘progress report’ on our
spiritual condition. Because they are just between ourselves
and God, they are the most discreet way He has of alerting
us to something that is out of balance in our life.
Dreams in which certain situations continually recur may be
particularly significant. These revelations about our inner
selves are often the jolt we need to take something
If dreams can be significant, it is even more important that
we heed visions, for God is addressing our conscious mind
here as well as our subconscious. In a vision we are shown
something in picture form that throws spiritual light on a
situation. There are many examples in the Bible of the Lord
using visions to guide and instruct His people.4 God still
sends warnings to churches and to nations through prophetic
visions. He wants us to be His watchmen and to pray as
fervently for our nation as we do for our loved ones.
It was through a vision the Lord led Ananias to the house
where Saul was staying. Since Saul of Tarsus was known to
the disciples only as a red-hot opponent of the Church it
was an improbable and dangerous command. Ananias’
willingness to make himself vulnerable was a crucial step in
transforming Saul into the great apostle Paul.7 Think of all
that would not have happened had Daniel and Ananias not
obeyed their improbable leadings! It makes us eager to
imitate their obedience, whilst maintaining sensible
The series of visions the Lord gave Micah concerning the
state of Samaria and Jerusalem formed the substance of his
prophetic message.5 God likewise gave Daniel the
interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in a vision, an act
of grace which not only saved his life but which prepared
the way for his meteoric rise to power in the Babylonian
More often than not, however, we are speaking of simple
fleeting impressions that pass across the screen of our
minds and which help us to pray or to counsel more
effectively. If we are open to the Lord, He may well speak
to us from time to time in dreams and visions.
Interpreting God’s Time-Scale
||Solid food is for
the mature, who by constant use have trained
themselves to distinguish good from evil — Therefore
let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ
and go on to maturity.
(Hebrews 5:14; 6:1)
The present move of the
Spirit has empowered many Christians; now the Lord is urging
us to press on to maturity. The verb phero
(translated to go on in Hebrews 6:1) means to be borne
along, like a ship driven by the wind. The King James
Version speaks of having our senses exercised. This is a
translation of the word aistheteria, which refers to
the organs of sense, such as our eyes, ears, nose, tongue,
fingers and the nervous system. Clearly, there is something
in the soul that corresponds to these senses and which we
need to build up. The word ‘exercised’ (gumnazo) means to
train (stripped of clothes). This use of imagery from the
world of athletics reminds us that considerable effort is
required in order to reach spiritual maturity.
Most of us find few things harder to interpret than God’s
time-scale. The Lord often works fast, but He is rarely in a
rush. Paul had to remind the Thessalonians that although
Jesus would be returning soon, they still needed to work and
earn their daily bread.8 Our confusion often stems from
mistaking some initial calling for the commission itself.
The initial call is given to alert us to begin to make
preparations. We may not need to take any decisive action
until the confirmation comes that releases us into action.
Understanding this will save us from rushing into premature
and irresponsible actions,9 and will encourage us to
double-check sudden impulses.
I mention this with some diffidence, because we have known
occasions when an unexpected curtailment of our plans has
proved to be the Lord’s leading. While we were on honeymoon,
the Lord told us to cut our holiday short, and to return
home three days early. We found a letter waiting for us,
inviting Rosalind for an interview on the following day. Not
only was she offered the job – she was the last midwife from
outside the county to be appointed for nearly a decade! In
the light of the way the Lord has developed her midwifery
ministry, we can only marvel at the care He took to bring us
back in time for that all-important interview.
Because there may be a significant time delay between an
initial call and our subsequent commission, there is a
danger that we may try to fulfil the vision by our own
efforts. The troubles multiply when we try to force the
outcome prematurely. Like Abraham, we can make an ‘Ishmael’
out of a genuine promise of God. It is not always wise to
get the oars out when the wind is not filling our sails!
True spirituality is neither outlandish nor impulsive, but
acts with mature deliberation on what the Lord has revealed.
I sometimes wonder, though, whether too many of us in the
Church today are not so heavily influenced by the cautious
dictates of worldly wisdom that we are no longer willing to
risk following the still small voice of God’s leading. As
Peter Marshall put it:
||God save us from the
hot heads who would lead us foolishly, and from cold
feet which would keep us from adventuring at all!
