What about those “inner voices” or “leadings” that indicate something to do or say? Does God speak to us today? We often hear people say, “The Lord told me to …” How do we know if those impressions or urges are from God or my own imagination?
Supernatural communication is not always from God
We are warned, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1 NKJ). This implies that the “spirit” can communicate to our minds. These spirits can be demonic or suggestive ideas from other sources that deviate from God’s revealed Word. The only “test” to know if it is from God is a comparison of the idea or notion with what is already revealed in God’s Word. This evaluation presupposes a biblical knowledge sufficient for making a comparison. God never contradicts Himself. Without this background even believers can be deceived.
Likewise we are warned, “Now the Spirit explicitly says that in the later times some will desert the faith and occupy themselves with deceiving spirits and demonic teachings, influenced by the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared” (1Ti 4:1-2 NET). The first indicator of a false notion is the tendency to “desert the faith,” which does not mean to become “faithless,” but to abandon the “faith” revealed in God’s Word to focus on new ideas, fresh “revelations,” deeper truths, or a higher spirituality that seems better than following the “old” Book. (See also 2 Cor 11:3-4, 14)
These new ideas can occur in one’s mind as an epiphany, a revelation, a dream, a leading, a voice or a new “truth” that appears to be divine and spiritual. When one is more inclined to listen to these impressions or voices than daily seeking to know the wisdom of God in His Word, these “deceiving spirits” can detect an openness and provide “demonic teachings” to one’s conscious mind.
As seen in earlier blogs on this subject, the Holy Spirit works primarily through the conscience, but when there is a predisposed commitment to follow whatever urge that occurs in one’s mind, or an attitude to be completely uninhibited or unrestricted by any sense of propriety or wisdom, then the conscience becomes “seared” and unable to discern between what is right or wrong. When convinced that these urges are “God’s Word for today,” one sees them as God’s revelation of His will regardless of what the impression may be.
Just because an idea or “leading” occurs to your mind, it does not necessarily mean it is from God.
God does reveal truth
The Spirit of God does work in our minds to keep us in harmony with His Word. Paul wrote,
“Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you” (Phi 3:15 NKJ). God’s Spirit helps us to understand truth in His Word and to apply the implications of that truth to our lives. This is not revealing to us new truth, but the “renewing of your mind” (Rom 12:2) by enlightening our understanding to the already revealed truth. If one is not thinking biblically, the Spirit’s task is to make wrong thinking or disobedience evident to the believer’s mind.
God does create desires
In all of the passages that deal with the requirements for church leadership there is no emphasis on a special vocational “call.” The subjective element for church leadership grows out of a properly motivated desire. Paul wrote, “For it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” (Phi 2:13 NKJ). The word for “will” is thelo, “to have in mind, to be resolved or determined” to do something “for the sake of His good pleasure” (NET Bible). This desire is balanced with the ability “to do” (energeo, “put forth power”) and refers to the God’s gifting of individuals to do His pleasure. He makes His will become your desire if you are listening. A Spirit-filled believer will want to do His will.
The first requirement to become a pastor is that he “aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a good work” (1 Tim 3:1 NET). To “aspire” something (oregomai) means, “to stretch one’s self out in order to touch or to grasp something, or to reach after” and to “desire” (epithumeo) means “to have a desire for, or long for.” In a negative context it means “to lust after, or covet.” Both verbs are strong emotional inner drives to be responsible to God as an “overseer” of other believers, helping them mature in their Christian lives. The desire stems from a passion to nurture, protect and expand the church, which belongs to our Savior (Acts 20:28). This desire is certainly an inner urge from the Spirit, but it must be backed up with maturity, wisdom, knowledge and godliness (1 Tim 3:2-7) to become a reality.
The meaning of “led by the Spirit” (Gal 5:18 and Rom 8:14)
In the context of Gal 5:18 the flesh leads one to sin, selfishness, self-indulgence; whereas, the Spirit leads one away from sin. The word “lead” (ago) means “to take with one, to lead by laying hold of, or to bring to a point of destination.” The Spirit always leads away from fleshly expressions and the flesh draws one to it.
How do you know if the Spirit is leading? Are you inclined to move toward or motivated inwardly by “sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasure, idolatry, sorcery (pharmakia, “use of drugs or spells”), hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outburst of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties (“orgies”) (Gal 5:19-21)? Any and more such symptoms indicate the flesh is leading your desires and urges. Do not believe the lies you will think of to justify these leadings.
