We read in Acts xiii. 2-4, "As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate Me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away. So they, being sent forth by the Holy Ghost, departed into Seleucia; and from thence they sailed to Cyprus." It is evident from this passage that the Holy Spirit calls men into definite lines of work and sends them forth into the work. He not only calls men in a general way into Christian work, but selects the specific work and points it out. Many a one is asking to-day, and many another ought to ask, "Shall I go to China, to Africa, to India?" There is only one Person who can rightly settle that question for you and that Person is the Holy Spirit. You cannot settle the question for yourself, much less can any other man settle it rightly for you. Not every Christian man is called to go to China; not every Christian man is called to go to Africa; not every Christian man is called to go to the foreign field at all. God alone knows whether He wishes you in any of these places, but He is willing to show you. In a day such as we live in, when there is such a need of the right men and the right women on the foreign field, every young and healthy and intellectually competent Christian man and woman should definitely offer themselves to God for the foreign field and ask Him if He wants them to go. But they ought not to go until He, by His Holy Spirit, makes it plain.
The great need in all lines of Christian work to-day is men and women whom the Holy Ghost calls and sends forth. We have plenty of men and women whom men have called and sent forth. We have plenty of men and women who have called themselves, for there are many to-day who object strenuously to being sent forth by men, by any organization of any kind, but, in fact, are what is immeasurably worse, sent forth by themselves and not by God.
How does the Holy Spirit call? The passage before us does not tell us how the Holy Spirit spoke to the group of prophets and teachers in Antioch, telling them to separate Barnabas and Saul to the work to which He had called them. It is presumably purposely silent on this point. Possibly it is silent on this point lest we should think that the Holy Spirit must always call in precisely the same way. There is nothing whatever to indicate that He spoke by an audible voice, much less is there anything to indicate that He made His will known in any of the fantastic ways in which some in these days profess to discern His leading--as for example, by twitchings of the body, by shuddering, by opening of the Bible at random and putting his finger on a passage that may be construed into some entirely different meaning than that which the inspired author intended by it. The important point is, He made His will clearly known, and He is willing to make His will clearly known to us to-day. Sometimes He makes it known in one way and sometimes in another, but He will make it known.
But how shall we receive the Holy Spirit's call? First of all, by desiring it; second, by earnestly seeking it; third, by waiting upon the Lord for it; fourth, by expecting it. The record reads, "As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted." They were waiting upon the Lord for His direction. For the time being they had turned their back utterly upon worldly cares and enjoyments, even upon those things which were perfectly proper in their place. Many a man is saying to-day in justification for his staying home from the foreign field, "I have never had a call." But how do you know that? Have you been listening for a call? God usually speaks in a still small voice and it is only the listening ear that can catch it. Have you ever definitely offered yourself to God to send you where He will? While no man or woman ought to go to China or Africa or other foreign field unless they are clearly and definitely called, they ought each to offer themselves to God for this work and be ready for the call and be listening sharply that they may hear the call if it comes. Let it be borne distinctly in mind that a man needs no more definite call to Africa than to Boston, or New York, or London, or any other desirable field at home.
