The question of guidance is something that every Christian ends up grappling with at some point or another. The whole area of guidance can be a tricky thing to navigate. How do I know which way the Lord is leading me? How can I listen to God’s direction? How can I step forward with confidence?
One of the tricky areas of guidance is the balance between God’s direction and our responsibility to act. Should I simply sit and wait for God’s clear leading before taking a step forward? Or should I make plans and decisions and hope that God is in it, and that he would direct if I was heading the wrong way?
There is no easy answer to these questions, and the balance between these two things – God’s leading and our action – is a mysterious one. Yet, I was intrigued to read the following combination of verses in the Old Testament book of Numbers.
In Numbers, God has saved his people Israel from slavery in Egypt. They are on their way to the promised land, and God is leading them to where they need to go. During this period of Israel’s life, God’s direction comes to them in what appears to be the most direct way possible. So Numbers chapter nine records this statement:
At the Lord’s command the Israelites set out, and at his command they encamped.Numbers 9:18
That’s the kind of direct leading from God that most of us would long for! In practice, this guidance from God came in the form of a cloud, which rested on the Tabernacle where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. When the cloud rose, it was time for the Israelites to move, and when the cloud rested it was time for them to stop. God guides and directs his people. It could not be clearer and plainer then that.
However, a chapter or so later, we have another intriguing verse. Here Moses is talking to his father-in-law’s son, who is planning to head back to his own country. Moses wants him to stay, so says to him these words:
Moses said, “Please do not leave us. You know where we should camp in the wilderness, and you can be our eyes.Numbers 10:31
It’s a great argument. This man knows the area well and has great wisdom to apply to the situation. He can advise on the best places to stop and rest, and for the people to set up camp.
But it raises a question: Isn’t God guiding the people of Israel? How should Moses’ relative guide on the places to camp, if God is guiding them?
The Bible doesn’t explain. It doesn’t give any answers or explanation. It is just happy with these two truths sitting side by side and both being true. God guided the Israelites from the cloud over the Tabernacle. And, at the same time, the wisdom of Moses’ relative guided them to the places to camp. Perhaps the cloud of God’s presence showed them the area to stop in, and then more specific guidance was needed about the best place to camp there? Maybe, but we simply aren’t told.
What this incident tells me is that the complexities of God’s guidance and human wisdom and action are closely intertwined. God may guide in a very visible, supernatural way, like a pillar of cloud or fire. Equally, God may guide my thinking as I carefully consider how to honour him with my options, and seek the counsel and wisdom of others. It is not as if God is in one, but not in the other. God is guiding and leading in all these different ways, and we can trust him to do so.
Our desire for guidance might look for the cloudy pillar, but we might find God directing in the wise words of others, or as we take a considered step forward for his glory.