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Paths of Righteousness

Proverbs 3:6 - In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.

Psalm 23:3 - He guides me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake.

Does God have a plan for my life and can I know it? So much has been written and discussed on this subject that it almost seems a waste of time to try to say anything more. But at the risk of sounding repetitious, let's broach the subject one more time.

Proverbs 3:5­6 is probably the most frequently quoted Scripture concerning God's guidance. The promise that a sovereign God will make our paths straight certainly seems to suggest that God does have planned paths for us to follow. But is it possible that only general godly guidelines, and not specific guidance for the individual, is meant by this verse? Is the promise of "straight paths" more than just the thought of the Lord removing obstacles to the walk of faith? The idea that "make your paths straight" means only general guidelines and merely involves the removal of some obstacles from life's pathway seems to fall short of the full logical implications of this text in the light of the rest of Scripture. Isn't it true that an all-knowing and all-powerful God could not only remove obstacles in the Christian life, but also "make our paths straight" by directing us around certain obstacles? Couldn't an all-caring sovereign God not only generally encourage all of us along godly paths but also specifically guide me along what He alone knows is the best of a number of possible straight paths?

A similar promise comes to us from Psalm 23:3, where we are told that "He guides me in paths of righteousness." Is this verse speaking about guidance along specific paths for my life, or only about general moral guidelines? The overall context of Psalm 23 would certainly indicate that the promise involves more than just some general guidelines. A shepherd does not merely set the sheep off in a general direction. He goes ahead of them and guides them along specific paths that he has chosen. Furthermore, David, the author of this psalm, personalizes his relationship with the Shepherd. Even though shepherds, both then and now, usually lead a whole flock together, David states that "He leads me in paths of righteousness." Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, David went beyond the basic model of a shepherd and his flock to emphasize God's guidance for the individual. It reminds us of what the Lord Jesus said about His care for each individual sheep: "The good Shepherd calls His own sheep by name and leads them out" (John 10:3).

Of course, most of the "paths of righteousness" which God has chosen for us are clearly marked out in God's Word, and are the same for all sheep. No path of righteousness, for example, will ever pass through the field of adultery or fornication. No path of righteousness will ever travel over the ground of gluttony or slander or cheating. These road signs are unmistakable in Scripture. Any "sheep" can read them! But what about specific questions that apply only to me and not to the rest of the sheep-like decisions about college or career or marriage? Can these areas be included in God's plan for my life? Why not?

Let's consider the matter of college selection. While any number of colleges, Christian or secular, might "do the job" for you as far as education goes, not every college would be the place where you would be most challenged and strengthened in your Christian faith. But the God who has promised to "guide us with His eye" (Psalm 32:8) knows which college has the environment and roommate and Christian fellowship group that would be best for you--for the greatest strengthening of your faith, and the best opportunities for service using your natural talents and spiritual gifts. Would your heavenly Father, whose counseling eye is always upon you, and who knows all these details, let you choose just any college? Would He not lead you to choose the particular college which would result in the very best path of righteousness for you?

The same is true for careers. While several vocations might serve to make you happy and successful and fulfilled, isn't it logical to assume that our all-knowing God has determined the particular niche which is best for you? The God who "works all things after the counsel of His will" (Ephesians 1:11) can certainly guide you along a particular path of righteousness to the job which is ideal for your present and future spiritual condition and growth and usefulness in His service. The God who knows all about your abilities and potentials and shortcomings and limitations also sovereignly controls all the events and circumstances of history! The particular jobs and locations which are best for you have all been worked out ahead of time and will be there right on schedule.

What about marriage? While it is true that any number of potential Christian spouses who meet the biblical qualifications of a wife or husband for you are out there, not every one of these candidates is the best Christian life-partner for you. Does God know which person will best complement you? Of course He does! He not only knows whether or not you should be married, but He knows who is the best for you and when is the best time for you to be married. Certainly the God who told His Old Testament people in Jeremiah 29:11 that He had "good plans" for them has good plans for your life too. The good plans for Israel were more than just general godly goals. God already knew all the exact details of His plan for Judah's return from captivity (the context of Jeremiah 29). Enough details are available in the prophecies to prove that God hadn't just come up with a "general set of good plans" for Israel's path of righteousness. God always knows all the details. How can anyone possibly say that a sovereign God who knows and controls all details does not have a detailed good plan for my life?

