Burning bushes and the will of God

Some of you may remember the series of TV commercials that show two people discussing investments, and one of them comments, “My broker is EF Hutton, and EF Hutton says . . .” And suddenly there is absolute silence as everyone around them leans forward eagerly listening to what EF Hutton says (because “when EF Hutton talks, people listen”). I’ve seen a similar phenomenon in Bible studies and small group discussions. Someone will ask something like, ‘How can I know for sure what God’s will is for my life?’ and suddenly everything else stops and people are hanging on every word. Why is this? Well, for most of us it begins with a desire to live our lives according to God’s plan for us. We want to be sure we’re making the right choices and avoiding the wrong ones.

Wanting to do God’s will is a good desire, but unfortunately there are many conflicting approaches to seeking the will of God and, consequently, a lot of confusion. I’m sure this confusion adds to our eagerness to hear and learn more whenever the subject comes up in discussion. We’re going to explore this topic for the next few weeks, and we’ll begin with some basic truths. Remember: whenever you get into an area of belief where you feel uncertain, it’s best to fall back on what you do know, and work from there. So what are some foundational principles concerning the will of God?

God knows the future completely, and he will accomplish his plan.
Isaiah 46:9-11 tells us:

Remember the things I have done in the past.
For I alone am God!
I am God, and there is none like me.
Only I can tell you the future
before it even happens.
Everything I plan will come to pass . . .
I have said what I would do,
and I will do it.

The amazing thing is that God will accomplish his plan—and we are part of his plan! God not only knows the future, he knows your future. We may not know what’s lying ahead of us, but we can be certain God does. If we truly trust him and genuinely believe he will do what he has said he will do, then this assurance should give us a strong sense of confidence and security in him.

God isn’t hiding from us anything we need to know.
Sometimes we get so intent on “finding the will of God” we begin to almost resent God for not revealing it. But God is not like some mean older brother, holding his will for you behind his back. ‘Ha, ha, ha. I’ve got my will for you right here, but you can’t see it. If only you knew what I want you to do, but I’m not going to show you.’ Again, this comes back to trust. Do we really believe God loves us? Do we really believe God will work in our lives to accomplish his purpose, and that this is for our benefit? Do we really believe God has given us everything we need to live the lives he calls us to live?

By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence.

2 Peter 1:3 

God doesn’t expect us to have the future all figured out.
We’ll talk more about this in the next few studies, but we need to accept the fact that we’re just not going to get a comprehensive look at the future. If we knew the future exhaustively, we would be God! While God does reveal things about the future from time to time, he otherwise expects us to trust him with our future. An unhealthy obsession with gaining knowledge of the future is actually much more like pagan religious practices (what was called “divining” or “soothsaying”) than it is biblical faith.

There’s an interesting exchange in the last few verses of the gospel of John. Jesus reveals a bit of how Peter will one day die (by crucifixion). So Peter points to John and asks, “What about him?” Jesus tells Peter, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? As for you, follow me.” Apparently, it became quite a rumor among the community of believers that John wouldn’t die until Christ returned, to the point John had to clarify that Jesus didn’t say this would happen. He merely said, “If . . .” The interesting thing is that Jesus didn’t clarify this for John either; John still didn’t know whether this was just a learning opportunity for Peter or a real clue as to his future. In essence, Jesus’ message to John was the same as it was to Peter: ‘It’s not for you to know this information about your future. You just need to focus on following me.’

Sometimes God gives direct and very clear instruction.
It doesn’t take us long when reading the Bible to see how many times God spoke directly and dramatically to individuals, giving them explicit instructions as to what they were to do. God interacts directly with Abraham; he appears in a vision to Jacob; he speaks to Moses first through a burning bush and then later on a quaking, smoldering Mt Sinai. No matter how comfortable or uncomfortable we may be with such manifestations, our theology needs to include the reality that God does sometimes communicate in unusual and even sensational ways.

Now, this doesn’t mean we should start looking around for a burning bush! (Remember there was only one of those in the Bible.) But it does mean we should be open to the possibility of God providing very direct, personal guidance to one of his children. I remember a time when I had walked away from my faith. I was actually considering a completely different religion, and had only been vaguely thinking of Christianity as a comparison to this other faith. When suddenly—like a cold, brisk breeze slicing through the fog—the words of Elijah to the people of Israel arrested my thoughts (words I hadn’t thought of for years): How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, serve him.

It’s not that I was looking for some kind of message. I tried everything to shake this thought or somehow drown it out. But it haunted me for three days. Every morning when I woke up, this was the first thing that entered my mind. Every time I hung up the phone at work, this challenge pounded in my head. When I was trying to talk with my friends, listen to music or go to sleep, this thought was constantly confronting me: How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, serve him. I wasn’t longing to return to Christianity at all. But finally, very dispassionately and even coldly, I simply gave up. I said, “Okay, God. If you want me, you got me.”

