Years ago, when I was a child, I took a trip with my family each summer to visit my grandmother. Her house was located two states away, so we had to drive for a few days to get to her house. I grew up in the 80s before Internet, email, and GPS. Therefore, we used a paper map to navigate the route.
I laugh when I think of the memory. Now, when I need to find my way to a particular place, I pull out my iphone and type in the destination. Two years ago, when we moved to a new community, I found my way around quite easily because I had the automated voice on my phone’s GPS to tell me the way.
In my spiritual life, I have often wished that God’s voice was always as crystal clear as the guide on my GPS. At times, I have faced a decision and wished it was more obvious what God would have me do or would say to me in that situation. Although the Bible says that He guides those of us who are followers of Jesus Christ (Psalm 32:8,9; John 10:3-4; John 16:13), hearing from God and discerning His will isn’t always so easy. It takes time to develop the ability to recognize His voice and know which way to go.
One story we can look to for guidance in this area is the story of the wise men in Matthew 2:1-12 (ESV). A few lessons we can learn about following Jesus:
1. It doesn’t matter who you are.
What we should note in the passage is the wise men were magicians. They weren’t part of Israel’s elite or Jewish rabbi. They were Gentiles “from the east” (v. 2). And yet, they saw God’s star and followed it to Jesus.
If we have never accepted Jesus as our Savior, we may disqualify ourselves from coming to Him based on our background or the choices we have made in our past, but we must remember that God doesn’t disqualify us from coming to Him based on what we’ve done. He wants all to come and seek Him. John 6:37 says, “All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.”
Similarly, as believers, we may think that we can’t hear from Him in our Christian walk like other believers. However, we can approach Him not because of our merit but because of His work on the cross (Romans 3:23; Ephesians 2:8,9; Titus 3:5). We may not feel good enough for Jesus, but we must remember that even the most religious looking person — the person with spotless clothes and an even more spotless past — is not good enough to stand on his own righteousness in front of Jesus. In fact, our own unbelief that He will speak to us can be an obstacle that hinders us hearing from Him (James 1:5, 6).
Certainly, there are certain behaviors He will ask us to let go of as we walk with Him; however, he will help us in that endeavor. When we mess up, we can come to Him, confessing our sins knowing that He cleanses us (1 John 1:9). As 2 Timothy 1:9 says, “He has saved us and called us to a holy life — not because of anything we have done but because of His own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time.”
2. The way Jesus leads is often treacherous.
Often, the assignments of Jesus are difficult and those we would rather not do. They may cost us our social standing with a group. They may cost us our job. They may cost us our pride because we have to humble ourselves and take a lower position than we would want for ourselves. They may cost us delays and alterations in our own plans. But all the assignments of Jesus are perfect and lead to goodness in our lives and the lives of others (Psalm 18:30, NLT). But we have to be willing to follow where He leads.
The wise men had planned their own way back to their home, but their plans were interrupted. Instead, they had to go back a different route they had not intended, as they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod. While Jesus’ directives may appear arduous at times, His “burden” is described as “light” in the Bible. Matthew 11:28-30 says:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
I once had a discussion with God about this passage. In the midst of a season where He put particularly challenging tasks in my own path, I told Him I didn’t think His burdens were light and easy at all. In fact, I told Him His way was hard and His burdens heavy. It was only a moment after I had made this accusation of God where a revelation washed over me that our burdens are not light because we never have to do hard things — the hard things we do in obedience are what make our burden light.
Conversely, when we go our own way, however easier it may be in the moment, is when we collect heavy burdens that we do not have with Jesus (Psalm 84:10). As Thomas á Kempis is quoted as saying in this Transformation Garden devotional:
What can the world offer you without Jesus? To be without Jesus is a hell most grievous, to know Jesus the sweetness of heaven. If Jesus is with you, no enemy can harm you. Whoever finds Jesus, finds a rich treasure, and a good above every good. He who loses Jesus loses much indeed, and more than the whole world. Poorest of all is he who lives without Jesus, and richest of all is he, who stands in favor of Jesus.
3. God maps the course.
What we notice in the story is that the wise men weren’t responsible for the course, they were just responsible for following. If we commit our way to Him and continually seek His counsel, He will show us what path we should take. As Matthew Henry says, “There arises a day star in the hearts of those who seek Him.” Isaiah 30:21 says, “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’ “ (See my previous post on this topic.)
How does God communicate to us which way to go? In a variety of ways — through dreams and visions, directly speaking to us, through others, etc. We hear from God by spending time in His Word every day, praying to Him, and learning about Him in a corporate worship setting with other believers.
Often, when God gives us a specific word for our lives, He will confirm it by giving us the same word in different ways more than once. For instance, 2 Corinthians 13:1(NKJV) tells us, “By the mouth of two or three witnesses every word shall be established.” In that passage, the word “word” in Greek is “rhema.” According to Helps Word Studies, “Rhema is a spoken word, made by ‘the living voice’ (J. Thayer). Rhema is commonly used in the NT for the Lord speaking His dynamic, living word in a believer to inbirth faith.”
When we listen to a sermon, read a passage, or talk to a friend, and their words deeply penetrate us and we know that word is for us from the Lord, that is a “rhema” word. If we see the same message more than once, we know God is speaking to us. We need only watch for His answer to us and look for what He will say (Habbakuk 2:1).
On thing we must note, however, is that God’s instructions to us will never violate what He says in the Bible. We must be careful to not attribute every passing thought to God and be in His Word so we know the difference.
4. Those who trust His way get to where they need to go.
The wise men followed His star and found Him. In contrast, there were those who did not find him on that night because they weren’t looking. In fact, the wise men had to knock on doors and inquire about the Son of God because no one else was apparently all that interested. Similarly, when Jesus was born, there was no room for Him in the inn (Luke 2:7).
God has given us all promises of what He will do in our lives. Often the path to those promises is confusing and twisted and difficult. It doesn’t tell us how long wise men traveled to get to Jesus, but it was months and possibly more than that — before they found Christ. Surely, in that time they questioned the route, got discouraged, wanted to give up — but they didn’t give up and got to where they were going.
Similarly, in Mark 6:45-53, the disciples encountered a storm when Jesus sent them on a lake to row over to the other side. But though they were met with trials, they still got to where they were going because Jesus was the One who had sent them in the boat across the lake.
If we want the kind of life that is possible only with Jesus — a life where we live out our God given-purpose, we have to let Him have His way and lead us where He wants. We can chart our own path, sure, but we cannot generate the results that come from walking with Jesus. When we try to take matters into our own hands, we won’t get to where we are going. As Charles Stanley notes in The Blessings of Brokenness, “Do your part, and God will do the part only He can do!”
Learning to hear from God and follow His will for our lives is a process that takes time to learn, but when we put ourselves in a position to hear from Him, He will speak to us. No matter if we like the way He leads, it is in following Him that we encounter blessings that we would not apart from Him.
As J.R. Miller is quoted as saying in Streams in the Desert:
Every difficult task that comes across you path — every one that you would rather not do, that will take the most effort, cause the most pain, and be the greatest struggle — brings a blessing with it. And refusing to do it regardless of the personal cost is to miss the blessing.
Every difficult stretch of road on which you see the Master’s footprints along which He calls you to follow Him leads unquestionably to blessings. And they are blessings you will never receive unless you travel the steep and thorny path.
*Updated December 16, 2017.
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To read the poem by T.S. Eliot I mention in the podcast, click on this link: “Journey of the Magi.”