“HOW does God guide us?” is a fundamental question for a Christian. God’s overarching answer is Jesus’s costly love for us; his cross and resurrection. But I am asking a narrower question: how does God guide us from day to day?
When we are young — or, at any rate, early in our Christian journey — God seems more likely to guide us in exceptional ways: the clear voice heard; the dream; or the opening of the Bible at random. St Augustine is a famous example of the last of these methods. During his conversion, he heard the voice of a child saying “Take it and read it” (The Confessions of St. Augustine, trans. E. B. Pusey)).
He opened the Bible at random, and his eyes fell on the passage that starts, “Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness. . . Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh” (Romans 13.13-14). This led to his dramatic conversion to a life of Christianity and continence.
LATER in our Christian journey, God more often guides us day by day in simple, normal ways. In our mature Christian life, God typically speaks through the circumstances of our daily lives. As St Francis de Sales wrote, “To be perfect in our vocation is nothing else than to fulfil the duties which our state of life obliges us to perform, and to accomplish them well, and only for the honour and love of God.”
A married man or woman loves his or her spouse and children; part of this love is to provide for them. If they have a job, it is their duty to do it well, as if they were working for God.
This I experienced clearly as a practising GP and family man: there was no doubt about what I should do, I simply had to get on with it. I am not suggesting that the motor of these actions is duty; the motor is love — “our hearts” — which I discuss below. But, knowing that they are our duty, we do not need to waste time prevaricating.
THE circumstances of our daily life are willed by God: a colleague speaking to me, or an advertisement in the paper, can represent guidance from God. It is these circumstances, which are God’s message, to which we must respond.
Fr Walter Ciszek SJ writes eloquently about this in his books (With God in Russia and He Leadeth Me, both Fr Ciszek with Daniel L. Flaherty SJ; McGraw-Hill, 1964, and Doubleday, 1973). Fr Ciszek was a Roman Catholic priest and missionary who lived in the Soviet Union as a political prisoner, experiencing terrible suffering; and then lived in internal exile in Siberia from 1941 to 1963.
In his books, he explains that his survival and witness against all the odds was due to his belief in this very simple, everyday truth. He tried to express this truth time and again, as in the following quotation: “Across that threshold I had been afraid to cross, things suddenly seemed so very simple. There was but a single vision, God, who was all in all; there was but one will that directed all things, God’s will. I had only to see it, to discern it in every circumstance in which I found myself, and let myself be ruled by it. . . No danger could threaten me, no fear could shake me, except the fear of losing sight of Him. The future, hidden as it was, was hidden in His will and therefore acceptable to me no matter what it might bring.”
WHY does God tend to guide us directly early in our Christian life and, later, more typically through our interpretation of daily events? Perhaps this is something to do with the formation of our conscience. Regular prayer, examination of conscience and confession, the word of God in the Bible, the sacraments, the encouragement and advice of fellow believers, attendance at church — all these lead to a better- formed conscience (Articles 1783-1785, Catechism of the Catholic Church).
The better our conscience is formed, the more clearly we can discern the word of God and the needs of the world in our daily lives. Nevertheless, we will often need the help of others — typically our spouses; sometimes other members of the community — to discern which internal prompts will lead to the right course of action. As St Paul put it, “Do not quench the spirit . . . but test every spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5.19-21).
God also speaks directly through our hearts. For St Augustine, man could not ultimately choose anything other than “what delights his heart”. But, for him, it was God who could alter or transform “what delights our heart”. The relationship between divine grace and free will is indeed mysterious and controversial; St Augustine’s own views changed (Peter Brown, St Augustine of Hippo, a biography, Faber & Faber, 1975). Nevertheless, his point that God can change “what delights our heart” is well made.
We can co-operate with this transformation by prayer, by refraining from sin, by fasting, and so on, as Richard Foster writes in Celebration of Discipline: The path to spiritual growth (Hodder & Stoughton, 2008). Moreover, I would add that we are profoundly social beings. God can, indeed, change “what delights our heart” — but so can our friends, and the society that we choose to keep.
SO FAR, I have hardly mentioned prayer — often seen as where God communicates with us most directly. And so he does, but sometimes simply by giving us the calmness, quietness, and context to perceive our emotions and thoughts most clearly.
Finally, it is a characteristic of God’s guidance in the Bible that it comes one step at a time, albeit within an overarching promise. Consider, for example, Joshua’s conquest of Jericho, in which the strategic plan to conquer Jericho is given to Joshua only one day at a time (Joshua 4-6).
Just as, when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for bread one day at a time, so we are typically given guidance one day at a time. But we are promised that, however awful today looks, we will be given enough grace for today: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12.9).
God gives his guidance one day at a time to prevent our becoming proud. God also wants us to learn to trust him. He wants to make it clear to others that the wonderful plan came not from human forethought, but from God himself.
IN ESSEX, where I now live, the winter wheat is just sprouting in the fields. If you stand at the edge of the field and look across it, you can see the odd green shoot in the brown clay soil, but no pattern emerges. If you turn your head 90 degrees, however, and look up the furrows, you can see green lines of young wheat.
In the same way, while you are in the middle of your active life, its pattern may escape you; it is often in looking back that God’s guidance becomes clear.
Dr Gervase Vernon is a retired GP.