Interpreting God’s Will

BY DR. JAMES DOBSON

 

How do you determine God’s specific will for your life? This may be the most important question confronting you as a Christian, for therein lies the key to obedience. You can hardly obey God if you are
hazy about His leadership in your daily experience. But how can divine purposes be known absolutely? By what method can you be certain of His specific approval and disapproval? How do you know if your attitudes and home and way of life are pleasing to Him?

From my discussions with Christians, it appears that God’s will is most often determined by inner feelings and impressions. “I just felt this is what God wanted me to do” is a typical explanation. Thus, a fleeting emotion or a subtle impression may lead a person to accept or reject a job, move to a different city, return to college or even plunge into marriage. From the flimsiest evidence, we conclude: “God told me ‘or “God sent me” or “God required me.” But how valid are such impressions? Does God always speak through this voice from within? Is it possible to “hear” a false message from the Lord?

In an attempt to answer such questions, let’s discuss the psychological and spiritual forces that affect our understanding of God’s specific leading and guidance in our lives.

Can you give some examples of how inner feelings and impressions can mislead and confuse someone who is genuinely trying to serve the Lord?

The subject of impressions always reminds me of the exciting day I completed my formal education at the University of Southern California and was awarded a doctoral degree. My professors shook my hand and offered their congratulations, and I walked from the campus with the prize I had sought so diligently. On the way home in the car that day, I expressed my appreciation to God for His obvious blessing on my life, and I asked Him to use me in any way He chose. The presence of the Lord seemed very near as I communed with Him in that little red Volkswagen.

Then, as I turned a corner (I remember the precise spot), I was seized by a strong impression which conveyed this unmistakable message: “You are going to lose someone very close to you within the next 12
months. A member of your immediate family will die, but when it happens, don’t be dismayed. Just continue trusting and depending on Me.”

Since I had not been thinking about death or anything that would have explained the sudden appearance of this premonition, I was alarmed by the threatening thought. My heart thumped a little harder as I
contemplated who might die and in what manner the end would come. Nevertheless, I told no one about the experience when I reached my home that night.

One month passed without tragedy or human loss. Two and three months sped by, and still the hand of death failed to visit my family. Finally, the anniversary of my morbid impression came and went without
consequence. It has been more than a decade since that frightening day in the Volkswagen, and there have been no catastrophic events in either my family or among my wife’s closest relatives. The impression has
proved invalid.

Through my subsequent counseling experience and professional responsibilities, I have learned that my phony impression was not unique. Similar experiences are common, particularly among those who
have not adjusted well to the challenge of living.

For example, a 30-year-old wife and mother came to me for treatment of persistent anxiety and depression. In relating her history she described an episode that occurred in a church service when she was
16 years old. Toward the end of the sermon, she “heard” this alarming message from God: “Jeanie, I want you to die so that others will come to Me.”

Jeanie was absolutely terrified. She felt as though she stood on the gallows with the hangman’s noose dangling above her head. In her panic, she jumped from her seat and fled through the doors of the
building, sobbing as she ran. Jeanie felt she would commit a sin if she revealed her impression to anyone, so she kept it to herself. For nearly 20 years she had awaited the execution of this divine sentence,
still wondering when the final moment would arrive. Nevertheless, she appeared to be in excellent health many years later.

Not only do death messages sometimes prove to be unreliable, but other apparent statements of God’s will can be equally misunderstood. I know of a college student who was awakened from a dream in the middle
of the night with a strong impression that he should marry a certain young lady. They had dated only once or twice and hardly knew each other–yet “God” assured him “this is the one!” The next morning, he
called the coed and told her of his midnight encounter. The girl felt no such impulse, but didn’t want to oppose so definite a message from the Lord. The young man and woman were married shortly thereafter, and have suffered through the agony of an unsuccessful and stormy marriage.

From the examples I have cited and dozens more, I have come to regard the interpretation of impressions as risky business, at best.

Are you saying that God does not speak directly to the heart–that all impressions are false and unreliable?

