If a child habitually neglected its father, and did not take the trouble of knowing his mind and will, it is easy to foresee that, when a difficulty presented itself this child would not be in circumstances to understand what would please its parent. There are certain things which God leaves in generalities, in order that the state of the individual’s soul may be proved. If, instead of the case I have supposed of a child, it were a question of a wife towards her husband, it is probable that, if she had the feelings and mind of a wife, she would not hesitate a moment as to knowing what would be agreeable to him; and this where he had expressed no positive will about the matter. Now you cannot escape this trial: God will not allow His children to escape it. “If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.”
People would like a convenient and comfortable means of knowing God’s will, as one might get a receipt for anything; but there exists no means of ascertaining it without reference to the state of our own soul. Moreover, we are often of too much importance in our own eyes; and we deceive ourselves in supposing some will of God in such or such a case. God perhaps has nothing to tell us thereon, the evil being altogether in the stir we give ourselves. The will of God is perhaps that we should take quietly an insignificant place.
Further, we sometimes seek God’s will, desiring to know how to act in circumstances in which His only will is that we should not be found at all; and where, if conscience were really in activity, its first effect would be to make us leave them. It is our own will which sets us there, and we should like nevertheless to enjoy the comfort of being guided of God in a path which we ourselves have chosen. Such is a very common case.
Be assured that, if we are near enough to God, we shall not be at a loss to know His will. In a long and active life it may happen, that God, in His love, may not always at once reveal His will to us, that we may feel our dependence, particularly where the individual has a tendency to act according to his own will. However, “if thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light”; whence it is certain that, if the whole body is not full of light, the eye is not single. You will say, That is poor consolation. I answer it is rich consolation for those whose sole desire is to have the eye single and to walk with God—not, so to speak, to avoid this trouble in learning His will objectively, but whose desire is to walk with God. “If any man walk in the day, he stumbleth not, because he seeth the light of this world. But if a man walk in the night, he stumbleth, because there is no light in him.” It is always the same principle. “He that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” You cannot exempt yourself from this moral law of Christianity. “For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to desire that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding, that ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing by the knowledge of God.” The mutual connection of these things is of immense importance for the soul. The Lord must be known intimately if one would walk in a way worthy of Him; and it is thus that we grow in the knowledge of God’s will. “And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment; that ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ.” Finally, it is written that the spiritual man “judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man.”
It is then the will of God, and a precious will, that we should be able to discern it only according to our own spiritual state. In general, when we think that we are judging circumstances, it is God who is judging us—who is judging our state. Our business is to keep close to Him. God would not be good to us, if He permitted us to discover His will without that. It might be convenient just to have a director of consciences; and we should thus be spared the discovery and the chastisement of our moral condition. Thus, if you seek how you may discover the will of God without that, you are seeking evil; and it is what we see every day. One Christian is in doubt, in perplexity; another, more spiritual, sees as clear as the day, and he is surprised, sees no difficulty, and ends by understanding that it lies only in the other’s state of soul. “He that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off.”
As regards circumstances, I believe that a person may be guided by them: Scripture has decided that. It is what is meant by being “held in with bit and bridle”; whereas the promise and privilege of him who has faith is, “I will instruct thee, and teach thee in the way which thou shalt go: I will guide thee with mine eye.” God who is faithful has given the promise of directing us thus—near enough to God to understand by a single glance from Him. He warns us not to be as the horse and the mule which have no understanding of the will, thoughts, or desires of their master. It is needful to hold them in with bit and bridle. Doubtless even that is better than to stumble, fall and run counter to Him who holds us in; but it is a sad state, and such it is to be guided by circumstances. Undoubtedly, too, it is merciful on God’s part so to act, but very sad on ours.
Here, however, there must be a distinction drawn between judging what one has to do in certain circumstances, and being guided by them. He who allows himself to be guided by them always acts in the dark as to knowing the will of God. There is absolutely nothing moral in it; it is an external force that constrains. Now it is very possible that I may have no judgment beforehand of what I shall do: I know not what circumstances may arise, and consequently I can make no resolutions. But the instant the circumstances are there, I judge with a full and divine conviction what is the path of God’s will, and of the Spirit’s intention and power. That demands the highest degree of spirituality. It is not to be directed by circumstances, but to be directed by God in them, being near enough to God to be able to judge immediately what one ought to do, as soon as the circumstances are there.
As to impressions, God can suggest them, and it is certain that in fact He does suggest a thing to the mind; but, in that case, the propriety of the thing and its moral character will be as clear as the sun at noon-day. In prayer God can remove from our heart certain carnal influences, which, being destroyed, leave room for certain other spiritual influences taking all their place in the soul. Thus He makes us feel the importance of some duty, which had been perhaps entirely obscured by pre-occupation caused by some desired object. This may be even between two individuals. One person may not have enough spiritual discernment to discover what is right; but the moment another shews it to him, he understands that it is the truth. All are not engineers, but a simple wagoner knows a good road when it is made. Thus the impressions which come from God do not always remain simple impressions. But they are ordinarily clear when God produces them. I do not doubt, however, that He often makes them on our minds, when we walk with Him and listen to His voice.
