Saturday, December 20, 2014

How can I tell the voice in my head from the voice of God? Part Two

A most difficult question. Last time I focused on a New Testament example and an Old Testament example of discerning God’s will, but I did not nearly cover the problems intrinsic behind the question. We who reflect much on the question will often think of those remarkable success stories of those who followed something the Spirit bade them to do, but we might also be reminded of those who have encountered unmitigated disaster in trying to follow what God seems to be directing them to do. Is there any way of discerning beforehand which it is to be?

I think there often is not, and I also think that is why a great many godly people are so careful with this area. It is an area in which the unwary have plunged, and to continue the metaphor, have often found themselves in strange and deep waters. How might that, at least, be avoided? First of all, as discussed last time, no biding from God should contradict what is plainly taught in the Scriptures. It is amazing to me to hear many times people who claim to have direction from God, but are going exactly opposite to the way they should be going. In Proverbs, it tells us that there is a way that seems right to a man, but the end thereof is death. It ought to give us a lot of pause to think about the way that others seem to get so far off center, and especially when we look afresh upon our own lives. Paul tells us that each one of us ought “to examine” ourselves to see whether we really are in the faith, and Jesus reminds us that some, at least, will find themselves at the wedding feast of the Lamb without proper wedding clothes—and, surprised, they will be cast into the outer darkness. If we do not soberly examine ourselves, there will be another who will.

Does what you think God is telling you going to affect others? Will others need to see it as the will of God? Such questions should raise red flags of caution for the careful believer. I have found it helpful to let go and let God. If God has indeed impressed something on my mind, then I need to find some quiet way of obedience to what I feel called to, without disturbing others with a loud proclamation of God’s talking to me. Nothing seems to put off Christians quite so readily as those who claim to know God better than their fellow parishioners. Humility, a wonderful Christian virtue, is too often left far behind in pursuit of such faith ventures, and that alone ought to be enough of a danger signal to encourage restraint. With humility comes a great deal of waiting upon God to move. In the case of Moses, he committed murder trying to help his fellow Israelite, and it was not until he had left his vision of being a helper for Israel behind for forty years, that God at last used him. At eighty, when he should have been dead, then God chose to quicken him in ministry, and marvelously used him for yet another forty years. Humility and waiting often go together with a vision for God, because God often seems to gather all the glory to his name, lest we become vain and think we are doing well in our own power.

Early in my Christian life, I became deeply interested in being in the ministry as possibly an associate pastor, or a youth minister. I was also called to witness, but you, looking at my results would wonder at the calling, for hardly any responded. I deepened my prayer life, and asked God to use and make me to be the way he wanted me to be. But I still felt committed to follow the path to ministry, so while I was working on the farm, I was given the opportunity to preach at the very small local gospel mission. Carefully I placed my prayer to God, “God, if you desire me to pursue a ministry, then I ask that you give me one person who will hear the message and respond by accepting Christ.” Earnestly expecting and hoping for an answer was my focus, and when I at last stuttered my way through the message, and gave an invitation, I looked to the many men, and not one of them responded. Discouraged, I went home, and set about praying anew for God to show me his will. Unknown to me, our pastor had invited the chaplain of the same mission to speak that very Sunday. I made sure to speak to the man after the service, and to my surprise, he pulled me aside and told me that one man had waited until I left their service to make his decision. The chaplain did not know of my prayer, but said that he was just impressed that I ought to know.

What a marvel in God there is! My prayer was answered, not quite in the way I expected it to be, but in a way that demonstrated I should be trusting in him. As an outcome, my wife and I went back to college at Biola, where we saw many scores of people coming to Christ as God used us to proclaim his Son. I still had to wait, working on the farm, and wherever else I could, in humility, taking training from God until he was ready to use us. So, you see, I do think there is a valid place for the biding of the Spirit, but it usually seems to occur in a place which totally humbles us, and lifts up the name of our God.

Humility seemed to be something God was regularly teaching me, for I remember an earlier time when my wife and I were meeting together with several of other young people in a regular meeting. I had just been laid off, and my meager savings had rapidly run out. I became the more earnest in prayer as my savings dwindled, something that was going to occur lots of times in my student life, but it was God’s training ground for me, to teach me to depend totally upon his provision. I remember spreading out my bills before the Lord, and asking him to give me a job, or to take care of my bills somehow, when a fortuitous knock came at the door. Opening my door, I found one of my prayer friends, who explained that he had just been praying, and the Lord had impressed him so strongly that he had written out a check for the exact amount that I had been praying for. He asked if I had a need for the check that he had written, not sure whether it was going to prove out to be the word of the Lord, or not. Needless to say, I accepted the check, and gave glory to God. Did God speak to the young man? He certainly felt that it was so. And so did I.