Certainly not. It is the expressed purpose of the Holy Spirit to deal with human beings in a most personal and intimate way, convicting and directing and influencing. However, some people seem to find it
very difficult to distinguish the voice of God from other sounds  within.

Do some of those “other sounds” represent the influence of Satan?

We are told in 2 Corinthians 11:14 that the devil comes to us as “an angel of light,” which means he counterfeits the work of the Holy Spirit. This is why he is described in profoundly evil terms in the
Bible, leaving little room for doubt as to his motives or nature. His character is presented as wicked, malignant, subtle, deceitful, fierce and cruel. He is depicted as a wolf, roaring lion and a serpent. Among
the titles ascribed to Satan are these: “Murderer,” “Dragon,” “Old  Serpent,” “Wicked One,” “Liar,” “Prince of the Devils” and more than 20 other names which describe a malicious and incomparably evil nature.

These scriptural descriptions of Satan are written for a purpose: We should recognize that the “Father of Lies” has earned his reputation at the expense of those he has damned! And there is no doubt in my mind
that he often uses destructive impressions to implement his evil purposes.

You said your premonition of impending death occurred while you were praying. Is it really possible for Satan to speak in the midst of an earnest prayer?

Was not Jesus tempted by Satan while He was on a 40-day prayer and fasting journey in the wilderness?

Yes, the devil can speak at any time. Let me go a step further: Harmful impressions can bear other earmarks of divine revelation. They can occur and recur for months at a time. They can be as intense as any
other emotion in life. They can be verified by Christian friends and can even seemingly be validated by striking passages of Scripture.

Would you give an example of how Satan uses a false notion to cause spiritual damage?

A man with six children became a Christian and, in his spiritual immaturity, felt he was “called” to the ministry. He quit his job the next week, even though he had no financial reserves and had hardly been
able to provide necessities for his wife and children. By scraping together every available penny, the family moved across the state to allow the father to attend a Christian college. From the beginning, one
disaster followed another. Sick children, work layoffs, academic troubles, physical exhaustion and marital discord accumulated day by day until life became utterly intolerable. Finally, the father quit school and admitted that he had made an enormous mistake. More importantly, his spiritual enthusiasm had been extinguished in the process–an object lesson that was carefully observed by his six children. (I should emphasize that the “call” of this man to the ministry could have been genuine, and the troubles he faced do not necessarily disprove its validity. But from a strictly human point of view, it appears that he responded impulsively and unwisely to his inner feelings and impressions.)

The Christian who accepts his own impressions at face value–uncritically–is extremely vulnerable to satanic mischief. He is obligated to implement every obsession, regardless of how ridiculous or
demanding it seems. He is compelled by a little voice from within which warns, “Do this or else,” stripping him of judgment and reason.

Are some impressions and feelings of our own making?

In a way they all are. By that I mean that all of our impulses and thoughts are vulnerable to our physical condition and psychological situation at any given moment. Haven’t you noticed that your impressions are affected by the amount of sleep you had last night, the state of your health, your level of confidence at that time and dozens of other forces which impinge upon your decision-making processes? We are trapped in these “earthen vessels” and our perception is necessarily influenced by our humanness.

I have sometimes wondered if my impressions don’t obediently tell me what I most want to hear. For example, I felt greatly led to take a new job that offered a higher salary and shorter working hours.

That reminds me of the minister who received a call to a much larger and stronger church than he ever expected to lead. He replied, “Ill pray about it while my wife packs.”

It is very difficult to separate the “want to” from our interpretation of God’s will. The human mind will often obediently convince itself of anything in order to have its own way. Perhaps the most striking example of this self-delusion occurred with a young couple who decided to engage in sexual intercourse before marriage. Since the young man and woman were both reared in the church, they had to find a way to lessen the guilt from this forbidden act. So, they actually got down on their knees and prayed about what they were going to do, and received “assurance” that it was all right to continue!

