When I first encountered the question about switching sermons at the last minute because of a “revelation” from God, my answer was a very quick “no”. Since that tended not to be very satisfactory or helpful, I eventually added a question of my own to the answer. I would ask the students why God, who has supposedly been guiding them all week during the preparation would suddenly invalidate all that preparation time at the last minute. Inevitably, the students could come up with a circumstance where that made sense, even if the circumstance was quite far-fetched.
The students’ questions and my own concerns kept me digging because I also wanted an answer–not so much to switching sermons but to the wider issue of knowing God’s leading. While I probably won’t ever have a final answer, I have developed some insights and ideas that have helped me.
One of the insights doesn’t come directly from all my reading of theology books and doing Bible Study. The insight can be found there but I think it came to me more as a result of watching cartoons as a child. Often, when the main character had a difficult choice to make, the character was pictured with two small figures, one on each shoulder. One represented an angel and the other a devil and both were working to persuade the character to adopt their course of action. Of course, being cartoons, the devil side generally had a better and more tempting presentation which the character followed.
I don’t actually believe that there is an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other–but I do think that each of us has three influences at work in our lives. The interaction between these three influences is what creates a significant part of the problem in understanding what God wants of us.
The first influence is our own personal desires. Remember that we are made with the ability to think and feel. We have the ability to choose our course of action. We have been given the gift of freedom. That brings with it the capacity to have desires and wishes and preferences. No matter how long we have been believers, no matter how much we have grown in faith, we will have our own desires–and some of them will be desires that go against what God wants. As believers, we will definitely have a desire to please God–but we will equally definitely have a desire to please ourselves.
As well, we are influenced by the evil one, called by a variety of names in the Bible: the tempter, the evil one, satan, the adversary. This influence is a factor in all our decisions but not in the way some picture it. The tempter is extremely limited. It can only use what we allow it to use. As James 1.14 puts it, ” …each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.” (NIV) Not only is the tempter limited to what is already within us, it can never force us to give in to the temptation. Using our own desires and our own will, the tempter seeks to take us the wrong way.
As believers, we have a third influence–the Holy Spirit. While the Spirit has the right to force us to do things, he, being God, chooses to respect our freedom and therefore doesn’t force us to hear or follow. The Spirit’s influence is also through persuasion. Unlike the tempter, the Spirit can and often does seek to influence us towards ideas and actions that are outside our desires. When we become believers, we are given direct access to the Holy Spirit because in some not fully defined way, the Holy Spirit becomes a part of our being.
When I began to use this idea with my students, they began to get a better picture of what was going on in a Christian’s decision making process. I would follow up with a question. That question was, “Which of the three influences is the strongest?” The “proper” Christian answer is the Holy Spirit; the more “realistic” Christian answer is the tempter–and the real, almost always true answer is our own personal desires is the strongest influence.
The reality that our own desires are the strongest influence on our lives has significant implications when it comes to knowing what God is saying to us or what he wants from us. We will look at those implications next.
May the peace of God be with you.