Picture the scene: I am in a classroom in Mitaboni Kenya, teaching a group of theology students. We are talking about preaching, specifically the need to have well prepared, well delivered messages to help people grow in faith. I outline my personal preparation process to give the students an idea of what I am talking about. As we discuss, there are some interesting comments about the time involved, the extra effort it will take and so on.
Eventually, one of the students asks the question I have been half expecting from the beginning of class, a question that comes up regularly in this context. The student wants to know what he (generally the male students have this concern) should do if after all the work he put into the preparation during the week, the Lord tells him to change the message to something else just as he stands up to preach.
In general, the student isn’t happy with my answer, which we will get to later. The expected answer was that he should immediately toss out the sermon he has worked on all week and preach the message that “God gave him” just then.
I have run into this thinking in many contexts. There is an idea among many believers that somehow, God speaks to them very clearly and immediately and that these messages from above must be acted upon immediately. Some talk about “God speaking to them”, others say “the Spirit revealed it to me”.
I have always had difficulty with this. Now, I do believe in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Part of the task of the Holy Spirit is to help us understand the leading of God in our lives (John 14.26). I have experienced the clear leading of the Holy Spirit in my life at times and seen it in the lives of others.
Yet at the same time, I have seen people who claim this kind of revelation be very certain and very wrong with their claims. I have seen these claims to have instant and clear revelations from the Holy Spirit cause serious damage to the claimant, other believers, congregations and the reputation of the Faith. Sometimes, the claimant has acknowledged they have been wrong and other times, they have seen the mess and still claimed to be right.
This is a problem that is as old as humanity’s association with God. The Old Testament has several sections dealing with the problem of people claiming to speak for God and actually being wrong. Deuteronomy 18.20-21 offers a method of discerning between true and false revelation and as well, commands the death penalty for those proven not to be speaking God’s truth.
There is also the story of David, Nathan and David’s plan to build a temple told in II Samuel 7. David wants to honour God by building a temple and asks the prophet Nathan if it is okay to do that. Nathan quickly answers yes but it later told by God that David shouldn’t build a temple–God has other plans at work. Fortunately for Nathan, David didn’t follow the words of Deuteronomy 18.20.
In the New Testament, there is an interesting passage in the book of Acts 16. Paul and his team are travelling in Asia Minor, looking for a place to preach the Gospel. Acts 16.6-7 tell us how they were prevented from preaching in a variety of places. I imagine it must have been hard to the driven Paul to wander around, not knowing where God wanted him to be–yet the revelation of where to preach doesn’t come until after some serious wandering. We tend to forget that this wandering was done on foot, over dangerous roads with no amenities.
I struggle with knowing what God is saying. I don’t easily get messages from the Holy Spirit. I spend a lot of time wandering (at least spiritually), waiting for the Spirit’s message to become clear to me. I am aware that some people seem to have a much easier time that I do in this area–but I am also aware that some who claim to be given clear and direct revelation get it very wrong.
How do we know when the Spirit is speaking? How do we know if a revelation is right or wrong? These are questions I still struggle with. I have a few ideas that help some but it is still a struggle for me to know God’s leading.
May the peace of God be with you.