One of the most natural questions to ask when the topic of spiritual conviction comes up, in my opinion, is the question of exactly what matters it typically applies in, and how far it goes. Are we given a wealth of detailed guidance, or only the barest hint of an outline as how we ought to order our behavior? Which extreme is the reality of the situation actually closer to?
It is a good question, for if we spend lots of time with an ear to the ground, listening for answers about things that God will in no way give us specific guidance on, at best we waste our time, and at worst we will come to listen to some voice that is not from God. So it does make sense to discuss the topic of exactly what conviction means for us as Christians, and whether we should regularly expect it in our lives. This page will set out to discuss such things.
For most matters in life, the Bible doesn’t give us specifics. Generalizing a bit, God tells us what is important writ large, but does not give us anything like direct verbal answers to every little thing we have to make decisions on. Figuring out how to map spiritual truth onto the complex, messy situations before us in life – that’s something that falls to us. We get better at it as we grow spiritually – that is, learning, believing, and applying more and more of God’s truth.
Consider that this state of affairs does not come about because God could not provide us clearer answers for all the things we ask. He is Omniscient and Omnipotent. So, given verses like Matthew 7:7-8, why doesn’t He just instantly give us those answers, firm feelings regarding which path to take?
Well, who are we to say that it would be better for us to actually immediately get such answers and conviction for all our matters of discernment? If we believe Romans 8:28, no matter what happens, God is working all things out for our ultimate (spiritual) good. In fact, it is the best – the superlative is appropriate. The Plan of God is completely perfect. So if we don’t get any firm answers from God as to exactly what we ought to do about some specific thing, it is no accident.
Nowhere does Romans 8:28 say that we will understand God’s plans most or even much of the time. When you think about it, the reason for such is kind of obvious. We are incredibly finite beings with perspectives warped by our own sinful flesh and Satan’s world system trying to turn us away from God at every turn. Even the most spiritually advanced among us are still just puny humans. Who are we to talk to back to God? Do we really think we know better than Him now, hm? Perhaps we feel that we are owed guidance. That it is somehow our due. But just as a parent cannot always explain their complicated reasons to their whiny indignant four-year-old (even if they wanted to), so to does our blind human perspective pretty sharply limit God’s ability to share with us the real reasons behind things in life.
This case might perhaps feel like one of those that is fundamentally incomprehensible for that reason, but it really isn’t as incomprehensible as all that. Put simply, God doesn’t immediately answer every decision we put before Him like some sort of divine magic eight ball because He views the development of our faith as more important than our temporal gratification. If God were to answer our every question instantly, where is there room for faith on our part in that? How then could God perfectly work every single thing out right under our noses – even better than we could have ever imagined or prayed for ourselves – thereby demonstrating His perfect faithfulness… if we would but trust Him, trust that He has it all in hand?
So it is that we are left down here to struggle with limited perspective and imperfect information in order to demonstrate exactly how much we really do trust the Lord. He will always come through for us – maybe not in a way that maximizes comfort or wealth or any other ephemeral material parameter, but in a way that maximizes our spiritual wellbeing – but we have to have faith and wait upon Him. That is much the point, in fact.
This does not mean that God does not give us enough information to do what we ought
Put quite simply, we are always given enough information to make the decision we ought. These two propositions are not identical:
- God gives us all the information we need
- God gives us all the information we need to be so confident in our path that things will be crystal clear, without having to take difficult steps of faith
No matter what decisions stare us down (college major, career, who to marry, how to deal with difficult family relationships, what to focus one’s ministry efforts on as an individual calling, etc. etc.), if we actually trusted God as we ought, we could always “get it right.” Always.
So never ought the excuse “but I didn’t have enough information!” cross our lips. Enough information for what?
For example, let’s say you come to decide that you need to change you major after already being in college two years. Seems like wasted time and money, right? But what happens if God has some greater plan at work here? What happens if you might use that information you now think is fall-through in some way in the future? How do you know that such a thing for sure won’t happen?
Or maybe you really were being selfish and hardheaded in pursuing the earlier major, and you finally got your act together and started listening to God’s prodding that had been there all along. That’s possible too, sure. It actually doesn’t matter. The past is in the past. We just need to not get resentful and blame God. Either He has His reasons, or we we failed to listen as we ought. We’ll probably never know exactly what combination between these things (and others besides) truly explains “the why.” The point is that God always gives us everything we need to follow Him as He wants us to. If we make a mess of it, then that is on us, not Him.