This isn’t the most dramatic story I could tell, and I know some of you probably have more sensational accounts from your own lives. But this leads us to an important question: How do we know direct guidance from God is actually from God? We know God can communicate directly and supernaturally—not because of our personal experiences, but because of what we see in the Word of God. But how can we be sure he is communicating directly to us?

If we have to guess whether an instruction is directly from God or not
—it’s probably not.
Do you think Moses spent much time debating with himself whether it was really God speaking to him through the burning bush? When God spoke to Elijah in a still, small voice, did Elijah have to ask, “Who is this?” If God is going to dramatically, supernaturally give us very clear, very direct instructions, he’s not going to leave us scratching our heads as to whether it’s him or not! The question isn’t going to be ‘Is this God?’ but ‘Am I going to obey God? Am I going to do what he has told me to do?’

In my own story, I didn’t hear an audible voice. But what I experienced was so far beyond my own thoughts and reflection, so unexpected, so obviously someone else . . . so obviously God . . . that I couldn’t deny it was his voice. It wasn’t that I wanted to believe it; I couldn’t deny it. (I did have the choice to respond or not, but I knew clearly who I was submitting to or rejecting.)

I mean, let’s think about this. Remember all of the biblical stories of God dramatically manifesting himself to his people. Now if God is going to directly speak to you in some way and instruct you to do something specific, do you think he’s going to have any problem being absolutely unmistakeable and undeniable about who is giving you these instructions? Is this somehow a problem for him? When God clearly speaks to us, there is no doubt. So if God is supernaturally telling you to sell everything and move your family to Zimbabwe, you won’t have to scratch your head and wonder if it’s really him. What he expects you to do will be undeniable.

If God is giving you direct, supernatural instruction or guidance,
you won’t need to play guessing games.

If God has clearly, unmistakably told us to do something, the proper response is always to obey and obey quickly. As the Dogs of Peace song says, we don’t want to “beat around the burning bush.” But this still leaves us with some important questions:

  • Should we expect God to guide us directly, dramatically and undeniably? Is this supposed to be a regular part of the believer’s life? Is this the only way God guides us? Or can I know God’s will for my life without this kind of direct, supernatural instruction?
  • What if I look around and I don’t see any burning bushes? What if I’m a committed Christian who’s never experienced anything this sensational? Is there something wrong with my Christian life? If I’m seeking God’s will should I be seeking this kind of direct guidance?
  • What does it really mean to “seek God’s will”?

These are some of the questions we’ll be discussing next week.

Next post in this series

2 thoughts on “Burning bushes and the will of God

  1. Curt…..what is the relationship (if any) between God’s plan… God’s for-knowledge of the future and man’s free will.

    Example…Jesus saying to the healed person; “Your faith has made you whole.” And if the blind person did not believe and thus did not regain his sight….did God know that ahead of the encounter?

    Might one argue: predestination makes evangelicalism futile at best and attempting to change God’s will at worst?
    Peter

  2. Predestination is a topic I’m going to tackle in a future blog series, but foreknowledge is not quite the same thing. Just because God knows something is going to happen (e.g. that the blind person believed) doesn’t mean that he is determining that this happens. Foreknowledge does not equal prior determination.

    Even with our human limitations we can see this. I know Kelley so well that I can “foreknow” what she will say or choose in certain situations. If someone asks, “We have either chocolate or vanilla ice cream. Do you know which your wife would prefer?” I can know with a great degree of certainty that she will choose chocolate. But this doesn’t mean that I’ve somehow taken away her free will to choose.

    If I could travel forward in time, then I could accurately foreknow a great many things that people will choose to do—but I wouldn’t be determining their choices. I would simply know ahead of time what they will freely and willingly choose.

    When we consider God’s foreknowledge, we must factor into the equation the fact that he doesn’t relate to time as we do. God’s knowledge is not bound in the immediacy of the decision (or the past); he sees it all. This is difficult for us to really grasp. Imagine looking at two characters drawn on a white board. Now imagine that they are alive. They can interact with each other, but they’re limited to two dimensions. In fact, they couldn’t imagine anything greater than two dimensions. Now if a three-dimensional being was to touch both of them at the same time—inside, beyond the access of two-dimensional beings—it would blow their minds! They wouldn’t understand how this is possible.

    One way to describe God is as omni-dimensional. This can help us understand God a bit more, but it’s definitely outside of our common frame of reference. We can’t completely grasp what it would mean for someone to be omni-dimensional. But, if God is not bound by time and doesn’t relate to time as we do, we can see how God could foreknow our free choices without determining them.

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