Discerning providential guidance
From Religious Cases of Conscience (1755), by Samuel Pike and Samuel Hayward, ministers at London, England.
How may a person, who is desirous of following the dictates of providence, in every respect, know the mind and will of God in any particular circumstance, whether temporal or spiritual?
This is a question of so large an extent, and of so great importance, that the very sight of it, when it came into my hands, raised in me a great desire to give some solution of it. But, when I looked more attentively into the nature and purport of it, I found it to be a question attended with so much difficulty and so much nicety in many cases, that I was made almost to doubt whether I should attempt an answer to it or no. However, looking up to the Spirit of God, and into the word of God, for direction in an affair of so much moment, I have ventured upon it; and shall now offer you my thoughts on the subject, in the most free and open manner. And although I cannot pretend to give such a particular, or such an extensive answer to it, as the case may require; yet I shall not account my labour in vain, if enabled to exhibit some general rules, which may be helpful to the serious Christian in determining his course of duty. As for those who have not the fear of God before their eyes, they are unconcerned about the matter; they go on in the ways of their own hearts, and in the sight of their own eyes, and, at best, advance no higher than to follow the maxims of human prudence, and worldly wisdom. But the truly serious person desires to follow the dictates of divine providence in every respect, and is concerned to have the Lord going before him in every step, pointing out his way, and marking out his path for him. He would not, he dares not walk at random, as knowing that the path of duty is the only path of safety and comfort. But how the Christian should know or find out his path, is the great question before us.
Here then it will be necessary, first to explain the terms of the question, and then give an answer to it, both negatively and positively.
I. As to the explication of the meaning of the question itself: this is so very needful, that, unless you attend to it, you will not be able to see into the nature and suitableness of the answer. For I apprehend that a great part of the difficulty belonging to the subject arises from a misunderstanding or a misapplication of the terms, in which it is conceived; and a clear conception of the meaning of the case proposed, will of itself prevent many mistakes, and will give a general clue for the solution of it.
There is some reason to fear, that, by the mind and will of God in a particular circumstance, many understand something that is absolutely unknown to us, or not to be known by us without a special, fresh revelation? and therefore, when they are seeking after, or praying for the knowledge of the divine will, they aim at some peculiar illuminations or impressions, which are neither to be sought after, nor to be depended upon; by which means they are unnecessarily perplexed, and often sadly deluded. We must therefore, in this case, be particularly upon our guard against a species of enthusiasm, which we may be too easily inclined to, and ensnared by.
To prevent mistakes of this nature, let it be observed, that these phrases, the dictates of providence, and the mind or will of God, though they are very proper to the subject, yet are truly metaphorical. Let me therefore express what we mean. (1.) By the dictates of providence; (2.) By the mind and will of God in a particular circumstance; and, (3.) By following these dictates of providence, or conforming ourselves to this will of God.
(1.) What is meant by the dictates or voice of providence. We are not to imagine that divine providence of itself, abstractedly considered, makes known any thing to us: but we must include his word of revelation in the affair. For in reality, by the voice of providence, we mean the voice of God in his word, concerning our duty as to the particular providences we are attended with. Thus we say, that afflictive providences have an humbling voice in them; by which, I presume, is meant, that, when we are under afflictive dispensations, the divine word directs and teaches us to submit to, and be humble under, the mighty hand of God. Prosperous circumstances call us to thankfulness; i.e. God requires us to be thankful for all his mercies to us; and, when such favours are bestowed upon us, it then becomes our duty to be thankful for them.