I notice that spiritual discouragement and defeat are much more common when I am tired than when I am rested. Is this characteristic of others?

When a person is exhausted he is attacked by ideas he thought he conquered long ago. The great former football coach for the Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi, once told his team why he pushed them so hard
toward proper physical conditioning. He said, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” He was absolutely right. As the reserves of human energy are depleted, one’s ability to reject distressing thoughts and wild
impressions is greatly reduced.

You mentioned the man who dreamed that he should marry a certain woman. Does God ever speak to us through dreams today?

I don’t know. He certainly used this method of communicating in Old Testament times; however, it appears to me that the use of dreams has been less common since the advent of the Holy Spirit, because the
Spirit was sent to be our source of enlightenment (see John 16).

Even in prior times, Jeremiah called dreams “chaff” when compared to the Word of God. Personally, I would not accept a dream as being authentic, regardless of how vivid it seemed, until the same content
was verified in other ways.

What do you mean by having the “content verified in other ways?”

I mean that the “direction” given to me in a dream should be supported by other pieces of information that I would receive. For example, suppose I dream that I am called to Africa as a medical missionary. Before I start packing, I should consider some other factors: Am I qualified by training, experience, interests? Have there been any direct invitations or opportunities presented?

John Wesley wrote in the 19th century, “Do not hastily ascribe things to God. Do not easily suppose dreams voices, impressions, visions or revelations to be from God. They may be from Him. They may be nature. They may be from the Devil. Therefore, believe not every spirit, but ‘try the spirits whether they be from God.”‘

From a psychological point of view, dreams appear to have two basic purposes: They reflect wish fulfillment, giving expression to the things we long for; and they ventilate anxiety and the stresses we
experience during waking hours. From a strictly physiological point of view, dreams also serve to keep us asleep when we are drifting toward consciousness. Dreams are being studied at length in experimental
laboratories today, although their nature is still rather poorly understood.

If what we feel is so unreliable and dangerous, then how can we ever know the will of God? How can we tell the difference between the leadings of the Holy Spirit and subtle, evil influences of Satan, himself?

Let’s look to Scripture for a word of encouragement:

Concerning Christ’s power to help in time of temptation: “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb. 2:18).

Concerning the power of God to convey His will to us: “And this is my prayer. That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the all-glorious Father, will give you spiritual wisdom and the insight to know more of
him: that you may receive that inner illumination of the spirit which will make you realize how great is the hope to which he is calling you–the magnificence and splendor of the inheritance promised to Christians–and how tremendous is the power available to us who believe in God” (Eph. 1:16-19, Phillips).

Concerning the power of God over Satan: “You, my children, who belong to God have already defeated them, because the one who lives in you is stronger than the anti-Christ in the world” (l John 4:4, Phillips).

Concerning the divine promise to lead and guide us: “I will instruct thee and teach thee in the way which thou shalt go: I will guide thee with mine eye” (Ps. 32:8, KJV).

In paraphrased form, these four Scriptures offer these promises:

1. Jesus was tempted by Satan when He was on earth, so He is fully equipped to deal with him now on our behalf.

2. “Inner illumination” and “spiritual wisdom” are made available to us by the God who controls the entire universe.

3. Satan’s influence is checkmated by the omniscient power of God living within us.

4. Like a father leading his trusting child, our Lord will guide our steps and teach us His wisdom.

These four Scriptures are supported by dozens more which promise God’s guidance, care and leadership in our lives.

Then how do you account for the experiences of those Christians who grope with uncertainty in the darkness and eventually stumble and fall? How do you explain incidents whereby Satan traps them into
believing and acting on his lies?

Scripture, again, provides its own answer to that troubling question. We are told in I John 4:1: “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” A similar commandment is given in I Thessalonians 5:21: “Test everything. Hold on to the good.” In other words, it is our responsibility to test and prove all things–including the validity of our impressions. To do
otherwise is to give Satan an opportunity to defeat us, despite the greater power of the Holy Spirit who lives within. We would not have been told to test the spirits if there were no danger in them.

