(This is Part 7 in a series of posts on Prayer and Listening to God. Click here for Part 1).
A while back, I began writing a series of articles on the idea of prayer and listening for God's voice. This is a teaching that in the last 20 or so years has exploded into popularity in churches, such that it's now simply a given for most Christians that this listening is what the Bible teaches us to do. I've been arguing that not only is this kind of listening not taught in the Bible, but it's actually a harmful teaching because of how it leads people away from Scripture as the place to hear God speak and come to know his will.
The last post on it, here, tries to show how the idea of listening for God's "still, small voice" came about, and I tried to show how that passage (1 Kings 19:9-13) is not teaching us to listen in that way at all. Before I finally move on to how we ARE to listen for God's voice, and how we ARE to understand how God guides us, I thought I'd look at three other texts Christians commonly claim as Scriptural support for the idea of listening for God's voice. These misapplied texts are the basis for such statements as "God gave me a peace about it," "I feel led," and for the idea of waiting or being still in order to hear from God.
Remember, please, as you're reading this unfortunately necessary "de-bunking," that there is much better, really better news about God's guidance, though it may not seem so at first. It may seem overly picky or even unspiritual, trying to dismantle the wrong thinking, and it would be except for this— God has something better for us than trying to figure out his will!
God Gave Me A Peace About It
Many people who employ this check for decision-making may think of verses like Colossians 3:15, "let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body" and Philippians 4:7, "the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." The Greek word translated "rule" in Colossians 3:15 is brabeuo, meaning "to be an umpire." So the idea has sprung up that God will give us a feeling of peace if we are heading towards the right decision, but will "overrule" by taking away our peace if we make the wrong one.
The problem is that these Scriptures aren't talking about a feeling or about decisions. Checking the context on both of these verses, we see that Paul is speaking of something entirely different than a feeling of peace to guide us in decision-making. In Colossians, Paul is talking about the peace we are called to with one another; the "state of harmony and tranquility between individuals" (from Strong's concordance). Remember how important context is in reading the Bible (or any literature). Accordingly, the preceding verses in that passage (Colossians 3:1-15) show Paul's meaning. We are to let this peace with one another rule the day in our behavior toward one another.
In Philippians 4:7 Paul is also speaking, not of guidance, but of God's peace of mind and heart available to us. “The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:5b-7). This is peace from anxiety, born of hope in the Lord's soon return and of our confident access to him for "grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:16). This peace will guard both our thinking and our desires in the days of adversity.
So we see that the teaching to make decisions based on inward feelings of peace is not based on these verses (or any other). Now, hang in there with me! The truth about how we are to hear from God and get guidance from him is BETTER than what we've been told. And I will get to that, I promise. But first, another concept erroneously taught as the way we are to receive guidance from God:
The concept of "feeling" led apparently comes from various texts that speak rather in terms of "being" led by the Spirit. (No text speaks of "feeling" led.) These texts include Matthew 4:1 and Luke 4:1, which describe Jesus being led by the Spirit into the wilderness temptation; and Romans 8:14, "For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God," and Galatians 5:18, "But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law."
To Paul, being “led by the Spirit” means that one is a believer, an adopted son of God (Romans 8:13-14) and is indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Born-again people are led by the Spirit, in contrast to unbelievers, who "live according to the flesh." Paul uses other phrases that mean the same thing as being led by the Spirit: "walk according to the Spirit" (Romans 8:4); "live according to the Spirit" (Romans 8:5); "set the mind on the Spirit" (Romans 8:6). Being led by the Spirit is the same thing as "by the Spirit putting to death the deeds of the body": "For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God" (Romans 8:13-14).
In talking about being led by the Spirit, Paul is not talking at all about inward guidance for decision-making or an inward voice of God. B.B. Warfield said of this phrase that "the spiritual leading of which Paul speaks is... to enable us to conquer sin." "Led by the Spirit" means that we belong to God and that through his indwelling Spirit, have the power to overcome sin and temptation.
In Matthew 4 and Luke 4, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. This does indeed mean that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness! But we must realize that the account is not teaching us to expect anything of the sort in our own lives. Jesus is God, the second Person of the Trinity. His travail in the wilderness was part of what he endured in order to secure our salvation. This was no being led to decide correctly on a car purchase. This was a matter of his perfect obedience to the Father— and his relationship to the Father and to the Spirit was, and is, unique to him.
We are not to use this passage to make the case that we all should experience such direct guidance by the Spirit. We mustn't trivialize such a solemn and weighty event by using it to claim such experiences for ourselves. (For more on the problem with using narrative passages to teach us what to expect in guidance, see this, scrolling down to "Descriptive passages do not teach us to expect the same").
Waiting in Silence and Be Still and Know
These and similar phrases in Scripture have, at times, been misunderstood to mean that God’s people should listen for him to speak as they wait in stillness and silence. "For God alone my soul waits in silence..." (Psalm 62:1a) is one such phrase that has been used in that sense. But the very next half of the verse shows that David is not waiting to hear God's voice inwardly, but is waiting for rescue: "... from Him comes my salvation" (Psalm 62:1b). Psalm 62 is a song about God’s deliverance from the schemes of wicked men. It proclaims that God is the only Savior: "For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is in him" (verse 5). God has revealed to His prophet David that He has all power, and David proclaims it.
Similarly, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10a) is another text sometimes misused to teach listening for inner guidance from God. In Psalm 46, “be still and know” is a plural command, as God is speaking to the nations among whom he will eventually be exalted, as the context of the Psalm shows. He is reassuring his people that although "the nations rage, and kingdoms totter," his people can rest, knowing that their God will finally make the kingdom of this world to become his kingdom alone (Revelation 11:15). Psalm 46 speaks of the greatness and of the final exaltation of God among the nations. It is not a text modeling how to get inner guidance for decisions or problem-solving!
Well, these three examples, combined with my other posts on the topic, I hope have instilled real doubt as to whether the Bible really teaches that we are to listen inwardly for God's voice, whether in prayer or at any other time. Now it's time to bring out the good news, the positive: how ARE we to be guided by God? How ARE we to hear his voice? I will address these good and important questions in the next post. The answers are good news because it is the truth that makes us free, and his word is truth! (John 8:32, John 17:17)