The Holy Spirit not only calls men and sends them forth into definite lines of work, but He also guides in the details of daily life and service as to where to go and where not to go, what to do and what not to do. We read in Acts viii. 27-29, R. V., "And he (Philip) arose and went: and behold, a man of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was over all her treasure, who had come to Jerusalem for to worship; and he was returning and sitting in his chariot, and was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot." Here we see the Spirit guiding Philip in the details of service into which He had called him. In a similar way, we read in Acts xvi. 6, 7, R. V., "And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden of the Holy Ghost to speak the word in Asia; and when they were come over against Mysia, they assayed to go into Bithynia; and the Spirit of Jesus suffered them not." Here we see the Holy Spirit directing Paul where not to go. It is possible for us to have the unerring guidance of the Holy Spirit at every turn of life. Take, for example, our personal work. It is manifestly not God's intention that we speak to every one we meet. To attempt to do so would be to attempt the impossible, and we would waste much time in trying to speak to people where we could do no good that might be used in speaking to people where we could accomplish something. There are some to whom it would be wise for us to speak. There are others to whom it would be unwise for us to speak. Time spent on them would be taken from work that would be more to God's glory. Doubtless as Philip journeyed towards Gaza, he met many before he met the one of whom the Spirit said, "Go near, and join thyself to this chariot." The Spirit is as ready to guide us as He was to guide Philip. Some years ago, a Christian worker in Toronto had the impression that he should go to the hospital and speak to some one there. He thought to himself, "Whom do I know at the hospital at this time?" There came to his mind one whom he knew was at the hospital, and he hurried to the hospital, but as he sat down by his side to talk with him, he realized it was not for this man that he was sent. He got up to lift a window. What did it all mean? There was another man lying across the passage from the man he knew and the thought came to him that this might be the man to whom he should speak. And he turned and spoke to this man and had the privilege of leading him to Christ. There was apparently nothing serious in the man's case. He had suffered some injury to his knee and there was no thought of a serious issue, but that man passed into eternity that night. Many instances of a similar character could be recorded and prove from experience that the Holy Spirit is as ready to guide those who seek His guidance to-day as He was to guide the early disciples. But He is ready to guide us, not only in our more definite forms of Christian work but in all the affairs of life, business, study, everything we have to do. There is no promise in the Bible more plainly explicit than James i. 5-7, R. V., "But if any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all liberally and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. But let him ask in faith, nothing doubting: for he that doubteth is like the surge of the sea driven by the wind and tossed. For let not that man think that he shall receive anything of the Lord." This passage not only promises God's wisdom but tells us specifically just what to do to obtain it. There are really five steps stated or implied in the passage:
1. That we "lack wisdom." We must be conscious of and fully admit our own inability to decide wisely. Here is where oftentimes we fail to receive God's wisdom. We think we are able to decide for ourselves or at least we are not ready to admit our own utter inability to decide. There must be an entire renunciation of the wisdom of the flesh.
2. We must really desire to know God's way and be willing at any cost to do God's will. This is implied in the word "ask." The asking must be sincere, and if we are not willing to do God's will, whatever it may be, at any cost, the asking is not sincere. This is a point of fundamental importance. There is nothing that goes so far to make our minds clear in the discernment of the will of God as revealed by His Spirit as an absolutely surrendered will. Here we find the reason why men oftentimes do not know God's will and have the Spirit's guidance. They are not willing to do whatever the Spirit leads at any cost. It is he that "willeth to do His will" who shall know, not only of the doctrine, but he shall know his daily duty. Men oftentimes come to me and say, "I cannot find out the will of God," but when I put to them the question, "Are you willing to do the will of God at any cost?" they admit that they are not. The way that is very obscure when we hold back from an absolute surrender to God becomes as clear as day when we make that surrender.
3. We must definitely "ask" guidance. It is not enough to desire; it is not enough to be willing to obey; we must ask, definitely ask, God to show us the way.
4. We must confidently expect guidance. "Let him ask in faith nothing doubting," There are many and many who cannot find the way, though they ask God to show it to them, simply because they have not the absolutely undoubting expectation that God will show them the way. God promises to show it if we expect it confidently. When you come to God in prayer to show you what to do, know for a certainty that He will show you. In what way He will show you, He does not tell, but He promises that He will show you and that is enough.