Ah, but what about finding out those details? When decisions need to be made, how does a Christian go about finding and following the particular path of righteousness God desires? Here is where many Christians get mixed up. Some Christians assume that if God has a detailed plan for their lives, then He will reveal it to them like a road map, highlighted with all the right roads to take and turns to make. Other Christians assume that because God doesn't give out highlighted road maps then He must not have a special plan for their lives, and only gives general guidelines to follow. Neither of these assumptions is entirely correct. The truth is that God does have a detailed plan for our lives but He does not reveal it to us as a highlighted road map. In fact, He may not reveal much (or any!) of it ahead of schedule. Our responsibility is to obey God's commands and use the means for making decisions that God has shown us in Scripture. Then we can rest assured that what unfolds for us is God's particular plan for our lives. In addition, we can be sure that if the paths of righteousness which the Lord has chosen for us require special information or demand unusual decisions, He will make it clear to us ahead of time. Plenty of biblical characters received God's guidance in unusual ways, and God can guide us by special communication and circumstances if He so chooses. (For examples, read about Gideon in Judges 7:4­8 or about Philip in Acts 8:25­40.) But remember that, for the most part, even the biblical heroes made their decisions each day using the same normal means that God has given to us.

The normal means of divine guidance could be called "the way of wisdom." The way of wisdom is simply living life with its many decisions in accordance with God's written Word, the Bible, and our God-given and biblically instructed common sense. In the areas where God has revealed His will for us, we walk in obedience to His laws. In the areas where God has not specifically made His will known, but has left us free to decide, we use the common sense that God has given us to make our decisions. In using our common sense we recognize that we are fallible mortals, with sinful natures, vulnerable to the tricks of Satan and therefore liable to make mistakes--even big ones. Thus we seek out godly counsel, and pray for insight to rightly analyze circumstances, and endeavor to be sensitive to a Spirit-enlightened conscience when we make decisions--especially the decisions we know are going to affect the entire course of our lives. We also know that our common sense should be greatly influenced by our knowledge of Scripture and therefore we continually soak ourselves in the Word of God so that every biblical principle bearing on life's decisions will "automatically" screen the decisions we make. As we thus "walk by the Spirit" (Galatians 5:16), we are following God's way of wisdom for His people. And because we know that God has sovereign control over all the details of all events and circumstances, we can be confident that we are following the particular paths of righteousness which God has preplanned for our lives.

We might ask some logical questions at this point. How does my disobedience and lack of common sense in decision-making affect God's plan for my life? Suppose I wilfully depart from paths of righteousness to sow a few wild oats? Does God's plan for me continually change because of my mistakes, or do I get further and further away from His plan for my life as I do my own thing? From God's perspective, neither of the above alternatives is correct. Since God knows everything, my mistakes never catch Him off guard, so it can never be said that God changed His plan for my life. Our disobedience and selfish mistakes can certainly result in God's discipline and in loss of blessing and reward, but even these consequences could not be said to be a different plan. It is the plan that God, who always knew everything about me, designed just for me. Every event and circumstance that I encounter in my wayward life is part of God's unique plan for me to guide me back to Himself.

An illustration of the fact that God guides us even when we are disobedient or only partially committed to Him comes to us from the Old Testament. When the Lord redeemed His people out of Egypt and brought them to the Promised Land, He led them step by step. He did this by means of a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night--a visible sign of His presence. (See Exodus 13:21­22.) The cloud never left them. It was with them all the time and indicated whether, and when, and where they should move. (See Numbers 9:15­23.) The cloud was there when they murmured and complained. It was there when they bowed and partied around the golden calf. It was there when they would not believe that God could bring them into the land He had promised them. It led them for the 40 years that they wandered in the wilderness. Numbers 33 gives us 41 stages of these wanderings by name. God knew precisely when He was going to move the cloud and precisely where He was going to stop the cloud. Even when the children of Israel were grumbling and complaining and "out of the will of the Lord," God guided His wayward people according to plan. Certainly God will not do less for His people today.

The fact that the journey of Israel from Egypt to Canaan is meant to be a picture of the individual Christian's life further emphasizes this point of God's guidance for us. God not only redeems me "out of Egypt," but He leads me "through the wilderness." Even when I choose to leave the paths of righteousness to "wander in the wilderness," God's plan for my life is not thwarted. Although my sin and selfish decisions mean that there will be "holding patterns" and "course corrections" in God's plan for my life, He never gives up on me or on His plan! (Read Philippians 1:6.)

The bottom line of God's desire for all of us, of course, is that we become more and more conformed to the image of Christ. (See Romans 8:28­29.) All paths of righteousness lead in that direction. You can be sure that everything in God's plan for your life is always working together toward that glorious goal.
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