A situation of special temptation or ensnarement has a voice in it to call us to watchfulness; i.e. It is the mind and will of God, by his word, that we should be peculiarly upon our guard, when providence brings us into such circumstance of trial. These particulars are introduced, in this place, as familiar instances, to give an idea of what we mean by the voice of providence. And if we clearly conceive the true import of the phrase by these hints, we may proceed, and apply the thought to those circumstances, which more nearly concern the present question, after this manner: whensoever providence hedges or stops up one way of safety, comfort, or duty, so that we cannot proceed any father in it, and at the same time opens out another way to go in; then it is evidently the voice or dictate of this providence, that we should leave the former way, and betake ourselves to the other, which appears to be most conducive to our safety, usefulness, or comfort; which is the same as to say, that God makes it our duty, by his word, to take such steps, as appear most conducive to his glory, and our real good, in all circumstances in general; and so, by this general rule, in all circumstances in general; and so, by this general rule, it becomes our duty in the circumstances above supposed to leave one path of life, and pursue another. And now it will be more easy to learn,
(2.) What is meant by the mind and will of God in any particular circumstance. For it cannot intend any secret locked up in the divine breast, which must be made known by a special revelation; but we must understand by it, the revealed will of God, which by its more general, or more particular rules, gives us proper directions for duty, and safety, and usefulness, in any distinct circumstances of life or providence. And therefore,
(3.) To follow the dictates of providence, must mean no other than to act agreeable to the laws of duty, prudence, and safety, in any particular circumstance, according to the directions or determinations of the word and law of God. He follows these dictates, who takes a due survey of the situation he is placed in, compares that with the rules of the word which reach the case, and acts accordingly. Such a person neither delays when providence calls, nor hurries on before it calls.
Having thus explained the terms of the question, I doubt not but you see that the very explication itself tends to solve many difficulties, and prevent many mistakes, and to give you a general clue for your conduct. Let us now bring down what has been said into the question itself. It supposes that you have some particular affair depending, whether temporal or spiritual; that you are at some loss to determine which way to act, or what method to take; and you desire to know what is the mind and will of God in the present case. Here then let me beg you to recollect in your thoughts, what you do or should mean by this will of God. It certainly means no more than for you to be able to understand and judge what is the properest course to be taken, agreeable to the situation you are in, and agreeable to the rules and directions of the divine word in your case. If you mean any more than this, I apprehend you aim at and intrude into those things which are not seen, and which it is not your business to know; for secret things belong to God, Deut. 29:29.
In order to come at the knowledge of that which it is proper and needful for us to be acquainted with, we are taught by prudence and conscience to make use of, (1.) Deliberation. (2.) Consultation. (3.) Supplication.
Our deliberation should be serious and attentive. We should look around us, and observe what condition and circumstances we are in; should turn our thoughts about every way that we can, in order to view our situation, in every point of light, in which it appears; and should then compare it with rules of prudence and duty, laid before us in the word.
Our consultation, with friends, should be sincere and prudent, with a design to receive what light their conversation may convey; for in most cases it is true, that in the multitude of counselors there is safety.
Our supplication to the Lord for direction should be serious, earnest, and submissive. Without this, we are in great danger of being led astray, notwithstanding all previous consideration and consultation; for the Lord will be owned and acknowledged; and if he is neglected, we are guilty of leaning to our own understanding, or depending upon the wisdom of men. We are strictly required to be submissive to divine direction; for the meek are those that he will guide in judgment, and teach his way, Ps. 25:9. And we have the greatest encouragement to hope for safe conduct in this course; because it is added in the following words, Ps. 25:10. All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth to such as keep his covenant and his testimonies. Yea, we have a positive and gracious promise of divine conduct, Ps. 25:12. What man is he that feareth the Lord? Him shall he teach in the way that he shall choose. But, when you are thus seriously employed in seeking direction from the Lord, take heed that your speech, your thoughts, and desires be ordered aright. Let me here ask you, what do you really mean by seeking divine direction? Do you hereby desire any discovery of his secret will by any unaccountable impulses, or any irrational impressions? If so, I really question whether this very desire is either warrantable or safe. I will tell you briefly what I would mean by such a practice. When I pray for his guidance and direction in a particular perplexity, I beg of him, that he would lead my thoughts, by his Spirit, into such a view of the directions of his word, and of the conduct of his providence, that I may from thence be able to judge what is my path of duty; that he would so order affairs in his providence, as to make my way clear to me upon the principles of duty, prudence, and conscience; and that he would so fix my view, and so incline my heart, as to make me ready and willing to take those steps, or pursue those measures, that may be most conducive to secure the peace of my conscience, to advance the glory of his name, and to promote my real good. Having so distinctly explained and guarded the question, I proceed,
II. To give an answer to it. The question then returns to this form: having made use of proper consideration, consultation, and supplication; what must we look upon, after all, as marks or tokens of the divine will and pleasure in any particular case that now lies before us? The reply must be made both negatively and positively.
