How to Test Inner Feelings and Impressions By Dr. James Dobson
By what means can I test my own feelings and impressions? What are the steps necessary to prove the will of God?
The best answer I've read for those questions was written in 1892 by Martin Wells Knapp. In his timeless little booklet entitled IMPRESSIONS, he described those impulses and leadings that come from above (from God) versus those that originate from below (from Satan). Just as the Holy Spirit may tell us by impressions what His will is concerning us, so also can our spiritual enemies tell us by impressions what their will is. And unfortunately, there is often a striking resemblance between the two kinds of messages. According to Knapp, one of the objectives of Satan is to get the Christian to lean totally on his impressions, accepting them uncritically as the absolute voice of God. When this occurs, "the devil has got all he wants."
When seeking God's will Knapp recommends that each impression be evaluated very carefully to see if it reflects four distinguishing features:
Scriptural. Is the impression in harmony with the Bible? Guidance from the Lord is always in accordance with the Holy Scripture, and this gives us an infallible point of reference and comparison. If this test had been applied by the young couple that was contemplating sexual permissiveness, mentioned earlier, they would have known that the "approval" they obtained was not from the Lord. Furthermore, the numerous religious movements which obviously add to Scripture or contradict its primary concepts would not have been born if the Bible had been accepted as the ultimate and complete Word of God.
The most important aspect of this first test is that the entire Bible be used instead of the selection of "proof texts" or "chance texts." A reader can find support for almost any viewpoint if he lifts individual verses or partial phrases out of context. We are commanded to study the Scriptures, not toy with them or manipulate them for our own purposes.
Right. Knapp's second test if impressions involves the matter of rightness. "Impressions which are from God are always right," says Knapp. "They may be contrary to our feelings, our prejudices and our natural inclinations, but they are always right. They will stand all tests."(1)
I am acquainted with a family that was destroyed by an impression that could not have passed the test: Is it right? Although there were four little children in the home, the mother felt she was "called" to leave them and enter full-time evangelistic work. On very short notice she abandoned the children who needed her so badly and left them in the care of their father who worked six and seven days a week.
The consequence was devastating. The youngest in the family lay awake at night, crying for his mommy. The older children had to assume adult responsibilities which they were ill-prepared to carry. There was no one at home to train and love and guide the development of the lonely little family. I simply cannot believe the mother's impression was from God because it was neither scriptural nor "right" to leave the children. I suspect that she had other motives for fleeing her home, and Satan provided her with a seemingly noble explanation to cover her tracks.
As Knapp said, "Millions of impressions, if compelled to answer the simple question, `Are you right?' will blush and hesitate and squirm, and finally in confusion, retire.
Providential. In explaining the importance of providential circumstances, Knapp quoted Hannah Whitall Smith, writing in THE CHRISTIAN'S SECRET OF A HAPPY LIFE: "If a leading is from the Holy spirit, the way will always open for it.' The Lord assures us of this when he says: `When he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice' (John 10:4). Notice here the expression `goeth before' and `follow.' He goes before to open the way, and we are to follow in the way thus opened. It is never a sign of divine leading when a Christian insists on opening his own way, and riding roughshod over all opposing things. If the Lord goes before us he will open all doors before us, and we shall not need ourselves to hammer them down."
Reasonable. The apostle Paul referred to the Christian life as a "reasonable service." Accordingly, the will of God can be expected to be in harmony with spiritually enlightened judgment. We will not be asked to do absurd and ridiculous things which are devoid of judgment and common sense. Knapp said, "God has given us reasoning powers for a purpose, and he respects them, appeals to them, and all of his leadings are in unison with them."
Perhaps, the most common violation of this principle is seen in the pressure some people feel to force every chance conversation into a heaven-or-hell confrontation. Such individuals believe they must witness in every elevator, preach to any available group of four or more, and turn every routine encounter into an altar service. Of course, each Christian should "be prepared to give an answer" when the opportunity is provided, but the gospel should be shared in a natural and tactful manner.
Another frequent disregard for the test of reason is seen with impulsive behavior. It was Knapp's view, and I heartily agree, that God deals with us as rational beings and He rarely requires us to act on sudden suggestions or impressions. G.D. Watson stated it similarly, "The devil wants you to be in a hurry and rush and go pell mell and not wait for anything; whereas Jesus is always quiet and He is always calm and always takes His time." Likewise, the psalmist David instructed us to "wait on the Lord."
Of Knapp's four criteria, "providential circumstances" seems hardest to apply. Can you give an example?
