Sunday, October 29, 2006

Hearing God's Voice and Spiritual Discernment

Spiritual Discernment

The million dollar question: how can I hear the voice of God and know what God has in store for me? In the midst of perplexity, anxiety, confusion and a myriad of voices offering differing advice how do I discern the voice of God? Does God speak to me through an actual vision, or is it just an audible voice? Or is it an inner conviction? If it is the latter, how do I differentiate between my own desires, and that of the Lord? How do I have spiritual discernment?

Spiritual discernment seems to be needed in so many practical areas of our daily routine life. For e.g. , how do I know the Lord’s will in the following situations?

  • To go into full time ministry or a ‘secular’ vocation?
  • Which course to take in university?
  • Which person I ought to marry?
  • To expand my business or not?
  • To emigrate or to stay put?
  • To discern whether it is mental illness or demonic possession?
  • Is this sickness unto death or does God intends to heal?
  • To opt for surgery or chemotherapy or both to remove the tumour?
  • Should my elderly father go for that prostrate operation, or not?

No wonder astrologers, soothsayers, temple mediums, bomohs and prophets are so popular. We do not like uncertainty. We want clear directions and guidance so that we can avoid pitfalls, failures and disasters. For some of us, the bottom line in wanting to know the will of God is not that we may obey him. It is more to get some leverage in areas of ambiguity or anxiety. It is akin to having some ‘insider’ knowledge that will enable us to avoid evil, harm or danger.

Such folks would welcome the formulaic approach, in knowing God’s will. The mystery of God’s will is resolved by the mere casting of the Urim or Thummim as in the Old Testament (Ex 28.29-30)

29 "Whenever Aaron enters the Holy Place, he will bear the names of the sons of Israel over his heart on the breast piece of decision as a continuing memorial before the LORD. 30 Also put the Urim and the Thummim in the breastpiece, so they may be over Aaron's heart whenever he enters the presence of the LORD. Thus Aaron will always bear the means of making decisions for the Israelites over his heart before the LORD.

Or in the New Testament, by the casting of lots. (Acts 1.26)

26Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.

Others may questioned how the casting of the Urim and Thummin and the casting of lots differ from the simpler formula of flipping a coin? Besides what if the answer sought is more complicated than a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no”. For e.g. President Bush seeking God’s will in resolving the tensions in the Middle East?

This may lead some to favour a more charismatic approach. After all we read in Acts13 that as the church at Antioch were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit spoke "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." What could be clearer than that? But this divinely commissioned partnership was later broken when Barnabas and Paul could not see eye to eye over the continuing faithfulness of John Mark. (Acts 15.36-41). Why didn’t Paul and Barnabas took time to pray and fast and ask the Holy Spirit for spiritual discernment as to what was the wisest course of action? Weren’t these Holy Spirit filled men?

Apparently they needed to sort out the problem by themselves. The Holy Spirit did not function as their personal, private and handy consultant and advisor in all matters. Most things, it would seem from Scripture and our own experience, we need to figure out for ourselves.

Later, Paul was determined to go to Jerusalem to be a witness for the Lord there. His followers were not quite convinced that was the best course for Paul to take. In fact the local believers at Tyre, prophesied (wrongly as it would seem) through the Holy Spirit that Paul should not go on to Jerusalem. About this time, Agabus (who prophesied accurately that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world during the reign of Claudius) received a vision from God.

Agabus prophesied correctly the treatment that Paul would received when he arrived in Jerusalem. But nevertheless Luke and his friends made the wrong conclusion that the vision meant that Paul was not to go on to Jerusalem. Thus in spite of the presence of an authentic prophet in Agabus, apparently backing up the earlier prophecy by the Christians in Tyre, discerning God’s will and hearing correctly His voice remained problematic. So it seems we are back to square one. There is no assurance of correctly hearing God’s voice with 100% accuracy.

By now, it should be clear that spiritual discernment cannot be reduced to techniques, formula or methods. When Jesus called men and women to follow him, he offered a personal relationship with himself. Spiritual discernment practiced as a formula or method divorced from a intimate relationship with our Lord marked by worship, trust and obedience, is doomed to failure. It is in the context of a close and intimate relationship that our heavenly Father, speaks to us, guides us, reveals His will to us.

Going back to our discussion about Paul and his determination to go to Jerusalem, it is significant how Paul answered his friends. He said, "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 his friends found that Paul could not be dissuaded, (they) gave up and said, "The Lord's will be done." (Acts 21.13-14)

Paul could not be persuaded by his friends, nor by prophet nor prophecies. Why? Because the Lord has earlier personally revealed to Paul His will with regard to his life. When Ananias was hesitant in meeting the then notorious persecutor of Christians, Saul, the Lord said to Ananias, "14Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name." (Acts 9.15,16 italics mine). Hence although he will face much suffering in Jerusalem, he did not flinch from going there in obedience to the Lord.

For that reason, if we genuinely seek the Lord’s Kingdom first, then spiritual discernment to know God’s will in a certain matter would be given to us. He can and does use many ways to reveal His will to us. For instance, there will be times when we need to hear God’s voice in the criticism of others. Sometimes He may sovereignly order a series of serendipitous coincidences of events. Looking back we know it must be the hand of God. At other times, the Lord speaks to us in a still small voice in the silence of the night. Or he may give us a vision.

How do we know for sure that it is God speaking and not ourselves? This confidence comes from a knowledge and experience of God borne out of a long intimate friendship. The apostle John assures us: “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (cf. Jn 15.15)

In addition, the Lord gives the gift of wisdomIf any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.” (James 1.5) We will know how to weigh the pros and cons of each situation, how to sift and test the advice of others. After a time we will learn to discern the Lord’s presence in the ordinary events of life.

What if in spite of all our attempts at finding out the Lord’s will, we are still not sure? There is really no need for worry and anxiety. If we are truly desirous to obey the Lord and glorify His name, then we must learn to leave the consequences of our decision to the Lord. When the time comes when we have to make a decision, we need to have the trust that whatever decision we make, God will sovereignly rule and overrule for our good.

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Rom 8.28)

Isn’t that good news?


Alex Tang MD said...

Hi Tony,

I like what you have written about discernment. Mark McIntosh in his 2004 book, Discernment and Truth: The spirituality and theology of knowledge notes in history that there are 5 basic movements of discernment. I especially like his last, "Discernment as illumination, contemplative wisdom, a noetic relationship with God that irradiates and facilitates knowledge of every kind of truth."


Ennie said...

Thanks Pastor Tony. You have helped remind me that everything is in His plan. I'm still in the midst of searching for His will and I've been so afraid of making the wrong choice.

But this reminded me of God's sovereignity:
When the time comes when we have to make a decision, we need to have the trust that whatever decision we make, God will sovereignly rule and overrule for our good. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Rom 8.28)

I need to put my trust in God.