Who of us at some time in our Christian lives has not had a strong impression to take some course of action, an inner compulsion we believed to be the leading of the Lord? At times in my own ministry I have felt compelled to call someone on the telephone or stop at someone’s home, only to discover that the person in question needed to talk to me at that precise moment. Those impressions seemed to be more than coincidental.
That kind of an experience should not be unusual for the child of God. The Spirit of God does apply gentle pressure to the yielded spirit of a person, burdening his heart with specific needs and leading him by placing certain impressions on his mind.
But the inner guidance of God’s Spirit cannot be divorced from an accurate understanding of God’s Word. To try to separate the inner from the written is to open ourselves to a variety of dangers. We have been discussing the place of the Word in divine direction. We have seen some specific statements of God’s will in the Word. We have examined ways in which positive and negative commands of the Word can help us determine God’s wishes. We have noted how general principles in the Word cast light on our decisions. Now let’s explore the relationship between the Word of God and the inner urging of the Spirit.
The child of God has a right to expect guidance from the Spirit of God, and that guidance can come by the direct communication of the Holy Spirit with the believer’s spirit. Being led by the Spirit is one of the chief identifying characteristics of a true child of God. The Apostle Paul wrote, “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are sons of God.”237 The leading referred to in this passage is primarily leading into a new kind of righteous living by putting to death the sinful practices of the old sin nature.238 But whatever the objective of the Spirit’s leading, the certainty of it is clearly established in this verse. And it is stated in a passage which clearly refers to the Spirit’s personal witness directly with the Christian’s spirit. The apostle goes on to say, “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”239
Few would deny that God can place thoughts in our minds, or even control our minds, if he so chooses. Since he controls the circumstances which invariably affect the way we think, and since he controls the mechanisms by which our minds function, he obviously can direct our thinking.
Solomon agreed. “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes.”240 The Lord Jesus made a promise to his disciples which bears out this principle also. The disciples would have no need for anxiety when accused by the authorities for their faith, because the Holy Spirit would teach them in that very hour what they should say.241 In other words, he would put thoughts in their minds.
The Apostle John, in a prophetic vision, saw a dramatic example of this principle operating in the lives of unbelievers as well. Concerning ten kings who will someday join forces with a future world leader, he said, “For God will put a plan into their minds, a plan that will carry out his purposes.”242 If God can put his plan in the minds of unbelievers, he can certainly do it for Christians. We should have no problem accepting the fact that the Spirit of God can communicate his will directly to the mind of the believer.
Leaf through the pages of the book of Acts and observe the Spirit of God personally leading his servants. He spoke to a deacon named Philip and instructed him to approach a specific chariot where he found an Ethiopian eunuch open to the gospel message.243 He spoke to the Apostle Peter and instructed him to accompany the three men who had come from Caesarea to get him.244 Peter obeyed, and found a Roman centurion named Cornelius hungry for the truth of God. As he later rehearsed the story to his friends in Jerusalem, he said, “And the Spirit told me to go with them without misgivings.”245
When a group of prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch fasted and prayed, “the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’”246 Later on, as Paul was doing that work, he attempted to go into Bithynia to preach the gospel, but the Holy Spirit spoke again and told him not to go.247 As he returned from his final missionary journey, he told the elders from Ephesus that, although afflictions awaited him, the Spirit was constraining him to go to Jerusalem.248
The evidence is overwhelming. The Spirit of God communicated directly with those men. Some Bible students believe that he spoke in audible tones, but the possibility exists that he merely placed strong impressions in their minds. And guidance like that has not been limited to New Testament personalities. It can happen today.
Zac Poonen tells the story of an American preacher who was led by the Spirit to a logging camp which he found deserted. He was so certain of divine guidance that he went into the empty dining hall and preached the gospel. Years later a man approached him in London and reminded him of the incident. He had been the cook at the camp and was the only man there that day. He had hidden outside a window, listened to the sermon, trusted Christ as his Savior, and had gone on to serve the Lord.249
G. Christian Weiss tells of a missionary in South America who received the distinct impression that he should take a trip into the jungle. At nightfall, after a long and weary trek, he arrived at a hut where he found an old Indian on his deathbed. “Where’s the book?” the old man asked, explaining that on the previous night he had cried to God for help and had dreamed about a messenger bringing a book. He had been told in the dream to believe the message of the book and he would be saved. Needless to say, when the missionary brought out his Bible and shared the message of salvation, the old Indian trusted Christ. God had surely led him to that hut.250 Illustrations like this abound. The Spirit of God can impress his will upon our minds.
But here’s the problem. Impressions come from other sources besides the Spirit of God. For one thing, we may have strong inclinations that stem solely from our own selfish desires. I remember a young mother who felt strongly led to get a job. That impression could have come from God, but it may also have originated in a selfish desire to get away from the tedious routine of housework and child care, and to add a little glamour to her life. She never questioned the source of the impression, however. She just proceeded to find work. Her doing so brought devastating results to her entire family. As she reflected on it, her excuse was, “But I felt led.” By that statement she tried to relieve herself of the responsibility for her poor judgment. But God does not accept the blame for things like that. Not every impression comes from him.
I can remember a young man with a sizable family who felt led to quit his job and go into professional Christian service. He had no training for the ministry he wanted to enter, he was not particularly gifted to do the work he wanted to do, and there had been no opportunities offered him to serve. As I questioned him, it became obvious that his primary motive for seeking Christian service was not the call of God, but an unpleasant job situation from which he could see no other way out.