We must do our best to test
everything. Thus it was not enough that I felt the Lord
telling me to go to Chester; the mind, after all, can
imagine anything. It wasn’t even enough that I had found the
churches the Lord had told me about through a word of
knowledge. The clinching factor came when I met to pray with
the leaders of the church in Chester about the possibility
of my coming to be with them. The vicar was given a clear
conviction that our lives had been proceeding as it were
along parallel lines, and that the Lord now wanted to bring
our paths together.
Within a few months I was based at the one church, and
leading a prayer group in the other. God had spoken through
a dream and a word of knowledge, to lead me to a town with
which I would otherwise have had no connection. The Lord was
my Provider and my Shepherd during those early days in
Chester. I felt, in many ways, as though I was being ‘fed by
ravens’. I had then, as I have now, no guaranteed income,
but the Lord provided, first a city-centre flat overlooking
the river, then a car, and finally, three years later, a
house. He is generous beyond our wildest imaginings – and He
wants His children to trust Him.
In recent years we have faced a number of serious setbacks
and disappointments and experienced the inevitable
temptation to wallow in the pain and confusion. We have
discerned a pattern emerging, however, of the Lord
wonderfully making up to us over a period of time for the
things we had lost in the short term. The Lord is faithful,
and wishes to reassure all who put their trust in Him that
the Broad Open Spaces do indeed await us. He has indeed
‘saved the best till last’ (cf John 2:10).
Broad Open Spaces, just as much as on the Ascent of
Toil, we must keep our gaze firmly fixed on the Lord
who has gone ahead to prepare the way for us. He
wants us to have confidence to follow His leadings,
and to discern His whispers to us. But how are we to
handle the many times when we are unable to discern
the Lord’s will? The simple answer is that we must
trust Him in the darkness and learn from our
mistakes! We should no more stop trying to listen to
the Lord because we have misunderstood His will in
the past than refuse to get back into a car because
we have had an accident.
There is another aspect to
this. We must also face the fact that God sometimes appears
to allow those who are seemingly very mature to trip over
their feet from time to time in some matter of listening, if
only to keep them from taking undue pride in their own
abilities and achievements.
Many of our mistakes stem from failing to share our
situation in sufficient detail with praying friends.
However, not everyone will agree with us even when we have
heard correctly. The way of the cross sometimes sets us on a
course that others – even those who love us dearly – will
find hard to understand. Their outlook on life makes it
virtually impossible for them to see things as we do.
Feeling something for oneself, but hearing the opposite from
one’s friends can be extremely confusing. Often it is best
to wait until things become clearer to all concerned. Time
spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted, and most matters
of guidance benefit from proper prayer and consultation. But
there are occasions when we face a unique opportunity and
have to decide more or less there and then what to do about
it. With great humility we must accept that if the Lord
really is calling us forward, we cannot afford to keep
looking over our shoulder to see who is following us! But do
remember that when a major issue of guidance is involved,
the Lord will confirm His calling to us by more than one
strand of leading.
Most of us find guidance a complex issue – but that
does not mean the Lord is not leading us. It is
worth making the effort to record the Lord’s
dealings with us. Take time to ponder and discern
His leading in your life, and to praise Him for his
faithfulness to you.
Father, I praise You that You are guiding me. I plan
my ways, but it is You who ordain the steps of my
life. Thank You for bringing all the people who mean
so much to me into my life. Give me eyes to
recognize when You are calling me to some new
venture, or leading me in a particular direction –
and grant me the willingness to respond accordingly.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.
1. Robert Weston, Ravens and the Prophet (New Wine
2. cf Genesis 28:11-15; 1 Kings 3:5-15. See, for example,
Bilquis Sheikh’s book, I dared to call Him Father (Hodder
3. Matthew 2:19-23. The wise men were likewise instructed in
a dream not to return to King Herod (Matthew 2:12). See also
Matthew 1:20; Genesis 31:24.
4. E.g. Genesis 15:1ff; Acts 2:17; 2 Corinthians 12:1.
5. Micah 1:1.
6. Daniel 2:19 ff.
7. Acts 9:10-18.
8. 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12.
9. When the Lord calls us to do something unconventional, it
often happens that an easier course of action comes our way
at about the same time. Such temptations are a test of our
willingness to pay the cost to see the original vision