By what means can I test my own feelings and impressions? What are the steps necessary to prove the will of God?

The best answer I’ve read for those questions was written in 1892 by Martin Wells Knapp. In his timeless little booklet entitled Impressions, he described those impulses and leadings that come from above (from God) versus those that originate from below (from Satan). Just as the Holy Spirit may tell us by impressions what His will is concerning us, so also can our spiritual enemies tell us by impressions
what their will is. And unfortunately, there is often a striking resemblance between the two kinds of messages. According to Knapp, one of the objectives of Satan is to get the Christian to lean totally on
his impressions, accepting them uncritically as the absolute voice of God. When this occurs, “the devil has got all he wants.”

When seeking God’s will, Knapp recommends that each impression be evaluated very carefully to see if it reflects four distinguishing features:

Scriptural. Is the impression in harmony with the Bible? Guidance from the Lord is always in accordance with Holy Scripture, and this gives us an infallible point of reference and comparison. If this test had been applied by the young couple that was contemplating sexual permissiveness, mentioned earlier, they would have known that the “approval” they obtained was not from the Lord. Furthermore, the numerous religious movements which obviously add to Scripture or contradict its primary concepts would not have been born if the Bible had been accepted as the ultimate and complete Word of God.

The most important aspect of this first test is that the entire Bible be used instead of the selection of “proof texts” or “chance texts.” A reader can find support for almost any viewpoint if he lifts individual verses or partial phrases out of context. We are commanded to study the Scriptures, not toy with them or manipulate them for our own purposes.

Right. Knapp’s second test of impressions involves the matter of rightness. “Impressions which are from God are always right,” says Knapp. “They may be contrary to our feelings, our prejudices and our
natural inclinations, but they are always right. They will stand all tests.”‘

I am acquainted with a family that was destroyed by an impression that could not have passed the test: Is it right? Although there were four little children in the home, the mother felt she was “called” to leave them and enter full time evangelistic work. On very short notice she abandoned the children who needed her so badly and left them in the care of their father who worked six and seven days a week.

The consequence was devastating. The youngest in the family lay awake at night, crying for his mommy. The older children had to assume adult responsibilities which they were ill-prepared to carry. There was
no one at home to train and love and guide the development of the lonely little family. I simply cannot believe the mother’s impression was from God because it was neither scriptural nor “right” to leave the
children. I suspect that she had other motives for fleeing her home, and Satan provided her with a seemingly noble explanation to cover her tracks.

As Knapp said, “Millions of impressions, if compelled to answer the simple question, ‘Are you right?’ will blush and hesitate and squirm, and finally in confusion, retire.”

Providential. In explaining the importance of providential circumstances, Knapp quoted Hannah Whitall Smith, writing in The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life: “If a leading is from the Holy Spirit, ‘the way will always open for ft.’ The Lord assures us of this when He says: ‘When he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice’ (John 10:4). Notice here the expression ‘goeth before and ‘follow.’ He goes before to open the way, and we are to follow in the way thus opened. It is never a sign of divine leading when a Christian insists on opening his own way, and riding roughshod over all opposing things. If the Lord goes before us He will open all doors before us, and we shall not need ourselves to hammer them down.”

Reasonable. The apostle Paul referred to the Christian life as a “reasonable service.” Accordingly, the will of God can be expected to be in harmony with spiritually enlightened judgment. We will not be asked to do absurd and ridiculous things which are devoid of judgment and common sense. Knapp said, “God has given us reasoning powers for a purpose, and He respects them, appeals to them, and all of His leadings
are in unison with them.”

Perhaps, the most common violation of the principle is seen in the pressure some people feel to force every chance conversation into a heaven-or-hell confrontation. Such individuals believe they must witness in every elevator, preach to any available group of four or more and turn every routine encounter into an altar service. Of course, each Christian should “be prepared to give an answer” when the opportunity is provided, but the gospel should be shared in a natural and tactful manner.