Personally, I have come to depend heavily on providential circumstances to speak to me of God's will. My impressions serve as little more than "hunches" which cause me to pay closer attention to more concrete evidence around me. For example, in 1970 my wife and I considered the wisdom of selling our house and buying one better suited to the needs of our growing family. However, there are many factors to consider in such a move. The life-style, values and even the safety of a family are influenced by the neighborhood in which they reside. I felt it would be foolish to sell our home and buy a new one without seeking the specific guidance of the Lord.
After making the possibility a matter of prayer, I felt I should offer our house for sale without listing it with a realtor. If it sold I would know that God had revealed His leading through this providential circumstance. For two weeks a For Sale sign stood unnoticed in the front yard. It didn't attract a single call or knock on the door, and my prayer was answered in the negative.
I took down the sign and waited 12 months before asking the same question of the Lord. This time, the house sold for my asking price without a nickel being spent on advertising or real estate fees. There was no doubt in my mind that the Lord had another home in mind for us.
How do you know that the sale of the house was not explained by economic circumstances or simply by the fact that an interested buyer came along? Can you say, definitely, that God determined the outcome?
Matters of faith can never be proved; they always have to be "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Heb. 11:1 KJV). It would be impossible to make a skeptic acknowledge that God influenced the sale of my house, just as the same unbeliever would doubt my conversion experience wherein I became a Christian. You see, it was not the unadvertised sale of my house that convinced me that God was involved in the issue--it was that I met with Him on my knees in prayer and asked for His specific guidance and direction. I have reason to believe that He cares about me and my family and hears me when I ask for His leadership. Therefore, my interpretation of the event is based not on facts but on faith. Spiritual experiences must always rest on that foundation.
Incidentally, there is a sequel to the "house" story. As I was driving to the hospital a month later, I thanked God for letting me know His purposes and will for my family. As I prayed, however, it occurred to me that the Lord had sold my house, making Him entitled to the fee that I would have paid a real estate agent. That is another way of saying that God was entitled to my tithe (a portion of the profit) since I had sold the house for more than I paid for it. Knowing the tyranny of impressions, I immediately uttered this prayer: "Lord, if this is you talking to me, then give me the same message from another source. I will mention it to no one, but I will be listening for you instructions in every area of my life."
The following Sunday, I told an adult class at my church how the Lord had answered my prayer through the sale of the house. I said nothing about the impression that I should give $1,600 to the church. After class, however, I received the following note from one of the young men who had heard me: "Don't you think God is entitled to a `real estate fee' for selling your house. He meant it as a joke, but his humor encouraged me to give the $1,600 the following week.
I have found security in this method of exploring God's will. In essence, my attitude to the Lord is simply this: "I will do anything you require of me. Anything! I only ask that you convey your will in a definite manner that requires a minimum of reliance on my unpredictable feelings." He has usually satisfied the request.
Returning to the views of Knapp regarding the providential circumstances, he says, "God never impresses a Noah to build an ark, or a Solomon to build a temple, but that means, material and men await their approaching faith. He never impresses a Philip to go preach to an individual but that He prepares the person for Philip's preaching. He never says to an imprisoned Peter, `arise up quickly' but that Peter will find chains providentially burst."
In essence, then, the test of providential circumstances allows us to "read" the will of God by interpreting the opportunities and events which surround us.
Will there be times when the application of Knapp's four tests still leaves a Christian in a state of doubt about the leadings of the Lord? Or does a committed Christian always know precisely what God wants of him?
Your question is one which is rarely confronted in books dealing with the will of God, but I feel we must meet it head-on. I believe there are times in the lives of most believers when confusion and perplexity are rampant. What could Job have felt, for example, when his world began to crack and splinter? His family members became sick and died, his livestock was wiped out, and he was besieged by boils from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet. But most troubling of all was his inability to make spiritual sense of the circumstances. He knew he hadn't sinned, despite the accusations of his "friends," yet God must have seemed a million miles away. He said at one point, "Oh, that I knew where to find God--that I could go to his throne and talk with him there" (Job 23:3, TLB). "But I search in vain. I seek him here, I seek him there, and cannot find him. I seek him in his workshop in the North, but cannot find him there; nor can I find him in the South; there, too, he hides himself" (Job 23:8, 9).
Was this experience unique to Job? I don't think so. In my counseling responsibilities with Christian families, I've learned that sincere, dedicated believers go through tunnels and storms, too. We inflict a tremendous disservice on young Christians by making them think only sinners experience confusion and depressing times in their lives. Apparently, God permits these difficult moments for our own edification. James wrote, "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance" (Jas. 1:2, 3).
We must remember that God is not a subservient genie who comes out of a bottle to sweep away each trial and hurdle that blocks our path. He has not promised to lay out an eight-year master plan that delineates every alternative in the roadway. Rather, He offers us His will for today only. Our tomorrows must be met one day at a time, negotiated with a generous portion of faith.