Our impressions may be affected not only by our desire to add a little sparkle to our lives or to escape a difficult situation, but also by things as simple as the amount of sleep we have had, the condition of our health, our degree of confidence and self-acceptance, the past experiences which we cannot erase from our consciousness, our subconscious fears, a sentimental bent, or emotional stress.
More devious than any of these, however, is the inclination to indulge our lustful desires. We can convince ourselves of almost anything in order to satisfy the flesh. James Dobson tells of the couple who felt led to have sexual relations before marriage because they loved each other so much. They said they had gotten down on their knees and prayed about it and had received the assurance from God that it was all right.251 That is mere self-deception.
Impressions can also find their source in the influence of others—close friends in whom we have great confidence, magnetic personalities whom we think could never be wrong, or merely the prevailing opinion of the people around us. It may be the opinion of other Christians with whom we fellowship, be it right or wrong. Or it may be the opinion of the world which has invaded our minds through the media or through the unbelievers with whom we come in contact.
And then there is the most subtle influence of all—that of the great deceiver. Did you know that Satan can put impressions on the believer’s mind? That may sound frightening, but it is true. Satan transforms himself into an angel of light,252 that is, one who professes to give accurate information and provide competent counsel. In reality he is the prince of darkness, and by his clever impersonation he seeks to gain an advantage over us.253
He did just that to a new believer named Ananias, by convincing him that it was acceptable to give part of his money to the Lord’s work and yet imply that he was giving all of it. Listen to Peter as he put his finger on the root of the problem: “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit, and to keep back some of the price of the land?”254 The source of that foolish impression in Ananias’ mind was the archenemy of God’s people, the master liar and father of all lies, Satan himself.255
Satanic impressions may be quite striking, as with one girl who assured me that God was leading her to marry an unbeliever. She described in glowing detail the unusual, almost miraculous, circumstances that had brought them together. Such amazing events, she said, had to be of God. But Satan is even capable of performing miracles to convince us of his lies.1 Satanic impressions can be extremely forceful, almost to the point of obsession.
The strength of an impression does not necessarily measure its validity. It is difficult for us to admit that our impressions have not come from God. We want to believe that God is doing something special for us. We want to tell our friends about the unusual guidance we have received. And our pride makes us all the more vulnerable to Satan’s suggestions.
With so many possible sources for false impressions, it should be obvious to us that we cannot trust all the thoughts that come to us. To empty our minds of all distractions and take whatever comes into them as the will of God, as some have recommended, is an extremely dangerous practice. When the mind is blank, Satan is free to implant his suggestions. And there is nothing he would rather do than get us to listen unquestioningly to the impressions of our minds as though they represented the very voice of God. The Apostle John encourages us to test the spirits to see if they are from God.2 Paul tells us to test everything and to hold only to what is good.3 But how can we do that?
There are a number of ways we can check out these inner urges, and we shall be exploring them in the remainder of our study. But the most important means is by the Word of God. Isaiah said it well when he warned the people of his day against listening to other voices: “If they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.”4 Every impression that comes from God is consistent with his Word. Not one will ever contradict his Word. God cannot contradict himself.
So measure your inclinations against the Word—its direct statements of God’s will, its positive and negative commands, its general principles. The Spirit of God uses the Word of God to lead us, and the more of the Word we know, the more capable we shall become at testing the source of our impressions. Exposure to the Word will not only help us distinguish our true Shepherd’s voice from those other voices, it will also help us recognize some of those selfish motives which inspire many of our impressions. The writer to the Hebrews called it “a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”5
If the young mother had examined her biblical responsibility to her small children and let the Word of God illumine her motives, she probably would not have gone to work at that time. If the man who wanted to quit his job had seen his scriptural responsibility to provide for his family, he would not have left his job to seek Christian service at that time. If the couple who engaged in premarital sexual relations had submitted to the standard of God’s Word, they would not have followed their foolish notions. If the girl who wanted to marry an unbeliever had listened to what God had to say, she would have known that he was not leading her into that marriage.
But even after considering everything that the Word has to say on an issue, we may still be confused as to what to do. Where shall we turn then? There is yet another way that the Spirit of God can lead us through the Word, and that is by using the Word itself to plant the impressions upon our minds.
I am not referring to a statement leaping from the pages of Scripture and telling us exactly what to do. That has happened on occasion, but it has been the exception rather than the rule. I am referring to God laying certain things on our minds as we read the Word with an open heart and a yielded will. The major theme or emphasis of a passage may impress us with the things that matter most to God, or have direct pertinence to a decision we are facing.
As I sought the mind of God about a new opportunity for ministry open to me in Escondido, California, certain things kept coming to my mind such as God’s blessing on the ministry in which I was already involved, a concern for its well-being should I leave, a fear of the unknown elements associated with the new opportunity, a distrust of my ability to handle the prospective new work, and some of the disadvantages of the new situation. But as I got alone with God for an extended period of time and read consecutively through the book of Isaiah, God seemed to be impressing new thoughts upon my mind which I could not escape, thoughts that were summarized best by this passage: “Do not call to mind the former things, Or ponder things of the past. Behold, I will do something new, Now it will spring forth; Will you not be aware of it? I will even make a roadway in the wilderness, Rivers in the desert.”6 Although it was contrary to my wishes at the time, I took God at his word and made the move. And where God led me he has done some unusually wonderful new things in what has become the most fruitful ministry of my life.
God may never lead me in that precise way again, and he may never lead you exactly in that way. But if we want only God’s will for our lives, whatever the personal sacrifice, and if we open his Word to look for what he has to say rather than for what we want to see, we can expect him to speak to us through it. He has promised that his Word will be a light to our path.