I believe most of the questions about guidance, the “how-tos,” are misdirected. They are the typically impatient demands of us Americans who want a shortcut to the “magic,” the benefit of relating to Almighty God. There is no shortcut, no magic, at least not that anyone can reduce to a three-point outline. There is only the possibility of a lifetime search for intimacy with a God who, as the psalmists discovered, sometimes seems close and sometimes far, sometimes seems loving and sometimes forgetful.
Does God guide? Yes, I believe. Most times God guides in subtle ways, by feeding ideas into our minds, speaking through a nagging sensations of dissatisfaction, inspiring us to choose better than we otherwise would have done, bringing to the surface hidden dangers of temptation, and perhaps by rearranging certain circumstances. (God may also still guide through visions, dreams, and prophetic utterances, but I cannot speak to these forms as they lie outside my field of experience.) God’s guidance will supply real help, but in ways that will not overwhelm my freedom.
Yet, I cannot help thinking this whole issue of divine guidance, which draws throngs of seekers to seminars and sells thousands of books, is powerfully overrated. It deserves about as much attention as the Bible devotes to the topic.
The sociologist Bronislaw Malinowski suggested a distinction between magic and religion. Magic, he said, is when we manipulate the deities so that they perform our wishes; religion is when we manipulate the deities so that they perform our wishes; religion is when we subject ourselves to the will of the deities. True guidance cannot resemble magic, a way for God to give us shortcuts and genie bottles. It must, rather, fall under Malinowski’s definition of religion. If so, it will occur in the context of a committed relationship between you and your God. Once that relationship exists, divine guidance becomes not an end in itself but merely one more means God uses in nourishing faith.