1. Negatively. We are often very prone to increase our perplexity, or to run into the way of danger, by mistaking the rule, and following those things as guides, which have no certainty or safety in them; and this renders it highly necessary, that false rules should be laid aside, in order to make way for a clear answer to the important query.
(1.) We should not make our inclinations the rule of our conduct; for, through the depravity and vanity of our hearts, we may often find a propensity to that, which prudence and conscience, if consulted, would recriminate against; and an aversion to that, which the word and providence of God make our duty. In some cases, indeed, it is very necessary to consult the inclination, genius, or capacity, and take it into consideration while we are weighing and pondering what course of life will be the most suitable to us, or our friends. But, after all, inclination has no standard or rule, either of duty or prudence.
(2.) We should not make our particular frames the rule of our judgment and determination: because we find ourselves sometimes in frame, for that which is not our present duty; and, when duty and prudence call, our frames may be unsuitable and reluctant. It might not be improper in this place a little to animadvert upon a method, which some serious persons take, by forming their judgment from the enlargement, or contraction of their frames in solemn prayer. If they are engaged in serious devotions, seeking to the Lord for a particular favour in providence; if they find themselves peculiarly enlarged, they gather from thence, that the favour shall be granted; but, if they are peculiarly contracted, they take it as a token of a divine denial; and so frame their actions according to these views or expectations. But this I apprehend is an erroneous and uncertain rule of judgment: for, although many a time the event may come to pass agreeably to this rule, yet many times it has proved just the reverse; and if we lay any considerable stress upon these frames, we are in danger of being misled as to the way of duty, and of having our faith and hope shocked and stumbled by an unexpected disappointment. As this rule of judgment is not given us in the word, it is therefore uncertain; and yet we should be ready to acknowledge thus much; that so far as the liberty of our frames excites and encourages us to use proper means, and so far as the contraction of our frames prevents us from being presumptuous or too forward in our conduct, so far it is a mercy to us that we are thus encouraged, or thus cautioned. And it is very likely, that God may sometimes enlarge our hearts in prayers, with a design to excite and encourage us; or contract our hearts with a design to prevent us from using those means, or taking those steps, which may be detrimental. But still the rule of judgment and duty, is to be gathered from the appearances of providence, and the directions of the word.
(3.) We are not to be guided by the bare form of scripture phrases. Far, very far, would I be from laying aside the use of the Holy Scriptures in these points; but would only guard against abuses of it. There are some Christians who are fond of using the Bible, as if it were a fortune-book: when a difficulty in prudence or duty occurs, they will open the Bible at random, and observe what text meets their eyes first; and, according as the wild imagination applies that passage to the point in question, so they think it their duty to act. This is a very weak and dangerous practice, and a sad abuse of the word of God, applying it to a purpose for which the Holy Ghost never intended it. Others will make a random application of a passage of Scripture (which suddenly occurs to, or is strongly impressed upon their minds) to their present case and difficulty; never looking into, or attending to the proper meaning of the text, but straining and applying it to something very foreign from the intention of the Holy Spirit. For instance, if the query be, whether you should follow the practice of a neighbor or friend, and you have those words impressed upon your mind, Go thou and do likewise; you are apt from these assuredly to gather, that it is the mind and will of God you should do as he does. This method of judging concerning prudence and duty is extremely weak, precarious, and dangerous; for it can never be supposed that the Holy Spirit intended those words in the Bible to be thus applied and used at random.
