In my counseling ministry, counselees frequently share their experiences of God speaking to them apart from what the Bible has specifically revealed. This leads to presuming upon God’s will based on the experience of an impression they believe is from God. This can come up when I ask questions like, “Why did you choose this? Why do you believe this will happen?” I have received a variety of answers that include scenarios like this:
“God speaks to me in dreams. I had a dream that my friend from church was upset with me. While I love my church, I knew after having that dream it is time for me to find a new one.”
“I had been praying for a husband for 10 years. God spoke to my heart while I was at my favorite restaurant and said that I would find my husband there. A week later, a man introduced himself, asked me on a date, and we hit it off. I was never quite confident in his walk with the Lord, but I knew that marrying him was God’s will because of what He had spoken to me.”
“I had been discontent living in California. While I had a great church, home, and job there, I just felt as if there was something more for me. Every time I prayed about going on a new adventure, I felt an overwhelming peace from God that this is what I should do. One day while walking on the beach, I saw a cloud shaped like the state of Texas. I just knew that was a sign from God. My friends and family tried to talk me out of moving, but I knew God had spoken to me and I moved the next month.”
“God told me to ask you to plan the upcoming church picnic. I hope you will say yes.”
“God put it on my heart and told me I needed to start up a youth ministry at church. I was very disappointed when my pastors said that we were moving in a different direction.”
The counselees are then convinced that God has spoken to them and this experience holds weight and authority over their lives. These decisions cause confusion and unnecessary pain in their lives and relationships. Sometimes a continual longing for more novel experiences and waiting for a sign from God keeps the counselee paralyzed or discouraged when God appears silent. A counselee may be truly desiring to understand God’s will, but in their Christian life, they have learned to believe that they should have a personal hotline with God where they “hear Him speak.”
Because these experiences are so personal, it is important to tread gently and lovingly when seeking to reshape a counselee’s perspective as to the unique nature of Scripture as God’s Word. Here are four categories for examining where a counselee is placing their focus:
Sensational Rather Than Solid Food (Hebrews 5:12-14)
Slow, methodical, intentional growing in our knowledge of God and His Word can feel boring compared to the instant entertainment that is available to us in this digital age. Training and practice, overcoming the challenges required in learning new things can lose their appeal in a world that wants us to believe that life should be easy and that living comfortably is something we are entitled to. We must not settle for this kind of thinking. In doing so, we would actually be settling for less than the glorious pursuit of knowing and being known by God in the pages of Scripture. As the writer of Hebrews puts it, we would be settling for milk made for babies rather than the feast that awaits us when awakening our tastebuds to the splendor of God.
Desires Rather Than the Declared Word (Proverbs 3:5-6, Jeremiah 17:9-10)
The allure of entertainment rather than faithful study is also linked to the reality that our hearts, untethered to Christ, will consist of deceitful desires. This makes it all too easy to begin to trust in what we want and feel more than depending on what God has already said in His Word. We choose to bypass God’s Word instead of challenging and transforming our desires.
Experiences Rather Than Completely Sufficient Promises (2 Peter 1, Hebrews 1:1-2)
Misguided hope comes when we believe that our experiences supersede a need to rely on the sufficiency of Scripture. This is not to minimize a person’s life experiences and the fruit that comes from learning from our past. However, our personal experience is never meant to be our authority or an authority placed on others. Peter recounts his experience hearing God speak on the mount of transfiguration (2 Peter 1:17-21). Instead of urging believers to expect this as normative, he directs believers to the promises laid out in Scripture in order to guard against heretical thinking. God, in these last days, has spoken to us through Christ, the incarnate Word. Thus, the Bible has the final word in how we can evaluate our experiences, rather than our experiences dictating spiritual guidance and the standard of truth.
Conscience as Guard, God’s Word Must Guide (2 Timothy 3:16-17, Hebrews 4:12)
There are times when the moving within a person’s heart towards what is biblically faithful is the result of a biblically informed conscience. This is a helpful guard and gift from the Lord. For example, I may have a thought to approach a fellow church member on Sunday who appears downcast. I know God’s Word calls us to bear one another’s burdens and exercise compassion towards one another. In approaching my brother or sister in Christ, I can express genuine concern regarding his or her well-being and let them know I felt led to ask how I might pray for them. This is a right outworking of God’s Word informing my conscience and leading me to obey God. On the other hand, it would not be appropriate for me to go to this brother or sister and say something like, “God told me to check up on you and make sure that you are doing alright.” If I took that route, I would be functionally placing my observation and desire on the same level as revelation from God, rather than merely a practical application of it.
As we discern against these categories, what can we encourage our counselees to do instead? What does this look like?
- Be a student of God’s Word. Do not underestimate the daily steady flow of growing in your knowledge of God through His Word. Sit under the authority of Scripture. Be amazed that God has chosen to reveal Himself to us. Let this lead you to read, understand, believe, love, and obey God’s Word.
- Any clear commands and warnings of Scripture are meant to be followed appropriately.
- Where God’s Word does not speak directly to a matter, look to biblical and systematic theology.
- Consider wisdom principles from God’s Word and seek counsel from godly individuals.
Let this process be the bedrock of your decision making so that your thoughts, desires, and all that you experience will be properly evaluated by God’s Word.