Late in my life, I have tried to renew my writing, asking that God might use it to glorify his name. As I was praying one morning this past spring, it suddenly came to me that I was to write a book on the awakenings of America, and that as a sign that I was, I would be asked to preach once more. I am finishing up my blessed career in teaching, and long ago gave up on my preaching gift, deciding that if God wanted me to preach he would have to get someone to ask me. I was not going to seek out the opportunity, but rather let God work as he would. It had now been about twenty years since I was in the pulpit, and when those thoughts flitted through my head, I assumed it was my vanity, poking its ugly head up once more, and I remember scoffing twice at the thoughts. First I scoffed at the idea of writing on the awakenings. I had just recently become interested in them, chiefly through reading Jonathan Edwards’ account of the First Awakening. I was certainly not able to write a book on the subject. Second, I scoffed because I had long ago left my plea to God alone, and the very idea of anyone asking me to preach bordered on the edges of insanity. Or so I thought. That very evening, my pastor, without any prior discussion on the subject, came up to me and asked me to speak from the pulpit that summer.

Here is an interesting case to ponder a bit. Maybe I was a bit more like Zachariah (see part one) in doubting the message. Actually I would say I was not expecting that these were directions from the Lord at all, but time and chance proved that they were. I have nearly completed my book on the awakenings, and I find myself blessed beyond all of my expectations.

I have tried to illustrate the difficulty of telling the voice of God from my own inner voice. First, I gave an illustration of where I felt the strong promptings of God to do something—in this case to seek the ministry—where God seemed to be speaking to me. Second, I gave the case of God seeming to speak to another in direct answer to my prayers. Last, I showed that, even late in the Christian walk, there are times when I cannot tell the voice of the Spirit from my own inner voice. Time is sometimes the only tool that reveal whether something is of God or not.

But I can tell you that a walk of humility is necessary before him. If the word of the Lord is indeed coming to you, and you are marked in pride and vanity, then surely it is not the word of God at all. But if you deepen your humble life before him, I have long noticed that he will prove himself, and his word. It really is not my job to tell whether a random thought is from him or not. My job is obedience, walking before him, and seeking his glory in all of my life. I did tell you it was a most difficult question.

Our walk of faith is partly knowing partly seeing. When we look ahead we are a most fortunate people, looking toward the inheritance that God has left for us. The problem is that our present problems often cry out for deliverance, and our eyes are focused tightly on our present problems. The temptation to seize the problem and declare God’s solution for it, becomes too great to resist. And many a saint has fallen from following such a reckless course. It pleased God to suffer on the cross for mankind, that believing, we might be redeemed. It continues to marvel me that Jesus came to us in the flesh, in the role of the dutiful servant, not seeking his own inclinations, but rather seeking to give totally of himself. In his short walk upon this earth, he experienced all the childish behaviors, the foolish things that must have appeared to him as the most stupid of follies, yet he chose to suffer them. In short, he suffered fools. For he came into the world, scripture says, not to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved. If our master was thus willing to endure scorn and pain for the sake of the world, how can we who be his servants expect anything less?

The victory in our walk with God lies not in the treasures of this world, but rather in looking ahead towards the end, and working everyday toward that end. The saint who looks to the present world to find satisfaction will neither find satisfaction nor long remain obedient. But the saint who looks ahead will find both satisfaction and delight in this world as he is obedient to the calling of God. Does God indeed speak to us? Undoubtedly he does, but the saint who would be holy will immerse himself in the word of God, which we know to be the very voice of God. There is no other way!

God fills our lives with his precious moments, and what a treasure it is when we find the Spirit leading us, and opening doors in our lives. I cherish those God-moments, as we all should, but the real and true lamppost that God gives us is in his word. Thy word, says the psalmist, is a lamp unto my feet, a light unto my path. Let all things in your life be measured with its timeless truths.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

How can I tell the voice in my head from the voice of God? Part One

Undoubtedly, this is one of the most difficult questions I have had to answer. On the one hand, there are many who would too readily acknowledge any voice as the voice of God, and their fruits are readily apparent to those of us watching. But on the other hand, there are many who do not acknowledge any voice of the Holy Spirit at all, believing that God speaks only through his Word. I believe that there is a middle ground, but it is not at all clear sometimes what we must do to verify the voice of God.

Sometimes it is very clear and easy to verify that we are not receiving the prompting of God. Anytime we are contradicting the word of God, we are not in the will of God. I have had people come to me and say, “I know divorce is wrong, but this woman I have found is the right one for me. I believe God would have me leave my wife for this, my true love.” Such a sentiment, no matter how dearly held, is always wrong, as it contradicts the known and stated will of God in the Bible. We are to take our wives, and esteem them as better than ourselves, following the very model of Christ in laying down our lives for them (Ephesians 5). Anything which would contradict the plain and stated will of God is of our own desires, and not at all of God. So much is easy.