But this brings me to observe,
(4.) That we are not to be guided by any unaccountable impulses and impressions. There are many who frequently feel such impressions upon their minds, and are inclined to pay a very strict regard unto them. Yea, some carry this point so far, as to make it almost the only rule of their judgment, and will not determine any thing, until they find it in their hearts to do it, as their phrase is. Others take it for granted, that the divine mind is notified to them by sweet or powerful impressions of some passages of sacred writ: [Footnote] and there are others who are determined by visionary manifestations, or by the impressions made in dreams, and the interpretations they put upon them. All these things being of the same general nature, may very justly be considered together. And it is a matter of doubt with many, how far these things are to be regarded or attended to by us; and how we may distinguish any divine impressions of this kind from the delusions of the tempter, or of our own evil hearts. Give me leave here to say, that whoever makes any of these things his rule and standard, he forsakes the divine word; and nothing tends more to make persons unhappy in themselves, unsteady in their conduct, or more dangerously deluded in their practice, than a paying a random regard to these impulses, as notifications of the divine will. To take it for granted, that it is our duty to act so or so, because it is impressed upon our minds, or because our dreams bear such an interpretation, or even because a passage of holy writ is applied to our minds in a powerful and unaccountable way: I say, thus to judge, is an enthusiastical delusion, which ought to be avoided and detested by all sober Christians, as a bold intrusion into the secret will of God, as a withdrawment of heart from the proper rule of duty, as regarding lying vanities, and forsaking our own mercy. But you will say, "Are not some of these impressions divine? Has not many a Christian found himself mercifully led in the proper path by these impulsive methods? Nay, have not some believers been comforted and directed, yea, and some sinners awakened, and brought savingly to Christ, in this impulsive way, by dreams, visions, or powerful impressions of some parts of sacred writ? And, if so, there is certainly some reason to regard them, to desire them, wait for them, and be thankful for them." I would answer, And are not many of them purely enthusiastical, if not diabolical? The question therefore returns, How may we distinguish those impressions that are delusive, enthusiastical, or diabolical, from those that are true and divine? Now here it is natural to observe, that the very putting or admitting this question supposes and proves that these impulses cannot be the standard of duty, nor of themselves indications to us of the mind and will of God; but we must recur to some other rule to try the spirits whether they be of God. For which reason they are not to be depended upon: and those who find themselves frequently acted upon in this impulsive way, ought to be extremely upon their guard, lest they are so deceived and deluded as to place a dependence upon them. It is, doubtless, a mercy and privilege for any to be so impressed, as to be thereby excited or directed into the right path of duty; and whatever impulses quicken us to it, we may be thankful for: but, after all, they must not be accounted the rule or standard of right and wrong. You may therefore take this as a general rule: that, whenever these impressions are such as lead us to depend upon themselves, and direct our course according to them absolutely, they are really enthusiastical, or very much to be suspected upon that account. I am obliged therefore to put the matter upon this plain issue: either these impulses excite thoughts and reasonings in our own mind concerning the path of duty, or they do not: if they do not, and have nothing to offer as a reason why we should follow them, but because we find ourselves so excited and impressed, they are then properly enthusiastical: but, if they do awaken our thoughts and concern, and turn our minds to think upon some scriptural or prudential reasons for our conduct, then the thoughts suggested are to be brought to the standard of prudence and duty, and to be determined from thence whether they are right or wrong. And we may vindicate the promised leadings of God's Spirit, without giving encouragement to enthusiastic pretences, upon this principle: that the Spirit of God has access to our minds, and works upon us so as to lead our thoughts unto the law and testimony, and to direct our minds to such truths of Scripture, and such rules of prudence, as are most adapted to direct us in a present difficulty. Let me add,
(5.) We must not make the event our rule of judgment. My meaning is this: if we have taken a step conscientiously in the fear of God, and it does not succeed; we need not therefore reflect upon ourselves, as if we had done wrong; but rather submit to God's sovereign providence. And, if we have taken a step carelessly, presumptuously, or without proper reason to vindicate it, and it succeeds beyond our expectation; we should not therefore soothe our consciences, as if we had done right; but rather encourage a thankful admiration that God should deal with us in kindness, so contrary to our deserts. But it is high time to come to,
2. The positive answer to this interesting question. The Spirit of God by his operations always makes use of, and directs us to the word and providence compared together, in order to open to us the path of duty. So that the general rule for us to judge by is this: that which evidently appears, after serious deliberation, proper consultation, and earnest supplication, to be impracticable, unlawful, or imprudent, we are to esteem not to be the mind and will of God in the case: and whatever appears to be proper duty, true prudence, or real necessity, that we should esteem to be his will. To render this general rule familiar and easy, I would conclude with the application of it to some extensive particulars.
