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What Do We Do with what God Tells Us?

What do we do with what God tells us? A couple of years ago a young man came to me in complete frustration and confusion about God’s leading in his life. Steve was totally convinced that God had told him to pursue a relationship with a certain young lady. (She is also a follower of Christ.) Steve’s frustration came when this young woman refused to enter into a romantic relationship with him. She simply had no such affections for him, nor felt God leading her the way Steve insisted God was leading him. This internal conflict went on for some months, during which I had several meetings with Steve.

Then one day, this young lady announced her engagement to another man and soon married. Steve was heart-broken over his loss, but even more difficult was his confusion and disappointment over God’s leading in his life. Did he or did he not hear God say, “Pursue this woman”? The outcome does not necessarily answer that question. And I could not tell Steve with certainty whether he had or had not heard God correctly or at all.
Steve was convinced God told him to pursue this woman and interpreted that to mean he would marry her. Could it be that Steve did in fact hear God correctly, but jumped to a false conclusion about the outcome? I looked for a precedence in the Bible in which God asked someone to do something that brought entirely different results than expected. Two such incidents came to mind immediately and I suspect there are others as well.

When God asked Abraham to offer Isaac as a burnt offering, he never intended for Abraham to actually slay his son. When the angel showed up to stop Abraham, how foolish it would have been if Abraham had said, “No, God told me to do this, so leave me alone so I can get on with killing my son!” (See Genesis 22.) Abraham did hear God correctly, but the outcome proved to be very different than what he expected!

In Judges 19 and 20 we find another example of God telling someone to do something that led to very different results than expected. Twice the Israelites asked God whether they should engage the Benjamites in battle and twice God clearly said, “Yes.” Yet both of these times the Benjamites totally whipped Israel. The Israelites had to be wondering, “did we hear wrong?” It is clear from the passage that God had a battle to win in their hearts before they could win the battle on the field. The third time they asked God, they did so in repentance, sorrow and fasting and then God gave them their desired result.

There’s a huge lesson for us in these examples. We often hear God’s voice in our lives and then follow him in obedience to his voice. But when things begin to go wrong we assume that we either misunderstood God, did not hear him at all, or that he is toying with us. Certainly it is okay to question, “Did I really hear God?” But we jump to those negative conclusions too quickly!

In Mark 4:35-41 there is a powerful story that illustrates this. In this passage Jesus says to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side [of the lake].” They all pile in the boat and take off for the other side. Jesus has been teaching the people all day, is tired and promptly falls asleep in the stern.

Out in the middle of the lake a terrific storm begins beating against their boat to the point that it’s filling with water and they fear for their lives. They wake Jesus and are upset with him for his lack of concern over their peril. At this, Jesus rebukes the wind and the waves and a dead calm ensues. He then chides his disciples for their lack of trust in God. Seeing Jesus’ power and authority to still the storm, his disciples are terrified at him and ask, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”

How does this story apply to us and hearing God’s voice and responding to it? God sometimes intentionally leads us into a “storm.” We must not lean too heavily on circumstances to determine whether we heard God rightly. Just because all is well does not mean we heard God clearly and are following him. (Jonah conveniently found passage on a boat heading in the opposite direction God wanted him to go!) And on the flip-side, when all seems to be falling apart we must not assume that this is an indication that we’re not following God’s leading.

Let’s look at another situation. We know of a woman who wants to divorce her husband. Although he has been a real jerk in the past, he has recently come to Christ and there is no Scriptural foundation for her divorcing him. She claims, “I have a tremendous sense of peace from God about divorcing my husband.”

Two things are going on here. One is that she is elevating her feelings above the authority of God’s Word in her life. There is a sense in which we must agree with her feelings. If she has been living with a verbally abusive husband all these years and now is separated from him, of course she is experiencing a new kind of “peace” in her life that she has not enjoyed for some time. The problem is in exchanging that temporary peace for the true peace that God can give when husband and wife love each other unconditionally and are walking in obedience to God.

The second thing that’s going on here is more subtle and very dangerous. When the serpent tempted Eve in the garden with fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he prompted her to question the good intentions of God. “If God were truly good, why would he deny you this happiness?” As soon as she gave in to questioning God’s goodness and love, she stopped listening to God.

Then the Scripture reveals, “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.” (Genesis 3:6) Don’t miss what the text is saying here. Put into different words, “Eve became overwhelmed with a sense of peace in her life that eating this fruit was the good, pleasing and desirable thing to do.” Do you see how subtle and insidious this lie of the evil one is?

I think we must all honestly agree that sometimes hearing God’s voice is not all that difficult. It’s obeying him and following him that we really struggle with! What I have discovered in my own walk with Jesus is that when I am in the habit of listening to him and obeying him—no matter what, I increasingly find it easier to hear his voice and obey him. And conversely, if I stubbornly go my own way when I know I’ve heard from him, I shy away from listening to him and build a pattern of not obeying his voice. In that mode, it becomes more and more difficult to discern his voice and obey him.

There are also times when God clearly communicates with us, but we jump to the wrong conclusion about why he’s giving us that communication. We see such an example in Acts 21:10-14:

“After we had been there a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. Coming over to us, he took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, ‘The Holy Spirit says, “In this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.”‘

When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, ‘Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.’ When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, ‘The Lord’s will be done.'”

From this account, we might be prone to agree with the other Christians in Caesarea who took Agabus’ prophecy as a warning that Paul should NOT go to Jerusalem. Was Paul wrong? Did Agabus really get this message from the Holy Spirit? The Scripture says he did. But look back at Acts 20:22 where Paul a short time earlier addresses the elders of Ephesus:

“And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.”

Based on the account of the Scripture, I believe we can safely conclude that the Holy Spirit was indeed warning Paul about all he would suffer, not if, but when he got to Jerusalem. The clear intent of the Holy Spirit was not that Paul should avoid Jerusalem and these perils, but to assure Paul that God is sovereign and that all these trials would serve his greater plan and glory. Paul merely needed to trust and obey, but he certainly wouldn’t be surprised by what he would soon encounter.

When the Holy Spirit reveals this kind of information to us we must also be totally dependent on him for the wisdom to know what to do with it. Hearing God and knowing how to respond rightly to what he is saying flows from a life of abiding or remaining in him. I hope you’re not discouraged by that! As we spend time with him getting to know his character and ways better, he will also guide us in responding to him properly.

© Rob Fischer 2008