Why You Can't Trust Inner Feelings and Impressions By Dr. James Dobson
"Can you give some examples of how inner feelings and impressions can mislead and confuse someone who is genuinely trying to serve the Lord?"
The subject of impressions always reminds me of the exciting day I completed my formal education at the University of Southern California and was awarded a doctoral degree. My professors shook my hand and offered their congratulations, and I walked from the campus with the prize I had sought so diligently. On the way home in the car that day, I expressed my appreciation to God for His obvious blessing on my life, and I asked Him to use me in any way He chose. The presence of the Lord seemed very near as I communed with Him in that little red Volkswagen.
Then, as I turned a corner (I remember the precise spot), I was seized by a strong impression which conveyed this unmistakable message: "You are going to lose someone very close to you within the next 12 months. A member of your immediate family will die, but when it happens, don't be dismayed. Just continue trusting and depending on Me."
Since I had not been thinking about death or anything that would have explained the sudden appearance of this premonition, I was alarmed by the threatening thought. My heart thumped a little harder as I contemplated who might die and in what manner the end would come. Nevertheless, I told no one about the experience when I reached my home that night.
One month passed without tragedy or human loss. Two and three months sped by, and still the hand of death failed to visit my family. Finally, the anniversary of my morbid impressions came and went without consequence. It has now been more than a decade since that frightening day in the Volkswagen, and there have been no catastrophic events in either my family or among my wife's closest relatives. The impression has proved invalid.
Through my subsequent counseling experience and professional responsibilities, I have learned that my phony impression was not unique. Similar experiences are common, particularly among those who have not adjusted well to the challenge of living.
For example, a 30-year-old wife and mother came to me for treatment of persistent anxiety and depression. In relating her history she described an episode that occurred in a church service when she was 16 years old. Toward the end of the sermon, she "heard" this alarming message from God: "Jeanie, I want you to die so that others will come to Me."
Jeanie was absolutely terrified. She felt as though she stood on the gallows with the hangman's noose dangling above her head. In her panic, she jumped from her seat and fled through the doors of the building, sobbing as she ran. Jeanie felt she would commit a sin if she revealed her impression to anyone, so she kept it to herself. For nearly 20 years she had awaited the execution of this divine sentence, still wondering when the final moment would arrive. Nevertheless, she appeared to be in excellent health many years later.
Not only do death messages sometimes prove to be unreliable, but other apparent statements of God's will can be equally misunderstood. In the chapter on romantic love I mentioned a college student who was awakened from a dream in the middle of the night with a strong impression that he should marry a certain young lady. They had only dated once or twice and hardly knew each other--yet, "God" assured him "this is the one!" The next morning, he called the coed and told her of his midnight encounter. The girl felt no such impulse, but didn't want to oppose so definite a message from the Lord. The young man and woman were married shortly thereafter, and have suffered through the agony of an unsuccessful and stormy marriage.
From the examples I have cited and dozens more, I have come to regard the interpretation of impressions as risky business, at best.
Are you saying that God does not speak directly to the heart--that all impressions are false and unreliable?
Certainly not. It is the expressed purpose of the Holy Spirit to deal with human beings in a most personal and intimate way, convicting and directing and influencing. However, some people seem to find it very difficult to distinguish the voice of God from other sounds within.
Do some of the "other sounds" represent the influence of Satan?
We are told in 2 Corinthians 11:14 that the devil comes to us as "an angel of light," which means he counterfeits the work of the Holy Spirit. This is why he is described in profoundly evil terms in the Bible, leaving little room for doubt as to his motives or nature. His character is presented as wicked, malignant, subtle, deceitful, fierce and cruel. He is depicted as a wolf, roaring lion and a serpent. Among the titles ascribed to Satan are these: "Murderer," "Dragon," "Old Serpent," "Wicked One," "Liar," "Prince of Devils," and more than 20 other names which describe a malicious and incomparably evil nature.
These scriptural descriptions of Satan are written for a purpose: we should recognize that the "Father of Lies" has earned his reputation at the expense of those he has damned! And there is no doubt in my mind that he often uses destructive impressions to implement his evil purposes.
You said your premonition of impending death occurred while you were praying. Is it really possible for Satan to speak in the midst of an earnest prayer?
Was not Jesus tempted by Satan while He was on a 40-day prayer and fasting journey in the wilderness?
Yes, the devil can speak at any time. Let me go a step further: harmful impressions can bear other earmarks of divine revelation. They can occur and recur for months at a time. They can be as intense as any other emotion in life. They can be verified by Christian friends and can even seemingly be validated by striking passages of Scripture.
Would you give an example of how Satan uses a false notion to cause spiritual damage?
A man with six children became a Christian and, in his spiritual immaturity, felt he was "called" to the ministry. He quit his job the next week, even though he had no financial reserves and had hardly been able to provide necessities for his wife and children. By scraping together every available penny, the family moved across the state to allow the father to attend a Christian college. From the beginning, one disaster followed another. Sick children, work layoffs, academic troubles, physical exhaustion and marital discord accumulated day by day until life became utterly intolerable. Finally, the father quit school and admitted that he had made an enormous mistake. More importantly, his spiritual enthusiasm had been extinguished in the process--an object lesson that was carefully observed by his six children. (I should emphasize that the "call" of this man to the ministry could have been genuine, and the troubles he faced do not necessarily disprove its validity. But from a strictly human point of view, it appears that he responded impulsively and unwisely to his inner feelings and impressions.)
