God Gives Direction


God calls us to a life of pilgrimage, of companionship with Christ on his journey, and of partnership in the mission of divine grace to redeem and heal the world. Though we might see our discipleship largely in terms of the work we undertake in Christ's name or for his sake, it is vital to remember that God sees it in terms of a covenant relationship. The first disciples were challenged, first, to follow Christ, and only secondly, to learn how to fish for people. We too are called to a journey, not to a job-description. First of all, we enter into a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Only afterwards do we discover where we are to be sent, what we are to do, what we have to say.

The more committed and involved we become within the mission of the Church, the more we tend to identify our discipleship with the relationships we are building, the work we are doing, the talents we are exercising, or the vision we are pursuing. But our discipleship is not centred in any of these. For example, our personal relationships may flourish and deepen, but they may also become extended as children grow up, friends move on, our partner dies. And despite our effort and intentions, friends can grow apart, relatives can become estranged, marriages can break down. But however much we may derive our identity or self-esteem from our relationships, none of them are essential to God's idea of who we are or what we are worth. We are created in the divine image and we have chosen to become friends of Christ. We are ourselves, fragile and fallible, but nevertheless lovely and beloved. Whatever betrayals or bereavements we suffer, God is committed to us, now and forever.
Similarly, our work, our talents and our vision are all subject to change, and are, in the end, expendable. For all sorts of reasons, we can find that we are laid aside, our work frustrated, our talents unused, our vision unfulfilled. But again, however much we may derive our identity or self-esteem from our work, achievements or creativity, they are not essential to God. What God cherishes, and what remains when all else is lost, is that relationship which is the foundation of our discipleship - the road upon which we walk - our companionship with God through Christ.

So often we are not the best judges of our own place in God's missionary endeavour. We may invest a large proportion of our time and energy in particular pieces of work, only to find that those words or actions which have had the most lasting impact are those which we have long forgotten. An "off the cuff" remark, an action which we took without much thought, can live on, for good or ill, far longer than that project into which we have ploughed so much of our concern and care. This is the mystery of Christian mission - humbling and yet also hopeful - that the purposes of God are so often fulfilled despite us, that so much ministry happens "by the way."
We are also very poor judges of what God is doing, partly because we tend to assume that God's purpose is laid out from the present into the future like a motorway, with every junction planned down to the last centimetre of white paint, so that all we would need to do is to get in the appropriate lane. If only it were that simple. The fact is that the broad highway of our dreams does not exist. The spiritual motorways which run through the world are jammed solid with stationary or crawling queues of traffic due to accidents, contra-flows and road-works. Even where there are no obstacles, there are always people changing lanes or rubber-necking or driving with one hand because the other is clamped around a mobile phone.

Yet we persist in fantasizing that if we spot the right signs or obey the right signals we will find ourselves on a wonderful stretch of clear road. This false assumption can lead to us relying far too much on the signs that we interpret from our subjective experience - or which others interpret for us from theirs. We search for clues in the world around us, looking for opening doors, but in fact clinging gratefully to any chance event which reinforces our sense that God is working for us. We monitor our emotions for that elusive "leading" which will reassure us that what we want to do anyway is part of God's master-plan for us and for the world. And we scour the Scriptures for any text which resonates with our circumstances or our condition, and then internalise it as a justification for whatever action or purpose that we have in mind. All without once asking ourselves why we are so anxious to receive a sign.

One of the reasons that guidance is so tricky is that genuine discernment is an interpretation of our subjective experience, and does make use of details such as opportunities, events, emotions and our response to Scripture. However, it does so within a theological framework which places God at the centre of the picture; within an awareness of the entire Christian tradition; within a knowledge of psychology which gives us insight into human motivation; and within an understanding of the Bible as a whole.

This is probably why Jesus warned his followers against seeking signs, because if we are to interpret them accurately, we must be willing to look at the whole picture, in all its length and breadth, height and depth - and this takes time, study, practice and humility - none of which come quickly or easily. And yet we all carry within ourselves the necessary resources for a more objective discernment. But we must first rid ourselves of any fantasies we might have of "getting it right". For God's mission, and our pilgrimage within it, is a communal journey into a rough and varied country in which the only highways look more like footpaths to our modern eyes, on which we can move no faster than our own feet can carry us, and with the added difficulty that our distractions, mistakes, sins and failings - and those of those around us - will often cause us to lose our sense of direction.

But this does not matter as much as we fear. There is no need to become disheartened if we feel we have made a terrible mistake, or we cannot see where the path is leading us, because our feelings and our circumstances can be very unreliable guides as to what God thinks of us and where God is taking us. Whatever or whoever else fails us, and however much we may fail ourselves, God is committed to us in love. However much we may have messed up, God looks upon us with love, and if we are willing to be honest about our hopes, needs, desires, wants and intentions, God will sift them, shape them and work the best of them into a developing design of immense depth, astonishing range and mysterious beauty.

In the end it is not our failings, or even our sins, which are important - God has allowed for them - but our determination to remain on the road. If we desire this, and keep on travelling in honesty, thankfulness and trust, we will begin to find that it is easier than before to stay on our feet and to keep moving on in generosity, wholeness, justice and compassion. The sense will grow within us that we are indeed walking with Christ, that he is guiding us according to a map that he can read even if we cannot, and that we are together travelling in the Light. This "sense" is, of course, highly subjective, and formed of those very same events, opportunities, feelings and words that we relied upon before, but now they are refined by the more objective perception that comes from being immersed in Spirit and in truth.

For these are two sure tests that we can apply to any and every situation: ruthless honesty and thorough praise. Have we looked honestly and frankly at all the options, including the worst case scenario, or the way we do not wish to take? So often we blame God for not guiding us when in fact we are only willing to consider the easy or more desirable road. Take courage to consider all the possibilities, including (even especially) the ones that are less attractive, and then you will be able to hear more clearly what God is actually wanting of you. The worst road might not be asked of you this time, but if it is, then you will be spiritually prepared.

If you find yourself searching for a sign, ask yourself why this might be so. Does your search spring from the confidence that you are lovely and beloved, or from the fear - instilled in you, perhaps, at a very young age - that you are only acceptable to God if you "get it right." Relax, take courage, hear the good news that God loves you and desires you to have a rich and abundant life. Listen to the words of love that God is speaking to you through the Scriptures. They are for all people, for all time, and that includes you. Listen to the love with which Jesus reaches out and responds to people: this is how God regards you and will deal with you. Internalise the promises of friendship and commitment that God offers to Israel, to the disciples - and through the eternal Spirit, to you. Rest in that love, return to it each day, each moment, as you need, and you will discover that you are immersed in it and moving with it as with a healing stream.

Last but not least, offer everything to God in praise. Everything, without exception. This is hard, and seems unreasonable, even offensive, when it requires us to offer our deepest suffering, or the pain which makes us angry, defensive, numb. But is it harder than living trapped within our anguish, than knowing that we are being devoured by bitterness or overwhelmed by fear? It is a step of faith. We cannot see how it can possibly help us or anyone else. It is a sacrifice which we make in our inmost heart, for the sake of God alone. And yet, it is the testimony of many saints, known and unknown, that praise is a ladder which lifts us, rung by rung, step by step, out of the mire and turns us, face and hands and heart and feet, towards the sun.

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