Another frequent disregard for the test of reason is seen with impulsive behavior. It was Knapp’s view, and I heartily agree, that God deals with us as rational beings and He rarely requires us to act on sudden suggestions or impressions. G.D. Watson stated it similarly, “The devil wants you to be in a hurry and rush and go pelf ell and not wait for anything, whereas Jesus is always quiet and He is always calm and always takes His time.” Likewise, the psalmist David instructed us to “wait on the Lord.”

Of Knapp’s four criteria, “providential circumstances” seems hardest to apply. Can you give an example?

Personally, I have come to depend heavily on providential circumstances to speak to me of God’s will. My impressions serve as little more than “hunches” which cause me to pay closer attention to more concrete evidence around me. For example, in 1970 my wife and I considered the wisdom of selling our house and buying one better suited to the needs of our growing family. However, there are many factors to consider in such a move. The lifestyle, values and even the safety of a family are influenced by the neighborhood in which they reside. I felt it would be foolish to sell our home and buy a new one without seeking the specific guidance of the Lord.

After making the possibility a matter of prayer, I felt I should offer our house for sale without listing it with a realtor. If it sold I would know that God had revealed His leading through this providential circumstance. For two weeks a For Sale sign stood unnoticed in the front yard. It didn’t attract a single call or knock on the door, and my prayer was answered in the negative.

I took down the sign and waited 12 months before asking the same question of the Lord. This time, the house sold for my asking price without a nickel being spent on advertising or real estate fees. There was no doubt in my mind that the Lord had another home in mind for us.

How do you know that the sale of the house was not explained by economic circumstances or simply by the fact that an interested buyer came along? Can you say, definitely, that God determined the outcome?

Matters of faith can never be proved; they always have to be “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1, KJV). It would be impossible to make a skeptic acknowledge that
God influenced the sale of my house, just as the same unbeliever would doubt my conversion experience wherein I became a Christian. You see, it was not the unadvertised sale of my house that convinced me that God was involved in the issue-it was that I met with Him on my knees in prayer and asked for His specific guidance and direction. I have reason to believe that He cares about me and my family and hears me when I ask for His leadership. Therefore, my interpretation of the event is based not on facts but on faith. Spiritual experiences must always rest on that foundation.

Incidentally, there is a sequel to the “house” story. As I was driving to the hospital a month later, I thanked God for letting me know His purposes and will for my family. As I prayed, however, it occurred to me that the Lord had sold my house, making Him entitled to the fee that I would have paid a real estate agent. That is another way of saying that God was entitled to my tithe (a portion of the profit) since I sold the house for more than I paid for it. Knowing the tyranny of impressions, I immediately uttered this prayer: “Lord, if this is you talking to me, then give me the same message from another source. I will mention it to no one, but I will be listening for your instructions in every area of my life.”

The following Sunday, I told an adult class at my church how the Lord had answered my prayer through the sale of the house. I said nothing about the impression that I should give $1,600 to the church.
After class, however, I received the following note from one of the young men who had heard me: “Don’t you think God is entitled to a ‘real estate feet for selling your house?” He meant it as a joke, but his
humor encouraged me to give the $1,600 the following week.

I have found security in this method of exploring God’s will. In essence, my attitude to the Lord is simply this: “I will do anything you require of me. Anything! I only ask that you convey your will in a definite manner that requires a minimum of reliance on my unpredictable feelings.” He has usually satisfied the request.

Returning to the views of Knapp regarding the providential circumstances, he says, “God never impresses a Noah to build an ark, or a Solomon to build a temple, but that means, material and men await their approaching faith. He never impresses a Philip to go preach to an individual but that He prepares the person for Philip’s preaching. He never says to an imprisoned Peter, ‘arise up quickly,’ but that Peter
will find chains providentially burst.”

In essence, then, the test of providential circumstances allows us to “read” the will of God by interpreting the opportunities and events which surround us.