But the rest of it is more difficult. Consider two examples from the Bible. Zechariah had a visit from an angel, telling him that he was to have a child, and that he was to name that child John, and that John would be great in the sight of the Lord. Zechariah was old, and so was his wife, and they considered themselves to be past the age of child-bearing, and so Zechariah was naturally skeptical of the angel. In one sense I can identify strongly with him because what he and his wife had longed for was being granted to him. But perhaps Zechariah has a vivid imagination, and was wondering if perhaps he was not imagining what he wanted so strongly. I find myself quite capable of imagining the things that I want to happen, and often am not sure of what is what when I so imagine. At any rate, Zechariah doubts, probably the same thing that I would do under similar circumstances.

But the doubting gets a rebuke from the angel, who tells Zechariah that now he will be mute until the day that the child is born because he doubted the vision. Incidentally, the prayer of Zechariah is answered, for he asked, “How shall I be sure of this?”, and the angel surely gave him surety in the rebuke. Finding that he was not able to speak must have been quite a reminder for nine long months as Zechariah mused on the vision of God that he was utterly unable to share with anyone, even his beloved. Perhaps Zechariah’s example teaches us that God will, in the unfolding of time, make his will apparent. But it remains somewhat confusing to me because I remember that Zechariah was rebuked, and thus the implication that he was supposed to believe God. God I am always ready to believe—the problem of myself, and the question I am trying to answer is that I am not always sure if it is myself or the voice of God. How do I tell the difference? One thing seems certain—in this case at least—if God is in it, it will surely come to pass.

Gideon provides the second example from the Bible. He is perhaps more well-known for not being certain of the will of God than for anything else. Remember that he prayed for God to give him a sign that it is really you that is talking to me. The angel of the Lord touches the sacrifice of Gideon and utterly burns it up. That should have been enough. At least, I think I would have been fairly convinced of the voice of God speaking to me, but Gideon was not satisfied. He famously prays, first for the dry fleece and wet dewy ground, and then for the wet fleece with the dry ground. Perhaps it is best to look closer at the circumstances Gideon faced to better understand his doubts.

God sends Gideon with the vision of the angel to save Israel, but Gideon finds that it is more difficult than he himself had foreseen. Following the orders of the angel, he desecrates his father’s altar to Baal. The people of the town, finding their desecrated altar, demanded the blood of Gideon for it, but Gideon’s father refused to surrender Gideon. Almost before Gideon realized it, the people of Baal rose up against the town and were threatening to destroy it. Gideon found himself at the center of a controversy, and the Israelites began to flood to his defense, and began to take up arms. It is only at this point that Gideon lacks faith, and asks for a greater sign.

If we are to understand Gideon at all, then we must surely look toward his new responsibilities. Now he was being asked to put his very country’s lives at risk, and he was being asked to be the leader of what might well be termed an insurrection. It was not just on Gideon anymore; rather it involved the lives and deaths of thousands of people. Gideon wanted to make sure that God was directing this, and instead of deprecating him for his lack of faith, I should probably esteem his regard for his fellow man most highly. Whatever the reason, God saw fit to answer the prayer of Gideon with both wet and dry fleece. Gideon has given many of us since those days confidence to come to God and pray that his will may be made known. I have many times prayed as Gideon, that God might give me a sign, that I might know the will of God. Many of those times God has answered, and I find myself ever so grateful for the example we have been given with Gideon.

Unlike Zechariah’s example where Zechariah’s belief or unbelief did not seem to affect a lot of others, Gideon’s belief did impact a whole people. I find it very persuasive that God, in using Gideon, distills his men to a mere three hundred men, and then the Lord does the impossible with just those men. Zechariah was also an impossible example, a man past his years of childbearing, and yet with the promise of God, finding himself able to father after all. This is an encouragement to me, to notice our God of the improbable, and the impossible, yet working through our frail natures.

Looking at the two examples from the Bible, I can see God gaining glory in each, and the men getting their answers though perhaps not in the way that they might have first conceived. Gideon found himself to be leading an army, successfully, but probably far beyond his original conception of destroying Baal’s altar. And Zechariah found himself not only a new father, but the father of one of the most important men of the generation, who was to proclaim the very coming of the Son to a perverse generation. Was that far beyond the first conception of just finally being a father? I think that Zechariah found the vision of the Lord to be considerably more bold than his own vision of finally being a father.

Thus, we can learn that God will have the glory, and in the end, all will know the will of God, even though we may doubt at the first. This should give us confidence that the will of God will prevail as we watch and wait on him. But I find that I have not at all answered the question clearly. I have established that in the long term God’s will will become apparent, but that may not be of much help for the believer wanting to know whether it is of God, or it is of himself. In part 2, I will try to give several real life examples that will be of some relief, though I stress that this question is really difficult, and that time may prove the best distillate of all.