5. We must follow step by step as the guidance comes. As said before, just how it will come, no one can tell, but it will come. Oftentimes only a step will be made clear at a time; that is all we need to know--the next step. Many are in darkness because they do not know and cannot find what God would have them do next week, or next month or next year. A college man once came to me and told me that he was in great darkness about God's guidance, that he had been seeking, to find the will of God and learn what his life's work should be, but he could not find it. I asked him how far along he was in his college course. He said his sophomore year. I asked, "What is it you desire to know?" "What I shall do when I finish college." "Do you know that you ought to go through college?" "Yes." This man not only knew what he ought to do next year but the year after but still he was in great perplexity because he did not know what he ought to do when these two years were ended. God delights to lead His children a step at a time. He leads us as He led the children of Israel. "And when the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle, then after that the children of Israel journeyed: and in the place where the cloud abode, there the children of Israel pitched their tents. At the commandment of the LORD the children of Israel journeyed, and at the commandment of the LORD they pitched: as long as the cloud abode upon the tabernacle they rested in their tents. And when the cloud tarried long upon the tabernacle many days, then the children of Israel kept the charge of the LORD, and journeyed not. And so it was, when the cloud was a few days upon the tabernacle; according to the commandment of the LORD they journeyed. And so it was, when the cloud abode from even unto the morning, and that the cloud was taken up in the morning then they journeyed: whether it was by day or by night that the cloud was taken up, they journeyed. Or whether it were two days, or a month, or a year, that the cloud tarried upon the tabernacle, remaining thereon, the children of Israel abode in their tents, and journeyed not: but when it was taken up, they journeyed. At the commandment of the LORD they rested in the tents, and at the commandment of the LORD they journeyed: they kept the charge of the LORD, at the commandment of the LORD by the hand of Moses" (Num. ix. 17-23).
Many who have given themselves up to the leading of the Holy Spirit get into a place of great bondage and are tortured because they have leadings which they fear may be from God but of which they are not sure. If they do not obey these leadings, they are fearful they have disobeyed God and sometimes fancy that they have grieved away the Holy Spirit, because they did not follow His leading. This is all unnecessary. Let us settle it in our minds that God's guidance is clear guidance. "God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all" (1 John i. 5). And any leading that is not perfectly clear is not from Him. That is, if our wills are absolutely surrendered to Him. Of course, the obscurity may arise from an unsurrendered will. But if our wills are absolutely surrendered to God, we have the right as God's children to be sure that any guidance is from Him before we obey it. We have a right to go to our Father and say, "Heavenly Father, here I am. I desire above all things to do Thy will. Now make it clear to me, Thy child. If this thing that I have a leading to do is Thy will, I will do it, but make it clear as day if it be Thy will." If it is His will, the heavenly Father will make it as clear as day. And you need not, and ought not to do that thing until He does make it clear, and you need not and ought not to condemn yourself because you did not do it. God does not want His children to be in a state of condemnation before Him. He wishes us to be free from all care, worry, anxiety and self-condemnation. Any earthly parent would make the way clear to his child that asked to know it and much more will our heavenly Father make it clear to us, and until He does make it clear, we need have no fears that in not doing it, we are disobeying God. We have no right to dictate to God how He shall give His guidance--as, for example, by asking Him to shut up every way, or by asking Him to give a sign, or by guiding us in putting our finger on a text, or in any other way. It is ours to seek and to expect wisdom but it is not ours to dictate how it shall be given. The Holy Spirit divides to "each man severally as He will" (1 Cor. xii. 11).
Two things are evident from what has been said about the work of the Holy Spirit. First, how utterly dependent we are upon the work of the Holy Spirit at every turn of Christian life and service. Second, how perfect is the provision for life and service that God has made. How wonderful is the fullness of privilege that is open to the humblest believer through the Holy Spirit's work. It is not so much what we are by nature, either intellectually, morally, physically, or even spiritually, that is important. The important matter is, what the Holy Spirit can do for us and what we will let Him do. Not infrequently, the Holy Spirit takes the one who seems to give the least natural promise and uses him far beyond those who give the greatest natural promise. Christian life is not to be lived in the realm of natural temperament, and Christian work is not to be done in the power of natural endowment, but Christian life is to be lived in the realm of the Spirit, and Christian work is to be done on the power of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is willing and eagerly desirous of doing for each one of us His whole work, and He will do in each one of us all that we will let Him do.