When obstacles raised up of Satan are spoken of, it is not said that God Himself may not have allowed these obstacles to some good desire—obstacles caused by an accumulation of evil in the circumstances which surround us.
Again the case should never exist of a person acting without knowing the will of God. The only rule that can be given is, never to act when we do not know what is the Lord’s will. The will of God ought to be the motive as well as the rule of our conduct; and until His will is in activity, there is an absence of any true motive for ours. If you act in ignorance in this respect, you are at the mercy of circumstances; however God may turn all to the good of His children. But why act when we are ignorant what His will is? Is the necessity of acting always so extremely pressing? If I do something with the full certainty that I am doing the will of God, it is clear that an obstacle is no more than a test of my faith, and it ought not to stop me. It stops us perhaps through our lack of faith; because, if we do not walk sufficiently near to God in the sense of our nothingness, we shall lack faith to accomplish what we have faith enough to discern. When we are doing our own will or are negligent in our walk, God in His mercy may warn us by a hindrance which arrests us if we pay attention to it, whilst “the simple pass on and are punished.” God may permit, where there is much activity and labour, that Satan should raise up hindrances, in order that we may be kept in dependence on the Lord; but God never permits Satan to act otherwise than on the flesh. If we leave the door open, if we get away from God, Satan does us harm; but otherwise it is a mere trial of faith to warn us of a danger or snare—of something that would tend to exalt us in our own eyes. It is an instrument for our correction. That is, God allows Satan to trouble the mind, and make the flesh surfer outwardly, in order that the inner man may be kept from evil. If it is a question of anything else, probably it is only our “buts” and “ifs” that stop us, or possibly the effects of our carelessness, which has opened a door to Satan to trouble us by doubts and apparent difficulties between God and us, because we do not see more clearly. For “he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not.” In a word, the question is wholly moral. If any particular question is raised which at the first blush we cannot solve, we shall find that often there would be no such question there at all, if our position were not false—if we had previously been in a good state of soul, and a true spirituality had guarded and kept us. In that case, all we have to do is to humble ourselves for the whole affair.
Now let us examine whether Scripture does not present some principle suitable to direct us. Here evidently spirituality is the essential thing—is everything. The rule that we should do what Jesus would have done in such and such a circumstance is excellent, where and when it can be applied. But are we often in the circumstances where the Lord was found?
In the next place, it is often useful to ask myself whence comes such a desire of mine, or such a thought of doing this or that. I have found that this alone decides more than half of the difficulties that Christians meet with. The rest of those which remain are the result of our haste and of our former sins. If a thought comes from God and not from the flesh, then we have only to address ourselves to God as to the manner and means of executing it, and we shall soon be directed. There are cases where one has need of being guided, not always without motives; as suppose, when I hesitate about a visit to make, or some such other case. A life of more ardent love, or love exercised in a more intelligent way, or set in activity in drawing near to God, will clear the motives on one side or another: and often, perhaps, we shall see that our part in the thing was but selfishness.
If it be asked, But if it is no question either of love or of obedience? then I answer, that you ought to shew me a reason for acting. For if it is nothing but your own will, you cannot make the wisdom of God bend to your will. Therein also is the source of another numerous class of difficulties that God will never solve. In these cases, He will in His grace teach obedience, and will shew us how much time we have lost in our own activity. Finally “the meek will he guide in judgment, and the meek will he teach his way.”
I have communicated to you on this subject all that my mind can furnish you with at this moment. For the rest, remember only that the wisdom of God conducts us in the way of God’s will: if our own will is in activity, God cannot bend to that. That is the essential thing to discover. It is the secret of the life of Christ. I know no other principle that God can make use of, however He may pardon and cause all to work for our good. If there still be a query as to His direction, He directs the new man which has no other will than Christ. He mortifies and puts to death the old man, and in that way purifies us that we may bear fruit. “Lo, I come to do thy will, O God… I delight to do thy will.” It is the place of a porter to wait at the gate; but, in doing so, he does the will of his master. Be assured that God does more in us than we for Him; and that what we do is only for Him in proportion as it is He Himself who works it in us.
I add with regard to a principle expressed above, that we are sanctified to the “obedience… of Jesus Christ.” Now He came to do the will of His Father, without which He did nothing. Thus, in the temptation in the wilderness, Satan tried to make Him act according to His own will, in things where there was not even an appearance of evil. The Father had just owned Him as His Son: Satan tempted Him, saying, “If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.” But Jesus was a servant, and His answer consists in doing nothing, because there was wholly no will of His Father in the matter: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” As there was no word from God for the actual circumstances, Jesus did nothing. Satan could do nothing more. Although ever active to do good, He did not stir, when Mary and Martha sent to tell Him “he whom thou lovest is sick.” His Father had not sent Him there. When He goes later, the wisdom of God is thus manifested, in that a testimony to the divine power of Jesus as Son of God was rendered by the resurrection of Lazarus. So then, when the will of God is not manifested, our wisdom often consists in waiting until it should be. It is the will of God that, zealous of good works, we should do good always, but we cannot go before the time, and the work of God is done perfectly when it is He who does it.
3 Extract from a Letter, translated from the French.