Will there be times when the application of Knapp’s four tests still leaves a Christian in a state of doubt about the leadings of the Lord? Or does a committed Christian always know precisely what God wants of him?

Your question is one which is rarely confronted in literature dealing with the will of God, but I feel we must meet it head-on. I believe there are times in the lives of most believers when confusion and perplexity are rampant. What could Job have felt, for example, when his world began to crack and splinter? His family members became sick and died, his livestock was wiped out, and he was besieged by boils from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet. But most troubling of all was his inability to make spiritual sense of the circumstances. He knew he hadn’t sinned, despite the accusations of his “friends,” yet God must have seemed a million miles away. He said at one point, “Oh, that I knew where to find God–that I could go to His throne and talk with Him there” (Job 23:3, TLB). “But I search in vain. I seek Him here, I seek Him there, and cannot find Him. I seek Him in His workshop in the North, but cannot find Him there; nor can I find Him in the South; there too, He hides himself” (Job 23:8,9, TLB).

Was this experience unique to Job? I don’t think so. In my counseling responsibilities with Christian families, I’ve learned that sincere, dedicated believers go through tunnels and storms, too. We inflict a tremendous disservice on young Christians by making them think only sinners experience confusion and depressing times in their lives Apparently, God permits these difficult moments for our own edification. James wrote, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance” (Jas. 1:2,3).

We must remember that God is not a subservient genie who comes out of a bottle to sweep away each trial and hurdle that blocks our path. He has not promised to lay out an eight-year master plan that delineates every alternative in the roadway. Rather, He offers us His will for today only. Our tomorrows must be met one day at a time, negotiated with a generous portion of faith.

Are you saying there will be times in a Christian’s life when God’s will and actions may not make sense to him?

Yes, and I regret the shallow teaching today which denies this fact. We are told in the book of Isaiah, “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, declares the Lord” (Isa. 55:8). Furthermore, the apostle Paul verified that “now we see but a poor reflection.” In practical terms, this means that there will be times when God’s behavior will be incomprehensible and confusing to us.
More explicitly, there will be occasions when God will seem to contradict Himself:

One of the brightest young men ever to graduate from my collegiate alma mater was deeply devoted to the Lord. He felt called to become a medical missionary, and he directed every energy toward that objective. After graduating cum laude from college, he enrolled in medical school and finished his first year at the very top of his class academically. Then, during the spring of that year, he began to experience a curious and persistent fatigue. He was examined by a physician who made the diagnosis of leukemia. The promising student was dead a few months later.

How can a tragedy like that be explained? The Lord seemed to call him to the mission field where his healing talents were desperately needed. He was accepted into medical school despite fierce competition.
Every step seemed to be ordered by God. Then, suddenly, he was taken. What did the Lord have in mind from the beginning? Why did He seem to give him a definite call and then frustrate its culmination? I have no idea. I simply offer this illustration as one of thousands where God’s actions are difficult for us to explain in simplistic terms. And in these moments we have to say with Job, “Though he slay me yet will I
trust in Him.”

Are we to conclude, then, that there are occasions when we will pray for the will of God to be known and yet we may “hear” no immediate reply?

I think so, but I’m also convinced that God is as close to us and as involved in our situation during those times when we feel nothing as He is when we are spiritually exhilarated. We are not left to flounder.
Rather our faith is strengthened by these testing periods. The only comforting attitude to hold during these stressful times is beautifully summarized in 2 Corinthians 4:8-10: “We are pressed on every side by
troubles, but not crushed and broken. We are perplexed because we don’t know why things happen as they do, but we don’t give up and quit. We get up again and keep going. These bodies of ours are constantly facing death just as Jesus did; so it is clear to all that it is only the living Christ within [who keeps us safe]” (TLB).

 

THE ABOVE MATERIAL WAS PUBLISHED BY FOCUS ON THE FAMILY, 1992, PAGES 3-18. THIS MATERIAL IS COPYRIGHTED AND MAY BE USED FOR STUDY & RESEARCH PURPOSES ONLY.

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