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No Trail of Candy

And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39 ESV)

How do we decide what to do? This is a question that scores of writers have devoted books to answering.

Of course, we all like to say that we try to follow God’s will for our lives (and there’s scores of books on that subject too!).

How often, though, we often make decisions based on our feelings, experiences, desires, basically our own will, and then assume our will is God’s will because we are Christians or because we are seeking God’s will or because the thing in question is a “good thing” to do or because or because we are sure God would bless it or… well, you get the idea. We are all looking to follow a “trail of candy” that we are sure that God has laid out for us.

Unfortunately, contemporary Christian thought is just full of this philosophy. Although I like John Eldredge and he writes some good stuff, take a gander at this quote from Wild at Heart:

Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

Follow the trail of candy, follow what makes you “come alive.” Now, in fairness, there is some wisdom in this quote. It’s true that a lot of people get into trouble because they plunge into something just because they decide it’s a need. And it’s true there are a lot of people walking around “dead”— not plunging themselves into any kind of risk for the glory of God. And it’s true that as you do God’s will, God sometimes is gracious and gives you a feedback loop of joy and fulfillment. I think that Eldredge is sincerely trying to lead people in the right direction, and I don’t think that he is personally looking only for self-fulfillment in his life.

BUT— using “what makes you come alive” or any such measure of personal desire or will or fulfillment as a guide to making decisions has several major problems:

  1. It assumes our personal wills are in perfect tune with God’s will, or at least in the same general direction. Well, duh, if Jesus had to pray “not as I will” we certainly can’t trust our much more falliable feelings.
  2. Sometimes God’s will is not personally fulfilling or even attractive to us. As the old Don Francisco song goes, “Jesus didn’t die for you because it was fun.”
  3. Finally, as I alluded to above, choosing what to do because of its personal fulfillment is putting the cart before the horse. God never intended for us to use the hope of immediate personal fulfillment as the guide for our wills. There will be rewards and God does love to give us gifts, but he doesn’t lay out a trail of candy for us to follow step by step through this life.

As a contrast, let me provide the steps George Mueller used to help him make decisions:

  1. I seek to get my heart into such a state that it has no will of its own in a given matter. When we are ready to do the Lord’s will—whatever it may be—nine-tenths of the difficulties are overcome.
  2. Having done this, I do not leave the result to feeling or simple impression. If I do so, I make myself liable to great delusions.
  3. I seek the will of the Spirit of God through, or in connection with, God’s Word. The Spirit and the Word must be combined. If I look to the Spirit alone without the Word, I lay myself open to great delusions also. If the Holy Spirit guides us, He will do it according to the Scriptures, never contrary to them.
  4. Next I take into account providential circumstances. These often plainly indicate God’s will in connection with His Word and Spirit.
  5. I ask God in prayer to reveal His will to me.
  6. Thus, through prayer, the study of the Word and reflection, I come to a deliberate judgment according to the best of my ability and knowledge. If my mind is thus at peace and continues so after two or three more petitions, I proceed accordingly. I have found this method always effective in trivial or important issues.

Mueller’s Primary Business

George Mueller, truly a man fully dedicated to Christ and tremendously blessed of God, penned these words in his autobiography, describing what he found to be his “first great and primary business” was:

While I was staying at Nailsworth, it pleased the Lord to teach me a truth, irrespective of human instrumentality, as far as I know, the benefit of which I have not lost, though now…more than forty years have since passed away.

The point is this: I saw more clearly than ever, that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was, to have my soul happy in the Lord. The first thing to be concerned about was not, how much I might serve the Lord, how I might glorify the Lord; but how I might get my soul into a happy state, and how my inner man might be nourished. For I might seek to set the truth before the unconverted, I might seek to benefit believers, I might seek to relieve the distressed, I might in other ways seek to behave myself as it becomes a child of God in this world; and yet, not being happy in the Lord, and not being nourished and strengthened in my inner man day by day, all this might not be attended to in a right spirit.

Before this time my practice had been, at least for ten years previously, as a habitual thing, to give myself to prayer, after having dressed in the morning. Now I saw, that the most improtant thing I had to do was to give myself to the reading of the Word of God and to meditation on it, that thus my heart might be comforted, encouraged, warned, reproved, instructed; and that thus, whilst meditating, my heart might be brought into experimental, communion with the Lord. I began therefore, to meditate on the New Testamnet, from the beginning, early in the morning.

The first thing I did, after having asked in a few words the Lord’s blessing upon His precious Word, was to begin to meditate on the Word of God; searching, as it were, into every verse, to get blessing out of it; not for the sake of the public ministry of the Word; but for the sake of obtaining food for my own soul. The result I have found to be almost invariably this, that after a very few minutes my soul has been led to confession, or to thanksgiving, or to intercession, or to supplication; so that through I did not, as it were, give myself to prayer, but to meditation, yet it turned almost immediately more or less into prayer.

When thus I have been for awhile making confession, or intercession, or supplication, or have given thanks, I go on to the next words or verse, turning all, as I go on, into prayer for myself or others, as the Word may lead to it; but stilll continually keeping before me, that food for my own soul is the object of my meditation. The result of this is, that there is always a good deal of confession, thanksgiving, supplication, or intercession mingled with my meditation, and that my inner man almost invariably is even sensibly nourished and strengthened and that by breakfast time, with rare exceptions, I am in a peaceful if not happy state of heart. Thus also the Lord is pleased to communicate unto me that which, very soon after, I have found to become food for other believers, though it was not for the sake of the public ministry of the Word that I gave myself to meditation, but for the profit of my own inner man.

The difference between my former practice and my present one is this. Formerly, when I rose, I began to pray as soon as possible, and generally spent all my time till breakfast in prayer, or almost all the time. At all events I almost invariably began with prayer…But what was the result? I often spent a quarter of an hour, or half an hour, or even an hour on my knees, before being conscious to myself of having dervied comfort, encouragement, humbling of soul, etc.; and often after having suffered much from wandering of mind for the first ten minutes, or a quarter of an hour, or even half an hour, I only then began really to pray.

I scarcely ever suffer now in this way. For my heart being nourished by the truth, being brought into experimental fellowship with God, I speak to my Father, and to my Friend (vile though I am, and unworthy of it!) about the things that He has brought before me in His precious Word.

If often now astonishes me that I did not sooner see this. In no book did I ever read about it. No public ministry ever brought the matter before me. No private intercourse with a brother stirred me up to this matter. And yet now, since God has taught me this point, it is as plain to me as anything, that the first thing the child of God has to do morning by morning is to obtain food for his inner man.

As the outward man is not fit for work for any length of time, except we take food, and as this is one of the first things we do in the morning, so it should be with the inner man. We should take food for that, as every one must allow. Now what is the food for the inner man: not prayer, but the Word of God: and here again not the simple reading of the Word of God, so that it only passes through our minds, just as water runs through a pipe, but considering what we read, pondering over it, and appplying it to our hearts…

I dwell so particularly on this point because of the immense spiritual profit and refreshment I am counscious of having derived from it myself, and I affectionately and solemnly beseech all my fellow-believers to ponder this matter. By the blessing of God I ascribe to this mode the help and strength which I have had from God to pass in peace through deeper trials in various ways than I had ever had before; and after having now above forty years tried this way, I can most fully, in the fear of God, commend it. How different when the soul is refreshed and made happy early in the morning, from what it is when, without spiritual preparation, the service, the trials and the temptations of the day come upon one!