The Christian who accepts his own impressions at face value--uncritically-is extremely vulnerable to satanic mischief. He is obligated to implement every obsession, regardless of how ridiculous or demanding it seems. He is compelled by a little voice from within which warns, "Do this or else," stripping him of judgment and reason.
Are some impressions and feelings of our own making?
In a way they all are. By that I mean that all of our impulses and thoughts are vulnerable to our physical condition and psychological situation at any given moment. Haven't you noticed that your impressions are affected by the amount of sleep you had last night, and the state of your health, and your level of confidence at that time, and dozens of other forces which impinge upon your decision-making processes? We are trapped in these "earthen vessels," and our perception is necessarily influenced by our humanness.
I have sometimes wondered if my impressions don't obediently tell me what I most want to hear. For example, I felt greatly led to take a new job that offered a higher salary and shorter working hours.
That reminds me of the minister who received a call to a much larger and stronger church than he ever expected to lead. He replied, "I'll pray about it while my wife packs."
It is very difficult to separate the "want to" from our interpretation of God's will. The human mind will often obediently convince itself of anything in order to have its own way. Perhaps the most striking example of this self-delusion occurred with a young couple who decided to engage in sexual intercourse before marriage. Since the young man and woman were both reared in the church, they had to find a way to lessen the guilt from this forbidden act. So, they actually got down on their knees and prayed about what they were going to do, and received "assurance" that it was all right to continue!
I notice that spiritual discouragement and defeat are much more common when I am tired than when I am rested. Is this characteristic of others?
When a person is exhausted he is attacked by ideas he thought he conquered long ago. The great former football coach for the Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi, once told his team why he pushed them so hard toward proper physical conditioning. He said, "Fatigue makes cowards of us all." He was absolutely right. As the reserves of human energy are depleted, one's ability to reject distressing thoughts and wild impressions is greatly reduced.
You mentioned the man who dreamed that he should marry a certain woman. Does God ever speak to us through dreams today?
I don't know. He certainly used this method of communicating in the Old Testament times; however, it appears to me that the use of dreams has been less common since the advent of the Holy Spirit, because the Spirit was sent to be our source of enlightenment (see John 16).
Even is prior times, Jeremiah called dreams "chaff" when compared to the Word of God. Personally, I would not accept a dream as being authentic, regardless of how vivid it seemed, until the same content was verified in other ways.
What do you mean by having the "content verified in other ways"?
I mean that the "direction" given to me in a dream should be supported by other pieces of information that I would receive. For example, suppose I dream that I am called to Africa as a medical missionary. Before I start packing, I should consider some other factors: Am I qualified by training, experience, interests? Have there been any direct invitations or opportunities presented?
John Wesley wrote in the nineteenth century, "Do not hastily ascribe things to God. Do not easily suppose dreams, voices, impressions, visions or revelations to be from God. They may be from Him. They may be nature. They may be from the Devil. Therefore, believe not every spirit, but `try the spirits whether they be from God.'"
From a psychological point of view, dreams appear to have two basic purposes: they reflect wish fulfillment, giving expression to the things we long for; and they ventilate anxiety and the stresses we experience during waking hours. From a strictly physiological point of view, dreams also serve to keep us asleep when we are drifting toward consciousness. Dreams are being studied at length in experimental laboratories today, although their nature is still rather poorly understood.
If what we feel is so unreliable and dangerous, then how can we ever know the will of God? How can we tell the difference between the leadings of the Holy Spirit and subtle, evil influences of Satan, himself?
Let's look to the Scripture for a word on encouragement:
Concerning Christ's power to help in time of temptation: "Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted" (Heb. 2:18).
Concerning the power of God to convey His will to us: "And this is my prayer. That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the all-glorious Father, will give you spiritual wisdom and the insight to know more of him: that you may receive that inner illumination of the spirit which will make you realize how great is the hope to which he is calling you--the magnificence and splendor of the inheritance promised to Christians--and how tremendous is the power available to us who believe in God" (Eph. 1:16-19, Phillips).
Concerning the power of God over Satan: "You, my children, who belong to God have already defeated them, because the one who lives in you is stronger than the anti-Christ in the world" (1 John 4:4, Phillips).
Concerning the divine promise to lead and guide us: "I will instruct thee and teach thee in the way which thou shalt go: I will guide thee with mine eye" (Ps. 32:8, KJV).
In paraphrased form, these four Scriptures offer these promises:
1. Jesus was tempted by Satan when He was on earth, so He is fully equipped to deal with him now on our behalf.
2. "Inner illumination" and "spiritual wisdom" are made available to us by the God who controls the entire universe.
3. Satan's influence is checkmated by the omniscient power of God living within us.
4. Like a father leading his trusting child, our Lord will guide our steps and teach us His wisdom.
These four Scriptures are supported by dozens more which promise God's guidance, care and leadership in our lives.
Then how do you account for the experiences of those Christians who grope with uncertainty in the darkness and eventually stumble and fall? How do you explain incidents whereby Satan traps them into believing and acting on his lies?
The Scripture, again, provides its own answer to that troubling question. We are told in 1 John 4:1: "Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God." A similar commandment is given in 1 Thessalonians 5:21: "Test everything. Hold on to the good." In other words, it is our responsibility to test and prove all things--including the validity of our impressions. To do otherwise is to give Satan an opportunity to defeat us, despite the greater power of the Holy Spirit who lives within. We would not have been told to test the spirits if there were no danger in them."
Be sure to check back next week for part 2 in this series, "How to Test Inner Feelings and Impressions?"
From Emotions: Can You Trust Them? By Dr. James C. Dobson.
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