Maybe you’ve had this experience. Someone you know is moving into new territory by a major decision that makes no sense to you. You ask them why and get this answer: “God told me to.” What can you say to that? Not much, actually. Who are you to argue with God?
I get nervous when I hear someone give this answer. Do I want people to obey God and follow his leading? Certainly. But I think the “God told me to” answer has some dangers that we often miss.
Does God speak to us today? Yes, he speaks clearly and specifically from the Bible. If you want to know if God wants you to steal, cheat, lie, take his name in vain, or engage in immoral behavior, his answer from his Word is a resounding, “No.” He also speaks clearly about Christians marrying unbelievers, being kind to others, obeying those in authority, and telling others about Christ. He also gives many principles that help us make decisions in areas that are not specifically spelled out in Scripture. God has spoken and continues to speak from his Word. The Bible speaks with authority from God and, where it is clear, we don’t have to second guess what God wants us to do.
Today, however, many people want to speak their own words with the same level of authority as Scripture. They may say, “God told me to tell you,” or “I have a word from the Lord.” I believe those are dangerous words to say.
You might as well know that I am a cessationist. By that I mean that I believe there were certain “sign” gifts given to the church which passed from use early in church history, about the time of the completion of the New Testament and aren’t given to believers today. While God can do anything in any age, I don’t believe that he gives these gifts to people today: the ability to speak in tongues, that is speak a foreign language without learning it; to heal people miraculously and instantaneously; to foretell the future authoritatively and without error; to speak or write with authority equal to the Bible and without error. If you are a continuationist and believe the gifts of tongues, healing, and special prophecy to write the Bible are for today, then you won’t agree with me. It’s not the purpose of this blog to change your opinion. If you are really searching to answers to these questions, one good book is The Charismatics: A Doctrinal Perspective by John F. MacArthur, Jr.
But if you are a cessationist, I caution you to avoid using phrases like, “God told me to do this,” or “God told me to say this and write it down,” or “I have a word from the Lord for you.” You may feel God wants you to do or say something, but phrasing it this way leads to misunderstanding. Some who believe the sign gifts are for today also say that their words carry equal authority with the Bible. They may even state that the Bible is outdated but we have newer, better revelation. Unless you want to identify with those groups you may want to word your thoughts in a different way.
Can we know what God wants us to do in given areas of our life? Yes, God promises to lead us. As I’ve noted already, God leads us authoritatively through his word, both specifically and by principle. Of course we need to be careful to take his Word in context. God told Abraham, “Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you.” (Gen 12:1 NKJV) That doesn’t mean God wants every Christian today to leave their family and go to another country to live.
God also leads us through circumstances, godly counsel, even feelings and desires that are in tune with him. But we need to be careful not to put feelings and circumstances on the same level as the Bible. Feelings and circumstances can be subjective. No counselor is always right. A course of action can feel right at some point and still not be what God wants for us.
So saying “God told me” is often sloppy theology which leaves us open to error. But there is another reason I believe this is dangerous. When someone says, “God told me to do this” they are, in effect, closing off all other input. “God told me” can mean, “I’m going to do it because I know it’s right. I’m not going to listen to anyone tell me otherwise.”
I prefer to say, “I believe God is leading me to do this.”
God’s leading through life is a process, a long path with many twists and turns. Sometimes it changes direction. Sometimes God seems to lead toward a certain goal or destination, only to change our course before we arrive. I believe he sometimes does this to lead us away from where we are, even when there is not yet a clear course to lead where he eventually wants us to go. He promises to lead us, but sometimes we only see a few steps ahead.
Each person is responsible to determine God’s leading for his life, but sometimes that leading is subjective. Most of the time God uses a combination of ways to lead us. He may use his Word, our circumstances, our desires, and the advice of godly people whom we trust. When I say, “I believe God is leading me to do this,” it shows I am moving ahead with confidence, but I am open to a change in direction in his leading. If I were to feel the Lord leading me to do something, but at some point several godly people whom I trust greatly express real concern about my decision, I would want to listen to them and consider their point of view. I might need to go back and ask the Lord to show me more clearly if I truly am following his leading and not just my feelings.
On my recent flight from Minneapolis to LA I noticed my seatmate was reading a New Testament.
“I see you found something interesting to read on the trip,” I said.
She told me it was her favorite book. I asked her if she was a Christian and she said she was. We chatted for a few minutes about our churches and ministries, then settled into reading.
As we approached our destination she interrupted my reading. She had just read the parable of the talents. She said she believed God was telling her to tell me that Art and I were doing a good work in New Zealand and he wanted us to be encouraged. She meant to be nice and encouraging. I didn’t launch into a long theological discussion and chew her out. I just said, “Thank you. That’s nice of you to say.” But I reminded myself that she really knew very little about our ministry and how faithful we were to it. What she was saying actually follows the pattern of many who claim to have “a word from the Lord” and speak authoritatively for God on a subject of which they have little knowledge.
One of my greatest joys is knowing God’s leading in the direction of my life. I do have to be careful, however, to acknowledge the fact I may be wrong in discerning this at times. I need advice from godly Christian people. I need to continually ask God if I am truly following his leading. And I need to remember that no other source of direction should be set on the level of God’s Word, which is authoritative and without error.
[Image courtesy of Michael Brown/Deposit Photos.]