An Auspicious Subject

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In the ancient world it took guts to tell the future.


If you lived in Athens or Rome and had to make a crucial decision about whom to marry, where to build a house, or whether to start a war, you’d begin by “taking the auspices.”  That might mean examining the entrails of a slaughtered animal.

Trained priests, after checking out the color, size, shape, and markings on a creature’s liver or gall bladder, would announce the will of the gods.

Others looked to the skies.  The behavior of birds – whether they were flying alone or in flocks, silently or chattering away – was thought to indicate whether Fortune smiled or frowned on new initiatives.

Still others took the auspices by checking out eggs.  This wasn’t quite as easy as making an omelet.  A professional egg reader had to be sober, have fasted for at least 12 hours, and be wearing festive clothes.  He would carry a pure, white, unblemished egg and a bowl of water while walking in a circle around an altar.  Then he would pour some of the water into his hands, face south, extend his arms, and loudly ask for divine guidance.

Finally he would break the egg into the water and make pronouncements based on what he saw.  Was this a favorable or an unfavorable time to start a new business or make a new friend? 

Suffice it to say that most egg predictions didn’t turn out to be everything they were cracked up to be.

Taking the auspices, however, was considered an essential part of life in the ancient world.  The Roman historian Livy wrote: “Who does not know that everything in war and peace, at home and abroad, was done only after taking the auspices?”

Nor has humanity’s passion to know the future expired during our own day.  Such yearning lives on in our words “auspicious” and “inauspicious.” 

More than a few people pay attention to lucky numbers, auspicious-sounding comments in their newspaper’s astrology column, or the sudden appearance of a rainbow before a big job interview.

Followers of Jesus, however, have come to trust a handful of other means of seeking guidance. 

First, we must Seek Intentionally.  In his book Hearing God, Dallas Willard notes that God wants to be known.  He wants to be found.  “God is not trying to play hide and seek with us,” making it as hard as possible for us to know what he’s up to. 

Why doesn’t God just sky-write his instructions to each of us?  Or at least send a detailed text at the same time every morning? 

God’s real target is our hearts.  He yearns to transform us into people who, at a heartfelt level, want to want what he wants. 

That should lead us, secondly, to Tune In Quietly.  To hear from God we have to make a choice.  We have to bet our lives that the invisible world is real, and that its values are more important than those of our culture that is always trying to squeeze us into its mold.

Willard suggests that we shouldn’t expect to hear anything from God if we have already decided that we’re not going to do what he tells us.  Receiving guidance is not about deciding whether or not God’s advice is good advice.  Our hearts get “tuned in” whenever we choose to say, “Lord, I’m listening.  Please speak to me about where you’re leading me…and give me the grace to say yes.”

Third, our call is to Search Diligently. From one standpoint it’s not that hard to locate knowledge about God.  God’s Word, in fact, has a permanent address.  It’s the Bible. 

Christians openly acknowledge that holy books from around the world contain vital inspiration and truth.  But followers of Jesus have concluded that both Old and New Testaments present a unique level of specificity about spiritual realities.  If over the next week God seems generally silent concerning the questions and decisions we have to face, keep in mind that he has already addressed at least 95% of our daily concerns in Scripture.

Our fourth call is to Listen Attentively.  In other words, we have to learn to recognize God’s voice.  If the Bible is our objective external means of discerning truth, the Holy Spirit is God’s amazing provision of a compass that is both subjective and internal. 

Our task is to become alert to the means by which God might choose to give us a particular word of direction, one that goes beyond the general direction of the Bible. 

What do we do when we’re looking for guidance and we seem to come up empty?  I know one spiritual leader who prays, “Lord, please speak to me through my friends, books, magazines I pick up, and through circumstances.’”  In other words, he has learned from experience that God often chooses one means or another to get through.

It’s Willard’s opinion that when we need to hear a specific word from God, most of the time we will hear it from another person. 

Sometimes the one thing we most need to hear comes from a surprising source – our own lips.  From time to time when I’ve been talking with someone I’ve spoken the very word of encouragement, or warning, or direction that I myself needed to hear.  Through the Spirit all of us are capable of speaking more wisdom than we actually know.

Fifth, and finally, what if, after investing ourselves in these first four activities, God remains strangely silent?  What are we supposed to do if we aren’t getting a specific leading of any kind on a decision that we simply have to make, and we’ve been waiting patiently? 

At this point the Bible instructs us to Choose Wisely.

With respect to many events in our future, God’s will is that we ourselves should determine what will happen.  As Willard points out, “What a child does when not told what to do is the final indicator of who or what that child is.”  We are not the Stepford children of God – robots who are programmed to obey God whether we like it or not. 

Within a living, active, ever-maturing spiritual relationship, we are given the privilege and the responsibility of making key decisions.

Is there one verse that helps pull everything together?  Try this one:  “If you don’t know what you’re doing, pray to the Father.  He loves to help.  You’ll get his help, and won’t be condescended to when you ask for it” (James 1:5, The Message).

Wise people are wise people primarily because they are humble enough to ask for help.  Especially God’s help. 

If you’re at a major crossroads this week, skip the gall bladders, egg yolks, and professional birdwatchers. 

Just ask.