The Spirit compels us to avoid all such selfish behavioral motivations, rather to follow godly principles. If we feel urges towards any of the foregoing, they do not come from the Spirit.
The same function is fulfilled by the conscience, which is now “energized” by the presence of the indwelling Spirit to guide us toward Christ-likeness (Gal 5:22-23). The work of the Spirit in us is primarily an ongoing transformational process: “the Lord – who is the Spirit – makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image” (2 Cor 3:18 NLT).
The way this leading takes place (in this context) is by removing the “veil” (2 Cor 3:16) from over our minds, which blinds our understanding of Scripture (2 Cor 3:14). This gives us “liberty” (3:17) to know and live in the knowledge and light of the Scripture with an “unveiled face,” that is, clearly visualizing from Scripture the character, holiness, nature and will of Jesus Christ into which we are being transformed “by the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (3:18). The work of the Spirit is to open our minds to the Word He has already revealed in the Scripture and lead us into how to apply it.
The “mind of Christ” leads
An integral link to this understanding is learning how the “mind of Christ” becomes our mind-set. Philippians 2:2-5 commands us to have “the same mind, maintaining the same love (i.e. commitment to benefit others rather than our self), being united in spirit, and having one purpose. Instead of being motivated by selfish ambition or vanity, each of you should, in humility, be moved to treat one another as more important than yourself. Each of you should be concerned not only about your own interests, but about the interests of others as well.” (Phil 2:2-4 NET). Then we are commanded to “have the same attitude [mind] toward one another that Christ Jesus had” (Phi 2:5 NET). These are the motivations that should drive (or “leads”) our lives as they did His. Ideas will occur to us for how we should practice these biblical principles.
Inner urges and self-talk
In the light of the forgoing paragraphs, any momentary impulse or inner urges to our conscious mind to do something, change directions, say a word to an individual in your path, help an individual or give something to meet a need, could come from any number of sources.
If the urge is away from sin and selfishness, and fits within the scope of a wise decision, then it can be followed. It is either your conscience bringing conviction of something right or wrong into your thoughts, or it could be an idea that just occurred to you from your sanctified mind.
Remember: if you have transformed your thinking into the “mind of Christ” then your thoughts are similar to the way He would think.
When thoughts persist concerning a choice that fits His kingdom purpose (It may or may not be convenient to your ambition), then it merits further investigation or a step of faith.
“Being on the way, the Lord led me…” (Gen 24:27)
We have great assurances that when we have given our lives completely over to Him, He will make sure we stay on His track for His purpose.
When Abraham sent his eldest servant (24:2) to find a bride for his son in a distant land, God made sure he arrived at the right place, at the right time to meet the right person from the right family for Isaac. He may not have been conscious of God’s leading along the way, but it became obvious at the end. Abraham and Isaac trusted in God’s providence to guide their servant.
As Paul was in the midst of his second missionary journey in central Asia (Turkey) he made a decision to head southwest into the province of Asia, an unevangelized territory. Until this point Paul had been making decisions on the basis of wisdom and strategy to fulfill the Great Commission. He was “being on the way…”.
Now apparently a correction was needed to keep Paul on God’s timetable. “They were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach the word in Asia” (Acts 16:6). This was a strange leading of God, but Paul did not hesitate to make another decision.
With no indication of any additional “word” from God they decided to head north through dangerous territories en route to the Black Sea and the provinces of Mysia and Bithynia, likewise unevangelized territories. When he had arrived at Mysia, “the Spirit did not permit them” (16:7) to enter. How this prohibition was made evident is not clarified. These could have been circumstantial, prophetical, or a sanctified intuition that stopped them from proceeding. In both situations Paul recognized the hand of the Spirit of God changing the direction for his team. Again without apparent hesitation or clear direction from God they changed direction to the west until they came to the coastal town of Troas, running out of land options.
By this time in the Second Missionary journey to Troas in modern-day NW Turkey they had covered approximately 850 miles of rugged terrain covered at a best-possible rate of 20 miles per day. The trip from Troas to Neapolis, Macedonia was about 130 miles, which would take 2 days sailing in good weather (or up to 5 days in bad weather). God’s leadings are often through difficult situations.
How and why the Spirit “forbid” or “hindered” them from entering Asia or did not “permit” or “allow” them to enter Mysia we do not know. If there had been a spoken word Luke would have recorded it as he did on other occasions (i.e. Acts 18:9; 22:8; 23:11). There are many ways this prohibition could happen, but it only meant a change in direction for Paul’s team as the continued to evangelize and make disciples.