(1.) Unless something, different from your present situation, offers itself to your serious consideration, you are not to be desirous of changing your state, except in such cases as the following. Perhaps providence begins to render your present situation very uncomfortable, and really unprofitable to yourselves or others; or makes your continuance in it truly impracticable. If so, we may assuredly gather, that we should look out after and seek for some alteration. Or perhaps, though your present condition may be easy and profitable, yet there may be such changes attending it, as to render it unlawful for you to continue; you cannot remain in this business or place any longer, without making a breach upon your conscience, without violating the divine law, without omitting some incumbent duty, or depriving yourselves of some necessary privilege, or being exposed to the prevailing power of some sin or temptation. Whenever your situation appears such, as to render it impossible for you to abide in it, without sustaining such sad consequence, you may assuredly gather, that it is now the will of God that you should immediately look out for some other place or employment. You are not to be given to change; but in such cases as these we are warranted and required by prudence and duty to change our state or circumstance, and seek out after something else, whether there be any immediate proposal of another nature, or no.
(2.) When an alteration of circumstances is proposed to you, or providence lays two or more things before your eyes; to choose whether to continue where you are, or to enter upon a different situation, or of two different situations which of them to accept; endeavour to take a distinct view of each proposed case, so far as comes within the compass of your knowledge; compare them with one another, and with the condition of yourselves or families, etc. and then determine by such maxims as these. Of two natural evils, choose the least; this is a plain rule in prudence. Of two moral evils, choose neither; but fly from both upon every consideration; nor let your conscience be soothed or silenced with that sad principle, Rom. 3:8, Let us do evil, that good may come of it: for their condemnation is just who do so, let their consciences be ever so easy and pacified about it. Determine always on the safest side in affairs of conscience; and, while your minds scruple the lawfulness of any thing, and you can with a safe conscience abstain from it, duty requires you should abstain; for he that thus doubteth is self-condemned, if he ventures upon it, because he does it not of faith; for whatsoever is not of faith is sin. Happy is the man that condemneth not himself in the thing that he alloweth, Rom. 14:22-23.
Of two moral or spiritual good things, choose the greatest, if you have capacity and opportunity for it; for duty requires us to be ready to every good word and work. That situation wherein you can do and receive the greatest real good to yourselves or others, that situation wherein you can best promote the glory of God, and serve your generation according to his will, should be embraced by you.
Of two natural good things, you are not always to choose the greatest; but fix upon that, even though it be the least, that appears best to subserve the real and spiritual good of yourselves and others. Do not set your eye and heart upon worldly riches, honours, or pleasures: for they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition, I Tim. 6:9. These things are to be sought after only in a strict subserviency to real and spiritual advantages: for which reason you must take special care about your motives and views in affairs of this kind. For want of this guard upon yourselves, you will be in danger of embracing any thing that is shining and promising to an eye of sense, to the loss and detriment of those things that alone can make you truly happy, comfortable, and useful.
(3.) When, upon due consideration, nothing appears in the necessity of the case, or the pointings of providence, to make your way clear; do not hurry providence; but remain in a state of suspense, or abide where you are; waiting upon the Lord in the way of prayer, and waiting for the Lord in the way of his providence: and you need not fear, but that, as soon as it is needful for you to determine, God will by his providence either hedge up the wrong way, by making it impracticable, uncomfortable, unprofitable, or imprudent to you, and shut you up unto his chosen way: or else he will soon give you such a turn in affairs as shall turn the scale; so that conscience, prudence, or a desire of usefulness will be sufficient to determine you, without your making any felt impressions, or any supposed revelations, the rule of your conduct.