Are you saying there will be times in a Christian' life when God's will and actions may not make sense to him?
Yes, and I regret the shallow teaching today which denies this fact. We are told in the book of Isaiah, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord" (Isa. 55:8). Furthermore, the apostle Paul verified that "now we see but a poor reflection." In practical terms, this means that there will be times when God's behavior will be incomprehensible and confusing to us. More explicitly, there will be occasions when God will seem to contradict Himself.
One of the brightest young men ever to graduate from my collegiate alma mater was deeply devoted to the Lord. He felt called to become a medical missionary and he directed every energy toward that objective. After graduating cum laude from college, he enrolled in medical school and finished his first year at the very top of his class, academically. Then during the spring of that year he began to experience a curious and persistent fatigue. He was examined by a physician who made the diagnosis of leukemia. The promising student was dead a few months later.
How can a tragedy like that be explained? The Lord seemed to call him to the mission field where his healing talents were desperately needed. He was accepted into medical school despite fierce competition. Every step seemed to be ordered by God. Then, suddenly, he was taken. What did the Lord have in mind from the beginning? Why did he seem to give him a definite call and then frustrate its culmination? I have no idea. I simply offer this illustration as one of thousands where God's actions are difficult for us to explain in simplistic terms. And in these moments we have to say with Job, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust him."
Are we to conclude, then, that there are occasions when we will pray for the will of God to be known and yet we may "hear" no immediate reply?
I think so, but I'm also convinced that God is as close to us and as involved in our situation during those times when we feel nothing as He is when we are spiritually exhilarated. We are not left to flounder. Rather our faith is strengthened by these testing periods. The only comforting attitude to hold during these stressful times is beautifully summarized in 2 Corinthians 4:8-10: "We are pressed on every side by troubles, but not crushed and broken. We are perplexed because we don't know why things happen as they do, but we don't give up and quit. We are hunted down, but God never abandons us. We get knocked down, but we get up again and keep going. These bodies of ours are constantly facing death just as Jesus did; so it is clear to all that it is only the living Christ within [who keeps us safe]" (TLB).
Are there other biblical examples of instances when the will of God was strange or contradictory to His faithful followers?
The Scripture is replete with such illustration. Think of the experiences of the faithful man of God, Abraham. He had been promised a miracle-child, but Sarah remained barren throughout her reproductive years. She experienced menopause without the realization of the blessing, and Abraham began to grow old and wrinkled. He was nearly 100 and Sarah was over 90, but still no child came. Did the Lord visit Abraham frequently during those long years to reassure him that He hadn't forgotten His promise? We have no record of such communication. To a man of lesser faith it would have been clear that God had foolishly contradicted Himself. But Abraham patiently waited for the fulfillment of prophecy.
The greatest contradiction was yet to come, however. After the promised child was finally born--the one in whom all the prophecies of blessing were to be fulfilled--then God curiously required Abraham to sacrifice his precious son as a burnt offering. What a fantastic contradiction! How could Abraham become the father of many nations and be blessed by the eventual birth of the Messiah if his only legitimate child was to die? There is no way that Abraham could have understood this event as it unfolded, and he must have been thoroughly confused during those perplexing days. God made no sense at all. Nevertheless, Abraham remained obedient and faithful in every detail, even to the moment the angel of God spared Isaac's life.
Here is the beautiful part of the familiar story, and the portion which is most relevant to our discussion about the will of God. To Abraham, the future depended upon Isaac. All the promises seemed to rest on this miracle-child. But God was showing Abraham that the future did not rest with Isaac--it belonged to God. The fact is as true for us today as it was for the father of the Jewish nation! The future does not depend on our jobs or our health or our stocks and bonds; it rests in the hands of the Almighty. Even when divine providence seems senseless and contradictory, even when the death of a loved one is without explanation, even when financial reverses threaten our security, even when pain and hardship pose unanswerable questions--even then, the future belongs to God. He has not forgotten us and His plan has not been thwarted. It is our responsibility in those uncertain moments to remain faithful and obedient, awaiting His revelation and reassurance.
Let's return to the words of Job in his moment of supreme trial. Despite the miserable and perplexing circumstances which engulfed him, his faith reached through the oppressive darkness and grasped the promises of God "But he knoweth the way that I take [he knows where I am]; when he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold" (Job 23:10, KJV).
Read part 1 in the series on managing our emotions, "Why You Can't Trust Inner Feelings And Emotions" HERE.
From Emotions: Can You Trust Them? By Dr. James C. Dobson.
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