Emphasizing this is important because the very worst thing we can do is make excuses for ourselves and blame God. If it seems to us like we prayed and prayed for guidance only to end up on a bad path that we had to backtrack on later (“why couldn’t you have just pushed me in this correct direction in the first place when I asked!”), things didn’t happen that way for a reason, one way or another, and that reason is never because God is unfairly stingy in His guidance.
The principle is in fact absolute
Very often the toughest matters of discernment are matters of application wherein there is no global absolute to go on. Sometimes people fancy themselves clever for having come up with some hypothetical thought experiment that seems to defy any possibility of knowing the “right answer.”
But if we pray earnestly, no matter how bad our intel, we can still always do what God wants of us, given where we are. We always have that potential. Even if some of these challenging hypotheticals were to actually come about for us personally (and that is sometimes not even remotely realistic), well we can properly answer all such things when we actually face them personally and pray for guidance, relying on the Holy Spirit that indwells us. We must have faith in that.
But, again, having all we need to follow God’s Will is different from it always being clear and dead obvious
Conviction is a spectrum, and we have no guarantees about where all matters in our life will fall, as we have just been discussing.
Blessedly, we can have rock-solid conviction about many things. For example:
- God loves us, loves us so much that He sent His only Son to take the penalty of our sins in our place.
- Our sin – no matter how dark a stain it may truly be – has been paid for and wiped out. If we but confess and mean it, that is it. It was already nailed to the cross with Christ, so God has justified legal basis for now declaring us clean, so long as we rest in the blood of His Son.
- As long as we believe, nothing can separate us from God and His love (cf. Romans 8:38-39) – for now, and forever.
- Everything that happens happens for a reason, maximizing the ultimate spiritual good of all (Romans 8:28).
In fact, everything the Bible truly teaches we can be rock-solid on. The problem is that there is plenty in life that is not directly addressed in the Bible. What to do then? Well, we can certainly avoid the extremes:
- On one side, we should avoid getting improperly preoccupied with “getting conviction” on every minute decision in our life – majoring on the minors. God probably doesn’t have grand spiritual guidance on which brand of paper towels to buy, for example. You probably ought to just pick one and get on with doing the spiritual things he actually wants you to do!
- On the other side, while it true that being overmuch enthusiastic about making all minor decisions matters of spiritual life and death is going to open you up to all sorts of problems, being too closed to the spiritual dimension behind reality is a very perilous approach too. We need to always evaluate things on the eternal spiritual plane, not the ephemeral material one. We shouldn’t waste lots of our time endlessly praying about minor nothings, yes, but we also shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that all of our decisions have spiritual implications, will all come together to echo for us throughout eternity. We always need to be listening for God’s Will in our everyday decisions too, because everything in this life for us as Christians ought to revolve around God’s Will – for the world generally, and for us specifically.
Perhaps all of this is seems unsatisfying, leaving things vague and far from parsed out in a clear set of rules and principles. Welcome to life – grey and messy.
Sometimes conviction comes stronger with time, but sometimes not
To close us out, it is worth noting that it is not uncommon to better understand things with some 20/20 hindsight – for stronger conviction to come after we find ourselves halfway down a path, not when we first find ourselves at the fork. I personally have a couple examples of this phenomenon from my own life:
- Transferring universities to learn Greek and Hebrew to prepare for a role in Bible teaching
- Studying for and then working a day job as a software engineer rather than going through seminary, ending up in academia, or following some other career path.
It was not until I was months down these paths that things crystallized into full certainty in my mind. When I was forced to make the decisions in the moment – through much prayer – I honestly was not confident that I was not making mistakes in both cases. But over time God opened my eyes to things that had been hidden before, things that gave me a level of peace and certainty that I hadn’t had at the beginning.
We cannot always expect this across all situations though. Sometimes that process of difficult faith and persistent lack of answers may drag out rather than getting resolved in a few short weeks or months. No matter what, we just need to trust that settled emotions or not, if we are doing everything we can to learn, believe, and apply God’s Word to our lives (and keep in constant prayer about it all too) – if we are doing everything that we are supposed to – that God will work things all out perfectly. As Christian soldiers upon the battlefield of this life, we can keep our heads down and let our commanding officer handle all the rest – for there is no greater commanding officer than Jesus Christ.