(4.) I would lay before you the following general rules, which suit to every case, and so conclude. In all cases let it be your perpetual concern to keep as much as possible out of the way of temptation to omit any duty, or commit any sin. Let the sixth petition of the Lord's prayer be always yours, and act accordingly: lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
In all cases take the word of God for your rule: See whether there be any thing in it, which, according to its proper meaning, suits your case; whether its rules of duty, and its prudential maxims will not help and direct you in deciding the point. Compare the declarations of the word with the dispensations of providence towards you; and thence learn what the Lord requires of you in your present circumstance. Be earnest with God, that his Spirit would bring such texts or truths to your mind, as may be proper to direct you; and that he would give you a true insight into them, and help your thoughts to apply them to your case, that you might rightly judge upon the principles of prudence and conscience. And thus you will experimentally prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God; and will find the sacred oracles to be a light to your feet, and a lamp to your path.
In all cases keep up a reverence for the word and providence of God upon your hearts. Whatever these render unlawful or imprudent, look upon it to be against his will, and accordingly avoid it: and what these render necessary from conscience and prudence, esteem it agreeable to his will, and comply with it accordingly, not merely as your choice, nor as invented by your prudence; but as the will of the Lord himself.
In all cases have a steady eye to his glory. Let this be the grand view of your minds, the grand principle of your conduct, and the grand spring of your actions. And if his glory, and your real spiritual good, lie uppermost in your minds, it will be a most useful, valuable, and effectual directory to your actions. Lay to heart that excellent caution, direction, and encouragement, which are found together, in Prov. 3:5-6. Trust in the Lord will all thine heart, and lean not to thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him; acknowledge his word, by consulting it, his hand of providence by observing it, his wisdom, by admiring it, his sovereignty, by acquiescing in it, his faithfulness by relying on it, and his kindness by being thankful for it: and he shall direct thy paths.
Finally, in every case let it be your great concern and desire to behold God in covenant, as managing every providential circumstance in subserviency to his gracious purposes in Christ Jesus. He, as a covenant God, has committed the management of the kingdom of providence, as well as of grace, into the hands, the faithful, powerful and gracious hands of our exalted Redeemer: for Christ has all the power both in heaven and earth; and this power is given him on purpose that he should give eternal life to as many as were given him. Beholding every circumstance as thus conducted by the Lord Jesus, in pursuance of the designs of the everlasting covenant, will alleviate every trial, will sweeten every cross, and add a double sweetness to every providential favour. If providence renders our present situation uncomfortable, a sight of God's love in Christ will make us contented till there be an opening for our escape. If providence renders our abiding in our present state impracticable or unlawful, the viewing Jesus Christ at the helm of all affairs, will enable us boldly to venture out in his name, and strength, into any unknown or rugged path, which necessity or duty may drive us into. When two different situations are offered to our choice; here is now a trial of our love to God in Christ; for the head of the church brings his people into such a state of suspense, in order to try what influence our love to his name, our regard to his word, and our view to his honour, will have upon the deciding our conduct. And, if we could always view such circumstances, in providence, as trials of our choice, this very thought would be a great means of quickening and directing our way. If providence keeps us for a time in such a state of suspense, we should look upon this as a trial of our patience, to see whether we can wait upon the Lord, and believe in his salvation.
Thus, whatever our circumstances are, a real belief of God's love and faithfulness to us in Jesus Christ, and a realizing view of providence as in his hands, will be found of eminent service to keep us close to our duty, and to keep us from entering into any forbidden path; to keep our view upon the honour of Christ, and to keep our faith from failing, our patience from being exhausted, and our souls from misinterpreting and misimproving the dispensations of providence towards us.
[Footnote] By these sweet and powerful impressions of Scripture phrases or sentences upon the mind, I do not here mean their being set home upon the heart and conscience, agreeable to the true meaning, and proper design of the Holy Spirit in them; for whenever this is the case, it is evident they are very desirable and valuable, as the effect of God's Spirit upon the heart. But I mean such unaccountable, occasional impressions of Scripture passages, as are foreign from the proper meaning of the Holy Ghost in them. We are not to esteem these any rule of conduct, nor immediately act according to them, as if notifications of the divine will, for they may be delusive, instead of being directory. But however, it may be granted, that, so far as these false impressions excite in our minds these thoughts which are according to Scripture truths, though not the truth of the passage impressed, so far they may be really useful, both in providential and spiritual concerns.