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Guidance and the will of God across cultures

Should we seek God’s guidance in the mundane things? To an Aussie this might seem a bit absurd, especially if it’s the truly ordinary things, like the morning choice between Weetbix and Vegemite toast. Surely we need to begin at a higher level. Life direction. That’s where God’s will really counts, isn’t it? And in the little things, God has given us plenty of freedom so we don’t need to fret about putting a foot wrong.

From a more Tanzanian angle, this all sounds a bit odd. The ‘little things’ shouldn’t be trivialised because all things have spiritual importance, and God is interested in more than just ‘life direction’. On top of that, the little things are the stuff of life, the things which create whole-life patterns. Life direction is the result of the day-to-day. Good health is so much more than a nod in the direction of fruit and vegetables. A corruption-free society is the result of a thousand tiny decisions. You can’t write off these ordinary things, and we often see Tanzanian friends sharing news about them on social media.

Guidance and the will of God is the topic for our next ‘semina’ at St John’s University. It’s a well-worn topic in Australian university ministries, but I’m keenly aware that it’s not appropriate for us to take those principles and apply or ‘contextualise’ them in Tanzania. Instead, we need to start further back: the terminology is different, the starting assumptions are different, and the questions are different. And it’s not in English to start with.

My point is not that Australians are going about this the wrong way, but that Australian answers probably don’t fit Tanzanian questions. What we’re discovering is that Australians tend to focus on the big picture (life direction) while Tanzanians tend to focus on the concrete steps (daily decisions). We Australians are reasonably confident about planning and practicalities, so we’ll give more attention to life direction, which to us can seem pretty difficult to grasp. Yet Tanzanians seem quite confident in talking about life direction, while it’s the daily decisions which need special attention in order to get there.

In the conversations we’ve had, Tanzanians have drawn a distinction between God’s will (mapenzi ya Mungu) and God’s guidance (kuongozwa na Mungu). One is the destination, the other is the journey. God’s will is the goal; guidance is about staying on track to reach it. God’s will is a specific future point; guidance is about getting there.

And what Tanzanians seem to identify as the big challenge is not the first but the second. Figuring out God’s will — the destination — is the first step and apparently not all that obscure. But how does a young Tanzanian stay focused on that goal? How does she keep it in sight from day to day? How does he keep progressing towards it in the ordinary stuff of life? It’s not easy when there are external forces at work on you, whether it’s family expectations or your own daily struggles. How can I distinguish God’s leading from the ebb and flow of my own thinking? That’s a huge question for Tanzanian students.

Whereas an Australian might relegate the daily grind to the realm of our own decisions, that’s exactly what a Tanzanian would probably caution against: if we just try and figure it out ourselves, we’ll end up walking our own path rather than God’s.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Do not depend on your own understanding.
In all your ways remember him. Then he will make your paths smooth and straight.

We’re finding once again that the Bible’s wisdom tradition looms large here. Seeking God’s daily guidance is not the way of fear and magic, but the way of wise observation and reflection on every avenue of divine revelation. Yes, in the details of life we are often ignorant of the mind of God, but the wisdom tradition assures us that we can indeed gain wisdom — not only at the moment of ‘life decisions’, but in the most ordinary of day to day activities. Do you ‘put out a fleece’ before you can get out of bed in the morning? Probably not! But getting out of bed is the sort of ephemera which wisdom refuses to exclude from consideration.

As a door turns on its hinges, so a sluggard turns on his bed.
The sleep of a worker is sweet.

 Image credit: Douglas Rickard

Categories: Tanzania University ministry Written by Arthur

Tagged as:

Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

3 replies

  1. Sounds like we Australians have a lot to learn and we might be asking some of the wrong questions. I like the distinction between the destination and the journey and it makes me wonder if we are being sinful if we ‘relegate’ God’s guidance to the big picture only? Do we claim our freedom in smaller areas too freely so that we are more focused on the freedom than the boundaries in which that freedom exists?

    1. Hi Suzanne! I reckon what we see in Australia, whether we think of it as ‘freedom’ or otherwise, is that we just don’t do much reflection about what we buy, what we eat and what we wear. Of course these are areas of serious ethical reflection, but they’re the product of thousands of little decisions, which I think is why it’s such a headshift for us. Which of us when looking at our weekly shopping list will say, “Oh no, I’ve been sinning!”? But zoom out to the nationwide level, and we have supermarkets with an entire aisle dedicated to our pets. Apparently we spend $6 billion on our pets each year including $2.2 billion on vets. The average cost of owning a dog is $1000 a year; a cat is $600 a year. Pet insurance is now serious business at $350 per year.

      From that angle, can we say we are living wisely as Australians?

      No, I might not change the world by buying a particular ‘ethical’ product, but there’s more to consider than that. I would say this is most immediately a question of being wise about the world we are in (e.g. do I know where my food and clothing actually come from?) and attentive to the state of our own hearts (e.g. how much do I care?).

      This is where the increasing number of ethical buying guides can be really helpful. Shop Ethical covers the supermarket, while Behind the Barcode covers electronics and fashion.

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