Anyone familiar with the London Underground will be aware of the regular tannoy announcements when the train is in the station concerning doors, such as ‘Doors Opening’, ‘Doors Closing’ and particularly ‘Mind the Doors!’ God opening doors, and closing them, is a re-occurring theme in scripture and has become much associated with the idea of God guiding us through circumstances. In over 40 years as a Pastor, the subject that I have been asked most questions about is ‘guidance’! How does God guide us? How can I be sure that the direction I am taking in life is the correct one? Is there a plan and purpose for my life, and if so how can I be certain that I am fulfilling it? These, and similar questions, have been put to me time and again by young and old alike, and for all I know they may be the kind of questions you are asking as we enter another new year? As someone put it to me recently, ‘I am hoping this new year will present me with some open doors of opportunity?!’
Traditionally there are various factors that Christians incorporate into their guidance system: scripture, tradition, reason, prayer, and circumstance as vehicles through which the Holy Spirit guides us. Evangelical Christians largely adhere to this traditional view although interpreting these various factors in a particular way. Thus scripture is seen as the primary source of guidance, particularly the traditionally held interpretations rather than any ‘fresh expression’ of scripture. Church tradition is to be treated somewhat sceptically especially if it appears to contradict scripture, although Evangelical Christians often interpret ‘church tradition’ as referring to the good and Godly guidance of those in the church whom we esteem and respect in God, usually our Leaders or those mature in the Faith. Reason is good – after all God gave us brains and expects us to use them – but not if reason appears to dismiss or contradict views that are understood to be scriptural. Prayer is important as a vehicle through which we lay our concerns, including our need for guidance, before God although we are not too good at waiting on God for answers. Equally Evangelicals are either particularly wary of any extra-biblical revelation that may come our way through ‘charismatic’ means, or appear to believe this is a primary way God reveals his will to us and refuse to move in any direction until we have ‘had a word from the Lord’?! Circumstances have been usually last on the list, in name at least, primarily because in our heads we believe God can over-rule circumstances.
I would suggest that whatever the particular theological corner we approach the subject of guidance from, the reality is that circumstances actually play a much bigger part in our guidance system than many of us are prepared to admit? For all our belief in scripture, tradition, reason and prayer as vehicles through which the Holy Spirit guides us, if a particular door closes we see it as God shutting the door, and if a door opens we tend to see it as being of God and go through it!? Biblically, however, there are a number of passages that suggest completely the opposite may sometimes be true and that there are clearly occasions when apparently closed doors need to be pushed and seemingly open doors need to be avoided!
In the Old Testament story of the Exodus, when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt towards the Promised Land, they found their way blocked by the seemingly impenetrable barrier of the Red Sea [Exodus 14]. With the sea in front of them, the Egyptians behind them, and mountains either side of them the way forward seemed impossible. The majority of the Israelites concluded that God did not want them to move forward and advocated a return to Egypt [Exodus 14:12]. Moses however, inspired by God, pushed this particular closed door and the sea parted allowing the Israelites to move forward [Exodus 14:13-31] . In the New Testament we read of an occasion in the life of the early church when Peter was arrested by King Herod and imprisoned under heavy guard awaiting execution [Acts 12:1-4]. The prison doors were firmly shut tight and the situation seemed impossible ‘but the church was earnestly praying to God for [Peter]’ [Acts 12:5]. The early church did not accept that what appeared to be a closed door was from God, and that their leader was meant to be executed. They prayerfully pushed the prison door and we are told that miraculously the prison door ‘opened for them by itself’ [Acts 12:10] and Peter was able to pass through it!
When Paul and Silas were imprisoned in Philippi [Acts 16] we are told that ‘suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken … [and] at once all the prison doors flew open and everyone’s chains came loose’ [Acts 16:26]. In the same situation, most of us would have seen this as a God-given miracle (similar to Peter’s deliverance) and walked out of the prison. If Paul and Silas had done that, however, they would have remained fugitives from the law rather than been pardoned, and the Philippian Jailer would have committed suicide or been executed rather been saved! Paul and Silas clearly discerned that that although a door had opened for them they were not meant to go through it. Either God had not opened the door in the first place, or if he had, it was a test of their powers of spiritual discernment. Paul was not always so discerning, however. In 2 Corinthians 2:12,13 we are told that during one of his missionary journeys Paul left Ephesus and went to the significant seaport of Troas. He went there because he believed that ‘the Lord had opened a door for me’ to preach the gospel of Christ [v.12], only to almost immediately change his mind once he had got there and move on to Macedonia [v.13]?! Whatever other questions this fascinating snippet from the life of Paul raises for us – and there are a number – this incident clearly illustrates that sometimes what we perceive as an open door of God’s making is not always so!
We all hope that this new year will present us with open doors of opportunity but we still need to be careful when it comes to discerning God’s plans and purposes for our lives. Not every seemingly shut door is necessarily an eternal barrier for us … but neither is every seemingly open door a door we are meant to go through?! Circumstances do have a part to play in our guidance system but we need to balance this with clear biblical direction that comes to us underlined by the Holy Spirit, an openness and sensitivity to the Holy Spirit directing us in new ways and new directions, a thought through faith response to that which we think God may be saying to us, a willingness to talk things through with others who we respect and esteem in the Lord, and a prayerfulness that undergirds all that we think or say or do as we seek to move forward in God.