God’s will for evangelizing both regions
God’s plan for Asia to be evangelized was fulfilled a few years later by the disciples of Paul when he taught for two years at Ephesus (Acts 19:10), and the region of Bithynia was likely a later ministry of Peter because he wrote his first epistle to the believers there (1 Pet 1:1). Bithynia would become a major stronghold of the Christian church and the site of significant church council meetings (e.g., First Council of Nicaea (AD 325) and the Fourth General Council of Chalcedon in AD 451).
When God is in control He is responsible to make any changes clearly evident. Until that crossroad point is reached we are to “do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31) where you are presently applying God’s Word to your life. When time comes for a change it will always be evident, often seemingly inevitable.
Macedonian vision (Acts 16:9)
When guidance was needed it was always provided; however, it was usually on a “need-to-know” basis. If it was not necessary, the believers and apostles could make plans and trust God to guide them and/or change their plans (Prov 16:9). Let God be in control. Would Paul have thought of going to Macedonia had he not seen the vision of the Macedonian? We’ll never know.
This vision was not a command, nor was it directly from Jesus. Paul, however, took the vision as direction from the Lord and immediately set into action. After two closed doors of opportunities (Asia and Bithynia), finally an open door from the Lord. They must have been excited.
In Acts 16:10 the sense of the phrase that the Lord “called us to preach the gospel to them” (in Macedonia) refers to God’s purpose in calling Paul and his team to Himself in salvation, which had the eventual purpose of spreading the gospel to Macedonia. God has a purpose for everyone who is “called” to Him in salvation.
Visions in the NT
There are four contexts in the NT where visions occurred: first, to Ananias to encouraged him to seek out Paul and heal him of his temporary blindness, then a vision to Paul to accept Ananias (Acts 9:10-16). The second vision was also in two parts, first to unsaved Cornelius to send for Peter (Acts 10:3-7), then the second part to Peter to encourage him to go to the Gentile house of Cornelius and preach the gospel (Acts 10:10-17). A third vision appeared to Paul at Troas (Acts 16:10) to encourage him to go to the Gentiles in Macedonia. A fourth vision appeared to Paul in Athens (Acts 18:9) to encourage his next step in the missionary journey to go to Corinth. In each case it was a strategic crossroads that Paul might not have chosen, but was essential for the advancement of the church.
Each of us has strategic moments in our lives to touch another person or take the gospel to a person or even to an unreached people group where we will need, and can count on, His timely guidance as we take the initiative to accomplish His desire for this lost world. We know what He wants. If we start to fulfill it He will guide us as we are “being in the way…” to accomplish His plan.
The mystery of how God leads us, and what His purpose is for our lives, will always intrigue us, but if we do not rebel, but rather begin the quest to obey all His revealed will in all the commands, while living to make Him known as He deserves, then His providential guidance will keep us on track to complete the “good works that [He] God prepared beforehand so we may do them” (Eph 2:10).
The four-fold life pattern recorded by Solomon 3,000 years ago in Proverbs 3:5-6 is still valid today:
- “Trust in the Lord with all your heart” means to be “carelessly confident,” without reserves. as walking into a dark room holding someone’s hand who knows the way. Warning: He delights in getting us into situations where we have to learn to trust Him completely.
- “Not depending on your understanding,” rather than depend on our intuition, perspectives or opinions we must follow His values, wisdom and commands. We have to make sure our ideas or urges reflect what we know about Him in His Word.
- “Acknowledge Him in all your ways,” means to “know or notice” God in all your situations, how He is with you, and why He permits all your circumstances (good and bad as in James 1: 3-8), while never doubting He is trustworthy and makes no mistakes. His way is always worth it.
- “He will direct your paths” or “show you which path to take,”(NLT) means that He will (metaphorically) make a seemingly twisted path to straighten out, or to be pleasing or right in the end. This is often more evident after the fact, than before or during life’s situations.
The subjective or mystical area of God’s leadings is the most difficult to analyze and is where most of the false ideas and erroneous teachings originate. False leadings derived from misapplications of Scriptures can lead to false notions and poor decisions. Great care must be given to analyze ideas that occur to us. Do they conform to the biblical revelations and God’s wisdom? Do my decisions advance God’s kingdom or my own? We must develop biblical criteria for discerning Christ-honoring leadings and urges. Its an adventure to let the Spirit of God guide your path.